Humans have always longed to change our bodies: to become swift as horses, hard as bulls, high as eagles, as if the purpose of life could be found by bending the laws of nature and stepping into a world where imagination becomes reality. The desire to change physical sex has always been as fundamental to our collective imagination as the desire to have wings. We dream about approaching wholeness by becoming something new.
Accepting our own gayness and transsexuality are life-affirming choices. However, the transsexual choice is different because it isn’t based on getting rid of negative feelings about joy; it’s based on conquering the negative feelings without knowing if there’s any joy beyond them. Whereas the gay person begins to come out by saying whom he or she loves, the transsexual begins to come out by saying he or she feels trapped. The gay person has a clue about what happiness might look like. The transsexual’s desire to change the circumstances of his or her birth is less coherent and less attainable. All the transsexual seems to be saying is that he or she wants to sprout wings and take off.
A gay transsexual man myself (born female, now living as a man attracted to men), I experience my transsexuality as ten times more difficult and distressing than my gayness. It is also at least ten times (if not a hundred or a thousand times) as rare. People who aren’t transsexualstraight or gay, curious or hostile, intrigued or disgustedwant to know: Why the transsexual choice? What is the wholeness we seek through casting away the flesh?
Christianity has always had an ambivalence towards body modification. A good example of this is circumcision. The parent religion, Judaism, developed in the Middle East and Northern Africa where various types of circumcision were widespread. Christianity, on the other hand, spread its message further west in Rome where there was distaste for these practices. It is no surprise that the New Testament is filled with assurances that circumcision was not required to join the religion, and that faith in God could serve as a symbolic circumcision or a “circumcision of the heart.” On the other hand, many were drawn to the idea of body modification and defended the practice. The early Christian Julius Cassian argued in his book On Eunuchism that the Creator did not intend us to remain male and female, but actually wanted us to castrate ourselves like the eunuchs who are specially blessed in the Book of Isaiah. Although some strains of Christianity repressed body modification as some exotic “oriental” influence that had to stay in the closet of the Romans, holy androgyny is nothing new.
We haven’t yet uncorked the bottle on the meaning of sex-reassignment surgery. If we had all year to sit here and think about it, it could be explained, explained, explained until we had enough explanations to fill a library. But the most thrilling bit of wisdom is to understand that we don’t have to understand it. Looking back on my coming-of-age choice to have male chest reconstruction six years ago, what stands out is not any particular reason for choosing the surgery, but the fact that it was a leap of faith into the unknown rest of my life. The wisdom I gained was knowing that I do not know: gender identity, gender expression, gender body parts are still a mystery to me.
I spent every waking moment of my teens thinking about gender, obsessed by the pervasive degradation of women and the sleek coolness of men. Inevitably, I still think about gender: mine shapes me at least as much as other people’s shapes them, given that I seem to have two physical sexes, which sometimes limits and sometimes expands the way I relate to people. But I will be the first to admit that I cannot tell you what gender is. Amy Bloom, noting the diversity of masculine expression, wrote in Normal: “We know that neither the object of desire nor the drinking of beer nor the clenching of fists makes maleness. We don’t know what does, and neither do the transsexual men, and neither do the people who treat them, psychologically and surgically.”
Yet without knowing what gender is, transsexuals choose to liberate ourselves from a gender trap and embrace a new form of being, a transformation that, for many of us, has an important physical component. The realization of our ignorance of the ultimate meaning of man and woman doesn’t cramp our style, for we also realize that there is no transcendent definition of gender; there are only people who call themselves men and women. It’s a great mystery that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, tossing around figs of sexuality and knowledge, groping in the dark and trying to discover who they are and why they think and feel the way they do. In innocence, we can still beautify our bodies with knives and syringes and still feel sexy. We can be powerful and motivated on a political level, too, pursuing respectful treatment of each other without putting each other in boxes, loving each other without treating each other as objects of cognition. We have to love each other just as we are, because we don’t know who we are or how we got on this planet.
The blade across my chest opened my heart to free myself to be myself. That’s my joy, and will be my priceless delight for the rest of my days. Some people oppose sex-reassignment surgery, and commonly tell transsexuals that they ought to get a “circumcision of the heart,” rather than being overly literal and actually taking a knife to their genitals to establish their identity. Some people have mapped out a path for humanity’s liberation that doesn’t include transsexuality. Oh, won’t they be surprised!
Circumcision, castration, and sex-reassignment surgery have been popular choices worldwide for eons and remain so. To appropriate an idea from Paul Varnell, the proletariat turned out not to want revolution after all, regardless of what the Marxists had planned, and likewise, “Trying to tell gays how to act out their liberation just does not work.” Different people are called to their personal liberation in different ways. You can’t invent or repress a religious vocation. You can’t invent or repress art. You can’t invent or repress transsexuality. It calls you, it slices you, it frees you from thinking that you or anyone else know what constitutes a human being. And from this personal liberation will emerge a social liberation. A society cannot be happy unless the people in it are happy; a group of fulfilled, free people can pursue ways to preserve freedom and happiness for themselves and everyone else.
Transsexuals cannot tell you the meaning of gender any more than a psychology Ph.D. can tell you the nature of consciousness, a priest can make god appear to you, or a mountain climber can express the deep silence within the granite. Transsexuals, too, are perpetual students in the school of life. Most of us do not even want to be experts on genderwe just want to have a gender, like everyone else, and flow with it. When we cut and shape ourselves, we aren’t asserting an ideology, we’re choosing a life, hands open and eyes closed.
So much deliberation for so little certainty. But when I look back on my life, what’s most striking are those leaps of faithnot just the surgery but the moments of decision to have surgery. Those leaps were times when I set aside my intellect so that love could shine through.
If sex-reassignment surgery is an expression of personal power that borders on hubris, a bull-headed determination to change one’s life and remake oneself, then surely, reason the critics, it cannot also be submission to the will of God. I would argue that those who change their sex learn a lot about submission to God. Any surgery makes us realize how fragile and pliable our bodies are. Change is frightening as well as powerful, and transsexuals are frightened by change and long for stability just like everyone else. We would like not to feel compelled to change our bodies. But we do feel and we do act, and while we may think we’re changing ourselves, simultaneously we are changed by other forces, too. Submitting to physical pain is submitting to a cross, and submitting to the irrationality of gender identity is submitting to a faith.
When we agree to fight the entrapment of body and mind, and seek freedom by altering our bodies on the premise that any masculinization or feminization will be an improvement, we are embracing the unknown, and the only thing we have committed to is our own freedom. We risk, and unfortunately often lose, family, friends, careers, and basic social respect over this decision. All we have left is our own freedom. And what do we feel then, divested of all worldly trappings or at least prepared to lose them, with parts of our bodies even peeled away, with nothing but freedom in the midst of emptiness? The next question that came to me is: Freedom to do what? Freedom to be what? (Other post-operative transsexuals have verbalized this question as: I’ve realized my dream, now what do I do?) Freedom to be what? In the admission that we no longer know what to do with ourselves — that our hearts and minds briefly glowed, led us down a certain path, but the midnight oil has now burned out and we need another torch — there can be a profound submission to God. That is not to say that surgery is a poor choice. It is only to suggest that, when we make extreme choices that test the limits of our strength and the boundaries of our personhood, we often start to wonder what is beyond us, what could be so unimaginably big that it would make our life-changing decisions seem like mere flashes in history. Because our choices do become history. And then we have to face a timeless universe that is bigger than memory or cognition or belief.
Do we find wholeness by circumcising and castrating our flesh? Do we become wild new creatures like angels or winged horses? Of course. We find wholeness because, after we cross the fear barrier, renounce misery, and embrace beauty and eros, we realize we haven’t fundamentally changed. We’re as powerful and free as we’ve always been. We’re as alone and ignorant as we’ve always been. Having circled the spectrum of human gender, our vision must broaden beyond ourselves and perhaps beyond humanity itself, and that is where we find wholeness, in locating ourselves in the order of all created and changing beings.
Today’s high-tech transsexuals participate in a mission of mythical proportions, much like astronauts. We stare into the darkness and discomfort, risking everything. We return home pressurized, walking funny, but essentially the same. The message we bring back – aside from the thrill of adventure and discovery – to reassure those waiting on land is that we’ve been to heaven and back and there’s nothing to fear out there.
Author, poet, photographer and artist Tucker Lieberman is the author of Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty (2020), Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains (2018), Bad Fire: A Memoir of Disruption (2018), and the blank journal Flip the Finger at Despair (2019). His essays have been published in anthologies including the 2011 Lambda winner “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community” and the 2012 Lambda nominee “Letters for my Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect.” He studied philosophy at Brown University and journalism at Boston University. He lives with his husband, the science fiction writer Arturo Serrano, in Bogotá, Colombia.