(TW: discussions of gender dysphoria, menstruation, what the title suggests.)
One of the weirdest things I get when talking about my experience as trans is people (usually, cis women) asking the following question:
“But why would you want a penis though? I don’t get it, they’re so gross and ugly.”
My initial reaction to this question is always one of confusion, because, well, how the fuck am I supposed to know? What are you hoping to achieve, with this question? Like, gee, if only I knew why I was transgender. If only I’d remembered to ask the Fairy Transmother why when she came to give me the Official Rule Book and upload me to the telepathic Trans Hivemind™. How stupid of me, I can’t believe I’ve never considered that, maybe I could have avoided this whole gender dysphoria thing completely if I’d only taken a second to consider the ugliness of the male anatomy. Congratulations, friend, you’ve cured me of the Dreaded Trans.
I haven’t been able to work out why it’s always ciswomen who ask me. I don’t know why they jump to the penis thing. At least when it comes to cisdudes, I know that they understand the sense of self the possession of a dick affords one–even if they are, supposedly, “ugly as hell”.*
But aside from the sheer, mind-boggling stupidity of the question and the fuck all it achieves, aside from its weird invasiveness and people’s worrying obsession with my junk, my problem with this is simple: why on earth would you want a body part solely for its aesthetic value?
What this question does, what this kind of thinking does, is take away the potential of a body to be more than the sum of its parts. Even further than the problem of conflating gender with genetalia, it’s a reduction of bodies to something small and prosaic and finite, when bodies can be–are are–so much more. The fact that I “want a dick” doesn’t even begin to describe the fraught and confusing and complicated relationship of love and hate I have with my own body. The essentialist, genital-based narrative of trans people is ominpresent and grossly pervasive, but it’s not just the fixation about what kind of junk you’ve got, or whether you stand up or sit down to pee–there’s an obsession with the why of people’s junk, a compulsion to rationalise and explain trans bodies.
Since when have bodies ever been rational?
I mean, it’s a question I find confusing when I’m asked because, for the most part, my dick-or-lack-thereof is not the most significant part of being trans for me. On any given day, I’m far more likely to feel insecure about the fact that I can’t grow a beard, or the fact that I will never be taller than I currently am, or that my voice is far too high pitched for me to conceivably be read as male. And they’re all complicated things–my voice in particular, as it’s an integral part of a lot of the things I love, like poetry, or music, or fucking conversation, and I’ve never been able to reconcile that love of using the voice with the hate and anxiety that comes with having a voice that doesn’t sound like your own. They’re complicated things, and so are the feelings I have towards issues of genetalia. It may be evident by now that I’m avoiding the topic of chest-related dysphoria–because I genuinely don’t have the words to describe it, that kind of pain, and fear, the way it feels to have a panic attack that won’t end because, when your own body, your own chest, the sections of your skin that keep your lungs from falling out, is the danger zone, there is no way of escaping, nowhere to escape to. They are complicated things.
It’s so much more than a simple, medical issue of “I have this but I wish I had this”, or “I have this and I don’t want it”. The medical, the physical, are intrinsically linked to the mental and the emotional and the intellectual and the spiritual in a way that can’t be isolated or separated out into something easily understood.
The thing is, with cis bodies, those things never have to be separated. The thing with cis bodies is that they’re allowed to be a bit more complicated, and whilst they’re still policed (in particular in the case of women’s bodies) nobody is trying to explain them away. The thing with cis bodies is that they can be both aesthetic and functional, and in different, sometimes conflicting ways, at the same time, and no one sees a problem with that. You can be a little bit contradictory. I’m contradictory, and suddenly I’m “not really trans”.
The thing about a body in transition is that it’s not easily read, but there’s an extent to which it can become more legible if the intent to eventually fit into a male/female dichotomy, the aspiration to a functional binary body, is there. Being legible as a trans body is about being able to articulate to other people what your body is, was, and will be, and why. And that can be great, and empowering, to be able to articulate yourself–to, as Susan Stone says, “read oneself aloud”. But that all hinges on whether you’re being given the choice, or if someone is forcing you to exist out loud where you’d rather just be.
In these moments, under scrutiny, I am nothing more than my body. I am not my experiences or my life or my accomplishments, or all the myriad things that make me who I am–I am my body, and the aesthetic vision that’s ascribed to it by others. I’m a body, and a story that goes with that body–but it’s a story someone else is telling. I’m not me, I’m what other people see when they look at me.
Cisgender privilege is not having to be a body.
Cisgender privilege is not needing to be constantly aware of it.
I think the “why” question is an indicator of just how little understanding there is about what it means to be trans. No one can seem to decide whether they prefer a medicalised, dysphoria-based model of trans existence that makes being trans all about “wrong bodies” and binary ambition and how you fuck–or an aesthetic model that implies transness is based on mere whim, that it’s about changing your appearance, rather than the way you experience your own physical form. Either way it’s a model that begins and ends at the skin, a story that can only take place on operating tables.
The problem with asking “why do you want a dick” is it assumes I–or anyone–do, in fact, want one in the first place. The problem with asking a trans person why they want to change their genetalia is it assumes they want to change it. Bottom surgery is expensive, it’s new, it’s something we’re still learning about. Not everyone is able to undergo surgery. Fuck, not everyone wants to undergo surgery, and their reasoning for that is not something that needs to be justified to you. In the same way that not everyone wants a piercing, or facial hair, or to be thin, or tall, or anything else society deems aesthetically pleasing or “acceptable” for a body to be, not every trans person fits or wants to fit into the binary that society deems “acceptable” for gender identity and expression.
Surprise, surprise, trans people are as diverse in the things they want as “normal people”! You can take a minute to digest that one. I’ll wait.
(There’s also the part where “but dicks are so gross though” leaves no room for me to be anything other than a str8 dude. Trans narratives so frequently ignore the existence of queer trans people. And if you’re a transdude, and you’re not a hetmasc vision of patriarchal perfection, you don’t “count”.)
Honestly, I could give you any number of reasons that, rationally or otherwise, I could want a dick. Maybe I miss swimming. Maybe I’d like to be able to look down in the shower. Maybe I’m a bit tired of suffering a sick brand of karmically retributive pain once a month. Maybe, more than the physical trial of throwing up or fainting due to period pain on a semi-regular basis, I want to be free of the emotional trial of knowing what it represents. Maybe, just maybe, some day, whatever, I’d like to be comfortable enough in my own body to feel I could give it to someone else. (And the thing is, I could–people do. But if I’m never anything more than my body in other people’s eyes, how can I?) Maybe it’s for all those moments where I’ve never wanted less to belong to a physical form. And within any of those rationalisations, I can’t separate the physical from the everything else.
But, really, it’s not even about “wanting a dick”: it’s about forgetting I don’t already have one, and then being reminded. It’s about being painfully, cripplingly aware of my physical form, without warning, and not being able to stop. It’s about being nothing more than my body. It’s about the fact that everyone else doesn’t have to forget, or be reminded, or even think. I can change my body but I can’t change the fact that I have one, and no one will ever stop reminding me. I guess the best answer I have to “why” I want a dick is: so I can stop thinking about it.
I think that part would be easier if everyone just stopped asking.
NB: as always, these are my experiences and no one else’s. I’m not an example or a standard for anything, and I don’t want to take away from or delegitimise anyone’s else’s experience of being transgender. The point of this post is that understanding of trans experience is not homogenous, and with that comes the obvious fact that not everything I’ve said will be true for everyone who is trans.
*To be fair, it is usually cishet dudes who ask me why I’d want to get rid of a perfectly good set of breasts, or why I’d have such a problem with them because “if I had boobs I’d love it, I’d just touch them all day”. To that I would like to briefly say: hello, cishet dudes, here is a fellow man telling you that, NO, YOU WOULD NOT LOVE THAT AT ALL.