"...and when we touch, we enter entirely.
No one's alone. Men kill for this, or for as much."
—Anne Sexton, the truth the dead know
Trans girls have surgery for many reasons. People often think of our surgeries as horrible experiences that rupture your life apart, but they can also be moments when you give birth to another world. It’s possible to hold two thoughts in your head at once. You can say this is hard and I’m so happy now at the same time without either one being untrue. Some of the reasons trans girls decide to have surgeries make more sense to people than others, but they’re all valid because we’re all valid.
The first person to touch my vagina was a doctor. I had just returned to Toronto after my surgery. I lay on the examination table, my legs in stirrups, while the doctor explored my changed body. I stared at the ceiling while she poked and probed my healing vagina. Suddenly, I felt something that I had never felt before.
It hurt a little, but it also felt good. Normally, when someone touches my body, I can roughly tell where they are touching me from the sensations. This time, I had no idea where the doctor’s hand was. It was like some part of me, completely disconnected and floating away from the rest of my body, was being touched in another world.
I asked the doctor where her hand was. Her reply was confused and tentative.
“Oh, I just touched inside your vagina.” She placed her hand on my bare leg and made eye contact with me. “Everything ok?”
I nodded back to her, unsure of how to describe what I was feeling. The medical explanation is that my brain had not yet mapped the nerves of my vagina onto its mental image of my body, leaving my nervous system unable to locate my vagina as part of me. It felt to me as if my vagina was emerging through time and space to arrive at my body and the doctor was touching a part of me that didn’t exist yet. As if my vagina was a “somewhere else,” a place my body was traveling to but couldn’t yet imagine.
It took me four months after surgery to touch my clitoris. I worried about breaking it. After the trauma of surgery and the relentless process of aftercare, it was hard to feel sexual. It was even harder to imagine that my pussy could give me pleasure after it had brought me so much pain. I didn’t know how to touch myself, completely new to vaginas and uncertain of how my changed genitals functioned.
I figured it out. After twenty minutes of internal debate and washing my hands three times, I touched the small hard bump above my vagina. It felt ok. Wet with my vaginal secretions and still healing, my clit was caught somewhere between a sensitive ache and a pleasant rush. I explored my vulva. The lips of my labia were soft and welcoming, a smooth arc which wanted touch. The entrance to my vagina felt terrifying but when I finally slipped my fingers inside, I discovered my pussy was warm and filled with sensations I didn’t have language for.
I experimented with vibrators, penetration, and massaging my clit. I learned I could orgasm from penetration, but it felt different than when I orgasmed from touching my clit. The pleasure I could give myself was always better than the pleasure I got from a sex toy or my dilators. My orgasms developed over time. At first, it hurt to orgasm as my muscles spasmed. As my healing continued, I realized I could control my vaginal muscles and make my orgasms stronger if I practiced. It took months, but eventually, I got the hang of masturbating with my pussy.
I had help. There was this guy I fucked with for five months after surgery. He was a stranger I met on OkCupid. I lost my post-surgical “virginity” to him. He was handsome and charming, but mostly he was just kind to me. I was afraid of letting a guy eat me out because it meant opening my pussy to exploration, letting someone come as close as possible to the site of all my anxiety. His care and gender affirmation helped me find more courage to begin exploring my pussy. He lay between my thighs, his mouth on my clit as I gripped his outstretched arms, and he slowly got me off. I came so much with him, fucking for hours as spring arrived and gradually became summer.
He told me that I was beautiful but I didn’t see it. He said my lack of awareness was the sexiest thing about me. It’s funny, he’d quip after eating me out, you are so smart and yet you have zero clue about yourself. I thought his banter was cute, but I always wondered why my chronic insecurity was hotter than if I were confident. I think it was because he was always winning me over, using his cock and mouth to bring my desire to the surface, fucking me until I whimpered and begged him to keep going. Guys like reluctant conquests.
I stopped replying to his texts in September. It wasn’t that we didn’t have a good time. He would hold me all night, his arms wrapped around my waist, and then disappear softly in the morning. Once I realized that I didn’t want to have penetrative sex too late, so I had to ask him to stop during sex. He did without any complaint or issue, something I think is rarer in men than commonly admitted. If he ever accidently got too rough or hurt me more than I wanted, he immediately froze and checked in. He was a decent guy, better than most male lovers I’ve had.
I guess that I felt like I had discovered what I needed to about my pussy. He wouldn’t date a trans girl publicly because of what people would think. He was never transphobic with me, but he knew how his community would see our relationship. He was supposed to marry a cis girl, not fuck with a tranny, and I understood his logic. I don’t buy into the reasoning that every relationship must be public to be meaningful, but I’ve spent my post transition life trapped in hidden intimate relationships. So one day, without any provocation, I ghosted him.
He tried to text me a couple of times after that, but I didn’t reply. In retrospect, I should have communicated that what I wanted had changed, but I don’t always live up to my own standards. He took my silence gracefully. It was never about him and me anyway. It was about me and my pussy, uncovering my pleasure and desire after surgery, a bad breakup, and the obliterating shame of being a tranny.
I remember him telling me that my pussy was a gift. His theory was that every woman’s pussy reflects her unique desire and pleasure. Our pussies get more powerful as we age. Eventually, through learning to trust our pleasure and celebrating our unique strengths as women, we could unlock our erotic potential. It sounds like a New Age “masterclass” on pussy play, but I like his philosophy despite its deeply essentializing and problematic claims.
He was sincere in his conviction that women and our pussies were powerful. It wasn’t the reflection of any feminist theory or social justice workshop that he had encountered. He had just fucked with women since he was fourteen and made this shit up on his own. Whether or not it ultimately served his desires more than mine, it helped me remember that my pussy was mine. I didn’t have to say or believe anything about it that I didn’t want to.
I could masturbate in the darkness of my bedroom, forget everything that came before this moment. Forget that my pussy was “made” by a surgeon. I could be more than a tranny. I could feel good and cum without needing to justify anything. All the pleasure I had always wanted from life was here between my legs, softly swelling beneath my fingertips.
To rewrite my favorite Anne Sexton line: “And when I cum, I cum completely. No one’s left behind. Some women kill for this or for as much.”
A prominent trans woman, Andrea Long Chu, recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about her transition and upcoming gender confirmation surgery. I found her piece challenging, including but not limited to her description of post-operative trans girl pussies as “wounds” that our bodies will never heal from. A generous reading of her piece would suggest she was speaking about the specificity of her body only, but trans women’s bodies are never entirely ours. Like most rhetorical and symbolic objects, trans women’s bodies are always up for debate in the public space. When Chu made a single negative remark about her imagined post-operative body, it became commentary on all of our post-operative bodies, whether she meant it to be or not.
A theorist and an academic as well as a writer, Chu’s relationship to her body is certainly mediated by her relationship to theory. Many peers consider Chu to be a provocative thinker, someone who regularly theorizes what being a trans woman means in ways that often appear to conflict with “mainstream” trans discourse. She’s been described as “trans theory 2.0,” an almost urban legend on the internet for a stunning take down of Jilly Solloway’s new memoir and her widely shared essay on desire.
There were many subsequent critiques of Chu’s piece in the New York Times. There were also some passionate defenses. I don’t want to summarize the arguments for and against Chu’s New York Times piece because I’m not interested in saying she’s right or wrong. Her writing is hers, regardless of whether I think her claims are accurate. It’s important to acknowledge that every trans woman has her own relationship to her body—a relationship which does not need anyone’s approval to voice.
I understand the argument that Andrea Long Chu is making in her piece. She is arguing that transitions don’t lead to good outcomes because the ideal goal of transition is impossible. For Chu, the ideal is to be a cis woman and since we will never be cis, every other outcome of our transitions is negative. Indeed, based on Chu’s self report, she isn’t happy with her transition and believes that her new vagina won’t help. She builds off this argument to suggest that trans people shouldn’t have to prove that surgeries and transition broadly will make us happy in order to access medical supports for them.
Her framing of her surgery, transitions, and post-operative vagina is deeply problematic because many trans women—myself included—feel that we are living good outcomes of our transitions, but her end conclusion—that trans people should be able to access surgery simply because we want to—has a charming neo-liberal appeal to it. We expect a lot from trans women in public, often more than any short thought piece can deliver, and I’m wary of placing so much expectation on another trans woman.
I want to be generous with what I say. This essay isn’t a rebuttal of hers. It is, in part, a response to her words, but it is intended to be more that. As a woman, I’m often expected to perform emotional labour and share my body with the world to better it. Women are always asked to do the hard things—the fearless and dangerous work of inhabiting vulnerability—to make things easier for others. We are trained from birth to do this work without question and without compensation. After Chu’s op-ed broke across social media, myself and many other trans women were compelled to provide differing accounts of our surgeries and transitions to contextualize her claims for cis audiences.
Recognizing the injustice of having to do this work, I still want to talk about my pussy. I want to talk about my pussy because I’m pissed off that my vagina was described as an unending wound in a national publication. I want to talk about my pussy because I think it’s useful in understanding the problem is expecting any part of your body to make you happy. I want other trans girls considering surgery to have another account to help them make a challenging life decision. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that the only reason we’re having this public conversation is because it’s about trans women. Our bodies—especially our genitals—are forced to do the work of justifying our lives.
No one would ask a cis guy to write a 1200-word essay about how his dick does or doesn’t make him happy. Aside from the fact that we have a never-ending plethora of cultural productions about men’s feelings and their dicks, their cocks are not asked to justify their entire selfhood. Yet trans women’s genitals—post, pre, or non-op—are always presented as serious problems to fear, fetishize, overcome, or change. If the cis audience is looking for a trans woman to make a controversial statement in public, here’s one from me.
My pussy isn’t that big of a deal. It certainly isn’t a wound that never heals, no matter how poetically transphobic that phrasing is. It is important to me, but my pussy isn’t more important than any other part of me. There’s a problem when trans women are forced to make our pussies into objects for critical inquiry to validate, prove, or defend our transitions and our lives. Whether we’re pre-op, post-op, or non-op, our bodies are not theoretical abstracts that you can use to prove an argument.
Andrea Long Chu is trained in making arguments, but there is more to being trans than theory. Using theory to give account of yourself is persuasive because it promises certainty. You can rationalize your story into a neat paradigm where everyone is wrong and only you see the truth. There’s an instinct to explain trans girl being to cis people because it comforts yourself to have a rationale for why you exist. Since part of being a trans girl is often feeling extremely uncomfortable in your body, it becomes important to have stories about yourself which affirm your basic humanity.
Being a trans girl often means that much of the world actively hates you and will try to dehumanize you at every encounter. You are forced, quite literally, to give perfect accounts of yourself to access institutions and participate in public life. Between those extremes of feeling uncomfortable and being hated, some trans girls turns to biology, theory, or politics to provide the right answers. As a trans girl, you always know you are performing for an audience, dancing on the edge of their pity or scorn. You invent answers where you don’t have any, you fill in the gaps, and you do the work of making sense out of something that is only experienced inside your body.
It’s expected of you and if you do it well with enough intelligence, you win awards from the cis overlords. Be clever but not too clever. Write an essay saying your pussy is a wound and transitioning made you sadder. Tell them what they really want to hear—but be original so it sounds fresh. Challenge them but only in the ways they want to be challenged. Encourage them to be better but keep it to pronouns. In Andrea Long Chu's New York Times op-ed, she wasn’t being provocative or radical.
She was simply doing exactly what trans girls are always expected to do: explain ourselves for cis people’s entertainment. The real problem with Chu’s piece isn’t that she gave an uncritical and damaging account of herself, but that anyone required her to explain herself in the first place.
As in all performances, the audience and their expectations are the real story.
My pussy is still a problem. People fight about it on the internet. Guys send messages on Tinder asking me if I can get wet or if I have any sensation “down there.” My doctors act confused by it, often forgetting that I have one or unsure of what medical advice to give me. I feel uneasy talking about it with other trans girls because I don’t want them to feel like they must get surgery. I avoid mentioning it with other post-op trans girls because I don’t want them to feel bad if their pussies are different than mine. Wherever I am, my pussy is with me, making everything awkward.
Recently, I was talking to a cis woman about a guy that we both casually see. She kept saying that he was new to “Queer” stuff, as if fucking me was the gayest thing he could do, short of marching in a Pride parade. I kept saying, “I have a pussy,” but she didn’t seem to be able to connect the dots. I wasn’t saying it in a confrontational way. I was just reminding her. People assume every trans girl has a dick, even when they know we don’t.
I get the feeling that people are thinking about my dick whenever they talk about my pussy. There’s an assumption of latent masculinity in trans women, as if we’re men who’ve been scraped into a feminine shape by a surgeon’s knife and hormones. My pussy is always understood as a remnant of my dick, a leftover wound or an inverted cock. Neither idea has any basis in medical science. It doesn’t reflect how I understand my vagina or how other people relate to my body. It’s funny to think about how much I’ve gone through to have a pussy, only to discover on the other side that everyone is still obsessed with my dick.
There is an underlying misogyny in how people think and talk about post-op vaginas. Many wrongly assume that dicks are amazing and anything other than a cis guy’s cock is a step down in pleasure, function, and value. As someone who used to have a dick and never enjoyed it, I find it strange that people imagine my surgery as a mutilation. They can’t imagine other joyful possibilities in life beyond masculinity, as if femininity is a worthless cosmetic alteration that simply suffers endlessly. It doesn’t help that everyone is caught up in the theoretical and rhetorical images of post-op trans women, transfixed by movies like The Danish Girl.
There’s an unspoken rule against post-op trans women talking about our pussies in pubic. When the outside world is obsessed with your genitals, a good defensive strategy is to not expose your body to further curiosity or mistreatment. As post-op trans girls, we know that there isn’t one trans girl experience and are wary of validating cis people’s expectations that all of us will want surgery. Writing about our genitals seems to trigger everyone, bring out the worst in trans folks, cis folks alike. When there are so many other transphobic violences in the world, why focus on this one specific bodily experience?
The reality is that I can’t get away from other people talking or thinking about my pussy. It’s a part of my life that I can’t escape. The only part of my pussy that I have control over is how I talk and think about it. I’ve always tried to error on the side of cautious, mindful of respecting other trans women’s experiences. Sometimes, frustrated with the abstract and factually incorrect ideas and discourse about my body, I want to tweet out photos of my pussy. I want to zoom in on my clit, the pink lining of my vulva, and tell everyone to politely go fuck themselves.
I don’t though. I live with the dehumanization and ignorance. I smile on panels and say “thank you” too much. The most gender affirming part of my body isn’t my pussy, but the careful way I move through the world, cautious and compromising while everyone rushes past me. I often feel like there are multiple worlds layered overtop of the same physical landscape. I’m sometimes in the same world as cis people, momentarily human, but most of the time, I live in elsewhere, some-not-quite-human-land.
My passport says my sex is female. I have a basket under my bathroom sink where I keep my panty liners and leftover Canesten cream. No one seems sure if I have a pussy or a wound, but everyone has an opinion. I’m a girl, I guess, at least some of the time. That’s enough for me. After all, I didn’t transition to become a “woman.”
I transitioned to be myself.
Transphobia isn’t only a way of thinking. It’s a way of doing as well, a practice which makes the lives of trans women frequently feel impossible. The doing of transphobia is why cis people ask trans women to write op-eds about their future pussies, working towards an agenda which forcibly ejects us from the category of human into the monstrous and constructed. Resisting the practice of transphobia is work that most trans women have to do, though some trans women seem to escape the worst of it because of things like wealth, whiteness and light skin privilege, and access to institutional resources.
People seem to think that getting surgery and having a pussy is an escape hatch from transphobia. It’s not. Transphobia has a way of looking at trans women that refuses reality and superimposes its damning assumptions over us. To transphobia and its doers, my pussy is just a mutilated cock. My pussy is never real because I’m never real, something that new lovers remind me of frequently.
Guys like to ask me if my vagina is normal as if there is a normal. As if every vagina looks alike. As if normal is good for us, something to aspire to. What they’re really asking me is if my vagina will get them off. Will they be able to forget I’m a tranny underneath them? Can they marvel at how it’s almost like the real thing? My pussy is always someone’s idea, a concept instead of a body part.
I was in a bad relationship with a cis guy before I had surgery. He had some thoughts about my vagina and womanhood. We hung out from the start of my transition until three months after surgery. If I’m honest with myself, part of my desire to get surgery was to finally prove to him that I was a woman. Admitting that I got surgery—in part—because of him is terrifying, because one of the most common transphobic attacks I hear is that I transitioned to get fucked by “straight” men.
It’s impossible for trans women to escape the popular image of us as frauds, fakes, and perverts who try to lure men to their sexual ruin. From Rocky Horror Picture Show to The Crying Game, trans girls are typecast as promiscuous and sexually aggressive deceivers. We are almost never shown as desirable or lovable. The combination of intense social stigma and deeply transphobic narratives around our intimacy leaves us vulnerable to intimate violence, shame, and rejection. If our intimacy and love is seen as monstrous, is it any wonder that our bodies are also vilified as permanent, oozing wounds?
My ex said one particularly cruel and transphobic thing to me—that his desire/dick/masculinity validated me as a woman—over and over again throughout our relationship. My last words to him were “your dick doesn’t make me a woman,” but I can’t deny that part of my transition was pushing myself to be more feminine, hoping he would finally value me as much as he valued cis girls. I went into surgery fast, setting a new record for approvals, because I wanted to be entirely myself in hopes of being worthy of his love.
Trans girls are often caught in double binds that we can’t get out of without losing our humanity. His claim about my womanhood is violent but persuasive. It tells a cruel truth to hide an even crueler lie. When he told me that him fucking me validated me as a woman, he’s not entirely wrong. Being desired and loved by the people that you desire and love is validating. It tells you that you matter and you’re worth something. Wanting to be affirmed as yourself by the people you love the most isn’t pathological, proof that my womanhood was fake, but evidence that I’m just an ordinary girl, human and flawed as the rest of us.
He wasn’t special in his evaluation of my desire and womanhood. Cis men have a long relationship with controlling women’s bodies for their pleasure. They like to play with our bodies to feel temporally powerful, displacing their insecurities by tying us up and pushing their cocks into our mouths. I won’t pretend that I don’t enjoy feeling powerless sometimes with men, finally allowed to be momentarily free from caretaking and politeness. The danger with surrendering your body to a man is that they often forget that our bodies are not just an object, but the space where we live.
You can’t untangle men’s desire to control women’s bodies from trans women and our access to gender confirming surgeries. There is a long history of male physicians and psychologists deciding which trans women were allowed to get surgery. Until very recently in Toronto, a key part of the eligibility criteria for surgery used by the sole assessing clinic was a trans woman’s appearance. Our physical femininity and attractiveness was used as important considerations for whether or not we were appropriate candidates for surgery. This legacy is still with us. In 2018, when I submitted my package of materials to my surgeon for approval, I had to include a full-length clothed picture of myself.
For trans girls, our bodies are the only space that we’re allowed to take up and call ours. When we say that it feels good to be fucked in the space of our bodies and that we want to feel pleasure, we’re told that we’re sick. My ex boyfriend confused my gender with my humanity, believing I could never be a woman and my desires were desperate pleas for recognition as something only he could make me. Society and its institutions treat trans girls with the same logic. When Andrea Long Chu writes that her surgery and pussy won’t make her happy, it’s revealing that first she must give up the possibility of pleasure and joy to win the right to argue that trans women should control our own bodies.
I didn’t know why I wanted surgery. My pussy is not what I thought I wanted. It’s more than I wanted. Trans girl lives are impossible to explain because we haven’t stopped living them yet. We’re caught in the double bind of trying to stay alive while everyone demands we justify our right to live, but no one can explain themselves fully. Trans girls shouldn’t be asked to give accounts of ourselves that sacrifice our humanity to prove our gender. We must be allowed to live our way, to the truths only the dead know.
I wish I could explain why what my ex said hurt so much. It wasn’t just that he refused to see my gender as anything but a disease or that he could only understand my desire as a threat to his sexuality and masculinity. In that moment, our bodies wrapped together on my sofa and his hand tracing the line of my cheek down to my lips, he told me that I could never be as human as he was. My love and desire were just symptoms of my “disease.” I couldn’t be a woman without first admitting that I was sick and needed someone—a man, a doctor, his cock—to heal me.
I didn’t need his validation to be a woman, just as I don’t need to explain my life to you. My body isn’t a theoretical argument which unifies the disparate complexities of being a trans girl. My desire isn’t a sickness. Surgery didn’t make me more of a “woman” or grant me permanent happiness. My pussy isn’t a wound. It’s just a fucking pussy.
And that’s all it should be.
A guy once told me that cumming inside me was like cumming in a dead end. His words have stuck with me. My pussy is a dead end because it’s a hole going nowhere. It doesn’t have a purpose like a cis woman’s vagina. I can’t get pregnant. There are some obvious problems with seeing my vagina as a dead end though. First, you must believe that all cis women can get pregnant and that the only point of a vagina is either male pleasure or reproduction. More importantly, you must ignore my pleasure and the ways my body isn’t just a perverse substitute.
What’s wrong with being a dead end? Dead ends are where the road disappears and its logics disintegrate. Dead ends often mark the boundary between the wild and the tamed, the foothills of the mountains or the last grove of trees beyond the suburbs. Dead ends are where you’re forced to get out of your car and ask yourself how you got here and where you’re trying to go. They are moments of possibility and chance breaking up the relentless productivity of capitalism.
I want to celebrate dead ends. My vagina is a detour that doesn’t lead anywhere productive. My pussy is where the road disappears. I want to talk about how holes are great. I want to get a trophy for being second best. I don’t need to my vagina to be perfect for it to be real. I don’t have to make you cum so hard that every cis girl is forever erased from your mind. It’s ok that I’m a messy middle, a something that isn’t trying to be an everything. Throughout my life, the spaces that have meant the most to me are the spaces that no one wants to be inside.
It’s the other worlds that make this world liveable for me. Dead ends are where I find my power, gather my will, and heal from the violence of being pressed into the subhuman by forces that will always be greater than me. I believe in the subaltern as a way of life, a practice of re-worlding that stands outside the dominant world’s constructions and boundaries. Not a theory of being a trans girl, but a practice.
I want to imagine an ethic of trans girl life, a way of being an embodied prayer instead of an identity. If my pussy is a dead end, his cock is a weapon that’s trying to kill me. How miraculous is it that I don’t die? How powerful is my pussy that it refuses to be anything but what it is? How strange it is that an open wound which never heals is a wellspring of pleasure and experience? Call me a goddess and worship, all my faithful and heartless lovers.
I hope Andrea Long Chu writes another post-surgical op-ed about the joys of masturbation with her new vagina, but even if she doesn’t, her descriptions of our vaginas as wounds that never heal cannot erase the many experiences of trans girls like me who find pleasure and joy in our pussies. More importantly, I hope for an audience of cis people that doesn’t expect or allow a single trans woman to speak for all of us. There is a way out of explanation and into simply living for trans girls, but I don’t know how we find it.
Three months after my surgery, I had my first orgasm. There had been sex dreams before it, vivid hallucinations of my ex fucking me that woke me and left me startled by the tight pang of arousal in my clit, but my first orgasm was a surprise. I hooked up with a tall blond guy who wavered between endearing bravado and sheepish desire. He fucked me in short, sudden strokes. It was the kind of sex that I would normally call “bad.” Then it happened.
My vagina convulsed around his cock. It felt like a muscle cramping, the kind of sensation I used to get in my calves when I ran marathons. Quivering underneath him, I grabbed his shoulders and raked my nails down his back, pushing my body up against his. I’m not sure why I did that. It sounds like what girls do in porn, but the cramp was pleasurable and I wanted to be closer to that pleasure. I wanted to push back into him as he thrusted into me. My vagina, confused and brand new, moved the rest of me, stumbling into orgasm.
I realized I’d cum by the wetness running down my thighs. My skin felt too sensitive. I can’t remember if I made a sound, but if I did, it would have been a single sharp inhalation. He didn’t notice. After three more minutes of his dull pushes into my body, he stops and asks me to finish him with my mouth. I roll my eyes but peel the condom off his cock. Getting guys off with my mouth is routine, unchanged before and after surgery. He cums in my throat and I rise to go to the bathroom to spit his semen out. Guys don’t like when you do that, but I only swallow with boys I like.
After he leaves, I lay on my bed and rest my fingers against my clit. I trace my labia and the opening of my vagina. I try to remember how the orgasm felt, where it began in my body. I replay him fucking me in my head. Careful of my clit, still too worried about hurting my healing vagina, I masturbate until I find my orgasm again. This time, I feel it coming and am ready to sink into its pleasure. I dissolve a little when I cum.
I think to myself that this orgasm is worth having the surgery. My vagina isn’t everything I wanted it to be, marked by small imperfections that I worry about in the moments before a new partner encounters my body, but it is a pleasure that lets me feel entirely human. Before surgery, I didn’t get off with partners and rarely felt pleasure alone. Now my pleasure is always there, curled between my legs, a persistent want and a certain joy.
I know trans girls are not allowed to feel pleasure. To want anything more than acceptance, empathy, or safety. When I transitioned, I never stopped wanting more. I never stopped desiring pleasure, folding myself into someone else’s body, letting myself be taken over. One more cigarette, another glass of wine. A boy in the half-light of evening, his hand moving my hair out of my eyes. A girl by a dark river, her lips against mine, blossoming.
I know trans liberation doesn’t come from theory or op-eds in prestigious publications. As Marsha P. Johnson once wrote on a sign, “come out of your ivory towers and into the streets.” I take those words as a call to revolutionary action against the forces that oppress us, but I also see them as a reminder that trans girls have always lived in the hopeful margins of the street.
Our lives and politics are born out of an elsewhere. We do not belong to the nation state and can never be its citizens, no matter how promiscuous its claims to offering us justice and safety are. Our bodies are alleyways and back doors, dimly lit bars filled with smoke which echo with the clap of our high heels and are scribbled with the graffiti of our exploits. We are forced to give account of ourselves to police officers, journalists, and psychiatrists, but they only “help” us when we tell them what they want to hear.
Of course, we lie. We lie so beautifully that our stories are almost as powerful and big as the lies they tell about us. Our lies keep us alive. Our lies build communities out of the nothingness of colonization and stretch across diaspora, genocide, and heartbreak. Our lies are prayers to each other. They become flesh, grow bodies, begin a second order of naming. We are the daughters of no one and everyone at once.
As Saidiya Hartman writes in her essay, “The Terrible Beauty of the Slum,” the streets where trans girls gather and gossip on cigarette breaks are spaces where “no one ever settles… only stays, waits for better, and passes through; at least that is the hope.” Perhaps Andrea Long Chu didn’t realize that living as a trans girl meant taking up permenant residency in the house of the subhuman. Perhaps she thought her transition would be a way off the streets and up into the towers that loom over our bodies.
I don’t know what she believes, but I can say this: there is no way out of the trans girl streets. These streets are where our stories happen. Joy lives here with us. Pleasure and rage comingle in the gutter. There are stars above the streetlights even if we can’t see them now, blinded by the glow of city condos and a thousand shouting cars. Surgery won’t make you happy, because nothing can make you happy.
Still, my pussy is my pleasure, returning my humanity to me. Repairing the wound of the world, knitting me back into joy. Pushing me, electric and aching, past the limits of pain into the streets of elsewhere called being. There is no simple happiness in the streets of trans girls. There’s something greater.
We call it “life.”
I use “pussy” in this essay to talk about my vagina. This is an individual language choice that reflects how I and those around me talk about my body, but I recognize that there are other words which can be used and that “pussy” remains a contested term for many. Based on my own political decisions around language, this word remains the one that I feel most comfortable using outside of a medical context.
I use “trans girl” as a short form inclusive term for transgender, transsexual, and some trans feminine bodies, but I explicitly acknowledge that there are many diverse expressions of trans life and all of those expressions are valid. I can only write from my particular experience and use the language that I feel most comfortable with, but my perspective does not reflect the wide range of trans embodiments.
No one needs to have surgery in order to be valid as a trans person. Surgery is important for some of us, but not all of us. I had a relatively good experience with surgery and an outcome that I’m happy with. My surgery was by a very experienced surgeon in a world-renowned medical clinic, covered—in part—by provincial healthcare insurance. Other trans folks may have different experiences with surgery and outcomes. I can only speak for my experiences and I explicitly acknowledge that there is no one “surgery narrative.”
I’m a light skinned trans girl with greater access to institutional supports and resources which informed a) my ability to have surgery and b) the outcomes that I had. Privilege has a significant part in many of the topics examined in this essay: access to surgery, quality of medical care, desirability, financial and social resources, and resiliency. It’s important to locate proximity to various forms of privilege as an important decider of wellbeing for trans women, one that is often not acknowledged nor included in nuanced discussions of trans life.
–Gwen Benaway (from carte blanche)