An Unsustainable Life

This was written in 2010.  I’ve decided it belongs in the autobiography, alongside The Task at Hand.

The graphic is entitled Fire.


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 al of usl…or even most of us.

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 labelling 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 inconvenienced, 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


    • Robyn on February 14, 2015 at 00:04

    The story of Seattle is not written yet.  I’m not sure it ever will be.  But I know what it is about since it has a title: In Search of Filisa.

    Maybe this is as close as I could get.

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