This Is the Essay I Wanted To Write in the First Place

“Can you describe what you’re wearing right now?” I paused, for the briefest of seconds, taking in the splendor of my early-pandemic “oops all comfort” outfit I had been wearing for days on end. “Jeans and a t-shirt” I said, a confident undertone in my voice selling the visual narrative.

For a second, or perhaps an eternity, there was nothing. No response, no scratching of pen on paper. Silence so calm and so still you could practically hear God clear their throat.

A silence held until I broke it: “But like, womens jeans.”

Over the phone, I heard a note scribbled onto a notepad.

This was the first of two conversations I had with doctors that were properly assessing my readiness to have genital reassignment surgery. My primary doctor had filled in her own paperwork, documenting my dysphoria and mental health and spotty track record with the whole quitting smoking thing. In Canada, in Toronto where I live, you have to have two doctors sign off on paperwork before you’re allowed to apply for surgery and the funds to cover the expense. We are, it should be noted, fortunate to have this opportunity. There is a clinic in Montreal that does a pretty good job at trans surgeries — top, bottom, face, etc — that we can confidently rely on to fill in the gaping hole of accurate, up-to-date trans healthcare in our country. I could go on, trust me. But suffice to say, we are fortunate to have something where so many do not.

When that same doctor was filling out the form about my womens jeans, she asked me a very pointed question about a note on my file. “Are you depressed?” she asked. Aren’t we all? “No, I mean depressed like your file says.” That’s when I learned I have the kind of depression you write down and not just regular walking around depression.

I was getting top and bottom surgeries. Breast augmentation, as over the years I have been on HRT my breasts never grew or developed naturally, and vaginoplasty, which by name you would assume is like a nose job but for vagina’s and you would be mostly right. I had been on waitlists, filled out paperwork, moved to new waitlists, and filled out new paperwork for the better part of two years when I got a phone call from a very nice woman in a clinic in Montreal that said “can you get here in seven days” — which I said was a very short, nigh impossible timeline to prepare for such intense surgery. She countered with all the skill of a used car salesman selling you a mostly okay 1994 Plymouth Acclaim.

Eight days later I was in a hospital gown meeting my surgeon 45 minutes before he was going to operate on me.

The last thing I remember before I succumbed to the unwavering whims of general anesthetic was saying “this feels like a lot of hustle and bustle for lil ole me,” and I laughed, and then I was gone, fallen to darkness.

I remember panicking about being put under. I haven’t been put under by someone else’s hand in many, many years. I used to black out a lot, but that was more of an alcoholism thing than it was a medical practice. I don’t like the lack of control that medication delivers, how hard it swipes my hands from the wheel as I struggle to stay steady in my lane. I woke up being wheeled into the hospital room I shared with someone else and was aware of my partner leaving the room briefly as nurses and helping hands delivered my back to my bed and made sure I was safe, comfortable and looked after. Unbeknownst to all of us, my body doesn’t enjoy anaesthetic, and I spent the remainder of the stay vomiting into a bed pan and saying “this fucking sucks” until I fell asleep.

My roommate would talk to me, but also called me he and him a lot, despite us both recovering in the new vagina wing of the trans hospital. When the lights went out and my partner had to leave the building for the night, it became a dark and lonely place, the only sound the beeping of unseen machines and the swift movement of nurses’ careful feet, fluttering about the hospital checking in on everyone.

After a few days in the recovery part of the hospital, you’re moved next door to a convalescing home to rest, recover, and learn how to care for the way your body has shifted and changed. Here we get private rooms and good WiFi and cubed ice machines. I laid in bed and watched M*A*S*H on my iPad and, perhaps urged on by painkillers, paid a lot of money for what turned out to be really good Pavement tickets.

After a few days where I promised I would do no work, I opened my laptop just to look at my email quickly. I remember filing a draft of an essay about Green Day for a column I was starting in Catapult. And in what would come to be a disastrous move, I sent a pitch for a personal essay about My Experience having surgery to a prestigious Canadian outlet I will not be naming here.

Pitch accepted.

The day they were removing the dressing on my surgical site, which is a really professional way of saying “vagina” when you’re in the hospital getting one, I broke down in tears. Not just at how my body felt, although it must be said that it is indescribable the feeling of the weight being lifted off the weary shoulders of a tired soul when you awake and find your body tuned ever closer to a station that feels like home. But I missed home. I was tired and worn out and eager to return to my life. I asked the nurse if I could walk my dog when I returned to my life, and she said “of course, just take it easy” and I cried at the thought of slipping my sweatpants on and walking him around the block so early in the morning, well before anyone else in our neighborhood was awake.

Recovery at home was hard, a long and arduous process that required hours of my every day. Dilating is a task you do four times a day for a while, then three, then twice. Then once a day for the remainder of the year. You’re told, time and again, that it’s six months before your body starts to feel recovered.

After a few weeks, I started to feel a sense of confidence in what I was able to handle in a day. I wasn’t on painkillers anymore, I could get out of bed okay, make coffee, walk the dog. I needed to put my mind to work, to clear through the brush that had grown over the recesses of my mind as I laid dormant and watched Guy Fieri on the Food Network for hours on end.

I took a phone call from the Canadian magazine about the essay I had pitched. They liked it, they wanted to publish it. But they wanted to talk about it, to drill into the core of what it was I would be writing and unearth its carefully guarded treasures.

So we got on a call, in the free hour I had beetween dilating sessions, and talked a lot about surgery and process and how it feels to be able to access such a surgery and how honestly kind of fucked up the process can be. When we hung up, I was told it sounded great and asked to write another pitch, just a quick paragraph, that outlined the themes I would be touching on. I wrote it that night, sent it over, and was told they needed more, still. I wrote a page, taking every paragraph and guiding over where I would take each sentence, how I would bleed between the lines, and just where the heart would pull or the mind would ensnare in endless intrigue.

And then I revised that pitch again.

We had started the process of pitching the story in November. By February, I was finally able to sign a contract to commence my work.

I researched and footnoted and wrote for days on my experience. I was sure to never use phrases that I didn’t explain, like HRT or Vaginoplasty. I was so excited to write for a publication that had been on a list of personal goals scrawled in some notebook of mine years earlier. I was careful to write in my own voice — “we love your work” is a phrase I was told on repeat — but to be mindful of an audience that was going to be confused by a lot of the more complicated (see: gayer) language.

The first round of notes took a scalpel to my voice, cutting into phrases and sentences and pointing its questioning blade at my words. What does this mean? We don’t get this. Make this clearer.

I had made things clear, and as this was going to be an online only article anyway, it’s very easy to tab over to Google to look things up. “Trans” was too informal; I had to write “transgender” like I was talking to a cop or a TSA agent. At one point, I had written the phrase “I was filling a dance card with two surgeries, one top one bottom,” in my best guess attempt at writing a joke about surgery for middle class cishets. I was asked to cut it because they didn’t understand what I meant.

It was the last line in a paragraph outlining the two procedures I was getting.

I felt misunderstood, that they not only disliked my trans voice but that the publication itself struggled to understand why someone could attempt to be funny or inject charm into a story about what is on paper a really goddamn intense surgery. It wasn’t stern enough, not educational enough despite the footnotes and the insistence on my part that it’s not that complicated. They told me it was more complicated for people who aren’t like me. Sometimes we don’t even see the red flags as they hit us in the face.

Edits went on for months. From the date of my contract being signed in February, it was well into the summer before I was on my fourth round of edits. My voice continued to be swept away, the essay’s tone becoming cold and clinical. Every time I looked at the document, I struggled to find myself, as if reading some long lost Word document found in someone else’s storage bin. We got on the phone and had conversations about what I was writing, and I was told, again, “we love your voice.” But I felt like I still had to tell them that I was wearing womens jeans, just so they would believe me.

I remember getting the edits that broke me. The questions and the hand-wringing of it all. I got an email after weeks, or maybe years who’s to say, with a new round of notes, and I opened it and fell to tears. I walked from my desk and into the bathroom, where I sat on the porcelain floor and felt every part of my soul drain through the pores of my flesh and become lost. My chest became heavy, and I cried and sat there,worried about what I had written and why I was so bad at telling this story. Didn’t this happen to me? Did I not laugh in that operating room and wake up new? It had been so long, it was hard to remember.

I posted in the Autostraddle Slack about my struggles, and my editor Kayla immediately pulled me into a private conversation. She assuaged me of my fears, listened to my concerns, and gave what I will tell you here and now was the greatest advice a person has given to another. I cried, out of sheer joy, from being heard and seen and given space all at once.

I asked to pull the essay from the publication. With a trembling hand, I wrote the email that denied myself the pleasure — and paycheque — of something I had been working on for close to a year. An essay I could normally write in a single sitting. This one, the one you’re reading right now, was written between two different cups of black coffee in a single afternoon.

I cried a lot that day. It was painful to have put myself and my experience out there in a way I don’t often do, not so nakedly at least. Normally I tell these stories in the backdrop of a piece of art or culture that matters to me — this is a style of writing that I love that also provides a shield. I am not the main character; that burden is shared with whatever I choose as the undercurrent. But this was just me, naked and bare and asking for compassion. I felt none. Just endless notes and what-ifs.

I didn’t think about that essay for a few months.

But I wanted to tell this story. I wanted to write the parts that were funny and the parts that were hard and speak to the truth that I lived because it is a truth we so rarely hear, and I wanted other trans women like me to read it and feel seen, or to say “it wasn’t like that for me.” Just to feel something, a connective tissue to my own history. I am glad and happy I was able to have these two surgeries, top and bottom on a full dance card, and we should be free and safe to so proudly write however the fucking hell we goddamn want about that experience without having to footnote what HRT stands for or what exactly happens when a new vagina is constructed from the ground floor.

I was hurt and upset and mad and in pain a lot and crying even more.

So I pitched to Autostraddle in our team Slack and said “it’s almost one year of my having surgery, and I think I want to tell this story” and Kayla once again gave me space to talk it through, and I didn’t even know it when I started writing paragraphs in Slack that it had been bothering me ever since I cried on my bathroom floor on a pretty clean bath mat and wrote an email that said “please don’t publish my intensely personal work.”

I wanted to write jokes that maybe only I would laugh at and leave my voice bleeding through the lines on the page so I could read it back and know that I had been there and it wasn’t just some stranger coldly reading the minutes of an important document about being transgender. I wanted to have a bit of sadness in there because, truth be told, I was sad and depressed a lot over the last year, maybe more than a lot of other years. The kind of sad you write down, not just walkin around sad. I wanted to be honest and not worry about notes asking what things mean or telling me to tone my voice down to a level that some nice cishet couple on their lunch break or over brunch could read to each other, tsk, and say “that poor woman”.

So I did.


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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 30 articles for us.

40 Comments

  1. I never would have seen this in a big Canadian paper and I’m so glad I got to read this as the essay it was meant to be; but I’m also so mad that mainstream journalism is so afraid of telling authentic trans stories.

    Thank you so much Niko, and thank you AS.

  2. thank you for sharing this!! i’m sorry you had the experience of having such a personal and layered story reduced to such a one dimensional thing. but grateful to get to read this iteration of it

    also, “finding your body tuned ever closer to a station that feels like home” !!! very yes

  3. Thank you so much for writing this and letting us read it! I also love walkin around sad but my fave is this line “ which I said was a very short, nigh impossible timeline to prepare for such intense surgery. She countered with all the skill of a used car salesman selling you a mostly okay 1994 Plymouth Acclaim.“

  4. Niko I just love everything you write so much. Wish I could somehow hug you through the screen! Thanks for writing this essay and sharing this vulnerable and funny and charming story with us and for doing it YOUR way! I’ve also been write-it-down-sad, in a major way, and your words make me feel less alone anytime you publish anything on this here corner of the internet.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this with us <3 I can't imagine what it must have been like to not only wait wait wait for surgery then have to do it on such short notice, to then go through such a life changing and necessary surgery, and then try to write about such an intensely personal experience for an outlet that you'd really wanted to write for but which was clearly unable to take the proper care with you and your story. That's so so much to go through. I'm so glad you're here.

  6. This right here is why I am proud to be an A+ member, so we have spaces where oir stories can be told exactly the fuck how we want, *and* know that those stories will be held with care and dignity. Thank you, Niko!

  7. Thanks for sharing your journey. I’m so glad you’re here. That Canadian paper can go f*** it’s self! Even more evidence that the straits will just never get it! I’m sorry they took so much of your time, space and emotions to

  8. Hi Niko!
    First of all: Congratulations!! I’m so happy that you have had the surgery, even if after going through a lot.
    Second: This cis-kinda white-bisexual woman from Latin America can very well understand your language, so I guess is not that difficult for any native speaker of English..if they want to. I’m inclined to think that whoever was in charge of the final saying in this piece was probably quite affected by the Hays Code in the past. Or they are just somehow bigoted. Gay joy I ‘ve come to learn is something that bothers certain people, they only want our stories if they are tortured and painful.
    Thanks for writing such a delicate and beautiful piece. I’m in awe at your writing skills. And thank you for the vulnerability, and for sharing such an intimate and important moment of your life.

  9. I love this piece ❤️

    As someone who also went through gender-affirming surgery in Canada earlier this year, and has struggled with the pressure from cis-hets to perform some kind of solemn, suffering narrative about it, your essay touched me on a deep level.

    Mainstream news media can’t wrap its head around the fact that trans folks are multifaceted, complicated humans capable of feeling a wild variety of emotions around our transition choices, because *clearly* expressing any levity about it means we’re “not taking it seriously enough” (whatever that means).

    After 2 1/2 years of jumping hoops, when I finally made it onto that operating table, I was more excited and more terrified than I’d ever been in my life. Humour has always been my coping strategy and the last thing I heard before I went under was my surgeon laughing at some dumb joke I’d made. The cis-het people in my life don’t care about those details, but they should, because it shows the truth of my experience more honestly than any hospital case file or list of medical terminology.

    Thank you for publishing this piece here, where I was guaranteed to find it. Please keep writing your stories on your terms and in your voice!

  10. As a fellow indie writer I’ve been empowered by that single howling, confident cry I bellow: NO.

    It’s the rock I stand on when it comes to artistic integrity. I’m so glad you did it your way, Niko.

    While I’m still brand-new to discovering my own trans identity (she/they), hearing your unfiltered account of surgery (something I’m still deeply pondering, myself) helps me.

    Keep writing. Trust yourself and your own authentic voice.

    Thank you :)

  11. Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing…& if it had been published in that big Canadian paper I personally would not have even seen it because I live in Australia & am not in the habit of reading any Canadian papers. However I read everything on Autostraddle every day because it celebrates queer voices of all kinds. You’ll find a far wider audience here…& a more meaningful one, too. I’m a he/they non binary person who came out later in life & is still learning about my queerness…the fact I can read articles like yours is broadening my horizons every day. We’re all growing & learning together – how cool is that!
    And I’m so happy that you’ve been able to take the steps you needed in order to be truly yourself!

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