The Man in the Mirror

I searched the internet for a comprehensive list of things I’d need before flying to San Francisco for the beginning of the last phase of my transition – phalloplasty. I found one in a Facebook group after watching so many YouTube videos that I almost talked myself out of even doing it. It’s the way I cope with anxiety- plan for every single catastrophe known to man and mentally rehearse the moves through them.

Over and over and over.

I ordered $100 worth of bandages, and assorted ointments, bought 3 extra large pairs of sweatpants. It said I needed things I hadn’t heard of which conflicted with things other lists recommended, so I researched every ointment. The last thing on the list was “1 cheap hand mirror.”

I expected this. I would need to see places I don’t normally look. Places that, in their current configuration, were the source of much pain. Pain I couldn’t really describe except for to describe what would not be painful.

And I was no stranger to the feminist movement to use hand mirrors to examine one’s own vagina, to take control, to look at what was patriarchal taboo, to own one’s own healthcare. One of my friends even used to deliver sperm in a cooler to women so they could self inseminate. In theory, I was down.

In practice though…

I got pregnant when I was 19. At the time I was thrilled because I was underweight, and for the prior 5 years I’d erased myself, vagina included, by obscuring traces of me behind a fog of vodka, weed and whatever else I could get my hands on. At 18 I was a connoisseur of Maalox flavors and was working on a beauty of an ulcer. I figured my body had stopped even trying. Finding out I was pregnant was like hearing it say, “not yet motherfucker.” I was not as ruined as I felt.

It was complicated.

I could rewrite history and say I knew I was a man and being pregnant was torture, but that would be a lie. What I knew then, without having met a trans person or even copping to my attraction to women in addition to my then boyfriend, was that pregnancy gave me legitimacy. It justified my existence. It was also surreal. It felt like it was happening to someone else and I was watching that person – with those parts- do something normal.

Holding a hand mirror down there was absolutely out of the question. I was separate from that body. I wouldn’t be looking at myself.

Now though, a mirror made sense. I was going to look at *myself.* I put it off. It was a minor detail. There were $10 models at Target, even more expensive at Walgreens. It was a toss off, and I had already spent a metric shit ton of money on every other part of this surgery, so I went to the dollar store and bought one along with a 10 foot charger for my phone and miscellaneous nothings. I walked out having spent $11 dollars total. That was what I thought would be the least of my worries.

I started transitioning when my son was 10. My partner was going through menopause. I simultaneously went through puberty with my son and menopause with my partner. We all bumped blindly through our changes. We figured it out.

Of course there were layers and years and mistakes. I was (am) an imperfect parent. I only saw my son every other weekend and every Wednesday. His dad was infinitely more stable, which was why I loved him in the first place.

In the short bursts of time we had together I tried to cram all of my love into his heart. When I started to transition I told him I would always be his mother. He could call me whatever he wanted. My voice deepened, my hair changed, then fell out. I started growing a beard. When I had my top surgery I explained it to him. Nothing would change, I said. And really, between us, it didn’t.

For the past 10 years I have been quietly screaming, though. My relationship with my body degenerated to the point where now, pretty sober and reasonably successful, I could not ignore the disconnect anymore. Forget hand mirrors, I couldn’t even let someone else look at me without hours of agony.

I told my now 25 year old married son that I was having this surgery in a conversation over the phone. He was grieving the loss of his daughter, and after an hour or so of sharing and crying about that, I told him I was thinking about this. We made a deal that we would both make decisions – he would decide on a plan for his life and I would make a plan for mine. We’d meet again same time next year for a summit to see if we were more fucked up or less.

So I micromanaged. I planned and plotted. I prepared. And here I was, post-op, propped on pillows in a hospital bed in San Francisco. My arm was bandaged, my leg was bandaged. I had two catheters, one coming out of a hole in my abdomen. But I was happy. I wanted to look at myself.

In some dark, drugged recess of my mind I remembered the plastic hand mirror. Kris (now my wife) had forgotten to bring it to the hospital. I was undeterred. We improvised with her phone. We scooted, angled, tilted until I could see myself.

There I was. My genitals looked approximate to what I needed to see, stitches and swelling aside. But there, where I had been afraid to look before, where I had refused to let anyone come near, was a landscape of closed incisions, and stitches, red an irritated, but healthy. They already hinted at what they would look like.

I felt like a black hole had formed in my bed and was sucking me through the floor. Grief. Powerful and sudden. Unexpected. Indescribable.

Not regret.

Grief. Mourning.

I started to cry. Kris tried to comfort an inconsolable me. I could not describe what was painful except to describe what wasn’t painful.

I stayed awake trying to pinpoint it. My lost girl? Yes, sort of. My lost mission? Yes, mission accomplished, sort of.

Then I thought of my son. Yes. It was there somewhere. The grief of weekend drop offs at the mall, the trips in snowstorms to see him, the birthday parties with Superman cakes, the first step he took, the nights in the hospital holding his wrecked and grieving body over the body of his own lost girl.


I can say with conviction that grief is complicated and it is so tangled with love that neither can exist without the other. Regret is for mistakes. I regret a lot. This grief that I’m feeling is tangled in love. I grieve the loss of the one thing that physically made me his mom. I grieve for all the ways I could never be a mom in the way moms usually are.

I grieve the loss of the connection with my sisters and mother, girlfriends and wife.

I mourn for the little boy who had to wait 45 years for this.

But as a friend said as we talked about how everything that has ever been still is, every time there ever was or will be exists now – this physical part exists. It is a layer upon which motherhood and sisterhood was planted. Though it isn’t visible now, it still exists in the form of all that it created.

My son and his wife moved a few states away and started over. His plan is in motion and it’s a good one. Between skin grafts, bathing debacles and catheter woes, I’m growing into myself. My plan is in motion and it’s a good one.

I still, as I write this, grieve. I will probably grieve infinitely because I love that way too.

Regret? No. That is for mistakes.

The hand mirror is still in a drawer for now, though.


About Not Interviewing Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay - Hunger This is not a post is not a story of triumph.  There will be no Facebook post with accompanying photo about my interview with Roxane Gay because there will be no interview.

Oh, I was asked.  My bookstore is co-hosting the event for her new memoir, Hunger. But like her book, the first book I’ve been able to successfully read beginning to end in 10 months – ok a year, if I’m being completely honest (I tried, Bruce), my story is not one with a neat happy ending.  Back in October, I melted down completely, spiraled into a horrid depression, and I haven’t been able to read more than a paragraph or two at a time.

My passion for words shrank to scattered thought, then slowly to short poems, then an article or two.  It’s been a nasty little secret until now, so when I got the email asking if I would be “in conversation” with Ms. Gay, I had to read it a few times to actually understand it.  Then I thought for a day or two before answering no, citing vague health issues.  I told the people around me that it wouldn’t make sense for me, a white guy who only struggles mildly with his weight to discuss such a tender, vulnerable subject with someone who has so clearly been subjected to mildly out of shape white guys’ opinions about her body.

The truth is I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to read in time to be articulate in front of a crowd.  I was afraid of being exposed as an illiterate bookseller.  A fraud.  Of course, I’m not really illiterate, not permanently at least.  The strange cognitive twist is that I can still write, but that doesn’t translate to intelligent discussion in front of an audience with someone as formidable as Roxane Gay.

But I regret my “no” answer now, so I’ll express my angst here in a public sort of letter.

Ms. Gay – yours is the very first book I could read, and if I had it to do over again, I would say yes to the interview.  Not because I’m an entitled white guy (although an argument could be made that I am) but because I spent 30 years in a female body I couldn’t reconcile before becoming this guy.

I would have loved to ask you about the bold, daring, stare the fear straight in the eyes courage it took to crack your life wide open in the pages of this book.  We have a lot in common. We could have talked about binging.  We could have talked about sexual assault, about being attacked from within our own bodies.  We could have talked about attacking our own bodies.  We could have talked about trauma housed in every cell that we want to lose, but cannot set free.  We could have talked about being so very alone in our cages – differently shaped cages, yes, but cages.  We could have talked about shame.  About touch.  About both craving it and slapping it away.

We could have talked about bodies, fat bodies, cis female bodies, transgender bodies, black bodies – all of the kinds of bodies that are war zones, that are property put up for public debate and judgement without input from the souls who inhabit those bodies.

We could have talked about taking up space and wishing we could disappear.  We could have talked about public space – TSA lines and airplanes, bathroom stalls and swimming pools.

But we won’t, and I’m sorry.  Sorry, not as an apology to you (you will be great as always and your book and event are not about me) so much as an expression of deep sorrow and regret that I had the chance to sit on a stage with you and talk freely about the experience of a body at war with itself – regret that I *finally* read something all the way through after months of sheer desperation BECAUSE you talked freely in this book and I couldn’t look away.  I couldn’t look away from the devastating beauty of it.

We met before, on your tour for Bad Feminist.  It was hot.  We borrowed the empty space next to the store to accommodate a more people.  I built a stage specifically for the event.  The air conditioner broke that day.  I was the guy with the fan.  You, no doubt, do not remember me and that’s ok.  I was being invisible that day, too.  But I remember you.  I saw you.  I see you now.  And even though we won’t do this conversation in person, I’ll take this small chance to thank you for writing this exquisite book.

So this post ends here.  Not quite satisfying.  Not triumphant.  Not neatly finished.  Imperfect and sort of selfish. But hopeful and grateful.

Twenty Minutes at a Conference

This past weekend, I’ve been at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.  I feel like I should write about this as soon as possible, but I’m in late conference zombie mode tonight and feeling slightly blocked, so I thought I’d just focus on twenty minutes I spent in a writing workshop yesterday, wedged in among the presentations about hormones, harassment and surgery.  There, surrounded by about 40 other trans people in a comically small room, our moderator prompted us to spend twenty minutes continuously writing the old fashioned way – longhand on paper – without stopping to edit.  The prompt – Tell your pet about your gender identity.  Here, unedited, is what twenty minutes with a notebook on my lap thinking about my bulldog produces, in case you’re interested.


Oh, Bruno.  You don’t care very much about my gender, do you buddy?  It’s one of your many awesome qualities, my man.  We make fun of your less than sharp intellect, but I keep coming back to your spectacular full-body smile, that drooling slobbery mess – so at ease with your joy.  That Fred Flintstone start to your gallop to the food bowl, the Scooby Doo slide across the kitchen floor.  My disgruntled, undercaffeinated lump standing by the microwave in the morning doesn’t dampen your spirits.  It can’t.  I love being irrelevant to you in this way, buddy.  Irrelevance as forgiveness as acceptance.

My ability to click your leash onto your collar and walk you out the front door is of utmost importance, in cosmic inversion to the importance of my scars, lumps, slowed gait after surgery.  Invisible to you are my hours of hand wringing and anxious glances at the computer screen, fingers hovering above the keyboard in amber suspension, forever acting out the moment before I wrote the story.

2012-05-22_07-53-28_308My feet on the couch under your belly are relevant, as are the precise number of scratches, head rubs and cookies from the jar above the counter.  You ignore me in the kindest turn of ignorance, need me in the happiest waves of desire, love me in the truest embrace of agape.  

You offer many gifts, my friend,  the least of which is the wave of digestive smell unleashed in mixed company.  Still, you roll your 85 pound frame onto its side, breathe deeply, sigh.  Satisfied.  At ease.  Naked.  Smelly.  So comfortable in your goofy, ill-fitting dog suit.  Silently urging me to be comfortable in my ill-fitting human suit.  No, you don’t care very much at all about my gender, which is the greatest of your gifts, my man.

Maybe you could teach me not to care as much as I do.

Size Zero: On Being a Big Guy

Village Square Mall, circa – well, always.

In the mid eighties I was a size zero.  I know this because I went to Glik’s in the Village Square Mall in Effingham, IL to shop with my sister and my friend when I was about 13.  I shopped then like I do now:

Friend – “Oh, you would look awesome in this.”

Me – “Nah, I don’t really like to try on clothes” (while looking longingly at Rural King’s selection of coveralls).

Friend – “Ok, well what do you think of this outfit?”

Me, approximating proper mid-western teenage girl social skills – “Um, yeah.  Looks fine.  Zippers on the ankles of your pleated jeans are a classic look.”

On this particular shopping trip, I found a pair of pants that were a size zero.  I don’t remember what the pants looked like or why that day of all days I tried on girl clothes, but that crumb of knowledge – that my size officially didn’t exist – scratched an itch that is very fundamental to the cohesion of my sibling hierarchy.

Yes, my sisters could pinch and bruise their stomachs grasping for the Special K inch and pretend to be frustrated with the miniscule fold of skin in their grasp while looking at the rest of the population of Effingham High School with mild pity.  But could they, in the darkest of night tucked into the bunk-beds and trundle beds, could they say that they had succeeded in actually erasing themselves?

I could.

I’ve never found another pair of size zero pants, but I’ve held that with me for 27 years. The secret weapon. Concealed carefully. Carried deeply.

My size – which from that moment forward was zero, invisible, no matter how much I weighed – was the baseline.  The blank slate.

Every hair, change, scar and pound after that were evidence that either needed to be displayed as proof of my worth or hidden to disguise my lack thereof.  I never weighed myself obsessively, and didn’t jump on  the binge/purge merry-go-round.

I just kept score.

Scars on my hand and wrist from flipping my best friend’s grandma’s car into a cornfield in eighth grade – Fortitude and survival.

Slight dent in my forehead at my hairline – Chickenpox scar. My get out of jail free pass in the presence of all toddlers with viruses.

My adolescent angst was written on my body. I grew hips and breasts and got pregnant and gave birth to my son before my twenty-first birthday.  That same year, three of my sisters had sons.

Stretch marks on my belly and chest – Badge of parenthood/Scarlet I for Inadequate motherhood.

I gained 45 pounds after I started taking testosterone when I turned 30.  Those pounds attached themselves to me gradually, like many profound changes do.  The first ten was happy weight – good food, the right woman in my life, the right life.  Then slowly the weight started to count differently.

The baseline had changed.  My units of measuring were different.  Men are bigger, and my size zero had been adjusted for inflation.

The next fifteen were attached to the bookstore where I work.

Thickening midsection – Evidence that I’m substantial enough to run a business.

Plus a pound or two for stress. A few ounces here and there for loneliness.  More weight to insulate miscellaneous guilt.  The final bulk is overcompensation.

My sisters stayed virtually the same size with some fluctuation while I grew larger and hairier, but I stayed, as always, peripheral.  Exempt.  Invisible.

Recently, I consulted with a few doctors to consider bottom surgery, and know with relative certainty that funding this kind of thing is next to impossible.

And yet.

6 inch vertical scar through my abdominal muscle and around my belly button – Emergency abdominal surgery.  Proof that after unspeakable pain, the clouds part.  The impossible is possible.

Regardless of the donor site for a phalloplasty, being a healthy weight is important to the surgery, and after all, what could it hurt to get fit? To avoid my usual anxiety and stave off the impending doom, I decided that even though I haven’t found a way to complete this final part of my transition, I would focus on something I could control –  losing my extra pounds.

After “running” 5 miles on the elliptical machine every day and eating smoothies and weeds for several weeks, I had stalled.  No weight loss.  My clothes didn’t fit differently.  Doom did start to settle in, but buried within it was something small and concealed.  An itch.  A grim shadow self inside me was strangely, horribly, satisfied.  In a buried recess of my brain I am hoarding my bulk.

As a few pounds finally faded away I started to feel myself panicking as the trophies and evidence of my existence disappeared.  My life in a female body depended on remaining invisible.  My life as a man became, in part, about physically existing, pushing beyond size zero.  I find myself clinging to the credentials packed into my thick chin, lumpy midsection and hips as if I’m going to lose myself.  As if I’m going to be unveiled as a fraud once my disguise as a “big” guy slips.

I’m not obese, just fifteen or twenty pounds this side of normal BMI according to the internet.  My challenge isn’t so much to lose the weight but to travel back through the collecting of it.  To unpack all of the evidence and have a good hard look at it once and for all.