Personal stories of why people wanted genital surgery, and why they regret it.
The way transgender is understood in Anglo-American culture, in the theory and practice of law and medicine and in the way trans people understand ourselves (until it’s too late) puts overwhelming pressure on trans women to have genital surgery which is not in our interests. When we regret hormone treatment and surgery, there is pressure on us not to say that in public. I regret surgery, so I have an interest in this- to save others from my mistake, as I cannot rectify it- but I am not alone, evidence of regret is suppressed and evidence of satisfaction exaggerated.
The circumstances of MtF and FtM around motives for surgery are completely different.
The diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria in the DSM and gender incongruence in the proposed ICD-11 both require a strong desire to be rid of primary and secondary sex characteristics and to have the characteristics of the opposite sex. The Equality Act protects people who want their sex reassigned, or have had their sex reassigned, though the heading is “gender reassignment”.
At the time I changed my name and went full time, I was ambivalent about surgery, but a year later I passionately wanted it. Why would you want surgery? I believe I wanted it at the time because I wanted social acceptance, or possibly to accept myself. Where a person male by genes gonads and genitals wants to dress as a woman, there were two categories they could fit- transvestite and transsexual. The transvestite is considered to be a sexual fetishist, which I found unattractive, but the transsexual had a medical condition, which I found more congenial. I felt my personality was feminine, a concept which now I consider meaningless.
If there were more acceptable categories, protected against discrimination by law, not involving surgery, perhaps I would not have wanted surgery. Medicine tends to categorise health problems which require the intervention of doctors to cure, but possibly we could reconceptualise gender dysphoria. Gender incongruence type 1 is a desire to live in the role of the opposite sex. The treatment is to live in the role of the opposite sex, using an appropriate name and clothes. Gender incongruence type 2, a distinct condition which may or may not co-exist with type 1, is a desire for hormones. Type 3 is a desire for surgery. Type 4 is a desire to subvert gender, by not fitting any particular gender role, and the treatment is to be allowed to present as you want, male, female, androgynous.
There should be the freedom to present as you want anyway, without the need for medical affirmation, but I did not feel free and medical affirmation, or a category defined by doctors, might have helped me accept myself. The health problem would be shame and distress rather than cross-gender behaviour, and the treatment to alleviate the shame and distress rather than to change the behaviour. As the medical model is about desiring cross-sex characteristics, the GICs can’t cope with non-binary people. They still demand change of name, as Charing Cross did when I first went there in 2001.
I would have said, I want surgery because I am transsexual. I am a woman and my penis distresses me (it did). In the bath I want bubble-bath to hide it (I did). I now feel I wanted surgery to be classed as transsexual and so to be socially acceptable, as demonstrated by the available legal and medical categories. If there had been different types of gender incongruence recognised by medicine and protected by law, I might not have wanted surgery or hormones.
Transsexual support groups enforced the desire for surgery because it differentiated us, the real TSs with a medical condition, from all the weirdos and perverts, just as law, medicine and the wider culture did.
Hormones can reduce fertility, possibly permanently. I wanted to reduce my sex drive because my attractions shamed me. Self-acceptance would have been a better way.
Surgery is irreversible. I mourn being mutilated, and the pain is keener because it was my choice. That choice was socially constrained, and I am moving from self-blame to rage against those constraints.
A great deal of research reports high degrees of satisfaction with treatment, and low rates of regret of surgery. I am unsure why. Possibly it involves people surveyed shortly after surgery, when I and others experienced euphoria; possibly people feel shame about our regrets. I certainly do. People are unwilling to score below Neutral in a satisfaction survey, marginal people are less likely to complain of bad treatment, and while we might open up to a qualitative researcher we might not on a survey. In my case, I have been loath to speak out because I don’t fit the accepted understanding of trans women, and might spoil it for those wanting surgery now; and I want to maintain links to trans groups. Though Johns Hopkins stopped doing GRS as they decided it did no good.
Sylvia Morgan undertook qualitative research, trying to find difficult to reach trans people rather than using the customary routes of gender clinics and trans support groups. Post-op, most people lose touch with those sources and that might be a reason why some research reports such high satisfaction rates. Four out of thirteen post-op trans people expressed regret. That is a huge figure.
People report long waiting times to see gender clinics, and long waiting times for surgery referral once there- perhaps seven years. A friend waited longer. Another friend said the psychiatrist kept challenging her desire, saying that it won’t grow back once it’s cut off, as if she did not realise that. Of Dr Morgan’s research subjects, Lady G who wanted penetrative sex had to wait many years because she had to work in male role, as a lorry driver, and the protocols demanded the “real life test”. She also refused to fit the stereotype of a “woman trapped in a man’s body”- “I don’t know how women feel. I just know how I feel. I’m definitely not trapped. All I want is the wee operation down there.” She passes as a woman, unlike most of the MtF research subjects, and has a strong sense of being one.
Kylie, though, felt hurried. She was not sure how she felt and questioned the conclusion of her first half-hour consultation that she had “insight” and an “excellent understanding” of the transition process.
People used The Script, saying they felt trapped in the wrong body, felt they were not of their assigned gender from very young. “People play the game to get what they want.” Dr Morgan reports that discussions in support groups are dominated by medical procedures and visits to the GIC, and I observe that on facebook, with regular delight at getting surgery or despair at the delay. It is a way of getting status in the groups, that you are seeking surgery. Four said they had never considered medical procedures before joining support groups.
Phoenix felt pushed through a process. She had said she did not particularly want surgery, but had it three years after her first referral to the GIC. She drifted through the process and does not know how she got where she is, post-op.
Vida first went to the GIC in March 2010, and had surgery in October 2012, having pushed for it. She was processed quickly because she demanded progress. There appears to be little consistency in procedures and protocols. Waiting times appeared arbitrary. One psychiatrist was described by many participants as condescending, patronising, clock-watching. Trans women felt disrespected, as I did.
We want medical recognition in order to get legal recognition, so we have surgery as that is what the medical model requires. The participants wanted a vagina in order to “feel fully female”, rather than for what one would do with it: gynephile trans women still go to surgeons who can give depth. The psychiatrists generally did not attempt to dissuade them. (We would hate it if they did, denouncing them as cruel gatekeepers.) Yet the surgery is a symbol of being a woman or truly transsexual, rather than a choice because of what the penis and testicles can do, or the neo-vagina can do.
Dr James Bellringer, who does NHS vaginoplasties, said the backlogs were “spiraling out of control”. In 2013/14 they received over three hundred referrals yet did 180 operations. “The nature of gender surgery is that the vast majority of these referred patients will go on to GRS,” he said.
Iain, a gender queer trans man, thought better of it. The effects are irreversible… there’s so much that can go wrong… it sounds like a world of pain and struggle and scarring and infection.
Oestrogen is a symbol too. Subjects perceived it as enhancing emotions and gentleness, but one reported that her powers of concentration were a lot worse, another that she was considerably weaker, making her job more difficult.
As hormones and surgery are primarily symbolic, that one is really trans, entitled to legal recognition, others as well as I feel euphoria after finally having surgery. But then Carina reported that reality hit her like a big sack of potatoes. Surgery does not mean social acceptance, necessarily, and the body has to heal its effects. The neovagina is in effect a wound, so you have to fight the healing process with dilation.
Vida felt recovery took two years, and had further depression ten years after surgery, “because there is no aftercare or support”. Dolores said she had not understood how difficult and time-consuming dilation would be: “A lot of girls just don’t bother with the dildo, they just let the vagina close up”. Lily agreed. “Nothing really prepares you for what happens afterwards.” I think when some people go for the gender reassignment there is a hope for changing your life, starting a new life, but then it’s still just you with your same problems, and after the surgery you have more to worry about… Some of them just give up, they stop dressing in female clothes and everything.
Sally hoped surgery would give her psychological relief and social acceptance, but it brought neither. She had had profound ongoing depression since transition. Trans support group organisers told me not to talk about my personal problems, not to talk about being depressed since my surgery.
People determined to get the surgery are kept in the dark and fed on bullshit. Nine out of 28 participants had attempted suicide, some more than once.
While people are taking hormones and having surgery for validation as a true trans person rather than for the actual results treatment will provide, there will be inappropriate treatment, and social pressure to have treatment. I know what the desire for the operation feels like. I felt it. Now, I feel betrayed.
When T-Central linked to this post, Calie wrote, The last two T-Central featured posts were based on very successful transitions. One from Halle, who has transitioned, and the other from The Transgentle Wife, the spouse of one who has transitioned.
This post is from Clare Flourish who has regrets. It is important to read both sides.
I will add that I know many who have transitioned and are happy and I know some who are not. In all cases, it seems that the lack of love in the life of those with regrets, or the lack of a job, is often the case.
Clare mentioned in a comment to her post that there is pressure to physically transition. I have seen this and know several who gave in to that pressure. Some are happy. Some are not. Clare is one of my favorite bloggers. She is just lovely in her pictures and I do hope things will turn around for her.
I am grateful for the link and kind words, but I am glad I transitioned. It was how I found myself. I feel transition could mean something different, that it does not need the monolithic full-time + hormones + surgery. I feel people should be encouraged to find those parts of transition which work for them, without imagining they must come as a package.
Some of the comments below go into these issues in depth.