My Happy Vulva: Comments on Andrea Long Chu’s Controversial Essay
If Andrea Long Chu is anything, it’s provocative. Someone said, “an edge lord” and I feel like she might embrace that title. It comes as no surprise that her recent New York Times article, My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy (And It Shouldn’t Have To), has been polarizing in trans communities. Written for a major publication in the age of Trump, much of her wording is reckless.
In many ways, I liked it. She made interesting points about gatekeeping: cis people get to have the gendered bodies they desire, why can’t we? Why do we have to perform suffering to access transition-related care? I’ve made similar points in my own academic work, but Andrea Long Chu writes it more poetically and strikingly than I ever could.
The recklessness of her essay is that it can very easily and very reasonably be read as saying that surgeries don’t contribute to trans wellbeing and, if anything, make us worse off. In a newspaper that’s read by policymakers and rarely publishes trans viewpoints, it serves excuses to defund trans care on a silver platter. I doubt people of the conservative ilk of Erick Erickson read literary magazines like n+1, but they do read the New York Times. Maybe it would’ve been a good idea to be more careful about wording.
Transitioning goes well for most people: 93% of studies reported that transition improved trans wellbeing, according to a literature review conducted at Cornell. None of the studies found that transition was harmful — the rest were merely inconclusive. Regret is exceedingly rare, with estimates ranging between 0.3% and 3.8%, and is primarily associated with lack of social support and older poor surgical techniques. Still, Andrea’s point is powerful: transitioning sucked for her, she’s sad, she’s suicidal, but we still have no good reason to deny her surgery.
It’s a story that needed to be told. Rose-tinted glasses on transition are of little use to those of us who have complex, mixed feelings about our own transition. Dwelling on genital surgery groups, I am often irked by the uniform narrative of vaginoplasties as uncomplicated interventions that radically alter trans lives. It wasn’t my experience. Even though I am more than happy with the outcome, my own surgical history came with its share of conflicting feelings. I had to confront the nagging thought that I lost something which made me special, which made me trans — being trans is a huge part of my personal and communal identity — and that I now bring nothing to the table that a cis woman wouldn’t do better. This thought is irrational… but that doesn’t stop it from being there. Feelings are messy, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s part of the beauty of being human.
But just because a story needs to be told doesn’t mean it needs to be told this way, here. The power of having a voice comes with some degree of responsibility. Our community perspectives struggle to be recognised, and the liberal counter-narrative which Andrea decries rarely makes its way into the New York Times. This is also why her wonderfully irreverent essay On Liking Women didn’t get the same opposition despite being Problematic™. Sure, it could be misinterpreted and misused by anti-trans voices, but n+1 is a literary magazine whose readership is by and large leftist and who can appreciate the cool edginess of Andrea’s anti-liberalism. Chances are, people who read her essay were by-and-large familiar with both conservative narrative and liberal counternarratives on trans existence. And so the essay had no comparable polarising effect to My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy.
Her essay is confusing. Her essay is flippant. It is sprung on a readership that’s often on the fence about trans folk, if not downright opposed to us, and makes grandiose claims that are prone to weaponization. One of the reasons why her essay generated animosity is that some claims take it beyond the personal. Her words suggest, especially to a reader who doesn’t know many trans people, that what she is saying is representative of at least a significant number of transfeminine folk. And the way they are worded, they provide policymakers and opponents with further reasons to deny transition-related care.
Neo-vaginas aren’t wounds, as Gwen Benaway points out, and suggesting otherwise plays into a dangerous misconception about trans bodies. Calling vaginas wounds is oddly reminiscent of conservatives calling vaginoplasties mutilations which leave behind gaping holes. But neo-vaginas heal. They heal well and they stop hurting. Our bodies don’t “regard the vagina as a wound” nor do neo-vaginas “require regular, painful attention to maintain.” I’m about what, half a year post-vaginomancy and at this point I only have a little tenderness. The so-called regular, painful attention consists of daily stints laying on my back watching The Office on my computer for half an hour while I let my vaginal muscles hug a dilator. In another six months, it’ll be once a week. Dilating isn’t painful anymore — it’s more likely to get me horny, if anything, and not because I’m a masochist — and only serves to accustom my until-recently unused muscles to the presence of my vaginal canal. Untrained muscles tend to strain easily and contract involuntarily. Dilating is stretching for your pussy.
“Buried under all of this, like a sober tuber, lies an assumption so sensible you’ll think me silly for digging it up. It’s this: People transition because they think it will make them feel better. The thing is, this is wrong.”
There are many ways to take the essay’s point that the assumption that “[p]eople transition because they think it will make them feel better” is wrong. Even though it may not be the reason they transition, transition does make most trans people happier: I go to the museum because I think art is pretty, not because it makes me happy — but seeing pretty things does make me happy!
Uninformed and misinformed cis people — who I think we can fairly assume form most of the New York Times readership — will read her as saying that transitioning doesn’t make trans people happier. The distinction between “feeling better” and “being happier” is an important one, and one that will be lost on most readers unless it’s spelled out. Happiness is a vague term that people use in vastly different ways. Some use it to refer to utility: pleasure minus pain. But I think it’s better to think of it as a sort of deep satisfaction with our own life.
Transitioning makes most trans people feel better, though not all, but this seems less ethically important than than life satisfaction. It does look like by-and-large medical transition does makes trans folk happier in that sense of the term. It’s also noteworthy that medical transition for those who want it substantially reduces suicidality.
Andrea later says: “I feel demonstrably worse since I started on hormones. One reason is that, absent the levies of the closet, years of repressed longing for the girlhood I never had have flooded my consciousness. I am a marshland of regret. […] Like many of my trans friends, I’ve watched my dysphoria balloon since I began transition.”
My dysphoria also grew worse when I transitioned, although it has since receded with the help of medical transition. There is something about welcoming your gendered feelings and openly wanting to be seen in a certain gendered way that worsens dysphoria. When I lived in boy mode, I didn’t really mind that people called me “he” because I wasn’t trying to communicate that I wanted to be referred in any other way. But once I socially transitioned, it became annoying. Can’t you see I’m trying not to be called “he”? In public spaces, I could feel people seeing me as a man and that was enough to worsen my dysphoria. These feelings have since largely disappeared, thanks to hormones, surgeries, and time.
I doubt I would’ve felt better had I not transitioned. Once I began experiencing a need to socially transition, I began to experience socially-mediated dysphoria, which I’ve just described. Add to it the emotional self-torture of withholding transitioning from myself, which isn’t exactly pleasant either. So yes, I did feel worse after transitioning but I would’ve felt even worse if I didn’t transition at the time I did. Pain was likely in both futures.
More importantly, though, I’ve never been happier than I have been since I transitioned. Maybe there was no good outcome in transition for Andrea, but there certainly was one for me. Despite the pain, despite the transmisogyny, despite the self-hatred, I am much more satisfied with my life now. At least when I hate myself, it’s myself that I hate, not someone I don’t even want to be. In this perhaps unintelligible sense of the word “happiness”, I am happier. Surgery also made me happier. Much happier. Not because I am or want to be a woman — I’m non-binary — but because having a vulva just jives with me better. As I mentioned on Twitter: “Um first of all surgery made me multi-orgasmic so fuck yes I feel better.”
I was happier even when I was feeling sad or depressed. This appears true of most trans people and we should be careful not to recklessly claim otherwise despite what the available evidence says. Transitions are rarely without conflicted feelings — and we often neglect reporting mixed feelings for the benefit of our gatekeeping overlords — but increased happiness seems to be the norm.
Maybe I’m just saying what Andrea meant by her essay. However, many of her confused, clueless readers won’t read it that way. Even her careful, brilliant trans readers don’t read her that way, because she wasn’t exactly careful with her words. She made a lot of ambiguous claims, claims that could be (mis)read to confirm prevailing negative attitudes about trans people and bolster existing threats to our access to care.
I agree with Andrea’s point that we should have access to transition-related interventions independently of whether it makes us feel better or not. I also agree that we should have access to them independently of whether it makes us happy. Cis people get to have the gendered bodies they want, why can’t I?
It’s a good point. It’s a point I agree with. As I said earlier, feelings are messy, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s part of the beauty of being human. But it’s a point that’s better made without exposing an already hostile-or-doubting, powerful readership to claims that can be used against us in an already volatile political environment. To be deliberately clichéd: “With great power comes great responsibility.”