February 2009

Some people really cringe when they think about genital reassignment surgery, the mutilation of one’s manhood. This images touches a nerve, and something up in the reptilian brain screams Protect Me, Protect Me.

I, however, do not hear that voice. I’ve never really had any animosity towards my genitals, as some transsexuals seem to have. I’ve always been on fair to good terms with my penis, although I have never obsessed about its length or power or prowess or anything like that that you see in a lot of guys. And I don’t feel terribly sad about its recent hormonal incapacitation. We had a lot of good times together, but now it’s time for it to step aside and let the rest of me evolve to do what I need to do.

Not having grown up with a vagina, vulva, or clitoris, I really can’t say what it’s like to have them, what they’re like to live with, or what it’ll be like to acquire them. But I can speak with quite a bit of authority about the male equipment, and it’s actually a pretty interesting story when you step back and look at them objectively.

People joke about a man thinking with his little head, but that’s no joke. The penis has a mind of its own, and that’s a source of many of my most embarrassing moments, especially when I was younger. When I got erect, I harbored a monster in my pants, and no amount of slouching or hands in pockets or shirt-tale out (that wasn’t allowed in school when I was growing up, although it seemed like a great solution to the problem) would make any difference. I had some absolutely horrible experiences in Junior High, and I suspect that most boys do, but I am not sure (boys don’t have a Judy Blume book for this or a culture of talking about it). In my case, my equipment would remain at attention for long amounts of time, and the harder I tried to mentally control it, the more it would defy me and stay up, a giant bulge in front of me. Naturally, this usually happened when I was called on to come up in front of my class to give a report, answer a question, or sing a solo in choir, and I was always mortified. I’d stick my hands in my pockets, slouch, and hope that it would go away. Being a good student, my mind wanted to stick to the subject at hand, but down below, my non-academic head was always vying for attention.

I remember wishing it would go down, tuck itself away, and leave me alone, but puberty is cruel — it’s not about thinking, in the first place, and certainly not about wishing, and despite my pleas, my penis was up all the time.

The weird thing is that in these early days, sexual relations were never on my mind. My penis might as well have been a growth on my arm that swelled and subsided periodically. Having a penis is like having a roommate who comes and goes randomly, who pops up when you least expect her, and sometimes doesn’t show up when you wish she would. It would be nice to be able to hang a little sign out on your bedroom door “Do not disturb” and your penis-roommate would leave you alone until you took down the sign.

It takes time for the adolescent male to gain a measure of control, which is not to say that this “penile autonomy” ever ceases. Even as the body and mind mature, the penis simply reasserts itself in different ways, and hopefully, the male of the species eventually learns to co-exist with its independence somewhat.

If owning a penis is like entertaining a surprise guest, then owning balls is like having superman’s tragic weakness to kryptonite. If you’re male, you not only have this one headstrong thing in your pants, but right next to it you have these two enormous weak spots, your Achilles heels. Why a key organ of humanity evolved to hang outside the body cavity is a mystery — it has to be a creationist joke. It’s horribly funny when you think of it, especially considering how many things one has to straddle in one’s life: bicycles, poles, fences, leg straps for parachutes, motorcycles, gym equipment. The pain of having your balls smashed is sharp and nauseating and you really can’t concentrate on anything for a while. You behave as if you got the wind knocked out of you, but you can still breathe — that is, if you can remember to breathe. The nausea isn’t really in the stomach, but pretty close. The pain turns moderately quickly from sharpness to dull ache within 30-40 seconds, and if you take it easy, you can be back in business in 5 minutes. But those are 5 minutes of down time, and there’s no getting around it.

I suppose boys could take advantage of an age-old design and start wearing protective cups, like they do in baseball, but round the clock instead of only occasionally. But the cup would be yet one more bit of equipment to haul around in their trousers, and the psychological damage of so much weight down there might not balance the occasional pain from having their balls smashed. The thing about boys’ balls is that they probably only get racked a few times in their lives, but the memory of that pain always exists right up front in the “fight or flight” part of their brains, and thus makes them careful when climbing over fences and jumping onto horses and those sorts of things throughout their lives. A better design would be to locate the balls inside the body, like the ovaries, which would make males virtually invulnerable. Upon reflection, I think this invulnerability would probably also make men intolerable, so on second thought, maybe it’s all for the best: all super heroes need their tragic weakness, and males have their testicles.

These balls are housed in an underappreciated sack called the scrotum, and I say underappreciated because it’s a lot more than a container. It’s a self-contained temperature control device, and it moves, and writhes, and contracts independent of mental processes. You get in a hot bath, the scrotum loosens up, hangs low. You get cold, it circles the wagons and conserves heat. When temperature is changing, if you watch closely, you can see the skin seething, readjusting to tiny fluctuations in the environment. It’s always moving, like some protean beast that is always changing, always roaming, never allowed to rest — sort of like a shark, but without teeth.

Given these two things in their pants, the invulnerable and independent penis, and the outside-your-body-cavity key organs housed in this magical sack, I’m surprised boys have evolved to walk upright. The physicality of male genitalia is always there — both sets of goodies are out there, both right together, forming a bulls-eye in boys’ minds on the crotch. I suppose it’s just a fact of life, of biology, but given our species’ lofty aspirations to higher thinking, critical faculties, enlightenment, art, philosophy, education, love, and understanding, this design seems primitive.

Being told that I’ve had it relatively easy because of money or power grates against my internal sense of having worked really, really hard on myself in order to survive my transsexual transition and suggests that I’ve been able to buy or bully myself out of trouble. A third term, Luck, completes the trio of dismissive terms, and I would like to explore what’s so wrong about being lucky.

For the ancient Greeks, the concept of luck was embodied in Tykhe:

Tykhe was the goddess or spirit of fortune, chance, providence and fate. She was usually honoured in a more favourable light as Eutykhia, goddess of good fortune, luck, success and prosperity.

Tykhe was represented with different attributes. Holding a rudder, she was conceived as the divinity guiding and conducting the affairs of the world, and in this respect she was called one of the Moirai (Fates); with a ball she represented the varying unsteadiness of fortune — unsteady and capable of rolling in any direction; with Ploutos or the horn of Amalthea, she was the symbol of the plentiful gifts of fortune.

Nemesis (Fair Distribution) was cautiously regarded as the downside of Tykhe, one who provided a check on extravagant favours conferred by fortune.

For Tykhe or Nemesis, the concept of luck is either random or divine and doesn’t have much to do with the deeds, intelligence, or strategy undertaken by someone. No matter her personal qualities, the recipient of luck has no part to play.

Sometimes, when people say, “You’re lucky,” I am left with the impression not unlike the ancient Greek idea, that my hard work, communications, therapy take a back seat to chance. In other words, this transition might have turned out disastrously, regardless of my efforts or qualities.

And maybe that’s true, but I simply don’t think it’s good policy to believe in such things because they remove agency and responsibility from the transitioner, who is tempted to ask, “Why go to therapy — it’s all fate, anyway.”

Why tell a transsexual she’s lucky, in any case? What’s the effect of saying such a thing? True or not, it’s going to feel to the transsexual that she’s being dismissed, that what you’re saying is that their transition is somehow not as hard as it might have been. Pointing to money, power, and luck suggests that a good transsexual transition is almost predestined if you have enough of one, two, or all three things, and conversely, that a transsexual is doomed without them.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having these things, of course. It’s good to be lucky, to have some money, and to be powerful. But if you come to rely on them, then luck, money, and power become paradoxically disempowering because they trump hope, and hope is what’s in short supply when a transsexual finally faces her demons and realizes she must take action. I’ve been there, and let me tell you that no cushy balance in the checkbook, no collected power over others’ lives, and no track record of good luck makes any difference to one facing the daunting task of transsexual transition. Hard work and a belief that such hard work will get us through our transition are the only things that really have an impact on a transsexual transition, as far as I can see.

I have always bristled at such dismissive observations, even those that fall outside of this transition crisis of the past couple of years. When I used to be told, “Of course you did well in college — you always had it easy,” I felt as if my reading and studying and struggling with academic concepts weren’t worth recognizing. These days, comments like “It’s no wonder you’ve had such a good transition — you’re in the protective walls of a university” diminish the struggle that my friends and colleagues and I have had in understanding and accepting my changes. While it is certainly true doing well in college or surviving transsexual transition are facts of my life, I don’t believe in predestination, and I certainly do not believe that having power or working in the right industry will inevitably smooth over all life’s difficulties.

Maybe this essay is just a cry for you to “look at me” and appreciate me. You already know how painful and difficult my past couple of years were, and so I don’t need you to acknowledge it again. But I really want to know how we can ever learn from each other through honest criticism and praise if money, luck, and power obstruct us or cause us to reduce hard work and struggle into predetermined outcomes.

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