Being Trans Doesn’t Mean You Were Born Into the Wrong Body

I was 13 years old the first time I entered a trans collective to ask for information. It was the Col·lectiu de Transsexuals de Catalunya (CTC, or Transsexuals Collective of Catalonia), which at that time met at Barcelona’s Casal Lambda—a gay and lesbian organization. I went in alone, sat down, listened to the entire meeting and then left. What I heard there scared me so badly that it was a full year before I returned to another similar space.

It’s not that they were hostile toward me; just the opposite. The members, mostly trans women, were very welcoming. But they were locked in very serious debates about the rights of sex workers, the limits of the term “transsexual,” discrimination among trans people over whether a person wanted to have surgery or not, among many other things. I left terrified. Terrified at the thought of being someone like them in the midst of a wave of transphobia that I’d internalized. It terrified me to think of my body being operated on; I was terrified of all those things they talked about falling on top of me like an avalanche. I wanted to run away and that’s basically what I did.

When I was ready to try again, a year later, I found a new space that had been created by a group of trans men, former members of the CTC, called Transsexual Men Group of Barcelona (GTMB for its initials in Spanish). And this time I stayed. Every Sunday I raced through the streets to the city’s Gay Collective, which housed the weekly meetings of this small, magical family of trans boys, sometimes accompanied by their siblings, parents, partners, or friends. It was a place I would love to return to if it still existed, where I learned the immeasurable value of building support networks among trans people.

I remember vividly one of our favorite pastimes: looking at photographs of results of operations. It sounds surreal, but at that time it felt necessary. We would sit at a big table in the meeting room and open up the three-ring binders. Inside, like a photo album, were images of men, mostly from the United States, who had undergone mastectomies, hysterectomies, phalloplasties, and other surgeries. Below each photo the name of the man was neatly printed, English names that sounded strange to us and were hard to pronounce (Bruce, Jack, Richard, Joe…) along with the date of their operation and the name of the surgeon. We commented on the images, compared them, and we imagined ourselves in their shoes. The lucky ones among us had already had an operation or two and recounted the process to us over and over, from pre-op to post-op, sparing no details.

My favorite days were when someone had managed to tape an episode of a BBC documentary series about being transgender that aired in the middle of the night on Canal+. We plugged in a huge TV set that quickly swallowed the VHS and watched in rapt silence. We almost always recognized the surgeons and almost never the anonymous protagonists. And that’s how we spent every Sunday, eating sunflower seeds, laughing, and welcoming new members to the tribe.

I was happy there in that group that was my oxygen after a week at school, and I dreamed of being one of those boys in the photo album. I couldn’t wait to have a body like theirs, and sharing my impatience made me feel lighter. But unlike the other members, I’d have a long time to wait because I was still a minor. It would be years before I could even get my diagnosis.

So I waited, and in the meantime I participated in the shows of support from which I was never excluded, even though I was just a kid. I went to the hospital to visit friends as they woke up from anaesthesia, accepted hand-me-down girdles (chest binders didn’t exist at that time) from members who had finally been able to get rid of their breasts, and commiserated with those who woke up to discover that things hadn’t gone so well, that their scars were huge, that they’d have to go back under the knife to redo something. All these experiences shaped my thoughts on corporal modification as I realized it was much less romantic than the photos had led us to believe.

Even though that time in my life seems distant to me now—I’m talking about the mid-2000s—it wasn’t that long ago. More than a decade has passed, and in that time the trans movement has taken a giant leap forward.

Back then, the body was the epicenter of the debate. And I don’t mean body positivity as an empowering idea, but the body as testing grounds for surgical techniques as life-saving tools. The debates we had at the GTMB—a time- and place-specific snapshot of Barcelona’s trans movement—sowed the seeds for a different way of approaching trans activism, although we didn’t know it at the time. Despite the fact that bodily modification was an omnipresent topic of conversation at our meetings, there was something vitally important about those relationships, which is that we never judged anyone for deciding to put their bodies through one process or another. No one was seen as more or less transgender (at that time, the umbrella term “trans” didn’t exist) for choosing to have an operation or not. Unlike what happened in other collectives of transgender persons (generally women), in which there were fierce debates about whether a non-operated trans woman should be considered a woman or even transgender, the GTMB took a different stance.

I don’t mean to imply that we were better: trans women discussed these issues with greater intensity because they were much more vulnerable to stigma and violence, making the issue of projecting a positive image in society essential. What I’m trying to say is that whatever one of us did with our bodies was not judged by other members, and the safety of that environment allowed us to ask questions without fear of being exiled from the community.

The arrival of trans men on the trans activism scene in the late 1990s brought with it new ways of thinking about the work done by trans organizations. The main reason is probably that gender transitions for trans men had different implications: if we weren’t talking about the same things as our female counterparts, it’s because we didn’t have to combat the same stigma surrounding sex work or constant violence in the public sphere that they did.

Then, in 2006, a pressing debate began within trans organizations across different parts of Spain, causing us to reconfigure everything. There was a major push for the passage of a law that would allow trans people to change their names on their ID cards. This was something that then-president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had promised the trans community, but his term was about to end and he had yet to enact the measure. So a group of activists decided to put forward an emergency proposal to try to get it passed before the upcoming elections. And they achieved their goal.

We weren’t accustomed to debating trans politics at the GTMB; we were more like a group of friends who supported each other emotionally. We were invested in each member’s everyday adventures, but had never waded deeply into legal issues and political strategies. The e-mail calling us to participate in the drafting of the law sparked internal debate, revealing our vastly different political stances. Some members of the group considered it a worthy cause and they went to Madrid to help work on the law, while others thought the underlying proposal was totally unacceptable and needed to be discussed further.

And that’s how some of us sat down to develop a critical response and ended up forming a new collective, the Guerrilla Travolaka [Trannie Guerrillas]. A few months later, the GTMB definitively disbanded and our small family dispersed. But I still hold in my heart the memories, friendships, and experiences I had in that space, the best incubator for activism that I can imagine. I daresay that everyone who spent time there holds a profoundly loving memory of their experience.

The Guerrilla Travolaka started out as three trans guys—quickly joined by some lesbian activists who were ready and willing to throw themselves into the project as much as (or more than) the rest of us. We didn’t know how, but we knew that we wanted to denounce the outsized role of doctors in decisions that so greatly impacted our lives, as well as the perpetual medical treatment of trans people, which concealed an asphyxiating, normalizing gender system. The collective was frenetically active for three years and, by the time we finally halted our work, the seeds we’d sown sprouted into many other projects and initiatives that further disseminated our interpretation of the trans struggle.

My time with the Travolakas was without a doubt one of the most brutal experiences in my life, because it represented a very deep rift between what I’d learned about trans people and what I began to experience. I’d say that this was when I began to feel that my body had been stolen from me, that we were being robbed of our bodies. I wasn’t yet able to articulate this sensation in any coherent way; instead, it manifested as an overwhelming rage and acted as the driving force for our small but important activities that helped raise awareness for trans issues among other social movements in Barcelona.

There were two episodes that had marked me profoundly, and which motivated me to join the Guerrilla Travolaka. Both occurred in France, where radical trans activists had been meeting for years. In July 2006, some of us made a pilgrimage to the Universités d'été euroméditerranéennes des homosexualités (UEEH), an event with a very long name created by radical lesbian, gay, trans, and intersex activists, which has been held every year since 1979 in Marseille, France. I never would have heard about it if I hadn’t been invited by Karine Espineira, a French-Chilean activist and now a good friend. What I experienced there was transformative. More than 600 people from different countries participated in debates and assemblies, attended concerts and exhibitions.

I suddenly found myself inside a bubble filled with trans activists from around the world, hearing empowering speeches that were critical of the medical discourse and the psychiatrization of those who identified as transgender. I was awed, in total admiration, and I dreamed of the day that these political proposals might find their place in my hometown. The meetings were held in the Calanques National Park, a paradise of seaside cliffs and hidden beaches. And it was here that I experienced an awakening. As the final day drew near, a beach trip was planned. Groups of people, some of whom had known each other for years, but the majority for only a matter of days, began to prepare for the excursion.

I wanted to go, too. I wanted to participate in the group experience but, as I stumbled over the rocks, I was anxious about what I would do when I got to the water. Of course, I didn’t plan on swimming, not if it meant exposing my body.

And then I got to the beach. I didn’t know what to expect but when I lifted my head and looked around, I saw a scene that would forever change me. Gender categories had disappeared. There were a thousand possible bodies, bodies I’d never seen before and which at the same time looked so similar to my own. Trans bodies in the water, dressed or naked, loud laughter and sunscreen everywhere.

And, just like that, after so many hours, weeks, and months spent admiring the bodies of the boys in the three-ring binder, I suddenly found myself face to face with the exact opposite of what I’d imagined. I don’t remember anything else about that day, I don’t remember if I went swimming, I just remember that I was happy. I no longer wanted to be a boy like the ones in the photo album. I wanted to be like those people on the beach, wild and free, jumping from the rocks into the Mediterranean Sea. For the next nine summers I returned to these meetings and, yes, I eventually got into the water.

That same summer, the French trans activists I’d just met (and fallen in love with) invited us to join Existrans, a trans rally in Paris, the following October. We immediately agreed. I couldn’t stop thinking how great it would be to have something like that in Barcelona, where trans visibility was practically non-existent and we needed to do something about it. These experiences motivated me to return home and work nonstop with our small guerrilla trans group toward this goal. Six months later, our French trans friends came to Barcelona to help us with great enthusiasm and generosity. And a month later, in October 2007, Barcelona hosted the first trans rally in all of Spain.

Although the Guerrilla Travolaka’s main objective was to denounce the pathologization of transgenderism, a challenge to bodily modification can be read between the lines in the group’s manifesto, in which we said:

We defend Doubt, we believe in “going backwards” medically as a way of moving forward. We believe that no process of construction should be labelled irreversible. We want to shine a light on the beauty of androgyny. We believe in the right to remove our bandages and breathe easy as well as the right to keep them on, in the right to good surgeons and not butchers, in free access to hormonal treatments without a certificate from any psychiatrist, in the right to self-administer hormones. We demand the right to live without asking for permission.

This excerpt denounces blind acceptance of the medical model, and defends bodily autonomy. Although it may seem that essentially what is being defended is the right to modify the body, it is also defending the body that does not desire modification, the body that remains androgynous.

Originally published in Spanish as A la conquista del cuerpo equivocado, 2018. Editorial Egales, S.L., Spain. © Miquel Missé. This excerpt has been adapted, by permission of the author and publisher, from the English edition, The Myth of the Wrong Body, 2022, © Polity Press, translated by Frances Riddle.  


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/06/10/being-trans-doesnt-mean-you-were-born-into-the-wrong-body/

Herein lies the philosophical question, then: if you’re just androgynous and okay with that, are you really trans? Maybe being trans does in fact mean you were born in the wrong body, and you are simply not trans, you’re something else.

Also, I can’t help but ask: do you think having free access to whatever drugs, surgeries, and therapies you choose without any professional oversight should extend to non-trans people and conditions unrelated to gender, as well? Why or why not? I get annoyed when I hear extremely libertarian arguments about personal autonomy invoked like this where everybody sounds like friggin’ Murray Rothbard, but they do it on one hobby horse issue and that’s it; on every other political question they’re somewhere between Clement Attlee and Jerry Falwell. Abortion activists, second Amendment activists, the drug legalization folks, the author of this piece…It’s maddening.

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I’m a retired physician, and the self-administration of hormones with no medical oversight scares the pants off me. Even the fact menopausal women can buy HRT over the counter with no prescription is downright dangerous. I’ve prescribed it for many, many women - but only after a careful discussion about the risks, including hypertension, venous thrombosis, stroke, heart attack, and increased cancer risk, such as in the breast and uterus. If someone wants it understanding all that, and they have no glaring contra-indications that would let them sue me for my recklessness, then they are very welcome to have it, and I hoped they would do well on it. Here we are looking at higher doses being potentially taken for very much longer periods of time HRT is usually taken for 5-10 years. Hormones for transitioners might start at 15 and go on for the rest of their lives. How often would the author’s joyous vision of bodies enjoying themselves on the beach turn to terrified people in ICU long before their time? We don’t know. We all know teenagers are immortal, invulnerable and invincible, and that is precisely why they should not be buying these drugs over the counter.

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As I read through this essay, I became conscious of how similar the narrative is to a religious/existential one rather than ‘psychological’, which is itself a thoughtcraft put together by synods of psychologians, rather than researchers using scientific method. .(Anyone interested in psychiatry as a pseudoscience might care to follow Dr James Davies on the subject of how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -the DSM- has been put together, and the rather suspect relationships between the committees that created it and the pharmaceutical industry.).

Anyhow, the alleluia tone that the author sets is highly redolent of a Billy Graham conversionfest, with all the ‘spiritual uplift’ you might expect from a new acolyte who has just ‘found God’.

And as to ‘being in the wrong body’, the author’s discovery that this actually doesn’t make much sense (except for a new ‘born again’/‘transed’ convert) merely underlines how close this ‘journey’ is to voodoo superstition that claims people can be ‘inhabited’ by spirits.

It seems to me that amongst a great many other things, the trans cult reflects just how damaged our existential/social infrastructure has become in the wake of the decline of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and its replacement by public relations, marketing and sales inc., which does wonders for a privatized version of totalitarian governance, but leaves third generation ‘shop troops’ existentially asphyxiating for lack of cultural oxygen, or any sort of leverages that help secure, stabilize and strengthen robust and resilient character in the face of inevitably variously challenging circumstances.

So, it should not come as a total surprise if we see outbreaks of asylum grade fruitcakery coming out of the midst of desperados that have lost their grounding and compass.

Transing is emblematic of just how thin the underfoot ice is getting generally, and how vulnerable to social contagion that makes us to any snake oil opportunist with a plausible line, who can capitalize on foolish collective weaknesses just begging to be exploited.

Afterall, 50-70 years of subsuming a disciplined economy and culture of needs and wants to ones of fantasies of desire and expectation of immediate and convenient satiation, has the long-term effect of eroding the boundaries between knowing fantasy and unknowing delusion to a vanishing point, where mass audiences can be sold anything if the right buttons are pushed…

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There’s a useful new word.

Anyway, nice to read something from the opposition.

No one is “born in the wrong body”. It cannot be thus because if it were, it would imply a soul. And people don’t have them. No one does.

What strikes me most about this article and so many in the “trans debate” is that the people most deeply involved seem to have no interest in anything other than their own solipsistic perversions of being. There is so little focus on accomplishment in life and everything seems to be a long, weird obsession with what they are and not what they do.

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But when you do nothing then the only kind of existence you can have it to be something. And being without doing is what we call Identity.

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Ray, I am not quite clear how what I am saying is ‘from the opposition’. Could you clarify that in the light of the following…

My analysis tries to provide an ambient explanation for why all sides inside the present regime of ‘Indulgence Capitalism’ are wrestling with infrastructure damage within the commons precincts they are supposed to be stewarding, whether that is the natural environment or the existential/social one, because of overall misgovernance over a protracted multigenerational period going back to at least the 1960s…

The fantasy driven deregulatory and privatizing regime diarchy of neo-con free marketeers and The Woke are in exactly the same trouble with their administration, and have to prop their legitimacy by blame shifting and/or denial in ways that provide a mutually canceling Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum sectarian conflict model.

This prevents the ordinary punters from getting a global view that would tell them that the whole regime is not just dysfunctional from top to bottom, but preparing to crash and burn in the foreseeable future, as the natural and social/existential commons contemporaneously go belly up.

And the only conceivable way to even begin to fix that is to stop the obfuscatory gobbledygook that currently passes for democratic discourse, so that it can be cleaned up by some 'ol fashioned honest soul searching and self-disclosure by all sides… which is just not going to happen.

Far too much is at stake for everybody in a game where the stakes have become so impossibly large, everyone is playing for keeps and no one can afford to lose.

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Good Morning Christopher:

Pardon! I meant the article itself, not your post sir. I approve of Quillette occasionally giving us an article by someone from the other side of the cultural divide. On issues like trans we’re pretty unanimously opposed, excepting Ella.

Right. If I were to construct a just-so story about how we got here it would start with PC. We got so used to pretending to believe things we know aren’t true that we forgot how to tell the truth and how to confront lies. Wokeness is after all just PC put into practice is it not? It does loop back to your indulgence capitalism theme tho – Madison Avenue learned how to sell anything with false advertising and politics, being a consumer good, is also sold with false advertising. Politicians are admen are they not?

I know lefties who do not even know that there is such a thing as the social commons let alone that it might be important and require nourishing. It’s one of the clearest differences between the left and the right. A useful parallel is seen in the decay of physical infrastructure which, in the short term, can be seen as ‘just there’ and taken for granted. But, when a bridge collapses at least one can see it. When the social fabric tears it isn’t so visible. Good test of a true conservative: infrastructure first both physical and social.

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