body


Straight from the aerospace medical division of the FAA came my official airman’s medical notification a couple of days ago, and while it’s a very good thing that ends a long chapter of frustration, the document is not without thorns.

The good news is that I do have a medical certificate (below), but it carries more restrictions than my previous certificates — I have to carry a letter of authorization with me whenever I fly, for example. Here’s what the medical looks like:

medical certificate

medical certificate

But more interesting is the letter of authorization, which invokes the regulations, parts 67.113, 67.213, and 67.313, which are simply identical and parallel subparts covering first-, second-, and third-class medicals, and deal with general medical conditions that aren’t generally specified in the rest of the part:

(b) No other organic, functional, or structural disease, defect, or limitation that the Federal Air Surgeon, based on the case history and appropriate, qualified medical judgment relating to the condition involved, finds—

(1) Makes the person unable to safely perform the duties or exercise the privileges of the airman certificate applied for or held; or
(2) May reasonably be expected, for the maximum duration of the airman medical certificate applied for or held, to make the person unable to perform those duties or exercise those privileges.

(c) No medication or other treatment that the Federal Air Surgeon, based on the case history and appropriate, qualified medical judgment relating to the medication or other treatment involved, finds—

(1) Makes the person unable to safely perform the duties or exercise the privileges of the airman certificate applied for or held; or
(2) May reasonably be expected, for the maximum duration of the airman medical certificate applied for or held, to make the person unable to perform those duties or exercise those privileges.

I don’t know where the FAA gets the idea that gender issues (or the medications, if any, related to gender issues) would “make a person unable to safely perform the duties of the airman certificate,” and I find the suggestion pretty insulting.

The letter (below) also mentions 67.401, which deals with the letter of authorization. The rationale given in this section is largely public safety with language like this: “…capable of performing airman duties without endangering public safety.” This stands in contrast to the aforementioned sections, which appeal to the airman’s ability to perform duties. To its credit, this section recognizes that holders of 3rd class medical certificates are private pilots:

[The FAA needs to] consider the freedom of an airman, exercising the privileges of a private pilot certificate, to accept reasonable risks to his or her person and property that are not acceptable in the exercise of commercial or airline transport pilot privileges, and, at the same time, considers the need to protect the safety of persons and property in other aircraft and on the ground.

Despite this “freedom” paragraph, my letter makes no mention of the fact I’ve sought a 3rd class medical (for private pilots versus commercial ones), and I’m curious why a private trans*pilot can’t just be left alone, using this paragraph as FAA rationale.

So anyway, we have these twin rationales, a) that people with gender issues may not be able to perform their duties as pilots and b) that people with gender issues may pose a threat to public safety. These two dubious claims lie at the core of the “conclusion” stated in my letter, namely that gender identity disorder is inherently a disqualifying condition that causes trans* pilots to have to go through this nonsense in order to keep flying.

I would certainly agree that people who can’t perform their pilot duties and/or who pose a public threat probably should be automatically disqualified, but what I’d like to know is just where those two assertions about trans*people come from. They cannot be based in empirical facts — I’ve looked through the NTSB accident reports and can find no mention of transgendered pilots as the cause of any incidents or accidents. Where is the hearing or the memo or the commentary that glued these twin falsehoods onto trans* people? I would love to read that rationale.

Notice on page two that an olive branch is held out: next year, if I have no changes in my current medical condition, they’ll consider removing the requirement for a letter of authorization. Fair enough, but my question is Just what is my current medical condition? I’m healthy, productive, and capable. I’m already bound to ground myself if I develop a medical condition that hampers my ability to fly, and I would think that such a rule would already apply to trans*pilots (as well as all other pilots). Does the letter mean to say “my current psychological condition,” or does it mean to include everything? The second paragraph says, “Because of your history of GID and GRS, operation of an aircraft is prohibited at any time new symptoms or adverse changes occur.” The word “history” is instructive here — maybe the FAA means that my history makes me suspect, and not necessarily my current state as a fairly normal pilot. If that’s the case, then how long does that “history” stick with me and compel me to carry around this letter when I fly and when I go for my next aviation medical exam?

I feel as if I’ve been branded as someone we need to watch, someone who might “get sick” again. I’m not sure what that would look like, but the GRS is a done deal, and the GID has gone away. What if I take up cabaret singing? Or take a turn towards butch-dom? Just what are these relapses that the FAA imagines might happen to me? These recurring conditions constitute a third area that I’d like to understand better — did the FAA approve trans*people for flying some time in the past, but their behavior or demeanor led them into an accident, and thus triggered this rule that they have to be watched in case gender issues return? If so, where are those records, those stories that would provide grounding for the current rule? If they don’t exist, then does the FAA just make up random nonsense to justify argumentative nonsense arrived at via non-existent data about public safety and pilot abilities? I’m starting to think this is precisely how it works.

medical authorization, p. 1

medical authorization, p. 1

medical authorization, p. 2

medical authorization, p. 2

I have arrived at an interesting point, a place that feels unusual for me and it may strike my friends as incredible. But after visiting Trinidad for GRS, after scores of laser hair removal sessions, after hundreds of hours of electrolysis, after almost three years of therapy, after reconfiguring my body to be my new self, after throwing away all my old clothes and buying all new ones, after telling everyone in the world that I was becoming Joyce, and after being Joyce for long enough that it’s becoming hard to remember not being Joyce — after all of this, I suddenly feel almost as if it’s all been unnecessary. And by “unnecessary,” I don’t mean to suggest that I have any regrets — what I think I mean is that whatever was driving this incredible change within me has vanished, that I don’t feel any urge or necessity to make any changes. And if I could imagine myself three or four years ago feeling like I do today, then I probably wouldn’t have had to make all these changes.

But there’s the rub, isn’t it? Because I was NOT at this point three or four years ago. Back then, I was eaten up with shame and guilt and anxiety and despair and couldn’t possibly imagine (no matter how hard I might try) arriving at today’s place of stasis. At this point, I don’t feel anything — I don’t have a single gender, I don’t belong to a sex, I don’t have a firm history or identity. It’s as if this huge turmoil of the past few years erased — no, burned or grinded away — the bumps and ridges of my surface like an industrial acid or a giant grinding wheel of my re-formation, leaving me smooth and finished in only once sense of meaning. I can also be seen as raw and unfinished, a jewel that’s half-way complete, not quite a stone, but not glittering, either.

I don’t feel elation, excitement, despair, or depression — just mundane rawness.

It’s a paradox because I’ve just returned from a fairly important surgery of transformation, and yet instead of feeling transformed, I feel normal. My body’s just a body. Maybe that’s what feeling all right in your skin feels like. Or maybe I’m just settling into my new parts. Does this mean I’ve lost my feeling of gender-variance? I don’t know — I don’t feel terribly variant right now, but maybe I need time to heal. On the other hand, maybe I’m on the cusp of being perfectly normal for the rest of my life (history notwithstanding).

This feeling of nothingness may seem familiar. In fact, I wrote about 9 months ago that I seemed to have arrived at a point of nothingness, but if this transition has taught me anything, it’s that just when you think you’ve reached a plateau, there always seems to be another bit of interesting geography ahead. Maybe it’s a gentle settling into a certain valley of peace or maybe it’s a completely-unforeseen peak of difficulty, but the important thing is that one is never finished.

Maybe that’s the obvious and natural way to perceive life. We’re never really finished learning or growing or experiencing life’s rough blows, so why would a transsexual believe that there is some kind of flat stasis waiting him or her after settling a huge piece of life’s unfinished business? The very act of settling that business gives rise to new insights, complications, ambitions, does it not?

Will this current feeling of nothingess, of being utterly mundane, give rise to new terrain of physical, emotional, or psychological complexity? Who knows? Probably, but there’s really no anticipating what’s over that next rise, that undiscovered country.

In a very funny and somewhat ironic turn of events, I have been having hot flashes. At least that’s what I think they are — my body gets flushed at random times, and the heat seems to be boiling up from my core, radiating out to my head, torso, and limbs like an insidious fever, building to a sweaty meltdown that lasts 3-5 minutes.

Maybe I don’t have any say in the matter of my life’s trajectory. After all, I was the one who upset the balance in the first place, so maybe this is just hormonal karma. However, I hope this trend settles down because, frankly, I’m not interested in going from man to young woman to menopausal woman all in the span of 3 years. It would be nice to enjoy a span of a few years of relative stability.

Some of us feel our bodies are strongly identified with our selves and that our bodily feelings of presence are stable and predictable. These people are probably young and healthy; as we age, lose limbs, lose abilities, and generally transform into different versions of ourselves, we may find new correlations between self and body. Thoughts like “Ow, I never noticed that muscle before,” or “Was that bump always there?” are the kind of subtle reminders that the map of the body may not be as stable as we once felt it was.

In my case, having just acquired a major new body part that was crafted, origami-like, out of previous body parts, I’m noticing some startling sensations related to the maps of my self and, perhaps more importantly, the legends of those maps that are beginning to feel outdated and desperately in need of a cartographer to re-chart everything.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
You see, I am a perfect example of an ecologically-friendly cyborg, my new parts having been fashioned out of old ones, and thus I think it’s fair to say I reduced, reused, and recycled in the process (maybe I should use passive voice and say “I was reduced, reused, and recycled”). I didn’t come up with the origami metaphor; that belongs to a woman who was interning with Dr. Bowers from Chicago and who asked my permission to observe the operation. She reported that it was utterly amazing how all the old parts were shaped, reorganized, folded, and ultimately reassembled “like an intricate origami.” She said that unless you knew how it was going to turn out, it all looked like a terrific mess on a craft table. But to the surgeon, having performed hundreds of these procedures, the mappings must be nigh intuitive, floating above and on the skin like a paint-by-numbers project.

But the point of this blog post isn’t to marvel at the artistry of the surgeon or the cartographer’s skill at remapping, but rather to relate what it’s like to actually be the map, the origami itself, and to grapple with what strikes me as a conflict of two mapping systems existing simultaneously in my mind.

New and Phantom Feelings
Some of my nerves have worked just fine since surgery and some of them haven’t, but are beginning to reconnect in jolting ways. The ones that have always worked seem to me to remain mapped to my old body so that if I feel an itch or a pain, my mind immediately recognizes it as belonging to a certain spot on my body — there’s no interpretation needed because this mapping is so old and (seemingly) so stable that I “know” where the itch is coming from. But the landscape has changed, even if the map hasn’t, so that itch is no longer where my mind thinks it is. Where is it? Who knows? I don’t have a current map so it could be anywhere. Exploring can sometimes help, but not always, as the intricate folding of an origami swan could move an ink dot into un-findable places, maybe three folds underneath a wing, if you can picture it. These phantom pains are funny, mostly, because they initiate a guessing game in my mind, one that involves identifying the spot on the old landscape, then trying to picture just where that nerve might reside these days.

New feelings are different, or at least they seem so to me. Maybe when nerves are cut, and as they seek to reconnect, the map is erased, like a computer’s RAM that resets when you lose power. Whatever the reason, these new pains, often shooting or stabbing, come from who-knows-where, and are thus already mysterious, but also belong nowhere on the old map, and are thus doubly-mysterious because there is no cartographic system on which to locate them. Unlike the phantom pains, which are amusing, these new pains of re-connecting nerves are surprising, daunting, and a bit frightening. Why frightening? I think their newness, their randomness of appearance, and the intensity of the sudden stabbing make these new pains feel alien, unpredictable, maybe even dangerous to my primitive mind. They lurk like strangers in my corporeal shadows and jump out like the bad guy in slasher movies, just when you’ve relaxed and are enjoying your popcorn.

I suspect these feelings are well-documented somewhere — maybe in the Mind literature of philosophy, something my friend Michele could elucidate, or maybe in the literature of prosthetics and what it means to be dis- or super-abled, as my friend Amanda could no doubt clarify. Maybe these are typical feelings for everyone who undergoes various life traumas or evolutions and are rebuilt, better and faster with modern technology like the Six Million Dollar Man, and thus we’re all joined in a common post-human existence. The relationship of the body to the mind raises all sorts of ontological and epistemological questions, certainly more than I have a right to grapple with in such a small blog post. Maybe my individual experience can help move the inquiry forward a baby step, either for post-humanists generally or merely for other transsexuals more narrowly.

Maps? Legends? Both? Neither?

Thinking of REM’s song “Maps and Legends,” and the wonderful line, “Maybe these maps and legends have been misunderstood,” I picture myself studying a map of the United States printed in the 50′s, and being puzzled when there are no freeway cloverleafs where I can plainly see them approaching in my windshield. With competing maps existing in our minds (youth vs. age, pre-surgery vs. post-surgery, pre-cancer vs. post-cancer, or whatever transformations we experience in the course of our lives), it’s not surprising that we can have these moments of mapping confusion (or revelation) between what we “know” to be real and what the abstractions of maps, GPS’s, timetables, and other artifacts of modern existence tell us is real. I don’t think these moments are a case of either the maps or legends being misunderstood, but merely out of synch or out of time. How we re-synch may be a matter of patience, or maybe it’s acceptable to learn to enjoy the disconnection as an integral part of living a complex life.

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