On my last day in the nursing center after my sex reassignment surgery, one of the nurses bid me farewell by saying "Goodbye, and enjoy your new life." I brushed off a brief wave of bewilderment and simply said thank you. Later, I joked about it with some friends - "Apparently I'm getting a new life now, too. I hope I'm rich in this one." After a few weeks I received a letter from another friend who wanted to throw me a congratulatory party "to celebrate your new life" and "rebirth." Hearing these phrases again irked me more this time, and I tried to explain why.
First let me get this out of the way: I know these comments come from a good place. I know this. I'm not entirely an ungrateful bitch. I know they aren't intended to touch off a deepening discord in my brain about how others perceive the legitimacy of my gender and why it's perceived the way it is. These are intended to be pleasantries and well-wishes. I know this.
I do appreciate the intended sentiment, but at the same time it makes me wish more people would stop and consider the auguries of certain words and why they're attaching so much importance to one specific moment or act (in my case, reassignment surgery).
I feel the same maddening confluence of thoughts and emotions when, upon informing someone that I'm trans, I hear "You had me fooled!" "Well, you're very pretty" or "You pass very well." In those cases also I give a polite smile, refusing to say "thank you" to the unwitting attempt at a compliment, as my brain rages - "Why should you be able to tell I'm trans? You think I'm trying to 'fool' you? What makes you believe I'm interested in whether you think I'm passing or not? Why are you surprised to find a trans person pretty?"
As these conversations usually occur at parties, bars or restaurants I, at least, have the consolation of chasing my swallowed pride with a slug of gin and tonic. It's not considered proper in polite society to jump down the throat of a new acquaintance with barbed interrogations about the biased nature of their perceptions of sex and gender. If I broach that line of conversation, however delicately, I'm the asshole, not the person who just openly insinuated with an ignorant smile that most trans people are dishonest, unattractive or can't pass.
So when I hear "congratulations on your new life!" I'm forced to consider what the well-wisher must think of my old life. The "life" in question is undoubtedly referring to my gender and sexuality. This spurs my first thought - that gender and sexuality are merely part of who I am, not the entirety of who I am, as the comments about a new life and a rebirth imply. Previous steps in coming to grips with my gender and sexuality, such as starting to crossdress and losing my virginity, were not met with the same cheers (actually boos would've been more fitting for both of those).
Graduating from college was a giant step in my intellectual life, yet no one mentioned the word "rebirth" then. Therefore, do the people making these comments view me solely in terms of my nonconforming gender? Do they see the whole me? And is their view of my gender centered only on surgery?
The laudation also suggests that my "old life" was not as good as my "new" one. I admit there may be an element of truth to that. Surgery was important to me. However, I never had a profound conversation with my well-intentioned friend about its importance for me, and certainly the nurse didn't know much about me as a person past my fondness for oxycodone and what was on my charts. The unhesitating ease with which the nurse and my friend used these terms exposes the assumption that surgery is always important to a trans person's sense of self.
And while it was important for me, I speak for myself alone. There are countless other trans people for whom surgery is either not desired or not an option. Are they forever stuck in the "old life?" Are they denied the chance to burst forth from the chrysalis reborn as a beautiful butterfly? (That sappy, clichéd metaphor supplied the name and logo of my chosen hospital, by the way.) Is their gender not as legitimate as mine? Of course not.
In the weeks before and after surgery, my thoughts about my personal gender didn't change one bit. Nor did I expect them to. I was a woman before; I was a woman after. I'm elated to be post-op, but not because it validated my sense of who I am. I'm happy because it's fucking over with. No more looming risks of operations in the future. No more 10 out of 10 on the pain scale (hopefully). No more surgery savings account eating up my income. Who I am remains unchanged.
What I'm saying is the role surgery plays in the lives of trans people can be overestimated, as well as underestimated. As for the latter, I immediately think of health insurance companies, who refuse to acknowledge surgery (as well as many other things) as viable and sometimes necessary treatment. The former exists mostly in the minds of others.
In addition to the comments by the nurse and my friend, this is evidenced by the other common query usually heard immediately after disclosing one's transness: "So are you gonna have the surgery?" The tunnel-vision focus on surgery in our culture's view of transness even permeates the consciousness of trans people. Months ago, when I booked my date, a post-op trans friend took me aside for a few words of warning.
"Just know ... surgery's not going to solve all your problems," she said. I agreed, and assured her that I wasn't expecting the operation to disappear all my unresolved conflicts with gender, sex and my identity.
"Good," she said. "There are some people who build it up so much, that after it's done there's a big letdown. They get depressed when they realize they still feel the same."
I replied, "That's not me. I know I'll still be the same person."
And I am. I'm the same person, with the same life, the same parents, the same friends, the same need for more bookshelf space. I have improved, as anyone does after surgery successfully treats an ailment, but I haven't changed. I wouldn't want to. My success in surgery, and transitioning as a whole, hasn't made me want to celebrate "a new life," rather, it has just made me want to celebrate life in general.