I saw my new chest for the first time today. I’ve seen so many videos of people seeing their chest for the first time, and there are often tears of laughter, joy, and disbelief. Looking down at myself as blood-spotted gauze revealed smooth, flat skin broken with a line of tape-lined stitches, I felt like I was finally getting back to the me I started out being.
I remember the first summer of my adolescence. That line should be followed by nostalgic descriptions of ice cream cones, first crushes, and beach days, and I have those memories tucked away too. But I also remember being told that I was no longer going to be allowed to run shirtless and wild with the boys. We would pretend the city and human civilization did not exist… we would make bows and arrows and go “hunting”… the forest never imposed on us silly things like etiquette rules and gender roles.
When I was told I had to start to wear a shirt, I said I understood. I knew that the wise, mature, and good thing to do was to understand. My body was going to start to change, they told me, and I was going to start to become a woman. I get it, I said. I had to start to cover myself, because people (men) would start to look at me differently. I had to cover up because it was safer, more appropriate. People don’t look at boys the same way as they look at young women. I nodded.
But I did not understand, not really. Wearing a shirt separated me from the boys. I didn’t know what they had been told about my new body, but I started expecting them to look at me differently. I expected they would start getting crushes on me, and I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the bunk beds with them anymore. Whereas before, we all assumed that we could jump down from trees, run over rocky paths, and scale walls, now there was a question in my mind as to whether I could still participate. I started being left behind, or opting out – I’m not sure which. I was crushed – not because some boy broke my heart, but because my joy, my favourite kind of play, and my connection with nature was interrupted by some sudden imposition of a gender I never consented to become.
I initially thought my genderqueer feelings were newly born when I turned 30. What other explanation was there for my wholehearted adoption of femininity, and for the most part, heterosexuality, up until that point? Why hadn’t I felt dysphoric, or even questioned my gender, until I had met and learned to love other genderqueer people? I knew that my genderqueerness was valid, no matter when I woke up to it; but in the back of my mind, I questioned whether or not my gender was really just part of a trend, like some anti-trans Twitter accounts were saying. The timing of my coming out, combined with my own internalized transphobia, made it difficult for me to believe the legitimacy of my gender identity.
It has only been in the days leading up to my top surgery that memories of my courageous questioning of my assigned gender as a young person have come flooding in. Feelings of helplessness as my nipples started puffing up until they were impossible to hide. Feelings of regaining power as I temporarily delayed my body’s growth through anorexia. Feelings of rebellion as I responded to the sexualization of my body by initiating drunken sex with strangers I met in bars. So, so much hiding – of my body, of my sexuality, of my confusion.
Our family used to go to the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair every spring break, with our aunt and uncle and cousins. We would load up our vans and drive a few hours across the province to Brandon, Manitoba, for the petting zoos, the pig roasts, the cheap souvenirs and the best part (for me) – to watch horses jump, and pull carts, and lift their knees high to the old-timey music. We always stayed in a hotel with a pool and a water slide. One year, my breasts had grown just enough that they were impossible to hide anymore, so I had upgraded myself to a bra that I lined with a folded bandana – to give the impression that I was developing “normally”, but still be able to hide what my chest really looked like. However, this setup would never work under my bathing suit. So, instead of exposing my body in the way the bathing suit would necessitate, I decided to tell everyone I hated swimming, and opt out of the hotel waterslide and pool entirely. Even though I chose this lie, and really committed to it, I was also deeply disappointed.
Deep inside, there is a young, and very lost version of me; the one that has just been told that shirtless summers are a thing of the past, since I was now becoming an object of the male gaze; the one that would rather give up a fun waterslide than expose the shape of my chest in the hotel pool. How would things have been different in my life if I would have been able to explore my feelings about my body freely, with an accepting therapist that could help me name those feelings? How would things have been different if I could have taken puberty blocking medication, to at least give myself a bit more time to consider what it even meant to become the gender I had been assigned? As I write, I know that in the context of traditional, Evangelical Christian culture in the 1990’s, this sort of access would have required a knowledge about health care for trans kids that may not even have existed. That doesn’t mean I can’t wish it had. I can hold the young, lost version of me in my heart and let them know now that I’m sorry, and that they won’t have to live like this forever.
This flat chest of mine is not aesthetic, and it is not only something that will help prevent myself from being misgendered by strangers. It is a repair. It is a reparation I am making to my 11-year-old self, to account for the damage that non-consensual female socialization caused me as a child. I am putting something right that has caused me pain ever since it appeared in my life. It is only one thing, out of many that I could and perhaps will get fixed, but with this flat chest, I give myself permission to reject the gender I was assigned, and accept the messy, fluid, hard-to-define person that I truly am, and always have been, no matter how long it took me to realize it. I reject my own objectification, and name myself the subject of my own life.
When I look down at my chest today, I see myself as I was before I was told who I should be. Unburdened by external definitions and expectations, I am who I always was – just me. Part of the natural world, free, filled with possibility and emotion, a vital part of a community of loved ones, including trans elders who I’ve never met, but who have made this repair possible for me and for countless others. I am so grateful.