Op-ed: Where'd You Get That Body From?

My ruminations on body issues, trans men, and penises of the gods.


  UPDATED: June 05 2014 8:43 PM ET

I had the same concerns the day Jake went under the knife. In one fell swoop, my wife of 16 years was becoming a man, which was traumatic enough. But I had just signed away my right to sue in case of his death (some standard surgery center waiver), so I sat in the parking lot in my car and cried for two solid hours until they called me and told me he was still alive.

The thing is, like Croft, Jake was instantly happier with his body.

“I feel normal like I never had a female body,” Croft tells me now, two months after his surgery, even though his recovery (which includes stints for fluid drainage) took weeks longer than planned. “I woke up from a dream that lasted a lifetime. I have some more steps to complete but now it is more like I just have to give cosmetic adjustments. That may sound odd since I am missing a big part of the male anatomy but the prosthetic masks the lack of.”

In fact, Croft (pictured at left) speaks for a lot of trans guys. For the unfamiliar, let me explain surgery for trans men. Top surgery gives you a chest instead of breasts. It is the most common surgery for trans men. It is also the stopping point for many men. Bottom surgery for men often includes a hysterectomy and oophorectomy (removal of the uterus and ovaries, respectively) and some form of genital reconstruction surgery. There are two basic types: Phalloplasty will create a penis using skin grafted from other parts of your body like your legs and arms. In some cases the penis can get erect on its own; others will always require you insert a pump for anal or vaginal sex. It costs between $50,000 and $150,000, requires multiple surgeries as well as electrolysis (otherwise your penis will grow hair). It’s flawed, expensive, and not covered by insurance. I know dozens of trans men personally; very few have had a phalloplasty.

The second option is metaoidioplasty, which costs anywhere between $2,000 and $20,00 depending on what procedures accompany it. When trans men are on testosterone, their clitorises grow larger; metaoidioplasty is an operation that releases that clitoris and turns it into a small penis. Sometimes testical implants are added (made from the labia), the urethra is re-routed so men can pee through the new penis, and a hysterectomy and oophorectomy can be done — each additional procedure adding to the cost. Some men get metaoidioplasty and don’t have their vagina sewed up, meaning they have a small dick and bonus hole; this is a popular choice for some gay FTMs. (FTMGuide.org has a pretty careful listing of surgery definitions with thoughtul pros and cons.)

The third option of course is to not have surgery at all. I know plenty of men, damn fine masculine men who could go stealth if they so choose, who have gone this route. Why? Because you can buy a cock, pick out one you like, get many for different occasions, and get a packer that fits in your boxes like any old penis and no one is the wiser. Comedian Ian Harvie, who stars in the new documentary, Ian Harvie: Superhero,  which is making its Los Angeles debut at Outfest July 18, is one of those guys. Harvie’s standup is always funny, no-holds-barred, and yet somehow non-threatening, and in the doc (which was directed by Liam Sullivan and executive produced by Margaret Cho) he talks candidly about bottom surgery, or really the lack of. He's not having it, and he's fine with that. He jokes about how sad he feels for people who can’t pick out their own penis as he did and about his current surgery-free bottom half (he has an acronym — FUPA — but you’ll have to see the film to understand it).

Harvie, though, is one of many trans men who are reinventing what it means to be a man. Whether trans men have bottom surgery or don’t, they have to confront a culture where size matters, where many see a penis (not store bought) as the main difference between a man and woman. While some trans men fall into that trap (penis equals man), a great number do not. Because gender is in your head, not your genitals. Trans men are showing other men that their identity has to be about more than their dicks. Some of the most attractive trans men out there will be frank, and funny, about their bodies, about parts that some will consider non-normative, but in a world of non-normatives aren't trans men part of the majority.

I think it was Rocco Katastrophe, the first out trans hip hop star (though his music is so much more) who first told me he was “hung like fucking gerbil” but damn proud because it was all his. Or maybe I read it in his trans boy ‘zine, Original Plumbing, or in Morty Diamond-edited anthology, From the Inside Out: Radical Gender Transformation, FTM and Beyond. I forget at this point and it may not even be Katastrophe's quote. But it reminds me of the bravery it takes to be a transgender man, to confront transphobia as well as the basic challenges of being a man in a culture that is putting increasing emphasis on the male body.

Tags: Commentary