Binds that tie, Ties that break / by Sydney Baloue

I am less than 48 hours away from undergoing top surgery. It is an interesting and hectic time to say the least. On the one hand, I found myself over the last couple of weeks finding it impossible to wear my binder. For those who are unfamiliar with these contraptions, they're something like a 21st century girdle. I always thought it was weird that these things are sold in sex positive/queer shops as the concept of having a slimming effect for one's silhouette is seriously centuries old (think: 19th century corsets). Nonetheless, this was my little gender-affirming masculine bodice, which I have outgrown. I think it's mainly because of the testosterone as one's fat and muscle rearrange in a masculine way. Also, I work out a lot, so I think the muscle growth in my upper body just wasn't cutting it anymore and wearing my binder was making it hard for me to breathe. Metaphors. This, of course was great timing as my surgery date was right around the corner. But still, the prospect of not being able to wear it worried me as wearing my binder allowed me to "pass" well in public and feel affirmed. I had to wear baggy sweaters and layers for a while over these past few weeks to have a similar effect. It sucks because this is both a safety issue (especially in regards to using the men's toilet at work) and also it is difficult knowing that I am under the gaze of otherwise very trans-unfriendly people at my university and in my department. It was interesting to note how often I was misgendered without my binder over the past few weeks in public places and spaces (Uber rides, restaurants, etc.). And by "interesting" I also mean, "annoying" as well as "bothersome" and "troublesome."

Illustration by Jackson James

Illustration by Jackson James


However, now I am hours away from getting top surgery. There are tons of fora, YouTube videos and other info that you can learn more about this as I don't have the time or energy to delve that deep. In a nutshell, top surgery is a way of masculinizing the chest through a double mastectomy. It's slightly different from the kind of double mastectomy that breast cancer survivors receive as its purpose is to masculinize the chest. There are tons of details and things on the Internet that can go in to depth about why this is different. I will let you, dear reader, seek that info for yourself if you are so inclined.

However, this is an exhilarating, exciting and somewhat nerve-wrecking step. I applaud myself for taking the initiative to be able to get this far with the amazing help and support of so many people. When I think back to where I was a year ago in London having just graduated from my Masters program at the LSE and knowing that this was something I wanted to do, but was having enormous difficulty accessing trans health care in the UK (I could seriously, write a book) to thinking about where I am now, I am grateful and amazed. I am grateful that I have access to incredible trans health care through my student health insurance and that not only will my surgery be covered, but the deductible (for friends outside of the US, this is the nasty extra bit that you still have to pay after your insurance picks up the majority of the tab) will also be covered by a special fund set up by Leslie Townsend, a transgender alumna of Penn who created a fund for Penn students seeking gender-affirming surgery. Amazing, right? I know. I am definitely grateful and I hope to figure out some way in my life to pay this forward. Hopefully, the right moment will come along as I recognize that not everybody gets this opportunity.

That said, I look forward to my mother coming in to town and my best friends coming to help me recover. My surgery date is Wednesday, December 13 and I apparently go under the knife at 12pm EST. The surgery will be 2-3 hours long. I have an incredible surgeon at NYU, Dr. Rachel Bluebond-Langner, who is highly regarded in her field for trans* gender affirming surgeries. She was recommended to me by my health care provider in New York, Callen-Lorde, (again, amazing people). At my last consultation visit, I felt extra special as there was a famous transgender celebrity in the waiting room, whom someone clocked. Apparently, she, the celebrity, was waiting to see her specialist who is also at this practice (that's New York City!). All the more reason for me to feel extra special in getting my work done amongst the stars because obviously, this puts me one step closer to greatness.

But on a serious note, I am grateful to get this work done, not only for it to affirm myself, but it also does feel symbolic that something so personal would happen in New York City, the site of my heart, my community of friends as well as my chosen family, and also my spiritual site of self - Ballroom, West Indian community, Harlem, house music, etc. There is something affirming about that and I'm glad it worked out for me in this way.

It has taken me forever to write a public statement on this because I am in the midst of finals and papers are piling up. As much as I would love to delve in to the greater meanings of transness and so on, I have to acknowledge that a lot of my inability to write comes down to dealing with heaps of bureaucracy, managerial work and other annoying labor that takes away from my "work" of being a PhD student. I have had to deal with my insurance company in making sure that all of the surgeons working on my "team" are covered under my insurance plan. I have had to coordinate with my mother and my friends for their accommodations, figure out transportation to and from the hospital from Philadelphia, as well as figure out the itinerary for the day of surgery itself. All of this while trying to finish a couple 15-20 page essays and presentations. Yep.

It is all the more frustrating to also figure out how to make space for this and for my recovery at my workplace, especially given the precipitation of the past very transphobic events. Recovery from surgery usually lasts about 6-8 weeks. Apparently, you're feeling "fine" around the 4-week mark, but really shouldn't lift anything. And then around 6 weeks, you're back on your feet 100%. This means that I will have a little overlap with classes beginning again next year. Luckily, I have been able to get a new, good academic advisor whom I told about my surgery and who was really affirming. I worry, of course about my department itself. I realized that top surgery should be treated something like a pregnancy in the office at least in terms of reactionary affect. Yes, it's time for celebration and a kind of "birth" in a sense. But of course, when you're dealing with people who are at ground zero in terms of trans knowledge, etiquette, awareness and so on, where does that conversation even begin? One thing I have noticed in the academy is that part of the toxicity and what I would consider toxic masculine behavior is the inability of people to acknowledge when they do not know something. Quite literally saying, "I don't know" sends people in to a state of shock, panic and disorder and many, instead of admitting the obvious, prefer to bullshit their way around, attack "new ideas" and otherwise implode. This is the "nerdy end" of the toxic masculine equation (think: Gamergate, but with JSTOR articles). And in regards to trans health care or awareness where I am surrounded by clueless people who cannot humble themselves in this regard, finding the space to be visible proves difficult yet again. However, if my budding wisdom is correct, patience and mindfulness will allow the universe to reveal the answer of what I am to do at some point along the way.

My main concern is not so much for myself, but rather for future trans students in my department or elsewhere as I want to make sure that they feel that they have the opportunity to transition publicly without any damage to their sense of self in regards to others. I cannot help but think about the transmasculine student of color, Justin Hamano, who committed suicide in the Penn Law School this past semester. One of four deaths on Penn's campus (two of which were suicides) within the first four weeks of school, I was told by a Penn Law student that apparently, this third year law student was living "stealth" (i.e. not out as trans) and was outed as trans. Daring to be visible is not something that is easy for trans people and involves an enormous amount of risk (something that is very clear to me at my university). The unfortunate death of this student and the circumstances around it make me aware of the political significance of me being visible and also of my obligation and duty as someone who has the emotional, social, and political capacity to be visible at Penn. I also recognize the privilege of being extroverted and having quite literally, a global community of queers who live fiercely and unapologetically supporting me. The fact that I have the emotional capacity to deal with whatever comes next, offers me space to care for other trans folks in their journey. Thus, in recognizing that I am not alone in my trans identity, I see that the opportunity for top surgery is something that has been bestowed upon me by trans elders who dared to be visible, organize for their/our rights and create space where there otherwise was none. In that regard, I do not take this next step for me lightly as I know that it also comes with a social and political obligation to others who will come after me. Finding how I pay it forward will definitely be on my mind and suggestions are most welcome.

Besides just prepping logistics, my guided meditation teacher gave me some tips on things to do. One of them was to write a good-bye letter to my breasts. I think this is something breast cancer survivors do, I imagine. She suggested I frame it as a kind of 'it didn't work out, but we can part ways amicably' sort of letters. I think I did a good job of that and could have been a bit more harsh, but hopefully, my breasts got the drift.

I am excited to have something to look forward to in the New Year and this makes me feel less bad for not being able to to walk ball competitions as many of my friends are doing this at the moment around the world. I am excited as this will be the next step in affirming and reclaiming my personhood. Again, I am grateful to my community and my many communities around the world and appreciate being held in this moment of immense vulnerability.