The following is an excerpted version from Martina Giselle Ramirez’s and Alicia Partnoy’s book, Happier as a Woman: Transforming Friendships, Transforming Lives published by Cleis Press last year.
It’s Saturday morning in my apartment in Culver City, California. It’s been over two weeks since my gender confirming surgery, and almost a week since I’ve been back in LA. When I returned to campus last week, many people asked me how I felt now that the big surgery was behind me. My standard reply was that I was very happy that it was over, and also surprised that the recovery process was quite easy for me (presumably a benefit of being in shape, thanks to working out every day).
On a deeper level, though, there is much more to being “very happy” than meets the eye. In fact, for me, happiness in this case is based on a mix of credits (good things) and debits (not-such-good things) that are associated with the surgery and other matters. And, as in the financial world, not all credits and debits have the same value. In any case, this mix of “balance sheet” items is as follows.
1. Credit:Being Liberated from the Impact of Testosterone. While I know that my male “hardware” is what allowed my two daughters to come to be, I was so relieved to find it not there after December 22. On a basic level, it was way easier after that to wear everything from a swimsuit to yoga pants (I no longer had to hide certain things). But on a deeper level, since that old hardware wreaked havoc in my life, with everything from my changed voice to facial hair to hair reduction in later years, thanks to the testosterone, I felt like I had been released from prison after being wrongly incarcerated. Those who are not trans have no idea what it’s like to be marooned in a body that you know is not right for you but from which you cannot escape. And all the while, you can see others around you who possess the sort of body you want, ones that change through time in ways you want (e.g., during adolescence). Like Moses in the Bible, you can see the Promised Land, but can never get there. Thus, having the testosterone source and the related hardware removed from my body represented a big psychic victory for me, and led me to being more at peace.
2. Credit:Finally Having a Vaginal Region. While it took many days until the post-surgery packing material could be removed, and while self-dissolving sutures are still in place along its sides, it’s amazing to know a vagina is downstairs! Moreover, since I have to do vaginal dilations several times a day, I can check on its appearance and healing progress with a mirror. Once I’ve healed from the follow-up labiaplasty procedure this coming July, I’ll have a much better sense of what its post-surgery layout will be like. In any case, if opportunities to become intimate come my way, I’ll go into such situations feeling good about myself—and with the hope of feeling sexual pleasure in a manner that I’ve always wanted.
3. Credit:Having a More Feminine Body and Mind.
More than two years of hormone replacement therapy has given me a body with great skin, breasts, softer edges, and fat deposits in new places. Indeed, I’ve gone from the scrawny distance runner I was when I came out in 2010, to the curvier Latina I am today. I also have a greater emotional range than I ever did, and I think of matters a bit differently, as I touched on elsewhere in this book.
Of course, like the former inmate I am, I also live with the legacy of what my years in the “male jail” did to me, which brings me to some debits.
1. Debit:The Things I Missed. There are so many things I never experienced, given my body as it was and the status I was assigned as a result. Two big ones are missing out on puberty, girl style (including the chance to have a moon ceremony, a traditional coming-of-age gathering that is common in many cultures across the Americas) and never having been able to carry and birth a child, or be a mom.
2. Debit:Physical Features Impacted by Testosterone. While there are a multitude of physical legacies that result from testosterone, they are not all wiped away by gender-confirming surgery. For example, when I get out of the shower every day, I see a face that, while happy, has less hair on top than back in my twenties. Seeing women on a daily basis on TV and at work who were not similarly impacted drives home what I lost along the way and was helpless to prevent. And while I have a voice that, to me, is expressive and lively, it’s also in a lower range than it should have been—which is why I have to focus when on the phone so as not to be called “sir” and “Mr.” Medical avenues to permanently address such hormonal “damage” are not available to many, are quite expensive, and can have mixed outcomes among individuals.
Overall then, my happiness balance sheet post-surgery favors the credits, not simply because there are more of them, but also because I think their worth is priceless. Nonetheless, far from being all wine and roses, my life going forward will involve coping with those debits.
Martina Giselle Ramirez is director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University, as well as an expert on spiders. She has won multiple awards for her scholarship and mentorship, including the LGBTQ+ Mentor Award from LMU’s LGBT Student Services Office in 2016.