Here are four stories selected from those that arrive in my inboxes. Four voices, four women, each with something different to say. One is a nurse, herself with a trans-identified daughter, who describes dressing the arm wound of a young woman who had recently undergone phalloplasty. Another is a young woman who transitioned and later detransitioned, who offered to share her story with me in a series of DMs via Twitter. The third is a mother who emailed me about her daughter who was groomed online, over a decade ago. Finally there’s a piece from a woman about her changing relationship with her breasts; at the end she offers a message of hope to the dysphoric young women of today.
These are among the voices that transactivism will try to silence with the cries of ‘transphobia’ and ‘no debate’. We need to hear these voices. We need to hear about the dark side of ‘reassignment’ surgery; we need to hear the voices of the desisters, the detransitioners; and the women who travel a long and difficult path but eventually come to love their own bodies.
Four women, four stories from the front lines.
Thoughts from a Nurse
I have been a Registered Nurse for 30 years. For the past 7 years, I have been working in a very busy family practice setting. One of my roles in the family practice is having my own RN appointments with the physicians’ patients, to do nursing procedures such as syringing ears clear of cerumen, administering intramuscular and subcutaneous injections, removing sutures or staples from operative and trauma wounds, changing the dressings on operative and trauma wounds. These are just a few of the many nursing scope of practice activities I do within this role.
Also, I’m letting you know that over five years ago, my now 21 year old daughter told us that she thought she should be transgender. She has persisted to this day, in part, I believe, due to constant outside affirmation at school and work, and transgender-positive internet and social messaging.
One shift I worked, a patient in their mid 20s was booked to see me to have a dressing changed to a post-operative site to the patient’s left forearm. As I do with all patients, before their appointments with me, I reviewed the patient’s chart for previous information regarding what/when the surgery occurred and I discovered that the patient was classed as FTM (female to male) and had, two weeks prior, had phalloplasty surgery done and that the site I was to assess, clean and re-dress was actually the donor site for this operation. As a Registered Nurse, it is important for me to give evidence-based, excellent and compassionate nursing care to all of my patients. I prepared myself for this appointment by gathering dressing change supplies including sterile normal saline, antibiotic ointment, non-stick dressing pads, rolled gauze and paper tape. I tried not to think about my own daughter.
The patient arrived in my office, accompanied by their mother. Subjectively I noticed that the mother appeared to be approximately my age, late 40s early 50s, and had a tired look about her. She appeared to try to smile, but it looked more like a grimace, and there was a very sad look in her eyes. The patient appeared to be male, spoke comfortably to me, and sat in the patient chair, with their arm set up on a tray I had placed over the chair.
In reality, there was no preparation which could have readied me for what I saw when I removed the patient’s dressing. The entire diameter of the forearm was substantially reduced from the unaffected arm. It appeared like the skin/tissue which had been removed was likely 1 to 2 cm in thickness. The wound encompassed the full diameter of the left forearm, from just below the elbow joint to just above the wrist. I noticed that the patient had sleeve-type tattoos to both arms. The tattoo was completely gone from the site of the wound. The wound looked moist, red, inflamed, translucent tissue and the blood vessels were clearly seen just below the surface of the wound. Clear drainage was oozing from the entire wound. I couldn’t discern if the site was healthy or infected as I had never seen a wound site such as this before.
I had the patient’s family physician assess the site and he told me that the site looked well and not infected and asked me to clean it and re-dress it. I applied a large amount of Fucidin (a prescription-grade antibiotic ointment) to the site, using a sterile tongue depressor to smear the antibiotic ointment onto the entire wound. I used numerous non stick gauze dressings to the site, and secured the dressings to the arm using a roll of clinging gauze dressing which I secured with paper tape. The patient tolerated this procedure very well. There was some discomfort, but overall the procedure went smoothly.
After the patient and the mother left the appointment with me, I had to compose myself. It was extremely upsetting and the memory will stay with me for a very long time. As an RN, seeing the condition of the forearm donor site, the only word that came to my mind was mutilation. I know that currently this isn’t a ‘politically correct’ term, but it is the only word that suits what I saw. It was healthy forearm tissue which was removed – not tissue removed because of disease or trauma.
I am also a mum. As the mother of a young daughter who, in my assessment, has been taken in by both the transgender movement and identity politics/social justice world, for me to witness the degree to which females are being erased absolutely cut through to the depths of my female spirit.
Thoughts from a Detransitioner
I am a recent detransitioner who struggled with dysphoria. I’m 27 years old and identified as FTM since I was 16 after first hearing of the possibility online. It all came to a head when I was 25 and I began testosterone. I had top surgery early last year.
In retrospect, I was very unstable when I began transition. I had hit a major milestone (25) and felt like my life was going nowhere. I was aware that I had co-morbid depression and anxiety, but I was scared that if I tried to address those issues first, I would be the ONE unlucky person who would be prevented from transitioning (lol).
The 2016 US election scared me into having surgery and changing my legal documents before I was truly ready. Lots of paranoia, anger, fear. Shot days made me unhappy because they were a reminder of what I didn’t and could never have. I quickly developed a phobia of doing the shots myself- my best friend did all of them after the first few. I felt like a burden. I was very clearly suffering from thoughts of worthlessness that I absolutely believe exacerbated (or caused) the dysphoria. Chicken or the egg, I don’t know. I cried a lot, had emotional breakdowns. ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ played on repeat in my head. Sometimes I’d say it out loud. I started having sleep disturbances, so I finally became desperate enough and started anti-depressants earlier this year. Within a couple of months, I experienced a decrease in dysphoria and an increase in clear, level-headed thought. It’s been weird. I’ve since stopped T and am in the process of changing my legal documentation again. I’m not currently angry, but I do feel failed by the system.
I do feel that I am doing better now- calmer, at least. I wanted to be male in the same way someone might want blue eyes instead of brown- except that people (understandably) take sex Much More Seriously than eye color. I don’t know if I will have a satisfying life, but I do want to try, and I don’t think that would be possible if I spent all of my energy trying to force my brown eyes to blue. I don’t much like the ‘gotta have it all’ or ‘you can be anything you aspire to be’ mentalities because oftentimes we just can’t. We’re all born with different innate strengths and weaknesses and reproductive capacity is just one aspect of a person. It just seems cruel to encourage large swaths of people to strive for the impossible/improbable, when they could lead an equally enjoyable average life.
The first ‘trans memory’ that I have is from preschool and is pretty meaningless out of context: I always wanted to be the dad when we’d play house. During early puberty when my body started to change, I had a vague thought/worry/fear that I’d just keep growing or change into a boy. I think the first time I felt particularly different was the time that I asked my best friend whether she’d ever want to be a boy ‘just to try it for a day’ and she said no. I also had a huge crush on a gay boy and I read into that a lot. I was very shy about my romantic interests, so I never did tell him before we went separate ways.
I’m a human of the creative variety, but on top of stories and characters, I started inventing alternate personas for myself. I thought maybe I was reincarnated or maybe in some kind of Truman Show scenario. I was also smart enough to know that these ideas were ridiculous and not to talk about it. I was never overtly delusional to the casual observer, but there were a lot of other issues that I was struggling with and imagination was my coping mechanism. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how I became fixated on the idea of being trans, but you don’t really notice it in the moment. You don’t see how these things connect in any meaningful way, and once you’ve spent long enough thinking you’re trans, you don’t remember how you started believing it in the first place. You kind of don’t want to remember, in case it unravels the fabric of who you are.
I found out about FTMs at 16 and I told my mom at 17. She was the first adult that I told and I had no idea how she was going to react. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. She’s never been on-board with it, but she’s supported me in I guess the best way she knew how. My step-dad once threatened me with violence because I said that speaking on the phone made me dysphoric, but there was no follow through. This was early on and he was actually pretty supportive when I started transition years later. Go figure. My bio-dad is an alcoholic and this was also around the time I started distancing myself from him. His response was basically just ‘you need to get laid’ and then to pretend I never mentioned it. Classy.
I wanted to start transitioning in college (around 2010), but there were very few gender therapists at the time and informed consent wasn’t a thing in my area. The first person I ever saw seemed fascinated, but said outright that he’d never worked with trans people. He talked about himself a lot, which I didn’t realize was a sign of a poor therapist, but it made me uncomfortable anyway. The second person I talked to was a woman. My one memory with her is trying to describe height dysphoria. When I said I was too short, she informed me that I was an average female height, which still upsets me because of how acutely she managed to fail to identify the problem: not that I felt that my body was wrong, but that it was wrong for me. I’m not sure which experience disappointed me more.
Having seen two therapists unqualified to deal with my issues and being a sheltered kid just trying to get through college, I gave up and retreated online. I spent most of my time in my dorm room or in class. This must have been when being trans started to become ‘a thing’ because once I was out of college and had moved out, I started noticing people transitioning- mostly online. I had still never had any real meaningful talk with a therapist about my feelings. I was intensely jealous that some people had access to better services than I had. When I later transitioned, my aunt (my mom’s sister) was VERY supportive. Apparently, when my mom told her, she said in that worried way that, ‘those people kill themselves’ which is so painful because it’s such an important thing to talk about, but you don’t want the people you love- and who love you- to know that about you. Not being able to say ‘I’d never do that’ is so hard when you genuinely don’t know. I’m not a good liar. My aunt has daughter in high school and apparently IDing as trans isn’t so rare anymore. When I was her age, I only really knew one other trans individual personally. We met online and meeting him (a fellow FTM) was like meeting a unicorn lol.
I actually work as an admin on a college campus now and it’s strange seeing so many (what I can only assume are) trans-ID’d students walking around. I often wonder how many are even dysphoric, how many can relate to what I’ve experienced, and how many are just having a bit of fun.
I think the most concerning thing for me is that the therapist who wrote my letters never asked whether I’d ever had any sort of delusional thoughts and the doctor who wrote my prescriptions didn’t ask whether I was depressed. Personally, I think informed consent should be available for adults. However, I also think that, as with smoking and other risk factors, doctors should at least be required to do some very basic screening and bring it up with the patient. If someone along the way would have said to me,
“It sounds like you may also be experiencing depression and anxiety. We can definitely try testosterone, but since the effects of hormone therapy are more permanent, I’d like to try treating you with an SSRI for a couple of months to see if that provides any relief. If you still want to start testosterone after that and your bloodwork is clear, we can go ahead and give that a try while continuing to treat your other symptoms. How does that sound?”
I mean… I might still be in the same predicament, but maybe not. Maybe I’m just optimistic, haha. It just seems wild to me that people advocate for LESS screening, when there’s already so much that we aren’t looking for.
I’ve thought about telling my story somewhere myself, but I wouldn’t really know where to begin in order to reach an interested audience where it might actually have some kind of impact, haha. I would definitely be happy to see it shared with others though, and it would be great to hear from more people with similar experiences.
Thoughts from a mum
My wife Marie and I have 4 children, 3 girls and a boy who we have raised together. They are all now grown up and 3 have families of their own. My daughter Amber is now a 24 year old woman with a boyfriend and a child. This is the story of her rapid onset gender dysphoria, which happened back in 2006.Out of the blue, when just 12 years old, my daughter said to us she was a boy and would now be called Sean. She cut her hair and dressed as the other young men dressed. Prior to the announcement we had absolutely no idea, she was a very feminine young lady.
Amber is an intelligent person, she spoke 3 languages by this age and stood out at school not only for having lesbian parents but because she was very academic. She spent her summers at university summer schools in Cambridge and Bath designed to cater for children like herself. She did not have much in common with her peers and had no friends who were girls at school.
When she spoke to us about these feelings we did not dismiss it or try to talk her out of her belief. We listened to her carefully and we decided we should seek some help and advice. We first of all spoke to 2 friends, one of whom is a MTF transsexual and one a FTM transsexual. Both said the same thing- it just does not suddenly occur and we should seek help.
In the meantime we agreed to call her only by her nickname and the name we always used anyway, ‘Berry’, we did not refer to her as Amber.
WE first went to the GP who referred Amber to CAMHS. They helped her work through her feelings and ultimately felt the alienation from her peers was at the root of her feelings and that she was probably not transsexual. They referred us on to a gender ID clinic. The wait for the services was more than 12 months so in the meantime she continued to have help and counselling from CAMHS and we also paid for a private opinion from a psychiatrist- not a gender expert but we felt it might be useful.
About 11 months after she first told us, a session with CAMHS found out some disturbing new information from her. They called us in straight away and informed us she had disclosed that she had been talking to a person online-a MTF trans person in his 40’s. This person had basically told Amber he thought her ‘problems’ were because she was trans. We also found out that he had been telling her that if she was a boy then they might be able to have a relationship.
Obviously the first thing we did was call the police and they took it very seriously. Her computer was examined and we went through many hours of police interviews. The person was arrested and ultimately charged and imprisoned- Amber was not the only child.
We went through enormous feeling of guilt and knew we had let her down. The dangers of the internet were not as well understood then as now, and we had been at best naïve and at worst negligent.
Amber, needless to say, was never trans and with lots of help and support we worked through her problems.
If she had attended CAMHS today I’m pretty sure they would accept she was transgender and the awful situation might never have come to light, or god forbid the abuse could have continued and she could have been in even more danger.
I know it’s a long story, and not an easy one to write, but the way her sudden trans revelation was dealt with by the GP, CAMHS and the psychiatrist was in stark contrast to what would happen today. It all too clearly illustrates just one of the dangers of blithe acceptance of young people suddenly presenting as trans.
Big Butch Breasts
I can’t sleep tonight. Peri-menopausal insomnia. So I’m drinking tea and wandering on the internet and I just watched this video by a young woman called Kat. It’s about binding. It’s about her stopping binding.
Then I cried a lot and made more tea.
I’ve got my tea propped on my chest. My breasts, always soft and slack from the time of their arrival, and now, as I near fifty, even more relaxed in their styling, fall to my sides and leave me a flat, bony expanse for my mug to rest on. I’m wearing a chunky jumper over my pjs. From the menswear section. All my clothes are butch. I’m a butch dyke, a lifelong lesbian.
When they came, these breasts, it was swift and overwhelming. Aged 12 and still at a middle school, in which I was expected to change for sports in a room with boys, I hid my first bra under a vest. It was a vile item, that bra. I liked my snoopy sweatshirt, the cool ice hockey jumper I’d inherited from my brother, my super-tight jeans (it was the early 1980s) but I loathed the shiny white bra with lace-trimmed cups. It was actually too small from the start; my mother, in denial about the size of my breasts, had insisted we buy an A cup. I never was that A cup girl. I quickly progressed to a cast-off from my sister. It didn’t have the lace, thank god, but a butterfly between the cups.
Breasts didn’t just bring the hated ‘pretty underwear’ into my life. They brought the eyes of others to my chest. And once, when I was still aged just twelve, the hand of an adult man. None of that was welcome. So, I wore baggy jumpers on hot days and hid as best I could. But still I flinched at people ‘noticing’ my breasts in swimming class. Hunched my shoulders. Buckled with embarrassment.
I always felt that they didn’t match me. I thought I’d been given the breasts of some girl who wanted big ones while she had the tiny, pert, barely noticeable, ones that were meant for me. Along with periods, which also arrived at age 12, my breasts were an almighty annoyance. Something to be managed. Something I must have been cursed with by a witch at my cradle.
And so began the relationship between us, me and my breasts. I tried to make the best of it. I hunted down the plainest bras I could find – not easy in pre-internet days. If BHS didn’t stock it, it didn’t exist… I avoided changing rooms by cunning re-use of an excuse note for PE. I muddled through.
But I still resented my breasts all the time. I thought they made me look stupid. I thought they made me a less serious person. Less me. That they were the body equivalent of a clown’s red nose. Make of that what you will but remember this was the Britain of Benny Hill, Are You Being Served? (which I dearly loved, by the way) and Carry On films. Big breasts were a joke. The women who had them were a joke too…
There were some dark times in my teens. Some were particular challenges relating to my life but some were the universal moments of self-doubt and confusion experienced by all adolescents, as I tried to determine who I was. Who I was, it appeared, was a lesbian. By fifteen I was saying the word to myself in private and to a few select friends. I got hold of my first lesbian books. Lesbian feminist books from publishers like Onlywomen, Sheba and The Women’s Press. Vital, political. Not perfect, of course, but powerful.
I believe that hard, bleak and repressive as the 1980s were in many ways, I possibly had a better, a safer, a healthier experience of growing up as a young lesbian then than I might today. Because those books told me that what I was, a woman who was attracted to women, who rejected ‘feminine’ dress, was a perfectly valid thing to be.
More than that, feminist books and magazines told me that the world was lying to me about what it meant to be me. They voiced the great truth that violence against women is a toxic plague and that mental illness, self-harm, anorexia and more, were partly expressions of women’s distress in an oppressive patriarchy. They said that I was entitled to be a whole person but that I would have to fight to be it.
But they also said that I was not alone. I was not alone and I could survive. The overwhelming message was one of affirmation and solidarity in struggle.
Of course, none of that is easy or simple. And I was, in any ways, a privileged young woman. There wasn’t much money in my family but my middle class background gave me access to books and education. I don’t generalise from that to others who lived through those times because I know I can’t. I was able to move through feminist spaces relatively easily as a white, middle class, non-disabled woman. I recognise my privilege. And in those spaces I met friends and lovers. I was very lucky.
But what of the breasts? I hear you cry… Well, over years, many years, I reconciled myself to them. I can remember several key moments that illustrate my changing feelings:
Aged fifteen, on a train coming home from a day in London, I saw a lesbian couple. One was wearing a t-shirt of a feminist press. She was so cool. She had no bra underneath and I saw the gentle swing of her breasts as she stood. She was tired. She yawned and her lover rubbed her shoulder. Gentle and affectionate. She looked at home in her body and her life.
Dressing up in drag with my friends for a party when I was seventeen. The feeling of the cool dress shirt on my skin. Looking at myself in the mirror, in my tail coat, knowing I looked good. Deciding that maybe the breasts didn’t ‘spoil it’ and that maybe there was something rather exciting about a female body in formal menswear… I have never changed my mind on that one.
Aged twenty, wearing a Lycra body for a night at a women’s club. It was the first time I’d ever relished others’ gazes. It was low cut, under-wired, black. No trim. Nothing ‘feminine’. I wore a leather biker jacket over it. I felt powerful.
I guess that part of that power came from owning my sexuality. I’d had a few lovers by then, none of whom seemed to think I had the wrong body on. In fact, they’d generally been quite keen on my breasts. And I had loved theirs. I had met breasts of different shapes, sizes, colours and textures. I’d mucked about with lovers – naming breasts, squeezing breasts, joking. But I’d met their power too. I remember the exquisitely sensitive breasts of a lover who would gasp at the lightest touch. I’d learned some of the language of breasts in warmth, in private, with affection and desire, and away from the ridicule of public gaze.
Later still, aged twenty nine, I gave birth. My breasts swelled, burned and rushed with milk. They were entirely mysterious again. My nipples cracked. The pain was some of the most excruciating I’ve ever experienced but I persisted. They healed. They settled into these new things that provided nutrition and comfort for my child for two years. I felt grateful and respectful of their ability to work such magic.
Now I look at them with a mixture of that eternal irritation (I’d still have preferred a neater pair) and admiration. For a body part so unappreciated by me, they have done rather well, I think. I can even, on a good day, look at the way they glide down my torso and see a sort of beauty in them. I make myself see that because, god knows, I can see it in other women.
And there is always a little voice in my head that says, ‘Remember, they want you to hate your body, to hate yourself, to be your own enemy. It saves them the trouble.’ It’s the little voice that feminism gave me. And the little voice isn’t wrong.
Like most people, there have been times when my mental health has wobbled and at those times I’ve felt that loathing, that doubt about myself, my body, my mind and how it all fits together. I’m not all worked out about this stuff. But I appreciate the healthy body I have. I’m old enough now to know that it won’t last forever.
But I wonder what my experience might be today, were I that same, breast-hating, 12 year old? If I were that girl who was usually happiest in her jeans, reading her book up a tree? If I became that teenager attracted to girls? If, instead of reading books of feminist stories, I was watching YouTube videos about binding? If, instead of reading the message that a wrong-headed world wanted to make me hate my body, I was getting the message that it was my body itself that was wrong?
I have always believed in respect for, and inclusion of, trans people. I have nothing to say about the experiences of those who transition. It is not my place to undermine anyone’s right to self-determination. But, equally, I will not silence myself, eradicate my story of my relationship to my own body, lest I be accused of transphobia. We need all the stories to be told.
Many, many women I have spoken to have experienced feelings of distress, panic, even loathing of their own bodies. For those of us living as butch lesbians, there are rarely safe spaces in which to share those anxieties and the strategies we use to manage or overcome them. So, here is my butch breast story. For me, time, experience, my developing sexuality, motherhood and ageing have all affected my relationship with my breasts. Had my initial dread and misery at their appearance been amplified or encouraged I might never have become the person who rocked her toddler to sleep at her breast. At twelve, I couldn’t possibly have known what a precious experience that would later be.
So, to girls out there who might be hurting their bodies, crushing tissue, breaking ribs, struggling to breathe, planning to excise the hated pieces of themselves, I would suggest, with respect and solidarity, that there may come a time when they can accept and respect their breasts. That it is possible to be a butch, breasted, confident person. Sometimes we are what society calls a contradiction, or what our peers appear to despise, or what the media ridicules or slanders, but we can also be each other’s friends, lovers and champions. I send a hug. I say, be kind to all parts of yourself and give it some time.
Thank you to the women who have shared their stories with me, and thank you for letting me share your stories with others.
Wow! All four were outstanding!
Oh my. Those were really powerful pieces of writing. I wish more people would read this sort of thing, to understand it’s not about transphobia, not about hate, but about listening to ALL the voices out there, reading ALL the experiences, and understanding there is not one path for everyone.
Thank you Lily. Those are really moving, relevant stories from these women. I really appreciated them all and especially connected the last one in terms of my own relationship with my body.
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