“If you were a binary trans man, we’d be able to reassure you that we see a satisfaction rate not far off 100% for chest surgery - but for non-binary people...” The consultant at the gender identity clinic shrugs. “We just don’t have the data.”
This appointment is my second at the clinic, over two years after I was first referred. It will be another year until I finally meet my surgeon. I wonder, on the several-hour journey home, which part of my non-maleness makes my decision to have surgery more of a leap of faith than it would be if I identified differently. Is the road less travelled easier or harder to follow, if its conditions of failure are unclear?
This piece isn’t really about my gender(lessness?), although there’s something to be said about learning how to balance your own negatively-defined position, non-binary, neither/nor, none of the above, with still being able to claim the degree of ‘self’ necessary to wield agency over decisions like cutting up bits of your body.
This piece isn’t really about that either – the surgery, all the pain and the gore and the fascination of it. This piece is a reflection on trust – on what it means to trust yourself, when the referents that that ‘self’ has to cling to in order to understand and situate its existence are slippery and ephemeral.
I’m not (just) talking about gender. In the wake of years of throwing my ‘self’ bodily into the hands of external authorities - fiction, God, abusive men - I am still learning to abandon the stubbornly defensive ‘self’ that sprung up to curl tightly around the sickly, damaged version of itself it existed to protect. Part of this process of abandonment is forgiving my past selves for the choices they made, choices that they thought would protect them, choices that failed to protect them. The history of the unruliest parts of my ‘self’ is a litany of these objectively bad choices; the fact that, in the end, I don’t regret a single of them, is what underpins the quiet certainty that’s the last part of my consciousness to fall asleep with the surgical anaesthesia.
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Identifying as trans, too, probably began as a bad choice; past-me fell at its feet as one more external authority, one more place to lay down a sickly nucleus of a ‘self’ and expect to be soothed. I threw myself into it, writing prolifically about the validity of fluidity while remaining terrified of change. I could only trust in my present ‘self’ by insisting that it wasn’t merely ‘true’ now but always had been and always would be, by declaring it the One Self to rule them all - past, present, and future.
I am still trans - I still believe, knowing what I know about the socially constructed nature of gender, that I will always be trans - but I know now that the validity of my transness, and of my medical transition, doesn’t rely on claiming any innate or stable gender identity. This new kind of trust I’m trying to embody is no longer about objective ‘truth’; pushing back against the oppressive logics that have held my head underwater in a sea of questions means choosing not to know, or to care, whether any such deep unchanging truth or authenticity of ‘self’ exists. It means learning that what lies beneath the waves is changing and shifting just as much as the surface we float on; trying to pin down what’s in the depths will not only be eternally frustrating, we might just run out of air in the attempt.
It’s not enough to respond to the continued oppression of the most marginalised trans people - who may not be able to access healthcare, who may not be able nor wish to ‘pass’ as any binary gender - by simply stretching our understandings of validity by small degrees. The hoops trans people have to jump through still require us to contort ourselves, even if they’re made a little wider. We need healthcare a system based on informed consent, on the ability to make considered, nuanced decisions, rather than being forced to lie about the security we feel in an identity that will forever be tied up in subjective cultural context.
Allow us our complexity. Float calmly on the surface of the water. Good choices cannot rest on the eternal ‘truth’ of your current experience. Recognising – like I did with my chest dysphoria and with the surgery that remedied it – that I don’t have to drain the ocean to know that something will make me happy in at least the immediate future was a way of taking my ’self’ back from trauma, because it was a refusal to try so hard to safeguard future-me from any and all potential harm that I end up harming present-me in the process. After all, how many years is the ‘right’ number of years to be ‘sure’ that my 30- or 40- or 50-year-old self won’t wish they had their boobs back? How many years do people like me waste waiting for an answer to that question?
Most importantly, choosing to have surgery was a declaration of trust in that future self, whoever they may be, to look back with compassion. Today, I live with - am made up of - the outcomes of the choices my past selves made. Statistical ‘satisfaction rate’ aside; instead of remaining in stasis, I choose to trust my future self to roll with the punches tomorrow. After all, they’ll have had plenty of practice.
This week HuffPost UK is running Being Non-Binary, a series of first-person perspectives exploring what it means to be non-binary, looking at how non-binary gender identity relates to different people’s personal, professional and romantic lives. If you would like to share your experience, please do get in touch with us at email@example.com