Growing Pains: One Transgender Staffer’s Experiences
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog will again honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine, The Blue and White (on racks and “dormitories” near you NOW), by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates; a breakdown of the Board of Trustees; and a discussion of why college radio still matters. Below, staff writer Alexander Pines, CC ’16 discusses his complicated experience with the “Transgender Narrative.” When researching this piece, we learned that Columbia added transgender related care to its health plan (…last year). Blown away by what you read? ATTEND THE BLUE AND WHITE’S FIRST MEETING OF THE SEMESTER: Tuesday, September 10, in the crypt of St. Paul’s chapel.
A few days after I started injecting testosterone, I sent my friends Snapchats of my face with shakily drawn beards in pink and green. “Nothing here yet,” I’d type, wondering what it was, precisely, that made me a man. I still don’t know. I don’t think it’s a beard, though, or a lower voice or leg hair.
Five months later I’m still beardless, but pricklier than ever before, from the stubble under my chin to the temper that pops up in traffic and checkout lines. People keep asking me if I’m happy now, as though I’ve triumphed over something. They tell me how brave I am. I’ve been called brave before—I was the token lesbian activist in high school, back when I used my pretty female name and spoke with my pretty female voice, but for me it’s not so much bravery as survival. The Transgender Narrative has violence that’s largely absent from its gay counterpart. Forget being stuck in a closet—trans people are supposedly men or women “trapped” in the wrong bodies who need hormones, doctors, needles, and scalpels to construct a body that is somehow truer.
It’s not that I’m trapped, I’ve just outgrown.
There are days when I can see the way my new name twists as it comes out of my friends’ mouths—four syllables in the space of two. I’m stretching as well. Five months on testosterone and I’m a mess of hair and scar tissue with a voice that cracks and rises and breaks when I sing. Growing isn’t always pretty. I have acne; I’m afraid of losing my hair; and there’s a remote chance I’m frying my liver.
Sometimes the roughness of my skin scares me. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to keep violence out of my own story—for someone who hates being called “trapped,” I’ll eagerly mention stabbing myself in the leg with hormones biweekly. Sometimes the new hardness in my arms makes me feel brutal. I wonder if strength has to mean hardness. Sometimes I miss being fragile, but then I catch the curve of my breasts not quite suppressed under my binder and crumple.
This is what fragile looks like: the first time I used the men’s restroom on the fifth floor of Lerner I was literally scared shitless when a janitor walked in. Curling into myself in the stall as he swabbed the floors, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the gender-neutral bathroom back in Hartley.
This is also what fragile looks like: I came out to my suitemates by sheepishly writing “call me Alexander” in dry erase marker on the board taped to my door. For weeks the name felt foreign in my mouth and I had to write “he/Alexander” on the inside of my left thumb as a reminder.
Once you decide to change your name, however, you realize how impossible it is to escape. At the start of each semester I sent emails to professors somewhat timidly asking them to ignore the name on their class rosters when they addressed me and hoped that no one looked at Courseworks too carefully. Every time I swiped my CUID I was afraid the cashier or security guard wouldn’t believe me, and while my LionMail account sent emails from the right name on my computer, no such luck on the mobile version. While approximately 70 schools allow students to use their preferred name on campus records (including Cornell, Princeton, and Yale, according to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute), Columbia requires a legal name change.
If you’re under 22 in Michigan and you want to change your name, it’ll cost two months and $225. Copies of the name change are five dollars each while you’re in the courtroom, but if you leave and come back (even an hour later), they’re fifteen. Replacing your driver’s license is another nine bucks, so all in all I’m out around $250 to successfully change my middle name from Catherine to Cameron and the “-ra” to an “-er” at the end of my first name. On the bright side, because I’m not yet 22, I don’t have to add another hundred dollars (and a month of waiting) for fingerprints to be sent to the state police and FBI. In contrast, to change your last name after marriage, all you need to do is bring some identification and a marriage license to the Social Security office.
While I’m not entirely sure what makes me a man, the state of Michigan thinks it’s an affidavit signed by my doctor saying I’ve had the “appropriate surgical procedures for gender transition”—which gets expensive. A quick email to the registrar was all I needed at Columbia.
Even though I doubt people will stop asking me if I’ve gotten it, there’s no such thing as “The Surgery” for trans folks. Instead, there are several surgical options that generally count as sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) which can be roughly lumped into two categories: top and bottom surgery. Less important than the specifics of each procedure is the fact that at least one of them is required (by most states) to legally change genders.
In short, the trans body is a public one. Outside of the trans community, trans bodies are discussed with little to no respect for privacy. Trans students’ rights to use the correct bathroom is frequently up for debate and the vote and most coverage of trans people is generally focused solely on physical transition or statistics about how many of us are murdered. Within the trans community, particularly online, representation is almost entirely confined to transition milestones. I’m not Alexander, student and writer: I’m pre-op and so many months on T [testosterone]. I understand the documentation of transition—reporting on its changes has definitely helped me relearn my body. However, the emphasis placed on physical transition can sometimes perpetuate the idea that gender is dependent on what parts one has (or doesn’t have), which, among other things, erases the identities of trans people who choose not to (or can’t afford to) undergo medical transition.
For most of the past year, I’ve been trying to figure out how to pay for both school and surgery. In an immediate sense, this has meant critically evaluating my desire to have surgery—is a flat chest worth eight grand? At first, I thought I could put things off until graduation. But that was before binding everyday started rubbing my skin raw, before nearly passing out trying to play basketball, before I had to spend nearly a day in bed because my back hurt too much to do anything else. Sometimes I even forget what a deep breath feels like. By adding SRS to its health care policy last year, Columbia has effectively made it possible to avoid taking on thousands of dollars in debt to pay for top surgery.
I found a picture of myself at fifteen from my freshman winter semi-formal. I mistakenly thought a skirt and ballet flats would make me feel more girly. What I don’t tell you is how long I tried to not be trans, how I was afraid I’d lose myself somewhere between shots and scalpels. I looked at that picture and remembered the dull throb of doing it wrong.
Sometimes I feel constructed, the sum of so much scar tissue and synthetics. Sometimes I feel fake. But so are you. We carry around the best versions of ourselves like a someday hope of growing into the person we have always expected to be. I looked at that picture and thought, this is not who I’m supposed to be. Finally, I feel like I’m doing it right.
Illustrations by Alexander Pines.