Tattoos Rewrote My Gender Transition

By Evelyn Deshane

How I used the process of tattooing as a way to reclaim my body as my own.

When my girlfriend’s best friend Joel underwent a hysterectomy, we took care of him for a weekend. Although Joel had been on the waiting list for his top surgery for six months, he was still years away from receiving it through the typical Canadian channels, so his hysterectomy was something that took everyone by surprise, including him.

When he received the news that his always debilitating periods were indicative of a larger systemic issue with his uterus, and it needed to be removed, he began to cry in the doctor’s waiting room.

“The nurse sat down with me and tried to tell me that it’d be okay, that I could adopt children if I wanted,” Joel told us. “She thought I was crying because I was sad. But I was crying because I was relieved.”

Joel’s relief radiated on his face as he told us this story. Even as he walked around his apartment, wincing in pain, a faint smile lingered. He would still have a long road ahead for his mastectomy, but this weekend, it felt as if his surgery had been a gift, and his transition was moving forward.

Joel was the first transgender man I ever knew in person. When my girlfriend and I left Joel’s that weekend, she turned to me and said, “I bet a lot of what Joel said resonates for you.”

She was right. Not long after talking to Joel, I’d come out as a trans man. But it would be less than six months before I’d leave behind the narrative Joel’s transition presented to me — of masculine polo shirts, cargo shorts, T shots every other Thursday, and saving for surgery — and identify as something more in the middle, something that could loosely be called non-binary.

[Please note: this is not one of those essays that tries to elevate non-binary identity as the smarter or better option in the transgender spectrum, or throw those who identify in a binary model of gender as being “duped” in some way. If you want an essay that explores and critiques those kinds of narratives, Julia Serano does a great job summarizing how they work in her book Whipping Girl.]

I didn’t reject Joel’s narrative because I thought it was bogus; I rejected it because after I tried it out, I realized it didn’t work for me. The reason I tried it out — and why my girlfriend turned to me and asked me what she had done — was because I had expressed discontent over my body and the perceptions it engendered for years.

Being declared female at birth (DFAB) wasn’t right for me, and I was running into many mental health issues to try and “fix” what I believed was broken. I wanted a future I could live in, and thinking that there were no other options, I picked up the typical transgender man narrative and tried it out.

I wanted a future I could live in.

The thing I didn’t realize at the time, and what this essay is actually about, is the fact that I’d been transitioning years before I’d ever met Joel. I wasn’t signing up for T shots or putting my name on surgical waiting lists or wading through hours of sanctified therapy, but I was booking tattoo appointments and re-creating my body into something that I believed was better than before.

I used the process of tattooing and my final tattooed pieces as a way to reclaim my body as my own and create a mythology around what I’d been given, how I interacted with it, and what I wanted people to see when they saw me. As transgender writer Jay Prosser documents in his book Second Skins, my tattoos were my own “body narrative” of my transgender identity, a way to make myself an “authorial subject” on my life, with the final goal of allowing me to “return home” to my body.

In his work, Prosser documents how transgender people, when they sign up for surgery, must become “arch storytellers” since they effectively need to convince doctors, therapists, and anyone else involved with their transition that their feelings are real and valid. The better the gender story, the more likely the transgender person is to obtain surgery. As usual, the “best” story for doctors is one that already affirms the West’s notions of what it means to be a man or a woman — therefore, they are often steeped in stereotypes.

Moreover, if the transgender person identifies as something in between the binary model of gender or something outside of it, they may be rejected from the surgery they desire without any consideration at all. The typical transgender story we see in the West is one deeply connected to surgery, and it’s a story that’s not actually about trans people at all, but about cis perceptions of what they want transgender people to be like.

Prosser critiques the popular narrative, but also recognizes the fact that some trans people still want surgery, and that need is completely valid. The very visceral act of surgery to conform the body to what the mind has been envisioning is a way to achieve a kind of “somatic wholeness” for Prosser.

He writes that the body of the trans person “is born out of a yearning for a perfect past — that is, not memory but nostalgia: the desire for the purified version of what was, not for the return to home per se (nostos) but to the romanticized ideal of home.” While he has been criticized for making transition too simple or too linked with the same binary model of gender, his description of a form of body nostalgia is exactly what I felt.

The typical transgender story we see in the West is one deeply connected to surgery.

My gender dysphoria manifested at times when I felt as if I’d lost something and I was now without a route or map back home. My dysphoria was place-oriented where my ultimate goal in transition was to find a home. The problem for me was that I couldn’t locate that home or the feeling of nostos in the narrative of a trans man, or the narrative of being a cis woman. My daily life in my body always felt grey and undefined — except for when I received tattoos.

Before I even knew about medical transition, I was into tattoos. I received my first tattoo at 17 and then never went longer than eight months without getting another one. When I was in my second year of university and searching for my next tattoo design, I stumbled on Carl Jung’s understanding of Tarot cards. As Mary Greer summarizes on her blog, Jung believes that Tarot cards are:

“archetypal ideas, of a differentiated nature, which mingle with the ordinary constituents of the flow of the unconscious, and therefore it is applicable for an intuitive method that has the purpose of understanding the flow of life, possibly even predicting future events, at all events lending itself to the reading of the conditions of the present moment.”

For Jung, the major arcana represented a narrative of the querent’s mind and their personal growth. Each one of us will move from youthful innocence (The Fool) to actualization (The World) in our lives, but we often make other stops along the way, which are represented symbolically through the other cards.

I was immediately drawn to the mythology around psychological growth and decided that I’d receive a tarot card tattoo for each of my four years of university as a way to sum up what I’d gone through. The Hermit was my first, followed by The Tower, Death, and The Chariot. After I graduated, I worked on finding other occult or mythological elements to tattoo on me, like my back piece involving Artemis and Orion.

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The last tattoo before I realized I was trans was a grandfather clock stopped at 12:03. The clock was based on one in my mother’s house with my birth name inscribed on it followed by Great Expectations. I had always felt weighed down by everyone’s expectations of me, so I decided to redefine them for myself through a new act of myth-making and by finalizing that in a tattoo I could carry with me forever.

A week after that tattoo, I met the girlfriend who would eventually introduce me to Joel. And that weekend, where Joel told me things about his gender that I’d only thought privately about myself, parts of my internal unconscious journey made sense in a new way: I was trans.

But after that weekend, I remember feeling quite sad. I now knew a language to describe my feelings, but it felt as if the tattoos that I’d been working so hard on since I was young needed to stop. People who were trans could also have tattoos of course (as Joel did), but there was something so much more final about surgery. Something so much more “trans” about having surgery and taking hormones, and saving your money for those items, rather than tattoos. The success story for a trans person ended with the knife and nothing else — because going under the knife allowed the dysphoria to end.

Many trans critics — from Julia Serano to Kate Bornstein to Jay Prosser himself — critique the idea that the transgender story must stop at the surgery, and they dedicate their lives to telling stories beyond the knife as a way to reshape our imaginations surrounding trans people. For those of us who identify as non-binary, where surgery was never an option in the first place, rejecting the medical narrative can be especially freeing. We are so much more than our bodies and people’s perceptions of them, but at the same time, I also like Prosser’s focus on the body.

When the physicality of my gender — that “place” that could be home — feels out of reach, tattoos are my way to be present in my body, and to control what happens to it. When I get a tattoo, I can decide how much of the pain I want to bear by either staring directly at the artist’s needle as they work, or by looking away. I decide on the design, and I create the story behind that design, too, and how it relates to me.

And I’ve been doing this for a long time. There’s a reason why, most prominently on my shins, I have Death and The Tower tarot cards. These were my transition. I had no words, no gender theory, no readings by Julia Serano or Kate Bornstein or even Prosser to back me up when I was 19 and 20, but I knew that these two cards represented what I felt inside the most. I wanted to tear down what I had become and create something new.

So I did. And I will continue to do so with each and every tattoo.

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