My New Vagina Isn’t What Makes Me Happy. Being ME Does That
I was raised on this colloquial wisdom of my dad, an Irish cop and first-generation American: “You can always tell an Irishman, but you can’t tell him much!” My Jewish in-laws constantly prove the accuracy of the old saying, “Ask two Jews, get three opinions.”
We transgender folks have favorite expressions, too. My favorite is one adapted from old car commercials and ads from my youth, and is not exclusive to the trans experience: “Your Mileage May Vary,” now more likely to be seen in a hashtag as #YMMV. It means no one’s journey, or struggle, or transition, is necessarily like anyone else’s.
It’s also been said, “Once you meet one trans person, you’ve met… one trans person.” That is to say, as in #YMMV, we are not a monolith. We have commonalities, but we rarely function as a community. That’s why I prefer the word “trans population” as opposed to “trans community.”
But for the past week, we have been speaking with one voice, and it’s our angry voice. You already know this if you are friends with one of us, or you are a member of this statistically small population — a 2016 study determined 1.4 million adult Americans, or 0.6% of the country, identify as transgender. That’s the number who admit it, at least.
It seems to me like we have become a mob, and it’s not President Donald J. Trump and his administration’s repeated efforts to limit the rights of our population that has us up in arms.
This is in itself maddening, that we are not coming together to object as the Justice Department pleads to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn injunctions on President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender military service, or its reported attempts to change policies to erase trans people from existence, or at the very least to be outraged at how Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents let a transgender woman die in their custody.
A “sad trans girl from Brooklyn,” as she describes herself, has been the target of our ire. Her name is Andrea Long Chu, and she is a writer, critic, doctoral candidate and author of a forthcoming book. This young woman has unlocked the journalistic achievement of a lifetime: getting published in The New York Times. “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy.”
We are not friends, but I was impressed with how Chu expressed her deep, dark depression, with just days to go until she underwent a vaginoplasty. She wrote eloquently and effectively of her struggles with transition, hormones and her decision to have this gender-affirming surgery. She’s on the other side now, having had her surgery last week. From what one can see on her Twitter account, she’s in good spirits.
Another trans writer I respect, Katelyn Burns, rightly pointed out in her brilliant Rewire essay that Chu has a valid point in railing against gatekeepers, and that it should not matter if transition makes us happy. But the writer’s obvious skill was, as Burns wrote, “overshadowed by her inaccurate and offensive claim that a post-op vagina is a ‘wound,’ and her insistence that trans people aren’t happy after transitioning. ‘There are no good outcomes in transition,’ she wrote, projecting her own transition difficulties onto everyone else.”
Burns and I are not friends, either, but I have great respect for her work, especially as the only trans journalist on Capitol Hill. But like nearly every trans person I know, Burns and I are living proof that there are good outcomes, despite Chu’s claim.
That is not to say we haven’t stumbled or had to overcome obstacles along the way. That is not to say depression and suicide aren’t real problems that impact our population disproportionally; it is the rejection of family, friends, employers and society at large that drives this, in addition to not being able to meet either personal or socially-imposed impossible standards of beauty or manhood.
I myself tried twice to end my life, back in 2014, and just this June I hit rock bottom again following a surgical setback that immediately followed the back to back suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
Four little letters, declaring #YMMV, would have mattered so much to me and to so many women like me. An editor who was themselves trans, like me, would have known to strike her claims about the result of her surgery being a wound for the rest of her life, that it’s “wrong” to think transition will make trans people feel better, or that nothing good can come from this, just “people begging to be taken seriously.”
No, no, no.
The skin in and around a neovagina, like any part of our body that is operated upon, heals. Mine is no wound, and no matter how Chu feels about it, hers won’t be, either. She will find there will be good days and bad days, but living authentically tipped the scales for me, and for most everyone I know.
And excuse me, I don’t ever “beg to be taken seriously;” I’m a woman, and youst can treat me as such or get out of my way. I was the first newsroom staffer in network television to transition on the job when I came out more than five years ago at ABC News.
Since then, I’ve managed to survive a mental health crisis, a brief and involuntary detransition, tawdry tabloid headlines, getting fired, two suicide attempts, a career change, a painful separation from my wife, her death from cancer, giving up my editor job at The Advocate to care for my kids, and the stiff learning curve of how to be a single mom.
I’ve had to deal with my fair share of haters along the way. I’ve been targeted by TERFs, had my own crises co-opted by anti-trans activists to hurt the transgender movement, and been blocked by trans-obsessive writers like Jesse Singal for standing up for my sisters. Singal suggested in a tweet that Chu’s words should disqualify her from going forward with her surgery, then pressed The Times to print a letter of complaint about her op-ed. Get over yourself, dude.
Over the past week, while this essay has been percolating, I’ve seen our own activists and advocates attacking Chu for her essay, and for previously tweeting that trans women transition to “atone for their male privilege.” They point to negative articles by arch conservatives Ben Shapiro in the National Review, Ryan T. Anderson in The Daily Signal, Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, and Matthew Cullinan Hoffman in Lifesite News as proof that Chu’s op-ed is aiding and abetting our enemies and ultimately very damaging to transgender people. Of these, only Anderson avoided using any pronouns; the rest all repeatedly misgendered Chu. But they are all universally awful.
Many trans people are letting Chu know exactly how their experience differs from hers, and what they think of her.
Okay, so it’s been a week. Some have moved on to scream against another writer, Katie Herzog for her super problematic article at The Stranger, completely botching the existence of intersex and non binary folks [WHY DO CISGENDER PEOPLE KEEP THINKING LIFE AS ANYTHING BUT CISGENDER IS A CHOICE?!?!]. But for those still grinding their teeth about Chu, I can say with 100 percent certainty trans world has continued to spin without missing a beat. She didn’t “hurt” anyone. That isn’t to say those hellbent on ending our existence didn’t have a field day using her words against us. They will continue to do so.
AND YET… We are still here. We will remain, and they will no doubt oppose us until they no longer exist. I wish I could win them over, and one at a time, perhaps we can. But I refuse to believe that even one cisgender ally will abandon us because of what Chu wrote. If anything, she has won new cis allies, and I’ll wager she has hundreds more supporters for every trans person who called for her to be ostracized, or worse.
Burns speculates stories like Chu’s feed the nation’s need for “tragedy porn.” Is that what draws the insatiable curiosity of cisgender people? What makes us the boogeyman for radical feminists, some lesbians and most conservative Christians? I predicted this shift to targeting trans people, in the wake of marriage equality, way back in 2015.
But you have to go as far back as 2014 to find that moment when my former Today show colleague Katie Couric asked Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera about their “private parts” to really understand how much the conversation has shifted. Couric was schooled on her own talk show about focusing on what’s between our legs instead of what’s between our ears. That is, in fact, where gender lives: in our minds. And to ask about whether there’s a vagina or a penis in our pants reduces us as humans.
When I am sometimes asked this question, I usually pivot to asking a question of my own: “first, tell me about your latest pap smear.” Or, “I’d first like to know about your prostate exam.” That usually shocks people into realizing they are asking something intensely private, and that is where that conversation ends. Oh, and I know better than to ask a man “how’s it hanging?” Because 6 out of ten will not only tell me, but then text me a picture.
So, it’s four years later, and we are back to talking about our vaginas.
Chu’s critics argue, why didn’t she just blog about this, or see her therapist? Why didn’t she make it clearer that her experience is not the norm? Why The Times? Why did The Times even publish this?
Because: she’s a writer, her therapy is none of our business, I don’t know and wish I did and, given that it’s in The Times, I really wish she had, because The New York Times is the apex of journalism no matter what President Trump says, and because (I’m guessing) they knew a contrarian perspective on the transgender experience would get clicks (they were right).
Anger reached such a fever pitch that even cisgender ally friends of mine who’ve dared to weigh-in with their opinions, praising Chu for baring her soul, have been told to be silent and leave the conversations to trans people. C’mon! et’s face facts: her article wasn’t aimed at us, but at them. I’ve even been accused of promoting Chu’s essay merely by sharing her op-ed and her photo, thus making me complicit in her “attack on our community.” Whoa. I am a podcaster and blogger. But linking her op-ed in my blog or showing her picture isn’t “promotion,” it’s reporting. This is how frightened and angry people are: they are so upset they are going after anyone who isn’t in favor of destroying this one woman.
Again, I’m able to stand in support of Chu as a person without signing on to her essay, and her missteps within. It’s not an either/or position.
My point is this: if we can argue that Caitlyn Jenner is not representative of us, cannot we say the same of Andrea Long Chu? Yes, it is a given that when someone from a marginalized group stands up, too many people expect that person speaks for all of those like her or him. And I agree it’s shameful that Chu’s op-ed so easily serves as fodder for those who would see us banished or dead.
But I would rather we put aside our pitchforks and extinguish our torches to tout our own accomplishments. Let us counter her message of hopelessness with triumphant transition tales and successful surgical stories that affirm our authentic lives! We don’t have to write op-eds or get published. All that needs to be done is to speak up, to share on social media, and get the message out: transition saved my life, not ruined it.
Despite what I lost, I am happier living true than I have ever been, and my children thrive because I am. And despite temporary setbacks and struggles, my surgery opened doors to my deeper personal fulfillment. That’s my way of saying I have explored this wonderful new aspect of my anatomy and found great pleasure there, and I look forward to sharing that with a partner. I’d rather that be sooner than later, but in a little over two weeks, I will undergo another revision, “down there,” provided my state insurance doesn’t throw up yet another roadblock as before.
Like everyone else, I may never achieve “happiness,” now or in the future. My problems and issues didn’t go away when I transitioned, and no surgery can magically erase them. I am a work in progress, learning to be better than my white male privileged upbringing. While I have stopped pretending I am a man — an act that bordered on being a homophobic, abrasive asshole — I do not now pretend I am someone who is cisgender. While I agree with Chu that I wish I had been assigned female at birth, I consider my life such as it is a gift that grants me a perspective few other women enjoy.
No, my new vagina doesn’t make me happy. I do that for myself, and I am far more than the sum of my private parts. But #YMMV