A few days ago, I received a private Facebook message from a dear friend. It began, “I got to see my vagina today. For the very first time, my vagina. I know you know how significant that is and I only wish the same for you and soon. It will change your life.”
My friend, Natasha, sent this from her hospital room in Montreal, where she is recuperating from the most significant surgery anyone like us (her and me) can ever undergo: gender affirmation surgery. We are transgender, which, for those few of you who might not know, is the phenomenon where the gender identity which is programmed into the brain of a fetus does not coincide with the physical sex into which that fetus develops. To make a million long stories short, it is inarguably one of the most painful birth defects imaginable, largely because it’s the only one I know of where the person suffering from it has to fight tooth and nail to make people understand that it’s real.
(I use the term “birth defect” at the risk of hearing tons of negative comments from the people I like to call transgrammarians, those who believe we will win the fight for recognition by adopting self- and other-descriptive language no one outside the gender activist community understands. It is a debate in which I have been forced to participate many times. I was born with a condition that is anomalous and debilitating and can be corrected surgically; to me, that’s a birth defect.)
For as long as I can remember, I have been nothing more than a fleshy embodiment of the feeling that what I saw in the mirror was incorrect. I can recall very clearly being in first grade and having my first “girlfriend.” Her name was Connie, and she had a haircut that was somewhere between a pageboy and Moe Howard. We held hands at recess while we walked, and it was probably cute. What she and no one else realized was that I was only interested in her clothes. When I think of Connie, I think of a short dark blue polyester dress, patent leather Mary Janes with white socks, and a white crocheted shawl with little pom-poms. It would be a pattern I played out for most of my life: attaching myself to a girl I thought I wanted to look like.
I knew I was a girl, but I didn’t know how to become one, to be one, and there was no one in my life who could help me understand any of it.
Thank Heaven for Phil Donahue! It was at around ten years old that I heard the word “transsexual” for the first time, when he had tennis pro Renee Richards as a guest. Born Richard Raskind, she had been an ophthalmologist and men’s tennis player before finally being able to transition in 1975. After Christine Jorgensen, she was one of the first transsexuals to put herself out there and share her story. This was pre-Jerry Springer, and the topic was covered on Donahue with respect. It had a very profound effect on a ten-year-old “boy” who learned that day that it was possible to really become a woman one day.
But what did that mean, to “become a woman”? When I first saw Richards, I was not yet into puberty, certainly not mature enough to fully comprehend either being transgender or transitioning into femalehood. To ten-year-old Jimmy, it meant getting a vagina. That and that alone would make me a girl. Unfortunately, that belief (that having a vagina was what would make me a woman), imprinted on the mind of a very immature, unknowing ten-year-old, would define how I viewed any possible success at “becoming” a woman.
Equating “woman” with “vagina” would form the template of every significant relationship I would ever have with a woman. (That, and replaying the circumstances of a long-term pubescent molestation, but that’s another story.) Envy, jealousy, and a total lack of understanding – true, empathic understanding – these constituted my feelings about being with a woman as well as being a woman, and it all centered on the vagina.
Consequently, every significant (or insignificant) encounter I had with a woman (which, for me was necessarily experienced as a woman through a male body) was focused on her vagina: getting to it, being inside of it, being totally covetous of it, and, ultimately, punishing her emotionally for having one, as well as for being able to appear feminine.
Remember, it wasn’t just vaginal possession that enraged me. My first awareness of the otherness of girls was their clothing. That consciousness of the appearance of girls would become the second-most powerful concept I had about women. Formed in the mind of a child, it would take years for me to be able to undermine that and move on to a real understanding of what it meant to really be a woman. But at the time, and well into adulthood, I could only look at women and think of them in the external. It was all about, “That bitch! I want those shoes!” There was no attempt (or realization that I needed to make the attempt) to get beneath the surface to her heart and mind, to what it was that gave her her womanness.
It was only after beginning hormone therapy and socially transitioning that I began to evolve. It was as I was able to live as a woman and wear the clothes and project the style I had always coveted that it became clear to me what I had so completely failed to understand about the experience. Thus, the closer I am to getting a vagina, the more I understand that I don’t actually need one to be the woman I am.
As much as the experience of womanhood is defined by having a vagina (learning to understand and cope with and, finally, embrace menses; being able to gestate and expel a new life through the birth canal; being objectified and used for access to the vagina, being treated as simply a repository), it is peripheral. Ultimately, I believe, the experience of being a woman, for any woman, is defined by confidence and self-love. However much of these she possesses determines the place she has in the world, in relationships, and within her own soul.
I have often told my children that we are the sum of only two things: what happens to us and who we are, the traits we possess and how they color our reactions to the events in our lives. On top of that, I am beginning to believe that gender (and all that goes with it) plays a meaningful part, as well. For men, power, dominance, and social status make up the prism through which they filter life. But for women, it is the admixture of confidence and self-love that evinces their essence, their femininity, their goddessness.
Within a few hours of reading the joyous message from my friend Natasha about her vagina, I read a posting by a lovely, powerful woman in a Facebook group to which I belong. She was addressing the question of how sex is an obsession in our society but sexuality (experiencing the power of our sex) is taboo. The discussion questions related to empowerment derived from women doing jobs seen traditionally as sex-related, such as stripping.
She opined that independent women, women with abundant confidence and self-love, find empowerment everywhere, even in performing acts others might consider demeaning. She equates to living in Hell the conformation to expectations and beliefs engendered by a society that does not want empowered women. We are challenged to push all limits as a path towards self-knowledge. Ultimately, it is doing what we want that matters and that that independence is in harmony with one’s soul.
I can’t stop thinking about what that means, to me and to all women, but especially to all transsexual women. Being on the outside for 43 years leaves me with a nagging sense that I am an interloper (or seen as one), arriving far too late to the state of Woman to ever fully understand what it all means or to really belong. Some trans people get hung up in that feeling, too, trapped (for all my nerd friends out there) in the brick wall at Platform 9-3/4, unable to burst through to the other side. Stuck in a gender purgatory, they can never fully transition because that means leaving the safety of their trans identity behind. For many, being on the outside is the only place where they have ever really felt on the inside.
It is precisely there that I wish not to get lost. I wish to understand and embrace who I really am, a woman, and I wish to know all that I can about what that means. I am beginning to taste a little of that bliss and pleasure that comes with believing in myself and, most importantly, loving the woman I have been waiting to be. There is nothing but joy in the surprise discovery that I don’t need a vagina to feel these feelings. I get it by doing what I want to do, not what I need to do.