I recently received a message from a very kind, but opinionated young man who was wrestling with his conflicting feelings about transgender people. While obviously doing his best to be an open-minded, loving person, this young man (let’s call him Matt) was concerned that transgender people were just troubled individuals struggling with a mental illness, and that they should be discouraged from physically transitioning. When I asked him his main reason for thinking this, he told me:
“It just seems like if you want to cut yourself up or have parts of your body chopped off [then] you must have something wrong with you mentally.”
Now, to a lot of people, that might sound like a pretty brusque, insensitive statement, but let me just clarify—Matt was truly making an effort to understand why some people choose to have gender reassignment surgeries. He just didn’t know a lot about the subject, and when you don’t know much about the trans experience or aren’t trans yourself, the idea of having body-altering surgery can be pretty scary. So I helped Matt unpack the stigma a little bit, and put gender reassignment surgeries in a broader context.
First, I asked him a pretty straightforward question:
“Do you know anyone who has breast implants?”
Predictably, he said yes. He knew several women who’d had breast augmentations. I asked him if he had any problem with that kind of cosmetic surgery.
“Well, no,” he said, but then, already catching on to the direction I was headed, he added:
“But that’s different than what trans people do!”
But when I asked him why it was different, he didn’t have a complete answer.
He could say only:
“It just is.”
But why, though? Why are the surgeries that trans people undergo considered unhealthy and alarming when other types of body modification are glorified and commodified without a second thought? For instance, how is my having a breast reduction (a double mastectomy) to look more masculine any worse different than a woman wanting breast implants so she can look more feminine? I don’t think it’s fair to be okay with one surgery and not the other. After all, if the argument here is that anyone who wants to have cosmetic surgery in order to feel more comfortable with their body is mentally ill, then there are a whole lot of people out there who you think are in need of psychiatric help.
Let’s not forget, either, that human beings also do a wide variety of other odd, invasive, sometimes dangerous things to their bodies in order to achieve certain aesthetics. For instance, we tan, often until our skin is irreversibly damaged and we’re at risk for cancer. We pierce our ears, noses, lips, eyebrows, nipples, and genitals. We tattoo ourselves, sometimes extensively. We use wires and tension to rearrange our teeth into the perfect smile. We get hair plugs when we start to go bald. We get tummy-tucks and face-lifts and vaginal rejuvenations. In some communities, getting a nose job is considered a rite of passage.
We don’t think that doing any of these things is particularly strange because it’s just so commonplace to do them, but many of these procedures pose just as much risk to a person (or more!) as top surgery would pose to me.
If we re-frame gender reassignment surgeries as the means by which trans people can achieve the particular body aesthetic that makes them the happiest, the process doesn’t seem so strange anymore. Most of us, trans or not, modify our bodies to try an align them with the ideal conception we have of ourselves.
Now, the sad reality is that Matt’s argument about surgery isn’t really the root of the stigma against trans people choosing to change their bodies. The truth of the matter is that many people don’t like that trans folks challenge the notion that if you have a penis, you must be masculine, and if you have a vagina, you must be feminine. A woman having breast implants doesn’t seem unnatural because many people believe that a woman should want to have big breasts. But if you were born a female and want no breasts at all? Something must be intrinsically wrong with you.
In the end, Matt acknowledged that, on its face, FtM top surgery wasn’t that much different than a woman getting breast implants. However, I could tell he was still grappling with his deeply-held conviction that if you are biologically female, you should want breasts, and if you are biologically male, you shouldn’t. My wanting a flat, masculine chest was still difficult for him to understand.
“But,” he said, “if that’s what you want, I can respect that.”
So, while I didn’t quite bring Matt to a full understanding of physical transition, he did take a small step with me. I congratulate him for that. Anyone who sits down and takes a hard look at something they don’t fully comprehend deserves praise. If you’re not trans, it’s not easy to put yourself in a trans person’s shoes. I can be very difficult to relate to us. Some people never will. But if we can at least achieve mutual respect for one another, I, for one, would consider that a victory.