I want to have a penis. There, I said it.
This is not a new coming-out. I’m not a trans man. I don’t want to take testosterone, I don’t want to transition, I don’t want to cut off my breasts or sew up my vulva. There is no news here about my self or my gender identity; I’m just telling you something you might not have known about how it manifests.
It goes through cycles, you see. I’ll spend a while enjoying acting femme and content to look and be treated like a woman; then a month or two will pass and I’ll find myself wanting to bind every day, feeling uncomfortable being called “ma’am,” and considering packing (although not doing it, because I don’t have a soft packer and who wants to deal with a boner all day in class).
The first few times I oscillated to one extreme or the other, it scared me. Unable to see past the way I felt at that moment, I was afraid that I’d been wrong all along: at one extreme, that I was just a girl who overthinks things, and at the other, that I was just a boy but couldn’t admit it. After two or three cycles I noticed the pattern and relaxed a little, trusting that the phases of strong feeling would pass and continuing to comfortably define myself by the variation itself.
And they do pass, back into my ground state of relative genderlessness and then eventually to the other extreme or even the same one again. But knowing that this will happen doesn’t make the experience of the peaks any less real. On the feminine side, it’s usually not a big deal; I’m socialized as a girl, I know how to do that and it matches the way that people expect to interact with me. The masculine side … is not so easy.
This hit home for me recently when I read Seth Fischer’s Notes From a Unicorn, an excellent and compelling essay about being bisexual in a world that doesn’t believe he exists. In it, he describes going through periods of trying to “just be straight” or “just be gay,” and towards the end details a particular bit of sex during one of the latter phases:
I moaned and screamed and made all the right noises … but I just couldn’t come. [I] was right on the edge. Right there. So I did what no one admits to their lovers they do but that everyone does: I closed my eyes and let my mind wander to other people. I [forced] myself to think about men, only men, men men men men men men, and then it slipped in there …. I thought, for a second, about Willow [and] I fucking erupted. I came so hard I was worried about getting enough air.
That moment, that slip, felt so familiar that my heart sank. How many times have I been trying to come, and trying to come, and flicking through my mental gallery of fantasies for the right thing to set me off, and then I hit the one where instead of rubbing my clit, like I’m actually doing, I’m running my fingers through someone’s hair as they suck my dick and it’s over in a second. I don’t feel guilty about this, or ashamed–I don’t think it’s wrong for me to want it. Instead, I feel helpless and sad. What I crave isn’t just something I don’t have; it’s something I can’t.
The worst it’s ever been was towards the end of a Skype call with Leon and Ali, after I think she’d already gotten off and he and I were still turned on and masturbating–watching each other and turning each other on, getting off on that–one of those delicious circles, except this time it wasn’t quite working for me. The sight of him stroking his hard cock made my clit swell and my pussy wet, but I was nowhere close to orgasm and not getting there. Eventually it hit me: the ache I was feeling wasn’t because I wanted to be playing with his cock (although I did). It was because I wanted to be playing with mine.
I wanted to be masturbating the way he was masturbating, sliding my hand along the length of a shaft instead of just pushing against my clit with my fingertips. The knowledge that it was impossible was suddenly so painful and so unsexy that I immediately gave it a hard shove out of my head, and found something generic and hot to think about to drag out the reluctant orgasm. He finished too, we said our good nights and signed off, and then I curled up on my bed and let the thoughts come back and felt like crying.
I talked to Ali about it over the next couple of days. While we don’t identify our genders the same way, we live near enough to each other in genderspace that my problem made a lot of sense to her, and she sympathized. Talking to Leon is harder. It’s not that I think he’d be repelled or disgusted; if I expected that from him, we wouldn’t be involved in the first place. He’s been receptive and patient, when I’ve brought it up as much as I dared. But while he accepts and respects my genderqueer identity, he is with the exception of his attraction to me a straight man, and let’s face it: while his conscious mind recognizes the difference between me and a woman, his unconscious libido probably doesn’t. But only because I have all the parts it expects.
I don’t fault him for that, because it’s not a choice. There’s a deep instinct which says “this one has breasts and a vulva and smells right, let’s have sex with her” and I hardly object to my body setting that off for him. On the contrary. What I’m afraid of is that if I had the body I want–or even if he completely understood how much I want it, how much the body doesn’t feel right–that I wouldn’t trigger that instinct any more. That for all his caring and respect on a conscious level, he could not still be instinctively sexually attracted to me. I am afraid that some day I will have to make a choice between having the body I want and the person I want to share it with, and there is no possible outcome of that situation which wouldn’t break my heart.
I am, of course, unlikely to ever have to make it; having a body that does feel right for me will probably not ever be an option. Even if you simplify the problem to “I want to have SRS” (which isn’t entirely correct), it’s still out of reach on a few levels. Money is the obvious one. I couldn’t afford it out of pocket, which might some day change but not so certainly or so soon that I’ll hold my breath for it. I don’t have health insurance. If I did have health insurance–and that I probably will, eventually–it might or might not cover transition-related expenses at all. If it did, if I got really lucky and got coverage which takes gender transition seriously, it still probably wouldn’t take me seriously, because like I said, I’m not a man and I don’t want the body of one.
Transsexual people have fought so hard for so long to carve out a path for themselves, through the jungle of medical culture and industry, to get what they need. I’m so glad, genuinely glad, that more and more people are now able to follow it. But their path is not my path. The ways for nonbinary people to get care are still few, and irregular, and hard to see. It’s difficult just to get on hormones outside of a binary transition. I can’t even imagine what it would take to convince the gatekeepers of care that it’s right for me to have a penis, without lying and claiming I’m a man (which is out of the question).
Even if I got past all of that–if, say, I was gifted the money for surgery and also found a skilled doctor willing to do it–what could I get? To the best of my knowledge, the creation of a penis which looks, acts, and feels like the ones some people are born with is beyond the limits of current medical technology. The closest we get is with one of two surgeries.
Phalloplasty is the construction of a penis from scratch, using skin from elsewhere on the body. A penis built by phalloplasty can look very much like a cis man’s penis, but can’t become erect without prosthesis and will be much less sensitive if it retains sensation at all. Complications, most often related to extending the urethra, are common.
Alternatively, in metoidioplasty, the clitoris (already enlarged by hormone therapy) is released from the pubic bone, allowing it to lengthen further, and has a shaft constructed from labial tissue. A penis built by metoidioplasty almost always retains sensation, and can of course become somewhat erect (since the clitoris already could), but at an average length of around two inches is not usually long or hard enough to allow for penetrative sex.
Those would be my choices, if I somehow found the money and the access to get surgery: I could have a penis that looks good (but I can’t have intercourse with) or a penis that feels good (but I can’t have intercourse with). The latter is more appealing, but neither is what I want–after going through the expense, the bureaucratic hassle, and the physical trial of the most appropriate surgery currently available, my body still wouldn’t be capable of what I want from it.
So I feel helpless. Not frustrated, not overwhelmed by a difficult obstacle or a long wait or an obscure path, but actually, literally helpless, because as far as I can see (and I’ve done a lot of looking) it is actually, literally impossible for me to get what I need. The helplessness exacerbates the hurt, like helplessness always does; when I let myself dwell I get sad and I stay there.
I try not to dwell. Logically, the unlikelihood of the resolution should ameliorate the fear (why be afraid of a situation that can’t happen?) but it doesn’t. I’m just afraid instead of how strongly I feel about it sometimes. Afraid of being rejected, of being misunderstood, of being ignored. Afraid, more than anything, of being right–about the depth of my need and the impossibility of my solution–and of having no choice but to live with it.