Tag Archives: transition

The Plight of the Sport Utility Girl

(a meditation on being a woman trapped in a trans woman's body)

Igor Stravinsky's groundbreaking ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was one of the first large orchestral works to break the mold of Romantic composition. It freely ignored notions of tone and meter that had dominated Western music for centuries; flouted rules even the most avant-garde of composers had previously only had the temerity to bend.

The first public performance ended in a brawl.

I am not an English horn

That's an interesting story, but we'll save it for another time. I told it in order to tell you this one: the score itself starts with a solo by a double-reed instrument. Most people hearing the work for the first time would assume it's being played by an English horn or even an alto saxophone. It's actually a bassoon, playing in the extreme upper register, in such a way that it sounds nothing like the instrument is supposed to. It's also painfully difficult for all but the most accomplished bassoonists to perform. A common joke among musicians is that the lyrics for the solo are: "I am not an English horn - this part's too high for me - I am not an English horn!"

Most people assume that when I speak, my voice is higher because of hormone replacement. Many will comment that it sounds low for a woman, whether or not they know I'm trans. In reality, HRT doesn't affect the voice at all. Before my transition I sang bass and had a speaking voice below the normal range for most men; now I'm having to push myself up to the very top of my range to even read as androgynous.

To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction:
The truth is, I'm a bassoon, but I'm trying real hard to be an English Horn.

(Also, like the Rite of Spring, I am constantly reminded that any of my own public performances have the potential to end in a brawl.)

Right panels, wrong frame

There's a story about the origin of the sport utility vehicle in the U.S. The car-buying public wanted something sexier than a station wagon; sportier than a minivan. Car manufacturers were in a bind - they could design such a vehicle, but it wouldn't pass the fuel-economy standards of the time. So they figured out a way around those standards: build a car (a station wagon, really) on a light truck chassis, so that it would only have to follow the (much less stringent) emissions requirements for trucks.

The new Frankenstein creations were big and muscular with lots of cargo room, but they were effectively just cars with bigger tires and a higher roof-line. They burned more fuel, were more prone to tipping in tight turns... and people loved them.

One of the challenges with transitioning later in life is that the older the body, the less malleable the flesh is. Facial features become more masculine, shoulders get wider, and cartilage fuses into bone. A woman transitioning in her early teens goes through puberty normally as a girl and (post-SRS) doesn't look any different naked than her cis peers. If she transitions in her late teens or early 20s she'll be taller, with masculine facial structure and broader shoulders, but she'll also have decent breasts and hips. After that... well, it's a crapshoot, but don't expect too much body remodeling without the intervention of a good plastic surgeon.

That's where I am, of course. I'm basically an athletic, teenage woman wrapped around a 30-something dude's skeleton. I'm a car on a truck chassis - a Sport Utility Girl.

Flip this body!

And that's something I struggle with. In an ideal world, getting my hormone balance right would be enough to put me at peace with my body. In the real world, I need to pass as female in order to be able to function in society.

Since my facial surgery, makeup and the right clothes can get me most of the way there. So I can go out in public, interact with other people, be gendered correctly the vast majority of the time, and basically just live my life. More than that, I'm in a stable relationship with a person who likes the way I look even with my clothes off.

If all of that is true, why am I still unhappy with my body?

There's a few reasons I can think of:

  • It's hard for trans women not to see their old bodies in the mirror, even after big changes
  • I'm somewhat limited in what I can wear and still maintain a feminine silhouette
  • I'm not as appealing to as wide a range of potential partners as I could be (I'm in an open relationship, so this is still relevant)
  • It's hard not to compare myself to other women; I know I'm an outlier in terms of body shape and it's hard to be different even if that different isn't necessarily bad or unattractive
  • I'm attracted to women, so I'm constantly evaluating my body in terms of what I personally find appealing

It's that last one that sucks the most. It sucks because it plays into the old canard of "autogynephilia", invented to erase gay trans women. It sucks because I know that some of the things I like in other women's bodies are also things they might hate (we're all taught to hate our bodies to one degree or another). It sucks because I'm the last person who should care how I look since I can't actually date myself, and there are plenty of queer girls out there who find me attractive and who are willing to date me.

It sucks because I have the means to fix pretty much everything remaining that's "wrong" with my body if I want to, so the temptation is always there.

Mostly it sucks because I want to love my body. Most days I do. I'm tall; I'm strong; I've got cool hair and - since the surgery at least - I'm not all that hard on the eyes. But I don't love my body every day. Sometimes I can't not think about the ways it's failed me; how if I'd only known in high school or college I'd have been so much closer to my goal with so much less work. And I don't know what to do about that.

I just want to be happy. We'll see if I can find that happiness inside myself. If not, what's a few more hours under the scalpel, right?

On being your own medical advocate

You know your body better than anyone else does -
even your doctor.

I was recently reminded why this is so important.

My endocrinologist and I have been working on getting my hormones to what she considers to be optimal levels. Testosterone was easy; my body never wanted to produce it in the first place and my levels were low (even for a woman) after only a few months of therapy.

Estradiol, the primary female hormone.
Estradiol, the primary female hormone.

Estrogen has been a little bit stickier. Taking the maximum safe dose of oral estradiol, my levels are still about 40% lower than what she'd like. Because of that, at our last visit we decided to try switching from oral delivery to a transdermal patch. On paper it seemed like a perfect idea; the patch is a more reliable delivery method and (theoretically) has fewer side effects.

So I switched. And in a couple of days I was feeling like absolute crap. Anxiety, restlessness, fatigue, progressing to full-on depression - inside a week I was feeling like I had before I'd started hormone replacement. A lot of the physical symptoms of transition were fading, too (I won't get into details there, but trust me).

Continue reading On being your own medical advocate

How being a geek prepared me for my transition.

The media we consume help to shape our worldviews. That's a scientifically-proven fact.

A lot of people describe gender transition as long and difficult and generally unpleasant. That's also a fact - there are fits and starts and lots of awkwardness and it's easy to become impatient with the whole thing. I can't say I'm completely immune to that stress, but being a geek has certainly put me in a place where the process is manageable. Here's what my geekdom has taught me:

We are not our bodies.

Geek media is full of transhumanism. As long as I can remember I've been absorbing stories about people who replace parts of their bodies, transform into fantastical creatures, or escape their physical forms entirely.

More importantly, these things are often seen as conscious decisions. In Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, Kusanagi is reminded by her teammates that she'd be a more formidable fighter if she chose a male prosthetic body. She tells them that she might one day but for now she enjoys being female (and let's face it, she's plenty effective as she is). Why shouldn't we also choose the bodies we want? Why wouldn't we?

When Tony Stark's body is made useless by a terrorist mastermind, he effectively builds himself a new one. Out of scraps. In a cave. In Afghanistan. When there's something wrong with your body, you fix it. A heart is hard to replace, but gender... that's practically a DIY project. You don't need to be a nuclear physicist or world-famous inventor to understand hormone replacement - just GTS and talk to your friendly neighborhood doctor.

100%-ing anything requires patience and perseverance.

I've got a friend who is playing through Final Fantasy Tactics. He's hacked the game to make all the characters into his friends, and he's picked builds which he things will make the characters reflect our personalities. (Evidently, I'm a Priest/Time Mage, but whatever.)

Watching him play, one of the things I am reminded of is how in JRPGs improving your characters often involves downgrading them now so you can upgrade them later. You might have to put a character into a lousy job or equip them with a crappy weapon in order for them to learn a powerful new skill. Sometimes you put your party into a state where they're struggling with even simple fights, often through hours and hours of grinding - but when it's done you can do amazing things and defeat any challenge.

Transition is no different than switching jobs in Tactics. At first you lose access to some of your old skills; everything is harder; you might have to run from some fights that you could have breezed through before. But you also see the progress bar ticking up every day. You watch the new skills and abilities light up. And eventually you max out the new job, pick your best skills from both classes, and kick butt for the rest of the game.

Transition makes you you, not someone else.

I don't recommend reading anything by Piers Anthony but if you have to, you could do worse than the award-winning A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in his Xanth YA fantasy series.

Magician Trent's power is to transform any living thing into any other living thing. In the story, he transforms an ally, Bink, into a sphinx. He explains that he hasn't transformed Bink into an average sphinx, nor into some Platonic ideal of a sphinx, but rather into a "Bink-Sphinx" - a creature that only Bink could become. And if you read the book, you'll find out that Bink-Sphinx is pretty frickin' awesome.

When we transition, a lot of us look at the women around us and imagine we will (or should) look and act like them. That's one of the most harmful things we can do because it sets completely the wrong expectations. I'm not going to transform into the average gal I pass on the street. I'm not going to transform into the woman I would have been if I'd been born with two X chromosomes. I'm going to be the woman that only I could have become - the "Dave-Dana", if you will.

XX-Dana would probably have been shorter, slighter, girlier, probably straighter. Sure, she'd probably have been prettier, too. But you know what? I'm never going to be that person. I'm going to be tall, athletic, queer, butch. I'm going to be more handsome than pretty. And what I've come to realize - and appreciate - is that that's also pretty awesome. I've learned to embrace the body, voice, personality, and lifestyle I'm going to get to have. I'm looking forward to being Dave-Dana, because she's also going to be pretty frickin' awesome.

Though she is highly unlikely to fight any dragons...

[Note: I ended up turning out femme and reasonably pretty. That's what you get for engaging in speculation way before the fact. --Ed.]