Ask Me Anything, Just Not About That: Thoughts on the Eve of SRS
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Recently I’ve been taking a nap around 2 pm most afternoons. In isolation, there isn’t much to do, and I am having bad hayfever. Last week, before one of these naps, I read in the paper that normal hospital operations were resuming in the Netherlands. My SRS was cancelled in February as we were moving into lockdown. I briefly wondered if this news would affect me before putting it out of my head until 3:20 when I received a real live phone call. I picked up my phone groggily, realizing I didn’t know how to answer a real phone call. The little green arrows seemed to suggest I slide the pulsating phone icon up; I did so and whispered, “hello.” A voice declared they were calling from the Velsen clinic, did I remember them. Yes. They then asked if I would be ready for surgery soon. How soon I asked? They replied, May 5th. I told the person on the phone I had just woken up and needed a moment. Then I replied, why not.
The news took a few minutes to process. I told my partner, who was between teaching classes on Zoom in the other room. We both said “holy shit” and held each other. The cancellation of my surgery had the benefit of reinforcing in my mind that I wanted it. I had felt a sense of loss when it was briefly taken away, something that felt more palpable than my ambivalent feelings about the whole process while it felt like an inexorable destination I was being pushed toward. But still, May 5th! At the time of the call, it was only 12 days away. That wasn’t much time to mentally prepare for such a serious procedure, especially one that could have complicated interactions with my already complex health. But after that initial “holy shit” moment, it felt like the right time. I calmed down. Ironically, what I am not ready to do is talk about it.
While I am happy to discuss gender, sex, sexuality, and queer topics in general — not that many cis/het people ask me about these — this is private. I am happy to wax on about social constructivism and the materiality of the body, these are things that I find most people need to spend more time thinking about. But SRS — and here even that label is complicated, fraught, and political — is too loaded. SRS is a complicated topic for trans people, we all have different feelings about it. SRS, or sexual reassignment surgery, feels like a very literal moniker, if not a little overladen with violent medical connotations. Gender affirming surgery, a popular alternative designation, doesn’t work for me. My gender is not affirmed by my genitals. To me, “affirmation” has an undertone of trans medicalism to it. I can see someone else feeling that way about SRS. Maybe sexual affirmation surgery would work, but then we’ve just moved from gas to sass. So, SRS, as imperfect a label as it is, is what I am sticking with. But my point here, if there is one, is that it’s complicated. But non-trans people, and probably some trans people, don’t have to think about this. SRS is a lazy narrative trope that keeps their notions of gender/sex protected.
For non-trans people, SRS is what “transgenders” do, to conform to normative notions about sex and gender. It corrects a mistake. It disciplines the body, brings it into (re)alignment: girls have vaginas, and boys have penises. This is of course bullshit. There are many ways to approach this but in the most simple sense, if not a little binary, trans women/femmes, and trans men/mascs who undertake HRT do not have sex-typical genitals. And certainly not having HRT does not preclude a trans person from having a non-normative understanding of their junk. But the feminization and masculinization of genitals from HRT is a simple example to illustrate my point. When someone claims trans women aren’t real women because “women don’t have penises,” this fundamentally misunderstands how trans biology works. Like the prefix “cis” that I’m here avoiding, it invokes a static understanding of genitals. It ascribes essential forms to genitals, when in fact they are protean things, illustrated by the trans guy who fucks with his cock — his oversized clitoris which behaves like a dick and not a clit. But it is no wonder that these nuances escape non-trans people, they were hardly discussed in media available to trans masculine people until quite recently. Some of the first non-op trans masc pornstars aren’t very old. What this means, is the necessity of sexual reassignment, as a telos of being transgender, is incorrect. Rather, such a narrative of wrong and correct bodies is designed to exclude these sexual varients. It hides indeterminacy and reifies binarism.
But then there are those of us who are for whatever reasons, and there are many, still, pursue surgery. And this can be a fraught topic, even inside the trans community. SRS, and those who pursue it, can appear to reaffirm cisgenderism and its seeming inherent imperative toward binarism. It also (re)entrenches the “wrong body” trope, which is another lazy narrative construct for non-trans people. It pathologizes our bodies and necessitates corrective measures — SRS being seen as the ultimate final step. And for this reason, surgery is viewed as the ultimate transposition, the translation, the crossing, of one sex into the other, as if there is nothing betwixt or between. But is this what we are doing? No.
Who is to say what metallurgy of body and society combine to make the trans(sexual) person? But she exists. And she/he/they break the normative mould they are cast in through speaking. In the abysmal Transsexual Empire, Janice Raymond, one of the ur TERFs, made the case that transsexuals are manifestations of male techno-patriarchy. They are not, but during the mid to late 20th century, as the category of transsexual was being created, trans people were subalternized (they were incapable of speaking and being heard in the dominant discourse). Thus, they appeared to some radical feminists as tools of patriarchy. But this was not the transsexual’s fault. To speak truth to power, to represent her subjectivity, the transsexual would be barred from receiving services. Death or silence was the game — and still is to some degree. So, she allowed herself to be used, to use the system. In the early 90s Sandy Stone, a former target of Raymond, and acolyte of trans-humanist feminist Donna Haraway, wrote “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” (And not enough people talk about the amazing Star Wars reference.) In this discipline-defining text, Stone exhorts trans people to tell their stories, to speak, to reveal how potentially transgressive and deconstructive their subjectivities are; as another early trans author might say, show what gender rebels we are. Far from reifying female stereotypes into flesh, we exceed normative gender narratives.
Perhaps this sentiment is best captured by Susan Stryker in 1994’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein…” Here, Stryker draws a parallel between the trans body and Shelly’s daemon. Frankenstein’s creation is imbued with his intention and desire to wield power over nature and death. When his creation is revealed to fall short of his hubristic designs, he casts it out. But later, when creator meets creature, the creature speaks, reveals himself to be a foil, a mirror, to Victor Frankenstein’s monstrousness. Stryker too is created, like the daemon, and she too speaks. By speaking, she turns the mirror back on the creator and the society which constructs, revealing that they too are so. Thus, the formerly labelled transsexual exceeds her creation by speaking her truth, her story. She illustrates an intersubjective connection between trans and non-trans subjectivity.
There is something that drives me to this place, SRS. But I am more than sinew stitched back together. More than a cut. I am a dynamic process of becoming, protean, exceeding any single narrative of gender or the materiality underwriting it. As another author, who I greatly admire, might say, I am going to be cut, but this does not equal a lack, but a fold. A process of becoming which excites and rewrites new nerve ending and tissue. A lesson learned from a starfish. And maybe this is the most important issue. SRS, for non-trans people, is a voyeuristic fascination with the capitulation of the male sign. As masculinity is always dominant, this is seen as a loss. But the trans body is merely making a fold in a biodynamic process of change. I take comfort in this matter; reducing it to any simple set of causes belies its complexity. I just don’t want to talk about it.