Friday Philosophy: An Unsustainable Life

Twelve days ago, I encountered the following comment by a well-known member of Daily Kos.

What exactly is the medical condition that is treated by transgender surgery? Is it vanity? Something is not right about drastic alteration of a healthy body. I feel the same way about plastic surgery, by the way.

Transgender is an acquired condition, a choice, unlike homosexuality, and I don’t think it deserves the same protections.

I’ve let it steep and marinate, trying to come up with a way to address the comment.  And during that time, I’ve wondered how many people of like mind inhabit DK.  Given the number of anti-trans bigots that respond to general news story blogs in regards to stories about people who are trans, I’m willing to bet the commenter who made that comment is not flying solo.

So how should I approach it?  I decided that a trip back in time might fit the bill.

Let me start off by asking folks to refrain from the phrase “transgender surgery”.  There is no such thing.  In addition to the fact that most transgender folks do not have surgery (it is we transsexual folks who do), the clinical term is sex reassignment surgery…or srs, for short.  For a male to female reassignment, that includes a penectomy, a vaginoplasty and probably a labioplasty.  Some of us have more surgeries, but certainly not all…or even most.

For female-to-male transsexual folks, srs might consist of a hysterectomy and bilateral Salpingo-oophorectomy, a double mastectomy, and either a metoidioplasty or phalloplasty and a scrotoplasty.

What I fail to understand is how anyone can think a transsexual person would go through one of these processes for mere vanity.  How much disrespect does someone have to have for us to believe that?

No, dude.  It was not a matter of vanity.  It was a matter of survival.

We don’t just wake up one day wanting to be pretty or more manly.  Most of us have given our best shot living our lives the way everyone else wants us to, the way that would make the villagers comfortable, in the gender role assigned to us a birth.  Some of us try our best to adapt to lives by finding a partner in a relationship, gay or straight.

And we try sincerely to make that work.  Personally, I was married for 24 years.  And my wife and I had a child together, who this year will turn 41.  And raising a child, in my case, was very much how I managed to hang on to that previous life.

But sooner or later it comes to a point where that life becomes unsustainable, where one has to choose between ending a life or changing it.  I chose the latter…and I can assure everyone that it was not a matter of vanity.  The change I made may not be a change you would ever consider, but that does not mean it was not viable…or necessary.

It was scary and hard and it wasn’t done on a whim.  One doesn’t risk one’s entire family and every friend one has ever had and one’s standing in the community for the sake of something shallow.  And it certainly is a risk.  It is amazing how rapidly people don’t know you any longer.  I understood with my spouse that she would be taking her own personal risk if she chose to go through transition with me…and that I shouldn’t have expected her to do so.  But one can always hope…

From that point on, it is a matter of hanging on for dear life…hoping that somehow a pathway through the terror will emerge.  For some of us it does.  But for too many it never appears.

Curved Air:  Everdance

Perhaps it is time for someone else’s words, referring to those of us who might refer to us as mutants in need to psychiatric treatment:

The stigmatization fostered by this sort of pejorative labeling is not without consequence. Such words have the power to destroy transsexual lives.  On January 5, 1993, a 22-year-old pre-operative transsexual woman from Seattle, Filisa Vistima, wrote in her journal, “I wish I was anatomically ‘normal’ so I could go swimming. . .  But no, I’m a mutant, Frankenstein’s monster.”

Two months later Filisa Vistima committed suicide. What drove her to such despair was the exclusion she experienced in Seattle’s queer community, some members of which opposed Filisa’s participation because of her transsexuality — even though she identified as and lived as a bisexual woman. The Lesbian Resource Center where she served as a volunteer conducted a survey of its constituency to determine whether it should stop offering services to male-to-female transsexuals.  Filisa did the data entry for tabulating the survey results; she didn’t have to imagine how people felt about her kind.  The Seattle Bisexual Women’s Network announced that if it admitted transsexuals the SBWN would no longer be a women’s organization.  “I’m sure,” one member said in reference to the inclusion of bisexual transsexual women, “the boys can take care of themselves.”

Filisa Vistima was not a boy, and she found it impossible to take care of herself.  Even in death she found no support from the community in which she claimed membership.  “Why didn’t Filisa commit herself for psychiatric care?” asked a columnist in the Seattle Gay News.  “Why didn’t Filisa demand her civil rights?”  In this case, not only did the angry villagers hound their monster to the edge of town, they reproached her for being vulnerable to the torches.  Did Filisa Vistima commit suicide, or did the queer community of Seattle kill her?

–Susan Stryker, My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamonix — Performing Transgender Rage

I do not share Susan’s rage.  I am rather filled with disappointment with the people in the midst of whom I live…and despair with the lack of concern they seem to have for the “monsters” they decide need to be tormented and tortured.

When I lived in Seattle, for a short time at the end of 1994, I had a girlfriend for a time…one of Filisa’s former girlfriends.  I have intended to write more about Filisa, but I have never found the hook.  

I have spent my life since 1992 trying to change society so that what happened to Filisa does not happen to anyone else…and the way I was treated in my community should also never happen again.  Sometimes I have failed…probably many more times than I have moved society forward.

There is a message to me here someplace.  When I began transition…and my marriage began to break down…my ex-wife was trying to finish her degree in literature…and a study of Mary Shelley.

Like Shelley’s monster…Victor Frankenstein’s monster…we will suffer because of your pain and your fear of us and it probably won’t be enough to point out to you that any problem’s you have with us are indeed your problems…and you should solve them for yourselves and not expect us to pay the price for your failure to do so.

And if you wonder why we are not just happy little silent campers ready to move on with our lives instead of the rabble-rousers that won’t just shut the fuck up because you re inconvienced, maybe you could put your torches down and try to see the world from our point of view.

We didn’t ask to be brought into a world where the misbehavior of gender was punishable by social approbation.  Did you?

Why do you accept it?  And why is it necessary to have laws passed to further punish us…or to encourage people to burn us to the ground.  And why is it necessary to reject laws which protect us monsters among you from the effects of the torches and the townspeople who brandish them.

Does anyone have an answer?  I sure don’t.

Torch Fire

Villagers with Torches

A world welled up

from the depths of my despair

and has refused to abate

in decades that have followed

and I find myself trapped

in a castle of broken dreams

I had hoped that choosing

change rather than death

would open the world

to new possibilities

new ways to benefit

our common humanity

But if you reject the humanity

present within our minds and bodies

and cannot respect our choices

and offer to protect the fragility

of our very existence

then what is to become of us

Allowing other people to burn us

while you stand silent

does not leave you

with clean hands

–Robyn Elaine Serven
–May 7, 2010


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    • Robyn on May 8, 2010 at 00:01

    …but I have to move away from the computer until the cleaning service finishes the room.

  1. And I have no answers either. I know that the TG community should have more respect–traveling through the gender jungle is difficult particularly if that jungle is inside as well. I agree that there’s a certain necessity to making a strong outward change sexually in order to fit into the gender that feels most natural but I also wish it wasn’t that way because the lands between genders and within genders should be larger but they aren’t, sadly.

    After all this time we still live in a dualistic view of gender. Are you a boy or are you a girl? While I’ve always identified as a heterosexual male, I have a strong feminine side because my experience of what it was to be a man was so negative growing up that I thought it would be better to be a woman. Still I liked being a guy and still do but also I liked being androgynous. Unfortunately that inner state is very difficult to express in a binary world. As you allude to you are either gay or not gay — bisexuality is discouraged and lesbians exclude TG people why? The sexual journey is so hard in today’s world — why make it harder? We’re all in this together and each of us can benefit from the experience of the other as we muddle through this crazy world.

    As for people who have trouble with TG people, one has to understand that the issue of sexuality is so sensitive for most people and compassion not a virtue that has much standing in this country and the DKOS community just expresses that reality. Cruelty and lack of compassion is the norm.  

  2. daughter, age 13. Just about gay in general, not much specifics, and have not approached trans at all – yet. But I used your (I think it was you) concept of… how do you “know” that you are right/left handed? That made total sense to her. She has told me a few times that she has gotten into some sort of “debates” with other kids at school or even that damn Church I let her go to (working on remedying that mistake). But even with the Church folks, she is standing her ground. Im so proud of her.

    It seems to me that her agemates are way ahead of us when I was her age…. I mean, in a good way… more tuned in, more open minded. For the most part.  

  3. … someone noting that the comment was a bit out of sync for a “reality based community,

    [ Ah, but its been a long time since that … ]

    … was the dominant ethos at the Great Orange Satin.

    Or is that Great White Satin? Maybe I haven’t spent enough time at dkos, I’m starting to lose track … just what the truth is, I can’t say anymore.

    OK, so I only copied it over cause I like the song. You caught me.

  4. Villagers With Torches is amazing.

    I should be paying more attention to your poetry.

    I already am mesmerized by your art.

    Then there`s the admiration for you simply as a person.

    Wonderful essay.

    It`s seems sad you had to write it though.

    What`s with some people!

  5. What I fail to understand is how anyone can think a transsexual person would go through one of these processes for mere vanity.  How much disrespect does someone have to have for us to believe that?

    Since part of our problem as a society is the division of people into genders and the assignment of differences in power based on those genders, I don’t see why men who want to become women, and women who want to become men, shouldn’t just be encouraged to do so, regardless of their reasons for wanting to begin.  Our society (in its present hegemonic order) would benefit from more, and not less, transsexualism.

    Would improvements in the medical technology of “gender reassignment surgery” make the situation of transsexuals better?  The reluctance of society to accept transgendered individuals might be improved if surgery could “make one a woman/ man” much more effectively than it does today, no?  

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