Recently, poet Jay Hulme shared some anti-trans harassment couched as “concern” that he fielded after posting a sleepy morning photo of himself with his chest bare. You see, the image showed pale white scars. The scars show that he’s healed from surgery.
I have those scars, too, though mine are pale pink right now, six months after I went under the knife. Strangely, though, because I didn’t have my breasts completely removed, if I showed a photo of myself bare chested here, I’d have to cross out my nipples. Because my body can still be read as a woman’s. Even though I’m not, and I never really have been, though when I was younger, I went through phases of trying, mostly out of feminist solidarity.
Now in my early 50s, I have so many stories about my gender non-conformity, and the pushback against it, I don’t even know where to begin.* What to cut out. What is too much to tell. Too boring. Doesn’t fit the narrative. Just as I’ve never fit a tidy narrative. I’ve been queer in so many ways since childhood, since I was asked, repeatedly, whether or not I was a boy or a girl. Since I was too much of everything… Too spiritually fervent. Too intellectual. Too forthright. Too opinionated. Too concerned with injustice. Too…strange. Wanting to kiss girls. Wanting boys to pay attention to me. Wanting to fit in but knowing I never would, so settling instead for standing out.
I’ve made money exploiting what people think women are, too, as a peep show worker and a dancer. Starting at age thirteen, I’ve been harassed, threatened, and assaulted for being perceived as “female” and called a dyke and threatened with violence for not being “female” enough. I’ve had people say they wished I wouldn’t write about trans issues, because they read me as cis. I’ve had people tell me I wasn’t butch enough because I didn’t bind my breasts. I’ve had people say I must be femme because I delighted in a rose damask print jacket, only to have me look at them in confusion, because clearly it was the jacket of a dandy.
My gender is the sturdy cadence of boots on concrete, so summers can be hell for more reasons than it is simply hot outside.
I’ve had people expect me to follow them into the men’s room, and yes, I’ve used the men’s room many, many times. I’ve had people gasp and back out of the women’s room when catching the shorn back of my head. I’ve had trans men recognize that me wearing a dress in ritual was brave, because it was so clearly me, pushing some boundary for the sake of the Gods. I’ve been quite clear that wearing a corset and tight skirt was me doing drag, and that wearing “regular women’s clothing” makes my skin crawl, so I just don’t do it. You’ll never catch me in a dress.
And my sexuality is as fluid as my gender has always been.
As sexually queer and genderqueer both, I’ve used the Q word to describe myself for decades, but as language changed––as the definitions of queer shifted, and as insistence on sex and gender binaries came and went and came again––that word became not quite enough to convey my reality to others. But it still conveys my reality to me.
I’m queer as fuck.
I’m a dandy. A peacock. Patterned off of the pop icons of my youth. Grace Jones, my first celebrity crush, who burned me to the core with her power and beauty. Annie Lennox. Boy George. Prince. Suits and makeup. Frills and frock coats. Punks and Goths in eyeliner and black lipstick. Everyone who played with gender because to be beyond gender was to be revealed as who we truly were. Androgynous, it was briefly called. As a teen, I wore men’s suits my body swam in, and narrow ties, or 1950s party dresses with leather and chains. As I aged, and my body changed, I wished for crisp shirts and trousers, but my breasts and hips got in the way, so mostly I wore T-shirts and jeans, with fancy jackets over the top of it all.
And I’m impatient with all of these images. All these stories. For one thing, compared to many trans men and trans women––especially BIPOC trans women––I live a life of relative safety and ease, so talking about all of this can sound like so much whining. But also? My stories aren’t the point. Because frankly, gender itself has never made sense to me. So, I’ve gone along, accepting any and all pronouns, with the people who knew me best seeing me, and the rest of the world? Meh. It would form whatever opinions it wanted. Who has time?
Through all of this, nothing much misgendered me except being called “lady,” “miss,” or “ma’am,” and people using the first name I was given at birth. The only reason I kept that first name—when I legally changed my name decades ago—was to honor the mother who gave it to me.
She’s dead now, so I can let it go.
And then one day, my body betrayed me.
I used to joke that I wished I could donate my hourglass shape to some femme who wanted it. I had to fight to keep correct posture. I had neck and back pain. Eventually, I wore nothing but sports bras to give my breasts extra support, hoping that engineering would take care of the problem. Plus, they minimized my chest—making it a size or two smaller—which was good. But as my body aged, and as I battled a worsening chronic illness and couldn’t muster the energy to lift weights to strengthen my back anymore, and as hormonal changes coupled with my illness led to weight gain, my breasts got even larger.
And for the first time I felt gender dysphoria so strongly, so persistently, that I could not bear it anymore. I could not bear to take off my shirt in front of others. I had sex wearing a tank top. All of a sudden, I knew how that felt, that thing some people talked about. And that feeling did not go away.
So finally, I talked with my partners. I checked with my health insurance (thankful to the ACA that allows me, a self-employed person, to afford medical service in this shithole of a country that doesn’t believe people deserve even basic care). I asked my former chiropractor if they’d write a letter, attesting to the years of chronic pain. I was thinking about plastic surgery, which terrified me.
When I walked into the surgeon’s office that first time, just checking in with the receptionist almost caused me to burst into tears. I managed to keep it together during my meeting with the surgeon. Not once did I talk about my dysphoria, because I knew that would complicate things, elongating the process. I wasn’t choosing full top surgery, though I considered it. I just wanted my breasts much, much, smaller. More in keeping with this in-between being that I am.
I was so emotional after that appointment I had to ask a partner to please meet me for lunch because I couldn’t make it home, and I also couldn’t bear to be alone with all the inchoate feelings. It was overwhelming, the sense that I could possibly become more of who I already had been all of these years. That my body might, just might, reflect my inner landscape more closely than it had before. But even these words are not correct, they are just my mind, all these months later, trying to make sense of a visceral, animal sense that something momentous was about to occur. And that something had to do with body. With image. And with how the society I live in assigns and telegraphs gender.
I waited until January to have the surgery, wanting to use the dark of winter as an excuse to slow down, to lie in bed and recover. My chronic illness got so bad that there was some concern I should not got through with the operation. But once decided, there was no way I was going to put it off.
Five hours of surgery later, with the surgeon having removed just under three pounds from my chest, I came to, shivering violently, moaning, with nurses piling warmed blankets on top of me. I heard my partner’s voices before being yanked back under the dark waters.
In the weeks that followed, I dealt with nausea, and being unable to lift anything heavier than my travel kettle. I walked around with T-rex arms so I wouldn’t reach for anything, until my lymphatic system started to rebel from lack of movement. My partners were awesome, doing for me what I could not do until I was sick of it. I dealt with shooting pain as nerves regrew, with hard, subcutaneous scarring that I was assured would soften over time.
But when I went for a walk, the good posture I’d struggled with came naturally for the first time in memory.
And as my breasts healed––still slightly larger than I requested, because breast reduction is an inexact science, but more than half of their original size––I felt at ease in my body for the first time in years. This was the body I was meant to have. This was what it felt like to feel free. The swagger I’d been missing? It came back. It felt as if I always had my gender-correct boots on, even in house slippers.
Two months ago, one of my partners took me to celebrate. We went to Nordstrom Rack where I bought two of the dandiest dandy blazers in the men’s department, and they fit. They finally hung properly on my frame. Oh, I’m rolling up the sleeves until I can take them to a tailor, but here I am, a non-binary they, with a body that more closely reflects what’s always been inside.
And then, more recently, a friend who works for a lawyer’s office asked if I wanted help with a name and gender marker change. Because having to travel under the first name of a person I haven’t been in twenty-five years grates. And having receptionists call that name out and needing to answer to it until I can correct them, grates.
I said yes. I am now legally who I’ve always been inside.
I’m still the Thorn I’ve been for decades, even before I changed my name, but my first initial T is now a magical working that I hope will amuse me each time an airline employee or receptionist uses it. I’ll tell it to you here, as long as you promise to call me Thorn: my first name is now Thankful.
And my new gender?
It’s a jaunty X.
I want to thank the Millennial and Gen Z gender outlaws for pushing through recent, more binary cultural language phases and insisting on the term “non-binary.” I’d still rather have no gender at all, but as long as I’m forced into it, non-binary is as good a term as any. Thanks, too, for the insistence that––like “man” or “woman”––non-binary does not have to look any particular way.
I wrote this for anyone who needs it. Thanks for listening.
*Such as multiple instances of being read as rude because I was being friendly and straightforward instead of obsequious. If I’d been a “man” I would not have been read as rude.
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