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Opinion: Trans People Don’t Need Sex Reassignment Surgery to Exist


a head shot of Nikolai Mather
Queen City Nerve contributor Nikolai Mather

A major misconception most cis people have is that the goal of every transition is to come closer to being cis. On June 23, we learned that a federal court struck down a North Carolina law requiring trans people to undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to change the gender marker on their birth certificates. It’s cause for celebration and a reason to keep fighting, but I wonder if some cis people heard the news and scratched their heads. 

Wouldn’t we want to get gender-affirming surgery anyways?

It’s amazing how often you hear this as a trans person. Hormone therapy has never been more sophisticated. Gender-affirming clothing like chest binders and breast forms have never been more widely available. We’ve got new names, new genders, sick new xenomorph pronouns like xyr and ze. Yet cis people still believe that a “complete” transition is not only what every trans person wants, but what every trans person needs to be seen as male or female.

(And to them, it is just male or female. What does a “complete transition” look like for someone who’s nonbinary?)

It’s easy to make this some morose tale about access, or obstacles to such that trans people face. But even if we got Gov. Roy Cooper to channel ARPA funding toward free on-demand phalloplasty, you’ll probably find that few people jump at the chance. The process is painful. It takes years-long cycles of work and recovery. The complications can be grotesque; the results can be frustrating. And while that’s not true for all transitional procedures, every surgery carries the risk of losing the capacity for pleasure, the ability to function and financial security.

Cis people cannot fathom why trans people would go through all that trouble if it was not in service of conformity. Why endure the humiliation of social transition only to remain clockable for the rest of your life? To that I say: Why would I want to look like you? I didn’t transition so I could wear wraparound sunglasses and grow a beard that doesn’t connect.

My sense of masculinity stands whether you personally approve of it or not. If my identity depended on what people told me I was, then I wouldn’t transition, would I? Though I’m happy about this case’s outcome, I’d be a man even if the court said otherwise.

Besides, even if there was some little trans boy yearning to be called Daryl and drive a F-150, those things won’t make him cis. Nothing can make us cis. Even if a miracle of science allows us to copy-edit our chromosomes, trans people are forever grounded in the experience of gender in motion, whether we like it or not. And some don’t! 

Some trans people get all the work done and go stealth. But their reasons are not nearly as shallow as “wanting to be cis.” Maybe they want to be safe when using the restroom. Maybe they want drunk cis girls to stop yelling “yasss!” at them when they walk down the street. Maybe that’s just what makes them comfortable.

As corny as it sounds, if there were ever a goal for transition, it’s that: to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. It could mean sex reassignment surgery, but it could also mean getting electrolysis or a more mellifluous voice. It could require major concessions of the body and spirit, but it could also be as easy as accepting that you can be nonbinary and have double Ds.

The goal is not to be cis; the goal is to be happy. As we sink into the nadir of trans bodily autonomy, it’s moving for this judge to affirm what we’ve always known: We are who we say we are. Sex reassignment surgery is not transsexual nirvana. It is one solution for some trans people’s dysphoria. We are complete with or without surgery, and we would be complete without the state’s recognition. There is no court that can outlaw our sense of self. 

I’m glad we’re past this fixation on “complete” transition, because it obscures the real problems at hand. Charlotte is the second deadliest American city for Black trans women, who remain the most dehumanized and most brutalized members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

North Carolina still lacks a comprehensive nondiscrimination ordinance for queer and trans people, instead relying on a patchy network of city laws to protect the most vulnerable. As reflected in this issue’s cover story, the political war on trans children and their families is mounting every day while trans elders languish in isolation, struggling to connect with their community in the digital age. As Leslie Feinberg writes in Stone Butch Blues, “I don’t feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body. I just feel trapped.”

It’s incredible to be finally free of these medical restraints. So onward. What cage will we open next?

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