Time was, I worked in a bookshop. It was a branch of an American chain that expanded into the UK before collapsing in the wake of the 2008 crash. Other book chains weathered that storm, but the UK satellite of our company had the disadvantage of having to deal with a global financial crisis on top of the ongoing crisis in publishing and bookselling while being led by a management who knew nothing about selling books (and who in some cases gave very little indication of ever having read any). Once we discovered our store was going to be closed as part of the chain going into liquidation, the standard rules no longer applied. Especially when it came to in store entertainment. Desperate to keep us from jumping ship during the busy Christmas period in the run-up to our closure, the liquidators agreed to allow us to play our own records on the store PA.
And that’s how I found myself laughing my tits off in the middle of recovering the Middle Eastern History section, as ‘Stupid Questions’ by New Model Army suddenly came blaring out of the speakers.
Knowing the woman who’d put the record on, I knew she’d have chosen this song for the same reason I found it hilarious: answering stupid questions is a large part of a bookstore employee’s job, from the bog-standard ‘I’m looking for a book, I saw it in an airport, it had a blue cover’ (which 99% of the time meant Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons) to the customer who refused to be persuaded that Pride and Prejudice had been written not by Jane Austen but Jane Eyre. Playing this tune was a tiny act of revenge on them: not the majority of our customers, but the significant minority who married cluelessness with ignorant, unjustified aggression and disdain. I thought, particularly, of a truly horrible piece of work who had gloated, astonishingly meanly, when she was able to find a cash-in Dr Who Quick Reads spin-off book which one of our youngest staff had been unable to locate for her. Don’t ask any more stupid questions.
We’ve already talked about stupid questions previously on this blog, when I pointed out the sheer tedium of the Real Woman Question, as posed re trans women by Jenni Murray, among others, and today I want to talk about a related question, every trans woman’s favourite:
You know! The surgery! You know, when the…and the…so you…y’know, the…the…
A couple of my friends have been approved for surgery recently, and it’s made me reassess my views of the operation. Not to the extent that I necessarily don’t want ever to have it, but that I feel less strongly about its necessity.
When I finally decided to start doing something about my gender dysphoria, I was absolutely, 100%, dead-set on getting the surgery. The hole was the goal: as far as I was concerned the process of transitioning had a straightforward beginning and end, and I aimed to reach the end of that process as fast as I could. I also felt, deep down, that non-op trans women, or trans women who worked in porn or sex work and needed to keep their bits as a lucrative USP…well, this is embarrassing to admit, but I felt like they weren’t really trying? Ugh. As I say, this was me early in my transition. At the time, on some subconscious level, I’d bought into a hierarchy of transness. And I wanted to get to the top. To go all the way. To get there. To win.
And then? Well, then I transitioned, and found out that it isn’t quite that simple.
It makes no sense to consider ‘the surgery’ to be the endpoint for trans women. Even vaginoplasty itself has to be followed by weeks of intensive recovery, and a lifetime of dilation. This doesn’t make us any less women; but by the same token, it doesn’t make post-op trans women more woman than pre-or non-op trans women.
Once you’ve experienced transition, once you’ve reprogrammed your body at a hormonal level, brought your voice and appearance into harmony with the way you’ve always truly felt as an act of fucking will (trans women know more about magic than anyone because our existence is an act of fucking magic) you realise that you have learned a lot about what it means to be a woman whatever you decide to have done to your bits (and there’s a surprising amount of options).
Whatever I do to my bits I move through the world as a woman now. I confront sexism and patriarchy as a woman now, just as I confronted it as a girl being forced to live as a boy in my childhood. I understand my sexuality as a woman’ sexuality now, and as only one of an endless variety of valid female sexualities. I understand my spirituality as a woman’s spirituality, albeit one coloured by my mistaken male upbringing. And I’ve learned that being a woman isn’t about the spaces between our legs or even the space between our ears but about the space between us. Male and female, masculine and feminine, these are concepts that can only exist in relation to each other.
Transitioning is not a zero-sum game. It’s a process of bringing the external and internal into harmony. It’s more like learning how to dance than how to fight, though sometimes we still have to take it to the streets. Finding out whether we’re packing a hormonally modified penis or a full neovagina might make you feel better about your boner, but other than that it means nothing. It’s a stupid question, because it distracts you from the hundred more interesting questions you could be asking (here’s one to start you off: how has sex changed for you since you transitioned? If you’re dating a trans woman I guarantee you’ll get much more interesting answers to that than asking if we’ve been under the knife yet).
It’s a stupid question.
So stop asking it.