Let's Talk About Sex (Change)

Sex-change surgery gave me my life. I would not be who I am without it.

Nevertheless, public discourse around the subject is governed by media guidelines that operate to suppress discussion, such as this one from GLAAD: "Journalists should avoid overemphasizing the role of surgeries in the [gender] transition process."

For me, you could not overemphasize the importance of sex-change surgery if you tried.

Consider one risk of the politically correct script of deflection: It undermines the medical necessity of sex-change surgery for many of us.

People have questions: Do you have a vagina? Can you have sexual intercourse? Is there sensation down there? Are you able to have orgasms?

So I decided to start being open about my operation, beginning by mentioning it in a talk at Chicago Ideas Week.

You may say that I'm a contrarian, but I'm not the only one.

My story is that in fourth grade I learned a word that describes me: transsexual. It was during recess, and I was in a field of grass, talking with a couple of friends, including the deaf play buddy I was paired up with to practice sign language.

Years later I would date a deaf guy for like five minutes. I thought that he, of all people, would understand the challenges of being judged based on how I was born, but no. He grimaced, stood up, and walked out of my apartment within minutes of learning about my past.

The horror of locker rooms and swimming pools began in high school, during puberty. I changed in a corner, or maybe in a bathroom stall or under a towel, to avoid the light of day in the presence of others.

Then there was the period of being in-between as an adult, after I had transitioned but before the surgery. Oh, how I loved to swim! And how I hated what my bathing suit revealed.

And then there was dating. I met a number of men who identified as straight while professing attraction to pre-operative or non-operative transgender women; two men who blinked at me in confusion during a series of questions, until they said that I was pretty and then kissed me; and a gorgeous young Italian man who made out with me in Amsterdam, then yelled and slammed the door behind him after I interrupted his caresses to explain.

The final two or three months leading up to surgery were agony. Going to the bathroom had become a nightmare; it meant that I would have to touch my genitalia, or at least use it somehow. Showers too were exercises in wincing. My body made me sick.

I chose a surgeon in Bangkok because the Thais excel at sex-change surgery, and they do it all the time.

"I can see you've been following my directions not to be too active," my surgeon said during a check-up two weeks later.

My smile hid all the trips I'd taken to the supermarket down the road. I was in the right body, and no one was going to stop me from going out into the world -- especially in Thailand.

Now I can wear a swimsuit at the beach and walk around. I can wear what I want anywhere. Or I can wear nothing at all. And I can be happy.

There's no shame in the human body. We all have one.

If a man is in a relationship with me, he will eventually learn that I have a vagina, a clitoris and labia majora and labia minora, and that I can have sexual intercourse and orgasms (vaginal and clitoral). And in the meantime he will also learn that I like to practice yoga, hike in the mountains, read, swim in the ocean, go to the movies, travel, contribute to society through my work, and....

Curiosity about transsexual surgery is natural. I had it too, once, until I asked what I wanted to know.

A couple of years ago I saw a friend from childhood for the first time in almost two decades. "I had so many questions," he said, "but as soon as I saw you, they all sort of went away."

"That's usually what happens," I said. Perhaps the answers he sought lay just as much in the freedom to ask as in the answers themselves.