A century and a half ago, a long, elegant barge fringed with gold glided along the Chao Phraya River, ferrying the queen and princess of Siam (now Thailand) from palace to palace. Along the way, a wave struck the boat and both mother and daughter were thrown overboard. They choked on the waves dragging them under while their servants and guards and advisors watched from the deck and townspeople watched from the shores – watched and did nothing. Their inaction was not – so far as we know – because of any widespread hatred for the monarchs. Rather, what every motionless observer knew was that it was strictly forbidden, on pain of death, for anyone of lower birth to touch a member of the royal family. So instead, they watched and watched as minutes went by until the two poor women were swallowed into the cool blue face of the water.
Recently, I gripped the rails of a motorized boat skidding along the choppy waves of that same river, looking down at the waters. I like to think that I would have gone to help.
Now, I’m writing from a hotel room in eastern Bangkok on the night before my sex reassignment surgery – or “gender confirmation surgery” or whatever we’re calling it these days; it is the eve of shit getting real. Years ago, when I began writing about and speaking about my gender change and life as a transsexual woman, I told myself that SRS was something I wouldn’t write on, wouldn’t speak on. Like so many transsexual women and men, I didn’t like the way people fixated on our bodies as opposed to our lives and experiences – there were more important things to talk about, damn it. So with all but my closest friends, I avoided discussing surgery as much as possible.
But the nearer I come to it, the more that attitude strikes me as ridiculous. If transforming my body were of such minimal importance, then I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have saved meticulously for five years to afford it. I wouldn’t have spent countless hours researching and reading reviews of different surgeons. I wouldn’t have travelled around the world to seek out this particular doctor who, according to what I’ve read, is a man placed on this earth for the sole purpose of transforming penises into vaginas, who is probably as comfortable turning penises into vaginas as I am arranging my spaghetti into smiley faces – or, for that matter, vaginas. And even considering his skill, if it were not so important, I wouldn’t be willing to risk my more-than-adequate current genitalia for the sake of it. She looks scared now – it’s okay, dear, you’re just evolving.
For those who feel the kind of dissonance that I have always felt between my physical sex and my psychic gender, surgery is important. And if it’s important enough to seek out, it’s important enough to talk about. My resistance to talk too publicly about what it has always meant to me, and most people’s courtesy to avoid asking, now strike me as just as silly as a law forbidding anyone to touch the queen. Maybe there are good reasons for these rules, but there are also good reasons to break them. That’s why I was willing to publicly ask for help with a fundraiser last year, and that’s why I’ll now resuscitate this long-abandoned blog where I so often turned myself inside-out for one final entry as I prepare to turn myself outside-in, to talk about exactly what this means to me.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in pain, sick with a sense of wrongness about myself – at some moments extreme, almost debilitating, at others all but unnoticeable. It is only by transitioning, transforming to the point that I already have, that I’ve alleviated it to some degree, and in so doing found that the joys of actualization were even greater than the pain had ever been. What most anyone reading this probably already understands is that what we call “gender identity” exists in the mind. But the joy transition has brought me isn’t purely a mental thing. Its physical – an evolving sense of strength and confidence in my body. It’s sexual – not in the fetishistic sense that our culture uses to demean us, but in Audre Lorde's profound sense of the Erotic, an ecstatic energy that flows and flowers from the pleasure of our own Truth. It’s even spiritual – a manifestation of the soul.
And maybe that’s why this trip to a crotch doctor feels strangely like a pilgrimage.
A few days ago, my travels which had taken me from one side of the world to the other brought me to the majestic ruins of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. Wandering through this place that was old before my country existed, I found myself absorbed in the ancient stone steps and spires and pillars and archways, overwhelmed by the permanence and power of it, the subtle lingering presence of those who had built and lived in these places. I wandered the quiet stones until I found a place to which others have made their own pilgrimages, to the head of a statue of Buddha, long ago knocked from its body and now peeking out from the wrangling growth of a tree enclosing it inch by inch over the decades and centuries. He looked as patient and contented as he did in all the other places I’d seen that face recently. And I’d seen many…
I saw him in the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, where his enormous body stretched out, his great head low enough for him to hear your tiny voice say hello. I saw him in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, where he was carved out of jade and seated high with fountains of golden artifacts proceeding down from him. I saw him in the Assembly Hall of Phra Ubosot, where I observed a ritual taking place, rows of orange-clad monks chanting, bowing, chanting. In each of these places, I stayed quiet, removing my shoes where instructed, and watched unfamiliar gestures and listened to words I didn’t understand.
I’ve never been a Buddhist, but there, face to disembodied face with him in the ruins, with the breeze whispering in the grass and dust and the spirits dancing like leaves in autumn, I found myself thinking that we do have a few things in common.
After all, what I, as a feminist and an academic, have learned to call “biological essentialism” – the flawed belief that all of our gendered traits are derived from our bodies – isn’t so different from what Buddhists consider to be the great illusion that this physical world we see and hear is the real one, that our bodies are all that exist of ourselves, or even that they are our selves at all. Transgender people, I believe, may see through this illusion more quickly and clearly than anyone. Is it any wonder that so many ancient cultures looked to us as transcendental, magical beings? We live our entire lives with a clear and perfect understanding of something that so many fervent spiritualists struggle their whole lives to fully grasp – that our bodies and our selves, the meat of us and the light of us, are different things.
However, to the Buddhist, attaining Englightenment means transcending the physical world; to achieve Nirvana is to be free of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It is bodilessness. A luminous consciousness free of Form. In this, we differ…
To me, having a body isn’t the problem. It’s having one that doesn’t feel like mine. I recall once listening to Eve Ensler explain that, “For a long time, there was me, and my body. Me was composed of stories, of cravings, of strivings, of desires of the future . . . Me only existed in the trying. My body was often in the way.” I knew exactly what she meant, and as she described her strange journey toward “finally being in my body,” I knew that I’d come closer than I’d ever been before, in part through hormones and electrolysis and breast augmentation, in part from sheer force of will, and I desperately wanted to make it the rest of the way.
The way took me through many trials, it took telling stories and shedding blood, and it took me on a path that led into the sky over the arctic circle and to the other side of the world, through the roaring streets of an unfamiliar city to a small, unassuming little building. I was sweating and shaky when I arrived; Weather.com reported that it was “97, feels like 113” – it might have been more accurate if it said “97, feels like your brain is melting” – but inside, it was cool and quiet. Friendly nurses greeted me the same way that everyone here did – with palms pressed together and a slight bow, which I recognize as namaste, a greeting I’ve always loved because it can mean anything from “hello” to “the divine in me recognizes and adores the divine in you.” I hoped, here, that the gesture meant a little of both. In any case, my history was reviewed, forms signed, and I was led deeper into the clinic. Before going upstairs to see the doctor, I was asked to take off my shoes.
With little preamble, the doctor explained to me the details of the transformation I was to undergo, the flesh to be cut and moved and reshaped like so much origami. At one point, as he showed me drawings of the procedure, including the vaginal canal, in which I couldn’t help but imagine little stick figures with headlamps wheeling in carts and searching for precious gems, I asked him, “So, if the canary dies, do you postpone the rest of the operation until the next day to be sure it’s safe?” He furrowed his brow and responded, “We do all one day.” I agreed that that was probably best. The truth was, I didn’t much need to hear all of this – I would be content if he told me he was going to wave a magic wand and pronounce “clitoris magnificus!” Hell, I’d pay extra.
But of course, he wouldn’t. More than anything, what this consultation reminded me – as he explained what I would need to do in preparation (which sounded very much like a ritual fasting and purification) and the business of the surgery itself (which sounded like nothing so much as a trial by pain) and what I would need to do afterward to maintain my new body (which would take dedication and discipline) – was that like every other part of my transformation, like those seeking Enlightenment, this was something I would be responsible for myself, not something do be done for me by some miracle worker. The doctor was only here to help.
And that was just fine, because in the end, it still meant that I would soon be able to look in the mirror and see something that really looked like me, a body that was my own. I would be able to reach down and feel it. I would become something I had always been and yet something entirely new. When my focus drifted from the visceral details to that ultimate result, I began to cry. I worried that this would be even more confusing to the doctor than the canary joke, and I didn’t know how to explain, but judging by the look on his face, there was no need for words. He’d seen this before. He knew. Tears are the same in every language.
They are a gesture that can mean many things, that here meant a joy I can hardly describe, and a gratitude that is my ultimate reason for writing this. Because if you’re reading, then chances are I owe you many thanks.
I should thank everyone who has put up with my insanity over the years of my second adolescence.
I should thank all the coworkers and supervisors and students who helped me realize I could be myself and be a teacher.
I should thank the people who have called me “sister” and “daughter.”
I should thank all the women in my life who have looked at me and said by one gesture or another, namaste – the woman in me recognizes and adores the woman in you.
And from the bottom of my heart, thank you to all the people who helped me with this last step. It’s a damn important thing.
While it’s true that we should not invade the personal lives of transgender people who wish to keep the medical aspects of their transition private, I hope that we don’t reach a point where we have so mandated that this part of our lives is off limits, is not to be touched, that no one will help us when we’re drowning for the lack of it. Thankfully, I’m not drowning, because my friends and family have helped me out of the water. And now I’m nearing the end of my journey, reaching a place that for much of my life, I didn’t think I would ever find.
As a child, when people told me about Heaven, I imagined that Heaven was a place where you are whatever you want to be. It wasn’t a place where you don’t have a body. It was a place where your soul and your body are the same thing.