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Trans Segment #13: Myth: Transitioning is mutilation.

November 5, 2012

Myth: Transitioning is mutilation.

Reality: And so are many other body modifications. If you have pierced anything, if you are tattooed, or if you are circumcised, please stop right now before you hurt yourself.

See, the truth is that “mutilation” is an extremely loaded word. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “mutilate” as “1: to cut up or alter radically so as to make imperfect <the child mutilated the book with his scissors> 2: to cut off or permanently destroy a limb or essential part of : cripple.” Its denotation is inherently negative and, in this case, judgmental to the nth degree. It carries with it ableist connotations, pronouncing the body as lesser than and deficient. It is ableist to imply that being in an unaltered (“natural”) body is more moral and good than being in an altered (“unnatural”) body, which feeds into the belief that our differences are defective and must be “cured” or eliminated. This word is not meant to be anywhere close to a neutral evaluation.

This is a two-pronged reaction consisting of ignorance of the mechanics of medical transition and a textbook case of psychological projection. Regarding the first part, there are so many details medically about several different procedures that I can’t fit it all into this status update, but I can refer y’all to resources if you’re curious about any of that. In brief, however, let’s just clear up a few things. When trans women have bottom surgery, the penis is NOT cut off. The existing tissue is used to reconstruct a vagina and clitoris. Think of it more as turning a glove inside out. When trans men have top surgery, it’s not the same as a radical mastectomy that cis women with breast cancer have. Less tissue is removed, masculinizing recontouring/reconstruction is required, and it usually has few complications and minimal downtime. And for the love of god, don’t fall into the trap of badmouthing the bottom surgeries that trans men have as “unrealistic” and “non-functional.” Not only are these subjective and judgmental statements, but it’s just not a good idea to base your ideas about these surgeries off ancient anecdotes and rumors about the penises “falling off.” Learn and be surprised by the improvements in these surgical techniques over the last 10-15 years. If you don’t think it’s cool to trash a guy’s chest surgery, don’t trash his metaoidioplasty or phalloplasty.

The second part becomes obvious pretty quickly if you ask people to examine what about transitioning squicks them out so hard. First of all, lots of people are grossed out by medical procedures in general, especially surgical ones. Let’s face it, though. The body is both amazing and beautiful and really weird and messy. It’s all a mixed bag! When it comes to transitioning, most cis people are projecting their bewilderment at the idea of wanting to change one’s sex at all. They just can’t relate to it, they can’t imagine why someone would be like that, and they figure it just plain old doesn’t make any sense! They can’t grasp the intense feelings of joy trans people who have these procedures have. For these folks, losing their breasts (or growing them) or losing their penises and testicles (or gaining them) *would* be traumatic. Surgeries that they can envision are laden with powerful emotions like grief and fear: mastectomies for women with breast cancer, oophorectomies/hysterectomies for women with ovarian/uterine cancer (and historically for other reasons, frequently non-consensual), and orchiectomies for men with testicular cancer (also frequently non-consensual for other reasons throughout history).

These procedures are hence associated with serious illness or assault and the deep sadness at losing an important part of yourself. But this is not like the life-affirming act of bringing one’s body into alignment with their neurological sex. I remember watching the little informational video about breast reduction when I went to the first consult with my top surgeon. I just totally could not relate to the women in the video talking about how sad they were! For as alien as being trans seems to cis people, the flipside is that that’s how it often feels for someone who is trans trying to understand being cis. As I got farther along in transition, I was more able to relate to cis people, but there are still aspects of it that are just as alien to me as they always were. All these women in the video were sad, reluctant, or anxious. I, on the other hand, was elated, eager, and only very mildly nervous. I have not regretted it once and consider it to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

What people completely neglect in this “Eww, icky” reaction is the issue of consent. Trans people don’t just capriciously wake up one day and decide that they’re going to transition. The vast majority of us put a great deal of thought, research, resources, and time into this. It’s not a decision that we make lightly, especially when you consider those who tried *very* hard to live their lives as their birth-assigned sex. We generally know what we’re getting into, it’s our responsibility to know this information, and it’s the job of the medical providers to help inform and guide us. Moreover, we *want* these procedures, sometimes very, very badly! By the way, I don’t think it’s our responsibility to pacify anyone’s personal insecurities about the idea of someone somewhere having surgery on his or her own body. Manage your own emotions, okay? It’s the mature thing to do.

For many folks, their objection hinges on the use of modern medicine. It is specifically surgery and hormones that freak people out, usually more the surgery than the hormones. These folks don’t normally take issue with people who “passed” (we’ll talk about this later) historically before the advent of synthetic hormones and advancement in surgical techniques. But introduce modern technologies and suddenly people get wiggy. I really don’t see how this is different from diabetics taking synthetic insulin—thanks to modern medicine—, or why the same procedures are acceptable for some people and not for others, such as how chest surgery is A-okay for cis men with gynecomastia but not for trans men. It is the same surgery, so why is it “mutilation” for me and not for him?

The reason people fall back on is that you’re damaging or removing “healthy” tissue. I have news for you. If you’ve ever had a benign tumor removed, you too are guilty of removing otherwise healthy tissue. But surely you had a good reason for doing it, am I right? Of course you did. Please stop assuming that trans people are so dumb and naïve that we didn’t bother to consider the pros and cons of surgery. On a related note, is tissue that you instinctively feel does not belong as part of your body healthy? Is psychological pain not considered harmful and its alleviation conducive to one’s holistic health? Should a person have to attempt therapy to accept how their body is currently shaped instead of having surgery or hormones? What if that therapy is not effective? Given the emotional pain of being incorrectly sexed, is the former not as harmful as the latter? We don’t just “get over it,” you know.

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