September 18, 2012

In which I get my boobs removed

The title of this post comes from a hilarious exchange I had with one of my coworkers at Au Bon Pain. Someone I'd never spoken to before came up to me while I was standing at the cash register and, during a lull in customers, said, "So, maybe this is weird to ask, but I heard you got your boobs removed?"

She asked if it hurt (I guess, but I had lots of vicodin) and how I felt about it (really relieved) and then we had to go back to work. Afterwards, I realised that she had put together "buzz cut" plus "mastectomy" and come up with "breast cancer", but because she never asked why I had surgery, there wasn't a graceful way to correct her assumption. I've been having a lot of these kinds of conversations lately, where people ask the wrong questions so I don't know how to tell them the right answer. Mostly I'm just not that invested in other people's dumb assumptions, but the experience of being home again has really highlighted my favourite part of getting surgery: everybody I met already knew their shit.

I do mean everybody.The women at the front office of the plastic surgery institute: incredibly invested in a traditional presentation of femininity, to the point of getting plastic surgery themselves-- and yet, they were genuinely excited on behalf of the trans men getting the reverse surgery. The woman who took my money at the clinic: a professional bureaucrat-- and yet, she apologized for having to ask for my legal name and write down my sex as female. The parade of nurses who took my vitals and gave me my IV and administered my anesthesia: not in any way specialised in trans care-- and yet, a brief glance at my chart and they knew exactly which name and pronouns to use.

I'm not really a sensitive person, any more. Not when it comes to being trans, anyway. I understand that people aren't going to 'get it' right away, and I understand that they are going to be curious. When someone calls me "ma'am", they are probably just trying to be polite, and I have cultivated the habit of accepting their politeness in the spirit in which it is meant. When someone asks a personal question, they are probably just trying to learn, and I answer in good faith every question that is asked in good faith. At this point, these exchanges just don't have any sting to them.

And yet, when I got surgery, it was such a profound relief to be in a space where I wasn't constantly choosing between explaining myself or becoming invisible. It was like a fish suddenly discovering that it lived in water… by leaving the water… and breathing the air better than the water? Perhaps I am a lungfish. Perhaps this was a terrible analogy. It was like suddenly realising that I lived in a cisnormative world. Which isn't exactly a widely-shared experience, but probably more so than the lungfish thing.

To get this blog post back on track: I feel like I have a lot of friends who have the basics under control, but want to know how to be a better trans ally after all the 101 stuff. And I think the answer starts with combating cisnormativity-- which mostly means remembering, at all times, that you may not actually know the genders of the people you see around you. And you probably do not need to know. Today I actually asked for someone's number while having no clue whether they were cis male, trans male, or cis female; their gender would have eventually become relevant, but at that point I just wanted a way to contact them to talk about Doctor Who somewhere other than the crowded Amanda Palmer concert.

If you have to ask, think about what information you actually need and why you need it. If you're a doctor and you want to know if I need a pap smear, ask if I have a uterus. If you're putting together a form, think about whether you really need a legal name. (DMV: yes. Blackboard discussion forum: no.) If you're just making friends… ask my name, and where I'm from, and what kinds of books I like to read.

This, I realized, is what I most want from the people in my life: I want them to ask what they actually need to know, and then carry on with what they were doing. Or, in other words, know your shit.


  1. Glad to hear that the surgery worked out!

    You raise an important point about what people actually need to know. You don't have to be a trans expert to know that some shit is just not your business. This is easy for me because I'm a very private person in real life. (Who knew?)

    On the flip side: when I became seriously involved with a transwoman, information that was normally not my business suddenly became very much my business. I was the awkwardest about this but a friend reassured me that my questions were not invasive.

  2. This was a great, helpful and informative post, Lawrence. Thank you. I don't do transgender surgeries, but I try to stay informed. And I always want to know how patients respond my staff. For me, this has been an interesting perspective.

    Dr. Rhys Branman