This past weekend, the New York times published an op-ed piece by Andrea Long Chu entitled “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy (And it shouldn’t have to)”. This column caused shock waves through the trans community for many of the things the author said and the way she characterized different aspects of her experience as a transgender woman. Below is my response to her piece. If you haven’t read the piece, it isn’t necessary to, but my response will probably make a lot more sense if you do.
I found this piece to make some good points as well as some troubling ones. I agree that a vaginoplasty shouldn’t be expected to make a trans woman *happy*. I am a trans woman who is about 45 days from her own vaginoplasty, and I don’t expect mine to make me *happy*. Happiness is for me to make for myself; vaginoplasty is a means to remove an impediment to that ability/opportunity. I do expect my surgery to give me some peace where I currently experience a conflict between my body and my brain. Will it calm that conflict completely? I hope so, but I expect it won’t. I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely at peace with my own body.
Where I take issue with this op-ed is with many of the other nuggets the author includes. Ms. Chu leads the piece by saying that her body will treat her neovagina as a wound that never heals. This is untrue. The neovagina will heal from the surgery, it will not continue to be swollen, ooze, bleed, have raw tissue, etc. I believe what she is referring to is the need to dilate for the rest of her life. But the dilation isn’t to keep the “wound” from closing up, but to train and keep her pelvic muscles relaxed so that scar tissue doesn’t build up around the suture lines, and so that insertion of other things isn’t so difficult.
Chu describes dysphoria as something that can never be addressed – like she’s cold and no matter how many coats she puts on, she’ll never be warm. That paints a bleak picture! Perhaps dysphoria will never go away completely, but it can improve (and for me, it already has, with HRT, therapy, and living more authentically). Perhaps the better metaphor would be that dysphoria is like being cold – if you do nothing to address it, you can get hypothermia. But if you take steps to address it – get out of the cold water, dry off, get under the covers with another person, wear appropriate clothing, etc – you may never get out of the cold, but you can keep the coldness from becoming fatal. Dysphoria can be improved. It might never disappear, but it can get better.
The author claims that transition doesn’t make trans people’s lives better, and in fact, it makes them worse. I disagree wholeheartedly! There are numerous studies which show that trans people’s lives improve substantially when they receive gender-affirming care, including support for transition, if the trans person decides to transition. My own experience is that my life has improved greatly because I am transitioning. It isn’t all sunshine and roses – there are *lots* of complex, messy, and painful aspects to transition, and my life has arguably gotten worse in those areas. But on the whole, it’s improved more than enough to be worthwhile. I have no regrets for transitioning.
The author mentions that her dysphoria became worse after beginning to transition. I experienced this, too. As I became aware of the issues I was facing, the defense mechanisms that I’d had in place to repress and ignore the pain had to be removed and I had to experience the pain lying underneath. I’ll be honest, the first year was really rough, and at times, I questioned whether transition was the right thing for me. But I persisted, and after about 18 months, things started looking up for me. Now I look back and can truthfully say that it was worth it. In fact, I regard my transition as the best thing I have ever done for myself.
Chu characterizes her estrogen pills as “delayed-release sadness” – that’s pretty bleak! My experience with estrogen is that it allowed me to finally experience my emotions, including (but not only) sadness. I found this much preferable to the persistent emotional numbness I’d experienced for the first 40+ years of my life.
The author makes the case that the current system of gatekeeping is too restrictive – that access to surgery and other medical interventions should be based upon the patient simply asking for the services. I agree that there is a lot of gatekeeping in the current system, and I’m frustrated by the complexity and tediousness of navigating that system. I would like for the system to be streamlined. But I’m not ready to toss the existing gates into the garbage. While I wish I could get the surgeries, services and medications I want just by asking, I recognize that there are valid concerns with such an approach. But when the current system allows cisgender women to get breast augmentation just by asking yet requires trans women to get letters from therapists and other doctors, I think there’s a problem. We need to find a better way to approach accessing medical interventions.
Finally, Ms. Chu states (without qualification) that there are no good outcomes for transition. I disagree. If she had added two words to her sentence – “For me” – I would have no issue with her point, but the way it’s written, she is saying that there are no good outcomes for anyone who transitions, and that’s simply incorrect. My transition has saved my life. I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t begun transition. Unless there’s someone who considers my death to be a good thing, the fact that transition keeps me alive is most certainly a good outcome!
I respect Ms. Chu’s perspective and I believe she makes some very good points in her column. But unfortunately, many of the things that she said are already being used by anti-trans activists to rally their troops to fight against the interests of transgender people. The conservative outlet National Review published a piece by outspoken anti-LGBT activist Ben Shapiro in which he relates a story told to him by someone at synagogue about a transgender woman using a women’s locker room at a gym utilized by Orthodox Jewish women, where the trans woman (who Shapiro repeatedly calls a man) disrobes completely while changing to work out, exposing her genitals to the horror of the other women in the room. He then discusses Chu’s op-ed piece, focusing on the parts he can use to scare his base – the “neovagina as a wound that never heals”, the increased dysphoria Ms. Chu experiences, and her admission that she has become suicidal since beginning her transition. He spends no time discussing any of the important points Ms. Chu makes, but only discusses the things he can spin as scary, or “proof” that trans people are delusional or dangerous.
Shapiro goes on to mention Twitter’s recent policy change prohibiting the use of trans people’s deadnames (the names they used before transition) or of misgendering (purposefully using pronouns contrary to those which a trans person uses in alignment with their gender – he/his, she/her, they/them, etc.). He tries to paint the picture that people will be compelled to use a trans person’s name and pronouns or face being censored or banned.
Shapiro finishes his column by discussing the recently publicized divorce proceedings of a couple in Texas where one of their children (a 6-year old who was assigned male at birth) lives as a girl when with the mother, and lives as a boy when with the father. According to The Federalist article, the mother is suing the father to dissolve his parental rights, and to require him to pay for the child’s medical care related to transition. The article (and Shapiro in his column) characterize this as the child being hormonally sterilized at age 8. These are scare tactics and are not based in reality. The Standards of Care for children do not prescribe hormones or even puberty-blockers until the child has begin their natural puberty. Even then, only puberty blockers (fully reversible) are used to give the youth more time before less reversible or irreversible interventions are begun. Generally, trans youth begin hormones around 15 years of age, and genital surgery (if needed) is performed once the youth is over 18 (in rare cases, when they are 17 – with the informed consent of the youth, both parents, and strong recommendations from a host of medical and mental health professionals).
Shapiro’s column is written with the intent of whipping up a frenzy among people who are uninformed about (and often hostile to) transgender issues, especially the care and support given to transgender youth. His use of Chu’s op-ed piece is made more compelling by the fact that Chu herself is transgender and is admitting these seemingly bad outcomes for parts of her transition and her transition as a whole. That Chu didn’t make it clear that many of the experiences she shares are only hers and not the experiences of all transgender people is disappointing. That Shapiro and other anti-trans forces are gleefully using her work to damage transgender people’s ability to access life-saving care is abominable, though also unsurprising.