I hope you’re okay with my calling you Tabitha. I’m sorry I didn’t get your name that night. It was after our little gender “show & tell” to you and your fellow psych/women’s studies students, and you and your lesbian friend stayed after to ask questions and share your feelings. I envied how young and cute you looked, standing there so petite with your shorter-than-pixie black hair. You aroused a bit of maternal feeling in me. You chatted freely about your own search for sexual identity, finding yourself most comfortable for now with an asexual expression. And you expressed honest puzzlement about why we transsexuals would feel the need to “mutilate our bodies.” At first I was amused, since you said this with a stud in your lower lip— almost like a metal beauty mark on your chin. I responded with a neutral, inane paraphrase of Christian sentiment about our bodies being the temples of our souls.
It was on the long ride back home that I had time to think over your question and point of view. You weren’t the first to raise this question, but it’s hard for me to remember how non-axiomatic and un-self evident the matter is to others. Why would a person with a normal, healthy body risk their livelihood, relationships, savings, and health for surgeries and other risky or painful procedures to let them pass as a member of the opposite sex on the job, on the street, in the bedroom, in the restroom, in all aspects of life possible? To understand this is to understand what it means to be a transsexual. I’ll try to explain how it is for me. Others may have different light to shed on this.
Humans often alter their bodily temples for reasons that may seem strange or wrong to others. Your own piercing, for example, seems strange to me. Tattoos are widely popular. Male circumcision for religious reasons? Few people question it. Female circumcision (AKA female genital mutilation) is widely condemned by western feminists. Chinese foot binding or Southern Belle rib removal and waist reshaping with tight corsets seem like bizarre fads of the past. But many women still damage their feet with tight stilettos, get breast enlargement, face surgery, liposuction. Many young women risk eating disorders and malnourishment to achieve a societal ideal of femininity. Many men still pump steroids to help with pumping iron as a way to make risky cosmetic body changes.
Once upon a time being homosexual was considered inherently pathological. Only a very twisted soul suffering the sexual inversion of an unresolved relationship with their mother object (or some such psycho-babble ) would want to relate intimately with a person having the same genitalia as themselves. But some people argued that being gay was not what caused distress or dysfunction. It was being stigmatized that did that. I was already a young man before homosexuality was depathologized. And now, here you are, Tabitha, proof that a new generation can get over the stupid prejudices of the previous one. Being gay is no big deal to you. Some young gay men and/or women may have an odd tendency to body waxing and/or body piercing. But most gays and cross-dressers don’t wish to change their bodies the way transsexuals wish to.
“Mutilate” is such a loaded word. It is seldom applied to breast reconstruction after cancer surgery (the example Linda gave during our presentation). It is not often applied to repair of a cleft palate or performing a C-Section for childbirth. There are many other examples of congenital or naturally occurring situations where medical intervention is not cosmetic or elective or vanity or mutilation in any way, but done to preserve life, enhance the quality of life, increase functionality in life. Sometimes we can find ways to heal mutilations done to us by Mother Nature or Life.
Something else to consider, Tabitha, is that our souls can experience mutilations, too, and not just our soul’s temples. You surely would agree that keeping a child in a small closet for many years— either bodily or psychologically— would be a kind of mutilation. Being beaten by angry parents for being queer leaves scars inside, too. So does being beaten up verbally (or otherwise) by classmates, teachers, priests, policemen, strangers.
I have met or read the words of transsexuals who had regrets about their gender-bending changes, and their biggest regret of all was not having done the hormones and surgery 20 years earlier. Some says that it’s about passing. Passing is about avoiding the stigmatizing and violence our society does to those outside the gender norms. It’s about avoiding rejection and exclusion. It’s about being able to use a restroom without being harassed. For us hormones and surgeries are not self-mutilation. Rather, they are the healing means to a sense of wholeness and an end to internal and external mutilations. Your first thought was to regard medical changes to the body, especially to the plumbing, as mutilation. You never realized how a woman trapped in a masculine body feels— how the irreversible changes caused by years of androgens feel. Likewise for a man trapped in a feminine body; with estrogens and other hormones doing their thing. For many of us, just growing up and living with the bodies nature gave us feels wrong. For many of us, normal puberty feels like mutilation and a deeply personal violation.
In a pragmatic sense, hormones and surgery are justifiable because they clearly work, even under the oppressive healthcare conditions that prevail in our enlightened society. Lives are saved. Spirits are restored to something closer to integrity and health. This is not cosmetic stuff done for vanities. We are not frivolous glamour queens who swear that we’ll simply die if we don’t stretch the wrinkles from our faces or our perk up our bosoms. When it comes to gender identity, it has been well proven that it is easier to change bodies than to change minds. Recent research suggests that cross-gender identity really might be the neurological equivalent of an intersex condition.
It’s a shame that we don’t live in a society where a man in a dress is just as accepted as a woman in slacks. Coming out can be a type of mutilation, too. I think of the transsexuals (myself included) who have mutilated their lives by coming out. Why would anyone in their right minds do such a thing? We have lost stable, respected careers. We have lost life savings and health care benefits. We have lost friends. We have lost life partners and sons and daughters and the welcoming warmth of parents and siblings. The real self-mutilations are not a result of Gender Reassignment. They are the ones far too many of us attempt as a desperate way out of our life dilemmas; our literal suicides.
I hope I’ve helped bring you closer to an answer for your question, Tabitha. In any case, I appreciate you being there to ask.