That Transsexual Guy
Oliver Leon tackles the issues and everyday life of transition and trans* rights.
I need to go pursue joy instead of pursuing gender. So that means putting this column to rest.
I think this column could have the potential to continue, to grow, to educate, to learn. If this column continued, I’m sure it would watch laws change for the better, and schools turn to educating their students about queer and trans histories. But I’m not the person to write that.
Maybe I will be, one day, or maybe some other swell trans person will step up and offer their skills to The Link. For now, I want to find out what else I can talk about. I want to move beyond gender, to get grass stains on my jeans as I find new ways to walk home.
Because all that I wrote for this column was about homecoming: taking testosterone, transitioning publically, seeking community and role models, having surgery and making films. Many people sought me out after reading my work: to give me thanks, to interview me, or to ask me more about gender. As if I have any answers!
It’s been really wonderful writing for The Link; everyone there was always kind. I’m gonna miss you folks. I hope to return on the occasion to write a book review, regale you with a tale or two, or perhaps even rant about gender.
I had the honour of interviewing many amazing trans people and got sneak peeks at books written by trans authors. I even won the Canadian University Press John H. McDonald award for my column (which breaks the rules, really—not that I’m complaining—since they usually award you for one specific article).
I set out to change the world, at least a bit, and I succeeded in that.
I told you all, at the beginning of this two years ago, that this is not a sob story. The frustration and anger that was present in my first column on September 5, 2011 is still here.
While I know now that I can’t be some benevolent transsexual dictator telling cis-gender people how they ought to react to my gender, I am much more conscious of how much respect I deserve and should demand from others.
I don’t necessarily do this all the time, because hey, let’s face it, not everyone believes they should give respect to other human beings. Or they offer very misguided intentions as respect, like a backhanded compliment.
Sometimes, self-respect means survival of the quietest kind, hands clutching the earth, body embracing the rain. Other days, it means your roots are so deep that you are thriving and growing despite, and because of, public condemnation.
There isn’t really an “end” to a transition, you know. I don’t cross the finish line or get a PhD for being trans. I keep changing moment to moment, like all humans do. While I’m concerned about trans rights, and human rights as a whole, I try not to worry obsessively about it. Action will get us closer to liberation than fretting will.
I don’t really know where I’ll go from here. I still haven’t changed my name or my gender marker. Close family members still get my pronouns wrong. You learn a lot of patience in transitioning, as you ask the world to look at itself in a different way. It’s not always safe. I’ve learned to pick my battles but even then, I find new bruises.
Many thanks go to Gabrielle Bouchard, for supporting me through my transition; to my mom and dad, for hanging in there; to my little brother Matt, for not being afraid to ask questions; to my cousins Kristina, Andrea, and Amanda, for always taking everything in stride; to Ernie, Mrs. Claude, and Mrs. Bush for helping me realize that I can write and for introducing me to good books; to all my friends, for the hugs and laughter; to Tara and Kota, for holding my hand exactly when I needed it; for anyone who has ever given me aid; to N., for helping me with my injection fears and all those old hurts; to my doctors, for giving me what I need; to my psychiatrist R.L., for being there; and finally, to all of you, for listening and caring and continuing to live, despite everything. Thank you.
I only have vague intentions beyond this. To finish school, keep modifying my body however I see fit, write books, love more every day, to keep on keeping on. The usual jazz. I’m sure you’ll see me around.
May your hopes stay bright, your dreams vivid, and your gender gorgeous.
As those of you following my column may know, I am a transsexy-ual. I mean, transsexual. Growing up, everyone around me thought I was a girl. But no one thought to ask! So a month ago, I had a double mastectomy, known colloquially to trans people as ‘top surgery.’
I am now wonderfully flat-chested, with big hot scars to boot. I plan on telling people that I got into a knife fight with pirates. Or maybe a tiger attacked me. Who knows?
Before top surgery, I had several shirts I felt that I could not wear because they were quite tight and would outline my binder—the shirt that compressed my chest—quite clearly. Happily, I am now post-op and can say that as I write this I am wearing a slim-fitting shirt with a unicorn on it that I would not have worn before.
I’ve pieced together my pre-operative and post-operative memories for you to read and for me to re-read 10 years from now.
I had missed out on the instruction that I was to fast before surgery, so I had very nearly eaten bacon that morning. Gabrielle Bouchard—the peer support and trans advocacy coordinator at Concordia’s 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy who offered to drive me to my surgeon—knocked on my close friend Tara’s apartment door just as I was about to eat. Gabrielle gasped in horror. I sheepishly stopped and we all made our way to Gabrielle’s car.
We arrived at 9:30 a.m., only to have to wait until 11:30 a.m. or so ‘til they actually took me to the operating room. I hugged everyone goodbye. The last person I hugged was Tara, and she was also the first person I hugged about a week after surgery.
The operating room was freezing, so the doctors put flannel legwarmers on me. I informed all the doctors and nurses that I have a fear of needles and requested that they get me to look the other way if they used them.
To achieve this, the doctor who administered the anesthesia actually tricked me: He said that he was going to put something in my arm to relax me for the anesthesia. I looked at the clock—11:50 a.m.—and was awake for probably 30 more seconds.
I was peculiarly determined to have surgery before noon. I was hungry, having not eaten since the night before. Logically of course, I was hoping to eat after surgery.
At first, I was thirsty—actually, that might’ve been the first thing I said. Yes, I must’ve woken up before going into the elevator and they gave me an ice cube. I was annoyed—only an ice cube? And they refused to give me another (don’t worry, they eventually gave me water).
We took the elevator upstairs; I couldn’t feel the movement at all. The nurses’ faces were blurry. I can’t remember if my surgeon was there.
We came out of the elevator and I waved weakly to my friends, giving them the thumbs-up sign.
Tara informs me that the first thing I said to her after top surgery was a joke: “That was the worst nap in the history of everything.”
My friends chuckled, nervous looks still on their faces.
“It was like when you go to sleep and your brain is still on so you just think through the night and wake up the next day having slept really badly,” I said.
I don’t really remember much after that. The pain, and the eventual painkillers, distorts my memory. I remember declaring that I was indulging my inner child by being demanding, but it was not like I had any options but to ask.
I refused to look at the I.V. that was plugged into my left hand—it creeped me out too much (the bruise finally went away last week). My surgeon must’ve come to visit. I remember someone important dropping by and asking me questions but I can’t recall if it was her.
My roommate in the private clinic had been a quiet presence behind the curtain ‘til I finally was given chicken broth for dinner. He was in his 40s and covered in tattoos—I’d like to be so handsome when I grow up. We talked about our experiences a bit. It was reassuring to know that there are trans men older than 35 who are quietly living their lives too.
My dad and his girlfriend came to visit. They seemed impressed with how cheerful I was. My dad gave me a box of Kinder eggs (Dad, if you are reading this, please bring Reese Peanut Butter Cups next time). I don’t think they stayed very long because naturally, I was quite tired. A surgeon had taken a knife to my chest that day, so I needed lots of rest.
I stayed at friends’ homes, all of whom very gracious and generous hostesses. I did not lack for anything. Oh, except for movement. As I’ve been recovering from top surgery for the month, I’ve had what I affectionately call ‘T-Rex arms’. My arm motion is very limited so whenever I move or reach for something, I look like, to the amusement of everyone, a T-Rex with tiny arms. My response to their laughter is to roar at them.
I wasn’t allowed to shower for at least a week so I used waterless shampoo. It wasn’t perfect, but I did feel less disgusting, so that was helpful.
After a week of convalescence, I returned to the surgeon. A nurse took off my bandages, which was a relief to finally be able to breath properly. She then took out the drains. The drains were inserted into my chest to release the blood and guck from my wounds. So when she took them out, it felt like a snake being removed from my body. It was disturbing.
I could see my chest! In a daze of joy, I thanked her at least five times, to which she always replied, with appreciation, “My pleasure.” All the nurses that I have met who work at Dr. Brassard and Dr. Belanger’s clinic seem to love their jobs. I shall be seeing my surgeon again very soon, upon which she will finally inform me as to how soon I can get my nipple pierced.
I still had to wear ace bandages for two weeks after that visit. Ironically, they often slid around so, like a bra, I constantly had to adjust them!
I became very anxious the first time I tried to shower. My chest was so numb that I couldn’t feel anything. So I used baby wipes to wash myself and washed my hair quickly in the bath. I felt somewhat ashamed for not feeling consistently happy about top surgery, like you see on the Internet.
Not having sensation in an important part of your body is scary—much worse than having your mouth numbed at the dentist’s office. I say ‘worse’ but it’s not really all that awful because it means I wasn’t in pain!
About three weeks after surgery, I returned to school, Tylenol at hand. That week, I took off the Steri-Strip tape that was slowly falling off my scars. The scars are beautiful. They are thin like a knife, which only makes sense given I had a double mastectomy. I am healing quickly, everyone says.
While my professors remark that I don’t quite have my usual vigour and have lost weight, they haven’t seen me lying on a hospital bed, unable to move without help! I am getting stronger and stronger every day. It is quite thrilling. And already, I have little tiny hairs growing between and around my scars!
Do you ever wonder what Medusa saw when she looked into the mirror for the first time? Did she admire her snake hair? Did she think that her eyes, which can turn onlookers into stone, were pretty? Did her snakes ever drip poison onto her shoulders, or was Medusa invulnerable to her own powers?
She was considered an ugly woman by the Greeks and the mythical hero that slew her. Her head eventually ended up on the shield of the goddess Athena, presumably to terrify her opponents.
I feel like I can relate to Medusa’s story. My body has also been feared.
There are so few studies on transsexual health that I cannot ask a doctor for information on how to take care of myself because the doctor will reply, “I don’t know how to help you.” It is only within the last decade or so that consensual studies have even been conducted with female-to-male transsexuals.
It is important to acknowledge that many of the studies conducted on male-to-female transsexuals were done with alarm on the part of the researchers (check out Dr. Viviane Namaste’s work for more information on this, or take one of her classes here at Concordia). The researchers were worried: why would a man want to give up his privileged position in life to become a woman?
I’ve had people studiously stare at me, trying to determine my gender. When I catch them staring, I stare back. People usually turn away in embarrassment. But sometimes they keep looking, judging the lines and curves of my body, glancing at my long thin hands and my pierced ears. Sometimes, I feel disappointed that my glance doesn’t turn onlookers to stone.
It’s not just me and my gender shenanigans that attract stares. It’s anyone who does not adhere to the white, assimilated, urbane, middle- and upper-class, monogamous, able-bodied, heterosexual Standards of Beauty as Defined by Dudes.
Those who look conventionally beautiful, adhere to gender roles and earn a “respectable” living can pass by, unremarked. But for those of us who don’t “pass,” who don’t get a “get-out-of-jail-free” card—where does that leave us?
In the book Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, Eli Clare, poet and essayist, writes, “The body as home, but only if it is understood that bodies are never singular, but rather haunted, strengthened, underscored by countless other bodies… The body as home, but only if it is understood that place and community and culture burrow deep into our bones.”
I feel like I spend a lot of time here in this column/blog/thingamajig defining what I am not: “No, I’m not a woman but high heels aren’t that bad. Yes, I’ve transitioned to male (or something) but I don’t really use he/him/his pronouns except when I need or want to.”
And I could define who I am, but it’s a long list. It’s an ever-changing list. I could tell you my queer quirks, except that I suddenly find myself disinclined to talk in public about how and whom I have sex with. Is that a turn-off for you, as a reader of a column about transgender issues?
Think about it, though: my parents could read my column. My friends read my column. Potential employers could read this. The only people that need to know about my sex life are me and my partners.
And my gender identities? Because surely I have more than one word to describe myself.
My gender can be reduced to “female-to-male transsexual”—and is, by my doctors and surgeon. But that makes my gender sound static and stagnant.
I have grown from there, gained stronger teeth and sharper nails, wandered from gender to gender, playing with boundaries, toeing the line then hopscotching over it, back and forth all my life. There and back again—and in other directions entirely.
At this point, I’m not even sure who I’m angry at. Gatekeeping psychologists? The patriarchy? Systems of privilege that allow and encourage oppression and poverty and suicide?
I don’t care to be held to cisgender standards of beauty defined by men. I shall be pretty for myself and no one else. And if that makes me a scarred Medusa, then at least I’ll go down waving my own flag, asserting that I am here.
P.S. This is my last column before I go for top surgery. I will not be writing for at least two weeks. Have a splendid reading week, everyone! Thanks for reading my column!
“Is it okay to talk about my experience? What do you want to know?”
Gabrielle Bouchard is the peer support and trans advocacy coordinator at the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy. She has been working there for two years. She’s also studying part-time to get a Bachelor’s degree in women’s studies, with minors in philosophy and studies in sexuality. She keeps busy.
The day we met, her first day at the centre, she declared that I was handsome and we’ve been close friends ever since. She’s watched me try to break my addiction to coffee just as often as I’ve watched her run around, doing 10 different things at once.
She’s going to be the person who drives me to my surgeon on Feb. 21. We’ve joked, only half-kidding, that we ought to get red square tattoos together, as we were both active in the Quebec student strike with the Women’s Studies Student Association at Concordia in 2012.
At work, she doesn’t talk about herself much, instead spending her time listening to anyone who walks in the door.
“I have difficulty talking about my experiences as anything of value because it’s only my experience—unless I am able to contextualize my [story],” she said.
“How statistically important is it? What’s the line between voyeurism and worthy information? Do they need to know how I have sex? If I’ve had the operation or not? My vagina, if I have one, if it’s fuckable? That realm, for me, is problematic to talk about.”
Trans people of all gender expressions and backgrounds come to visit her, from those who had completely accepting families to those who experience severe harassment on a daily basis.
She and I often have discussions on what it is to be openly transsexual and how to balance that with the rest of your life.
“I don’t want the bias of my experience to be the only factor in my activism. I don’t want to be an activist for whatever identity I have, because I’ve been transitioning for long enough to know that [my identity swings] from one month to another, one year to another.”
She was only able to find her identity after leaving the small northern Quebec town she had previously lived in.
“I started being able to understand who I was when I started having the vocabulary to go with it. So for the longest time I thought that I was gay, not because of effeminacy, just because it’s the only language I knew. It was only when I came to Montreal and started hearing ‘transgender,’ ‘transsexual,’ ‘drag queen’ and ‘genderfuck’ that I was able to make sense of myself.”
It is this intimate firsthand knowledge that enables her to be a good listener to those seeking support, not counselling, from a peer. She knows what she’s talking about when she hears complaints about transphobia.
“When I transitioned, the glass ceiling went from below my feet to over my head. At the moment that I wanted to jump higher, go farther, I got nosebleeds because my face would hit the ceiling.
“And during those last moments [at my previous job], I had to go from the 26th floor to the food court on the main floor to go pee because people were not comfortable with me going to the women’s bathroom.”
She grins at me briefly before changing the topic to dill pickles.
“When I was on one particular testosterone blocker, I had this uncontrollable urge to eat pickles. I would eat pickles all day in my office and it was hugely satisfying. I went through jars of them!”
As the trans health coordinator, many trans people (and occasionally, parents!) come to her for support. She needs a solid sense of self to keep her head.
“Every single experience that I lived made me who I am today; that includes my transition with everything good and bad that came with that. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.”
I asked her what the Montreal trans community needed in terms of support.
“I’d change that to communities!” she responded. She says treating the trans communities as a “we,” as a “monolithic identity with very specific demands in a certain legal format” is very problematic.
“I could say a million things about what the trans communities need, then I could problematize every single one of them. I could say that they’re all on their way.
“If I had to say one thing, [it would be that] we need the right to choose. And if I want to be radical, I would say that we need people to leave us the frack alone and stop caring if I have facial hair or not, a penis or not, boobs or not.”
I chuckled in agreement. That, I could appreciate. It would be nice to not be stared at all the time. She, on a rant, continued.
“Stop seeing me as this potato head bonhomme, a trans-thing. You can dress up Ken or Barbie to look [how you want them to look]. We don’t need anything, just people letting us be.”
There are plenty of divides in the trans communities: language, religion, region, class, race, age, ability—you name it, it’s there. But Gabrielle is all about inclusivity, even more so in the winter, when many trans women cannot get access to women’s shelters because the workers ask intrusive questions.
It is more unsafe for trans women to be in men’s shelters than it is to be on the street, she said.
“So if I won tons of money, I would [create] a multi-service trans-oriented centre. I would have a place where you could get referrals, a place that would be safe, a place where you could sleep if you had no place to go. A place where meat-eaters and vegans would share the same kitchen.
“No matter how big your operation is, if you decide to have one, you could rebuild your strength there at that place… It would be hosted by the league of unicorns.”
Imogen Binnie’s first novel Nevada is the snarkiest story I’ve ever read about being a transsexual. Considering that a lot of trans people often develop snark and sarcasm as defense mechanisms against ignorance, that’s saying something. It’s refreshing to read about Maria, an unhappy punk and bookstore clerk, rail against being treated as “A Very Special Episode of Oprah.”
She writes a blog in her spare time and has lots of witty remarks to make about transitioning. However, I find that later in the book, the character’s spark gets bogged down by jargon-filled rants.
Some of the rants are really well-written and interesting insights into Maria. Others are wearying, although that may just be because Binnie is preaching to the choir (that is, readers who are also trans). The person she is ranting to isn’t all that impressed with her eloquence, and it made me wonder what Binnie was trying to achieve with two characters who don’t get along. My theory is that both characters needed a bop on the head to realize, “Hey, I can decide my own identity!”
This book takes no prisoners: either you totally get what Maria is talking about, because you’re trans or you’re really well-informed, or you don’t and you learn about how tired Maria is with educating cisgender people about transsexuality all the time.
Having emotionally shut herself down in order to survive high school as a closeted trans person, the book is rather slow on character development. It certainly happens, but it takes a while—Maria needs to break her own ice.
I became irritated after a while, but eventually Maria takes a soul-searching road trip; her girlfriend reports that Maria has stolen her car every year for the past three years to do this. I was cheering Maria on when she eventually meets someone who helps her come to a few self-realizations.
I can’t decide if I like this book or not. I definitely enjoyed it, but there is only so much bitterness I can stand before I need to put the book down and go pet my dog. It’s a matter of personal taste, I think, because I know several people who would definitely devour every word of Maria’s crankiness.
The book doesn’t have a happy ending—there is no driving off into the sunset. It’s great, because you know that Maria and the other loveable weirdos in her life are still going about their business, snarking on ignorant cisgender people and living their lives. It’s not even what I’d call a hopeful ending. My impression is that Binnie is leaving it all up to the reader’s imagination.
I do have to say, though: I am really pleased that cranky books with transsexual characters exist. Maria voices a lot of grumpy remarks that I wish I had the guts to make to invasive questions from curious cisgender people.
Also, thanks to Topside Press for sending me this book! Y’all are lovely.