Your best take: Gender and surgery

An eloquent take on the complicated issues raised by one writer's search to feel more comfortable in their body

By Salon Staff
Published March 15, 2011 8:06PM (EDT)

Page McBee's story about having breasts removed and searching for an identity outside of traditional genders led to particularly heated debate from our readers about cosmetic surgery, gender orientation and self-expression. Our favorite came from just another day:


Some serious hate in here. Can't really talk to the haters, though, probably not worth the time.

To the sympathetic but uneasy... Look, we do our best to protect people from and put an end to anorexia and bulemia because they kill people. We don't get in the way of people who want to be skinny, but do so in more or less healthy ways. We maybe wish that there wasn't this consuming drive to be skinny, but ultimately we let people do what they want within reason.

Many of you don't think that reassignment surgery isn't "within reason". Like all medical procedures, these surgeries aren't exactly risk-free, but they're the best we've got. It's certainly better than actual self-mutilation. I think it's probably better than living in abject misery, too.

I don't really like comparing eating disorders to transsexuality though; I don't think it's invalid, per se, but I think that gender is far more fundamental to how we see ourselves and how others see us than body shape. It permeates everything we do socially, every interaction. Those of us who are conventionally gendered can only imagine how difficult it must be to be constantly treated as something you're certain you're not.

I know a lot of trans people, through a pair of close friends who've transitioned, and none of them would have done it if they thought they had any choice. It's a terrible amount of work, time, money, social alienation, bigotry, healing, stress, everything. It's a monumental, awful undertaking. But I also don't know a single one who regrets it; it's not something you do because you want to, but because you have to.

That it makes you uncomfortable should be taken as proof of how important gender is: What is it about the prospect of a stranger, someone you've never met and will probably never meet, changing their gender (be it fully or to a position of androgyny like Page has) that provokes such a strong reaction?

Is it the surgery? It's rough, but people go through worse, and nobody does it without feeling that they need to. In that light, is surgery so bad, if it gives someone the life they want rather than the life they're trapped in?

Is it that you feel gender to be fundamental and unalterable? It's not; people are born intersexed. Sometimes they're corrected the wrong way. Surely you don't feel that those people should be denied surgical corrections?

But moreover, what is it you lose by allowing someone to be treated and viewed as whatever gender they want to be? It can be uncomfortable, and difficult, to switch the pronoun you use to refer to a person, but if they're miserable being treated as a woman, is it really so unforgivable for them to ask to be treated as a man? Is your linguistic comfort really more important than their right to self-identify? Most likely you don't know or have to interact with a trans person anyhow, so what does it lose you, abstractly, to allow that a person who was born a man can live as a woman? Or something in between? Or neither?

Finally there's this question about mental illness. I don't know anything about what defines a mental illness precisely, maybe gender dysphoria qualifies. But if it does, for many people there's a (in some ways) simple cure; let them live as the gender they feel themselves to be. This ain't rocket science. If someone is unhappy in situation A and would be happy in situation B, what's wrong with letting them live in situation B? The surgery has risks, the hormones in many ways more, but if a person is willing to assume those risks rather than persist in the status quo, why stop them? And what's the alternative, exactly? Most places have waiting periods and real-life-experience requirements before starting in on this stuff; I think those requirements can go overboard, but within reason they can offer a safety net to protect people from short-term judgment errors. But if a person is well and truly determined to go through with it, why should you or I stop them? Why shouldn't we do our best to respect them as who they are and who they want to be?

To read the rest of the letters, click here.

Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gender Your Best Take