In this post I talk about how my body modification feelings sexualized as I got older and how they became intense desires to change gendered aspects of my body. I can’t tell this part of the story without giving some pretty explicit details about my sexuality though, so if you’d rather not read about my sex life, then I invite you to skip this post and go check out the most adorable cat video of all time. Folks who want the full story, please read on…
Someone once asked me what my artistic medium was. I hadn’t really ever thought of myself as artistic and I certainly hadn’t thought about what my medium would be if I were, so I was surprised to find myself immediately answering that it was sex. As I thought about it more, though, I realized that was right. Sex is and always has been an artistic medium for me. It’s a place where I don’t judge myself and I don’t try to make myself make sense. It’s a playful game of exploration, experimentation, adventure, and personal growth for me. I try out feelings and ways of being in the context of sex that I would be too scared, uncomfortable, or judgmental to allow myself to try out “in real life”. In light of that, I suppose it’s not really surprising that my gender issues showed up in sex long before I understood or acknowledged them in other parts of my life.
The first memory I have of specifically thinking about changing sex aspects of my body was when I was in college. I was probably 19 at the time, and I was having a conversation with a close friend about relationships. Somewhat spontaneously, I said that if one day I were dating a lesbian and she wanted me to get my penis removed, I’d be fine with that. I’m not quite sure what made me think I might eventually be dating a lesbian, or what made me think I’d date someone who would ask me to get my penis removed, but I know that once I’d had the thought, it only took me a few seconds of contemplation to decide I’d be OK with it. And it wasn’t long before I was more than OK with it; I was specifically turned on by the idea. Within the next few months, I wrote an erotic story where I lost my penis. In the story, my girlfriend “convinced” me to try out a new medical procedure that would allow us to switch genitals with each other for a week. The story went into some of the details about how it impacted the dynamic of our sex, putting me into a more “feminine” role and her into a more “masculine” one. At the end of the story, we both decided we loved the change and we agreed that she would keep the penis and I would keep the vagina.
I knew that probably wasn’t the most common fantasy for a straight guy to be having, but I just chalked it up me being a generally weird person. I always tended to be attracted to andro/dykey lesbians, while the supposedly “super hot” women on magazine covers didn’t really do anything for me. Also, the last person I’d dated at that point was a very strong, bold, queer girl who came across very dykey. I was madly in love with her and I think a lot of that was because she gave me vicarious access my gender identity in ways that I felt like I couldn’t access it on my own. I remember at least once when we were fooling around, I asked her if I could “play the girl” and she would “play the boy.” These sorts of things set a context that made writing erotica about trading genitals with my girlfriend seem like part of my “standard weirdness” and not something that would set off any special alarms. I wouldn’t have even known back then what alarm could be set off. I knew I wasn’t a gay guy and that was the only real possibility I knew about other than being straight guy.
The first time I remember being fascinated with breasts (other than in the way most straight guys are fascinated by breasts) was when I was about 21. Marilyn Manson had released his “Mechanical Animals” album and I found myself awestruck by the cover. He was dressed as an alien and he had breasts (with no nipples). I was so obsessed with that picture that I bought a poster of it and put it on the wall in my dorm room. I wasn’t really a fan of Marilyn Manson (I thought he was a less talented, more grandiose version of Trent Reznor) but I felt like I needed to “cover my tracks” and make people think I was into the music rather than the androgynous alien with breasts. So, I bought the album and I tried hard to like it. Eventually I gave up on the music, though, and just enjoyed the poster.
Around that same time I also discovered a body modification website called BME. It had thousands of user-submitted pictures and stories about all kinds about body modification, from the very simple to the very radical. People would post photos of their tattoos and piercings as well as photos and stories about how they cut off their own digits, limbs, and even their genitals. I got really into that site and it became of staple of my “left handed browsing” for many years. I loved the pictures of tough, andro/butch girls with tattoos and piercings, and I loved the pictures of people missing digits and limbs and breasts and penises. BME was the first place I ever saw images of trans people who’d had gender-related surgeries. I didn’t know what “transgender” even was at that point, and I didn’t realize at the time that these were trans people, I just knew that the photos were awesome and they really turned me on.
I was also in the regular habit of fantasizing about various ways I might not have access to my penis during sex. For instance, I liked playing with taping it to the side or tucking it back between my legs so it looked like I didn’t have a penis at all. Getting it out of the way in one manner or another became a big theme in my sex life during and after college. One of my girlfriends near that time also had a habit of “making” me shave my legs and wear a dress. It’s funny that neither of us really thought about our sex as being very gender-focused at the time, but in retrospect it seems hard to think of much of our play that didn’t involve experimenting with gender.
When I was 24, I got my first pop-culture exposure to the idea of gender transition. I watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a comedic, dramatic musical about a person whose “sex change operation got botched.”
I didn’t really know anything about the movie beforehand, it just seemed like it would be fun so I watched it. It turned out to be a lot more than fun; it excited me and touched me in ways I couldn’t even understand. (It’s really a wonderful movie and it gets better and better every time I see it.) Anyway, I kept telling my best friend about it and I ended up watching it again with her. Afterward she looked at me and said “You should think very carefully before you get your penis removed.” I was shocked. My reaction was some combination of indignantly thinking “I had no intention of getting my penis removed and why would you even think that?” mixed with a vague, mostly subconscious feeling of disappointment that she was probably right, and that I probably shouldn’t just rush out and do it without taking the time to think carefully about it first. (I spent the next 11 years thinking about it before I finally made the decision. I guess that’s probably enough thinking.)
Anyway, over the next couple of years, I got more and more obsessed with BME. Oddly though, I wasn’t actually changing my body any. I had one small tattoo and my ears had been pierced since I was 18, but it just never felt quite right when I thought about getting another tattoo or another piercing. That wasn’t the kind of change I actually needed. When I was 26 or 27, I started to pay much more attention to penectomy section of BME than any other part of the site. By that point, having my penis removed was my most intense and recurrent sexual fantasy. But, I still didn’t really get that my fantasies about having a butch girlfriend and getting rid of my penis and playing a more passive sexual role were all rooted in gender issues. I thought I must just be pretty sexually submissive and also obsessed with body modification. I was still thinking of the body-mod interest in a pretty generic (non-gender-related) way though. So, even though it was always my penis that I fantasized about removing, I thought maybe getting rid of some other body part, like a finger, might satisfy my craving. So I started seriously thinking about cutting off one of my fingers to see if that would help.
I got involved in the BME community and started meeting people who had removed their digits and limbs. I remember messaging with a guy who lived in Florida who had cut off most of his fingers and one of his legs. We also ended up talking on the phone once or twice. I remember being disappointed that we didn’t have much in common personally, but I was fascinated to hear about his amputations. Somewhere in there I also started learning to play guitar so I decided it would be wiser to cut off some of my toes and keep all of my fingers. I debated doing it myself but it seemed safer to find someone who knew what they were doing to help me. (Plus I’ve been known to pass out when I get cut and see my own blood. Yeah, yeah, I’m totally the butchest of them all, I know.) Anyway, I ended up finding a guy at a piercing shop who said he would cut off my toes for me and we met up once to talk about it. He flaked out pretty quickly after that, but I wasn’t too bothered. Ultimately removing one of my fingers or toes wasn’t really what I wanted and some part of me knew that.
Somehow, despite the intense obsession with getting rid of my penis and the occasional desire to have breasts, I still wasn’t seeing the bigger picture. In retrospect it seems a bit obvious, as if someone had spray painted “HELLO! YOU’RE TRANSGENDER!” on my wall and I couldn’t quite understand what it meant. I suppose in a way that makes sense, though. I didn’t really expect to turn out trans. Especially growing up male in the American South in the 1980’s. Not to mention being primarily attracted to women. And not being very feminine or liking women’s clothes much. In some sense, there weren’t very many of signs, even though the signs that were there were huge, flashing neon. So many things seemed to say I was a straight guy, though. A really weird straight guy, but a straight guy.
When I was 31, I made a pivotal choice. I decided that I wanted my next relationship to be with a partner who would play a more “traditionally masculine” role and let me play a more “traditionally feminine” role in our relationship. So, I put an ad on Craigslist looking for a woman who wanted to be “the man” in the relationship and who would be happy with me being “the woman”. I mostly just got spam in response, but the fact that I actually posted the ad was an act of acknowledgement on my part. It forced me to finally admit to myself that I had a gender issue of some kind. The next year, when I was 32, I mentioned my gender issues to a friend who turned out to be quite savvy about gender theory. She recommended that I read “My Gender Workbook” by Kate Bornstein. That was a wonderful, eye-opening book and it helped me decide that I wasn’t a man. I didn’t know what I was (or even quite what that meant) but I knew I wasn’t a man. My friend asked me what I could say about my gender, and I smiled and just said that I wished I had angel wings.
I feel like it took me soooo long to put all of the pieces together and figure out that I was trans. It’s surprisingly difficult to realize something about yourself that you never see or hear about happening to anyone else. My whole life, people told me I was a straight guy, so I figured I must be a straight guy and I tried to be the best straight guy I could be. But eventually the evidence to the contrary piled up so high that it outweighed the popularity of the “straight guy” theory and I finally had to admit that I was probably trans.