Notes on top surgery is an ongoing project on Instagram.
Notes on top surgery #1
I want to talk about my decision to share my surgery experience on Instagram, as it involves a discourse that most people who are not trans aren’t aware of, and I don’t want to give off the wrong signal.
In traditional media, medical procedures are often still portrayed as the only or most important factor involved in transitioning. The Dutch tv program “hij is een zij” (he is a she) lays out transition as a set of stairs in which almost each step is a medical procedure: 1: coming out 2: hormones 3: top surgery 4: bottom surgery, etc. But even though some of these are important for me to make progress in my life, a large chunk of my, and many others’ experience is overlooked, because it doesn’t fit this narrative.
Some trans people physically transition, while others are perfectly fine not doing so. Some of us are straight, and many are not. Some experience hate and violence on a daily basis, while others are surrounded by love, but what I think is most important of all is that we all are something else too. We are doctors and artist and writers and shop clerks and teachers and sex workers and pilots and CEOs.
So when I share about my surgery, I’m not doing it on behalf of all trans people. I’m sharing my perspective, the one of an awkward 22-year-old plant collecting curry loving transgender art-student, on an emotional and physical event that is important to me.
Notes on top surgery #2
In order to physically transition in the Netherlands, you have to be diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” which the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes as a “condition” in which an incongruence of birth sex and gender identity causes great distress to an individual.
When I was seventeen I started watching videos and following blogs of trans guys, but even though I had finally found a group of people in which I felt at home, I didn’t think I could possibly be trans because I didn’t hate my body. When I was eighteen I became more and more certain that I was supposed to be male, and decided to slowly come out to the people close to me. However, at this point, I had internalised the idea that I had to hate my body in order to be valid. So I became disgusted with myself and came out naming all the correct conventions: I was born in the wrong body, I am tortured by my reflection, I always felt different and wanted to be one of the boys.
Four years later I have become confident enough to say I did not hate my chest prior to surgery, but that doesn’t mean it was supposed to stay that way.
You do not have to hate your job to know that it’s not right for you, you do not have to hate your significant other to know that you don’t belong together and you do not have to hate your body to know that you are trans.
The greatest cause of distress over the years was not the incongruence between my birth sex and gender identity, it was the people who denied my existence.
Notes on top surgery #3
After coming out as trans, one fear commonly expressed by our parents is that we will never be able to find love. I have asked a few of my friends whether they would consider dating a trans person and there was quite some hesitation. It didn’t surprise me though that most no’s were expressed by my straight male friends.
Attraction towards trans women has been the butt of jokes amongst men for decades. These jokes do not only falsely accuse trans women of lying about their gender, they also lean on the conception that homosexual attraction is so humiliating that it justifies the use of violence. Even now that we are somewhat accepted in society, many people are still repulsed by the idea of dating us. But despite it being illegal for employers to reject people based on their gender, skin colour and religion, you can’t force people to date other people because it’s the politically correct thing to do.
I know that physical attraction can be important in people’s love lives, but just as much as stigma can entice violence, it can overrule attraction. When you exclude an entire group of people from your romantic life, you should consider the possibility that you might have let stigma decide over your capacity to love.
You can be supportive of trans people and still let stigma rule your decisions. You can be trans and still allow it to do the same thing because stigma can’t be forgotten, it has to be unlearned.
Notes on top surgery #4
Today is Transgender Day Of Visibility and I want to take it as an opportunity to explain why I choose to be visible. While I have the option to never disclose my trans status and fit into society as any other male and not be judged on my past, I still choose to do it, and this is why.
Children need to be socialised to keep themselves out of danger. This can happen through an experience: A toddler puts sand in his mouth, tastes it, spits it out and never does it again, and through information that leaves an impression on them: Someone telling their kid: “Don’t go to the dog park, there are scary people out there that will offer you candy and kidnap you.”. The parent teaches them not to go there and decreases the chance of them getting hurt. However, if they tell the same thing over and over, the child can still have anxiety revolving the dog park, or any other park when they’re grown up.
Luckily the anxiety can be reduced, for example with exposure therapy. By letting people come in contact with the things that trigger their anxiety, you prove to them it’s not as scary as it seemed. They acquire new experiences that interfere with the patterns that are ingrained in their behaviour.
Sometimes we are socialised to avoid things, but no one really knows why. These things are symbols that function as a representation of something else. This is why some numbers are unlucky numbers, certain fingers are offensive, and trans people are seen as dangerous. The reason why I unreluctantly disclose my trans identity in many conversations is that I believe we should treat the repulsion and hatred society has towards us as if it were anxiety. I have experienced that simply knowing a trans person can be enough to change someone’s view.
Notes on top surgery #5
I recently made a short post on Instagram and Facebook about a bank employee that asked me about my genitals. I received many comments of people sympathising, calling him an asshole, rude, a bigot. These were things I thought too when the situation unfolded in front of me. Later a discussion ensued in the comments about whether anger was the appropriate response to someone who was clearly uninformed. The answer is yes and the answer is no.
Ideally, we (trans people or any other minority) should not have to fight aggression against us, as in these situations we are the victim, not the aggressor. You also wouldn’t have to justify your anger if a bank employee poked you in the ear because he should know that it’s inappropriate. Sadly it doesn’t work this way (yet?), people rarely want to get involved with the unknown because it means there is a chance they have to adjust their worldview, so we need to be assertive to protect ourselves.
However, I don’t think that to react to an uninformed expression with anger, even if that is my initial response, is the right way for me to make a difference in the long run. Anger scares us away or scares us into obeying, but neither leads to us taking responsibility for building our own informed versions of reality. I think that’s what the freedom we celebrated last week is about. It is the opportunity to think differently and make mistakes. I do not want to dictate what can and cannot be said.
Notes on top surgery #6
It has been a while since I posted anything because, despite the fact that I was growing more confident in my skin and wanted to share that, I knew that when I posted a picture I would have to share something that could be perceived as an unlikely, or sappy “It Gets Better” story. I eventually chose to go through with it, not just because I feel good about myself. I want to encourage others to tell their personal stories.
My mother had installed a sleeper couch in a small room in her new house, on which I was going to sleep for the couple of weeks I needed to recover from top surgery. I practised holding my arms against my body, not using them to get into bed, and tried out varying stacks of pillows to prevent a backache. I lay down for a few hours, listening to podcasts and reading a book. But I was mostly worried about surgery, not because of potential complications but because I was scared that a sudden physical change would be detrimental to my mental health. Suicidal thoughts had been on my mind almost daily since I was thirteen, but when I decided I wanted to physically transition I promised myself that I would experience my transition first, then I could consider whether my life was worth living or not. Top surgery would mean the end of my transition, and the thoughts were with me in that bed. I thought to myself that if I still felt this way when I was recovered, at least I could kill myself.
Since I have woken up from anaesthesia, even in the periods in which I was in emotional turmoil, my suicidal thoughts have almost fully evaporated. I frequented therapy. I got more excited about psychology and the philosophy of the mind. I worked with people I could be open with about my feelings. I posted short essays on Instagram on the non-existence of a single narrative for being trans, and my friendships grew a lot more valuable. But what change I underestimated most, was the physical freedom I would gain. For as long as I remember, exercising had felt like a chore. But from the first time I jumped into a pool after surgery, it was no longer something people just said was good for me, it actually felt like there was a need being fulfilled.