When Other People Get to Give Away Their Binders

So, last week another one of my friends got top surgery and, as usual, it turned me into my least magnanimous self.

I have to bite my tongue whenever these young queers who’ve lived in their bodies — suffered in their bodies — for less time than I have, get top surgery relatively easily. When they get to have their discomfort with their chests recognized and catered to so automatically. When they get to wear t-shirts without binders and be shirtless in public, and never have to suffer again the butch indignity of wearing a bra.

Last week I was Jordan’s primary support person through their surgery. I watched beaming nurses congratulate Jordan when they came to dispense meds or whatever, as they got to witness Jordan’s elation at being boob-free, and trip over themselves trying to gender them correctly. I teared up myself with joy for Jordan, one of my favorite people, who I am thrilled gets to wear those dapper button-downs without a binder, while at the same time that slithery unspeakable feeling churned in the background. I deserve this more than you do.

I’ve been uncomfortable with my chest for a good 20 years and out as queer for the same span. I know queers older than me may roll their eyes at my youth (I’m a 32-year-old butch). But I’m also of an age that when I came out, Melissa Etheridge was my only gay role model. I was the only out queer in my graduating high school class. There was no The Transgender Child to explain to my mother why, as a kindergartner, I became hysterical when forced to put on dresses in JC Penney’s and would beg to shop in the boys’ department.

When I was in my early twenties and at the height of my discomfort with my chest, top surgery still appeared to be something that required one to be on testosterone and committed to “fully transitioning.” The idea of butch, genderqueer, or non-binary folks getting top surgery was pretty unheard of. Had it felt like an option when I was 21, I would have jumped right on it.

But instead, around that time, something wonderful happened. I started having sex with a lot of trans people. Some of them were trans guys who had top surgery, some of them were trans guys who hadn’t; a lot of them were genderqueer and non-binary. I slutted it up with a whole bunch of people with bodies like mine, who understood my relationship to my chest, and reflexively eroticized my body as masculine. They would never dream of referring to my “breasts” — it was my chest, obviously. They also saw I had a cock, obviously. They instructed me to fuck their front holes and back holes, obviously. They queered my body as they had already queered their own. By the time I arrived in Portland, Oregon, as a more fully grown butch at age 27, my body was indestructibly queer. Flat chest or no, my body was masculine. I honored it with a heart tattoo on my chest surrounding the word butch and barbells through my nipples.

I slutted it up with a whole bunch of people with bodies like mine, who understood my relationship to my chest, and reflexively eroticized my body as masculine. They would never dream of referring to my “breasts” — it was my chest, obviously. They also saw I had a cock, obviously.

In Portland, however, compared to the small college town where I spent most of my twenties, non-binary folks with completed top surgeries abound. It is not at all unusual to meet folks who fiercely do not identify as men who have perfectly contoured flat chests. GoFundMe campaigns for friends of friends’ top surgeries regularly appear in my Facebook feed. Getting top surgery with my butch identity is no longer some unattainable fantasy. Now the question firmly rests with me: do I want to go ahead with it or not?

I don’t know. It’s complicated.

Over the last decade I have come to love my chest. The sickening feeling of having it touched has transformed into comfort and pleasure. I love when my femme partner feels me up and she loves feeling me up too. My chest no longer feels like 100% my own. I like how it’s become joint property, each of us carrying some of its weight.

I even like how it looks sometimes, the soft curve and contrast between my boyish head and size B gender signifiers. I like the liminal space I occupy — how I get sir’d and carded at bars, and also how small children read me as feminine and safe. I’m now at an age where I occasionally see young people look at me with “ring of keys” eyes, and I think about the power of showing them that you can be this kind of butch with the chest you were born with, no modifications or binding needed. My delight in my gender and my dysphoria exist in a tight balance. I think sometimes about what Jack Halberstam wrote, how “refusal to resolve my gender ambiguity has become a kind of identity for me.” To me, a big part of being butch is holding and living in that gender discomfort — making a home out of the dissonance. Is that beautiful, noble, or stupid?

I came to a sort of decision a few years ago: I’d keep my chest until I was forty-five or so and then get top surgery. That way I could, perhaps, get the best of both worlds. I’d have some more time to enjoy my chest as it is and then, hopefully, get to enjoy a few decades of being boob-free. I’d get to experience the relief of not wearing bras or binders, get to love how dress shirts looked on me, and get to throw on a t-shirt and run out the door without feeling self-conscious.

I’d gotten comfortable with that decision and then Jordan scheduled their surgery and all my longing came to the surface again. I’ve known many friends through their top surgeries, but I’ve never been as intimately involved as with this one. I drove Jordan to the hospital, held their hand when they woke up, and took Jordan home and cared for them in the days immediately after. I got to see the scars and empty the drains in a way I never had before.

On the second day home Jordan wanted to take a shower so we unbandaged everything and went through the protocol — no scrubbing, gentle soap. I saw the sticky bits leftover from where the monitoring equipment had been attached and realized Jordan wouldn’t be able to wash it off themselves with their restricted arm movement. Last month I had surgery myself — a thyroid thing — and I remembered my partner diligently cleaning those adhesive bits off my back in the shower. I remember how it helped transition me back into my body, away from the hospital.

“Do you, um, want me to get in with you and wash your back?” I asked.

In our seven years of friendship we’ve never undressed in front of each other. But in the last few days I’d seen Jordan in all sorts of undress: when the surgeon used a marker to draw lines for where she’d cut, when Jordan practiced how to put pants on with the OT. Taking my own shirt off felt like an equalizing gesture: you can see me exposed too.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. Thanks,” Jordan said.
I took my shirt and sports bra off, attempting to look relaxed, to put us both at ease.
“I’ll keep my boxers on.”
“Me too,” they said. “I can do my lower half after you get out.”

We stood in the bathroom while the shower heated up, and I couldn’t stop looking at us both in the mirror. I’ve spent a lot of time comparing myself to folks who’ve had top surgeries, but never in this early stage. Jordan’s scars looked like lacerations, with alien tubing flowing out into the bulbous plastic drains hanging on either side of their torso. I can picture how sexy their chest will look a year from now, but right now they look like they just had massive surgery. Their frontside looks raw, bruised, and defenseless. Next to Jordan’s heavily sutured chest, mine appears oddly finished, healed, like I’ve already gone through my surgery and come out on the other side.

Surprisingly, I feel like I look older than Jordan too – which I am, but I’ve always felt like AFAB people appear older than me after getting surgery or starting hormones, which I resent.

One of my struggles around top surgery and testosterone has been that, without it, I worry I’ll never look my age. Like many AFAB butches, I get read as “boy.” Without the markers of a beard or flat chest, the combination of my short hair, men’s clothes, and soft face, lead many folks to assume I’m much younger than I am. That’s largely a straight people problem, but it’s not only straight people (who lack the ability to discern butchness) who infantilize butches. Narratives persist about butches “eventually” transitioning. In many queer people’s minds, butchness is a stop on the way to trans manhood, not a final destination.

That’s a big part of my secret resentment towards friends who get top surgery or start T: I feel like they get to age and have their identity development recognized, whereas I’ll always look adolescent. For many butches, no matter how silver fox we become, there’s a perceived boyishness that remains. It’s a boyishness that many people adore, no doubt, but it can also make me feel like I’m perpetually in a younger stage of life than trans guys or other AFAB folks who physically transition. They get to look like grownups. To some people, I’ll always look like a tomboy or a male in a different stage of life than I’m actually in.

But standing next to Jordan without our shirts on, I notice I actually look the few years older that I am. I see Jordan’s fresh battle scars and my healed ones. Like an old ghost, I notice my unspoken resentment drifting away.

“You have the best tattoos,” Jordan says.

I grin, appreciating the soft pink heart with the word “butch” stamped on my chest.

Looking at my fading tattoo, I see the adult butch who has had trans guys call her daddy, who has moved across the country, had essays published in books, disentangled from her family of origin, does complicated, meaningful work, and is co-parenting a stepchild. How adult is it to care for your beloved friend post-surgery, to remove your clothing in front of them to better express that care, and to wash their body platonically while filled with love? Running the washcloth over Jordan’s back, I feel every play partner, lover, and therapist I’ve had leading me to be the adult I am in this moment: someone capable of caring for another.

For the first time, I feel a glimmer of how I don’t need a flat chest to look like a grown up. I still want it – at some point. But I think I want to hold onto this dissonance a little longer.

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Shoshana Raphael

Shoshana Raphael is a memoirist and sex writer in Portland, OR.

Shoshana has written 1 article for us.


  1. I had top surgery three weeks ago today and I’m so soothed by the expansive love in this piece. May you continue to live in and celebrate the dissonance for as long as feels right for you!

    • It’s interesting that you responded to an expansive, generous piece about making space for people walking through this world with diverse experiences/shapes/desires by suggesting, without evidence, that trans people cannot be trusted to know themselves (Soh), cannot be trusted with medical decisions (“tradeoffs . . . to the reduction of hoops to jump through”), are simply responding to homophobia in the culture around them (Turkey), or are responsible for the decimation of “your” lesbian culture.

      “I don’t want the lesbian population to diminish but with the prevalence of transitioning I know that it is. By doing nothing, I am taking a stand. I am a proud lesbian and am whole without ‘evolving’ to male or non-binary.”<–this is trans-exclusionary nonsense. There is no evidence the lesbian population is diminishing. Trans folks of all/any/no genders can be lesbians. It's great that you feel proud and whole, but you really don't need to trample on the identities of others in doing so. What exactly are you "taking a stand" against?

      "Most of them are not actually trans"<–What?! how on earth would you, the author, or anyone other than the individual themselves know this?

      Your reasoning here features a great deal of transphobic crap, and I hope you take some time to think about why it was your knee-jerk response to this beautiful, thoughtful piece.

    • Eating disorders are actually pretty prevalent in gender diverse and trans populations. a quick google search will show you. Being trans does not reduce the likelihood of having an eating disorder.

    • I get that it’s annoying when people frame butch lesbian identity as a temporary way-station on the path to transition, and I think we need more butch lesbian visibility, but I hope you’ll be more critical of the transphobic book you are recommending here and the danger of conflating transition with eating disorders. No one with an eating disorder is ever having a good time, but there are actually many people, teens included, who live fuller, happier lives when given the opportunity to transition.

      Most of the statements made about trans teenagers’ inability to know themselves are also made about lesbians. The woman who comes out of the closet after her first year in college is just confused. She is under the spell of her friends and took too many women’s studies classes. Her parents didn’t notice her queerness before, so it clearly isn’t real. She’s only saying she’s a lesbian so that her peers will call her ‘brave’ on social media. Being a lesbian is so trendy right now that we ought to be suspicious of all teenagers who call themselves lesbians.

      I would love it if we could stop talking about ‘diminishing the lesbian population’ as if the individual experiences/choices of trans and non-binary AFAB people are a betrayal of the rest of us. This is the same logic that pushes some lesbians to react with anger whenever someone who previously identified as a lesbian comes out as bi. We need to let people be themselves and stop trying to produce some kind of pure and normative lesbian population.

      My lesbianism does not depend on the lesbianism of the people around me, and same goes for the way I handle my own gender. We don’t need to be identical to share community. By all means, let’s push back against those who suggest that we all ought to transition if we look a certain way, but it’s possible to do this without spreading myths about transition-related health care.

      • When I wrote my comment above (“Please allow people to have different, diverse opinions” – though I should have added “personal” opinions)
        it was with my trust in meaningful discourse.
        That which I see here.

        Please do not silence people who voice a personal, maybe problematic, maybe not fully informed opinion. You won’t turn anybody’s opinion around by repulsing them, but by meaningfully und kindly offering views and facts. And thus everybody else can learn sth, too.

    • Your anti-free speech position is indicative of these narrow minded and oppressive times, Autostraddle. So weak. Variance of thought creates an intellectually rich environment. You’re too exclusive and one-note for me. I just don’t want others to be afraid to speak their mind on your site, but of course they are thanks to your censorship.

      • Monica, I disagree that holding strict policies around valuing the identities and experiences of trans people is weak or that it somehow results in a less rigorous intellectual discourse. This site is full of rich conversations that respect the identity of trans people and ask all kinds of complex questions. If anyone is worried about coming off as transphobic, there is probably more they can read and learn about before they engage in a conversation on trans identity, and a comment about wanting to learn more, but not knowing how to respectfully ask, is one I’m happy to leave up, for generous people like Ophelia to respond to!

      • Hey Monica, I actually found aspects of your original comment interesting and insightful, in particular the parts about living as a proud butch lesbian with dysphoria and about the way trans lives differ globally, especially given the way transition is effectively forced upon LGB people in Turkey and Iran.

        I agree that the comments should be a place for discussion but one thing really struck a chord for me and that was the promotion of Shrier’s book. I don’t shy away from conflicting viewpoints so I’ve read the parts that are available for free and didn’t find it particularly insightful (it mostly contained interviews with unsupportive parents – personally I’d have liked to hear from the trans people themselves as well as their parents, and seen the different ways each viewed the transition – otherwise we’re receiving a very skewed picture of what’s taken place!). What did strike me, though, is the number of self proclaimed feminists I’ve seen who recommend it, and that worries me greatly. A quick Google will tell you about the publisher that printed this book. They’re a hard right publishing house who also print explicitly sexist and racist material. I don’t think buying this book means you support the sexist and racist ideas of the hard right, but I think the book definitely enables the hard right to behave in ways that can seriously damage feminist causes, especially around bodily autonomy – the argument that trans people – especially those society reads as “young women” – shouldn’t be given access to hormones because they can’t be trusted is a similar argument to ones made to limit access to abortion and birth control, which are major areas the American right is fighting to restrict. I think empowering a group who thinks that way is dangerous and a slippery slope, and I’d urge anyone to think about this before engaging with Schrier’s book – Schrier clearly doesn’t give a shit about women’s rights more broadly if she’s willing to put them on the line and buddy up with the alt right in order to disparage trans people, and I don’t think you can claim to be anti-trans in the name of women and lesbian rights while promoting this book.

  2. Amazing piece. I’ve been thinking a lot about surgery. I’m not sure if I want it or not.
    I actually had a dream that I had gotten one but forgot to organize everything for my post operation care. My therapist found it a bit funny that my main worry about having a top surgery dream was that I didn’t plan it throughly.
    Sometimes I do wish my chest was flat. When I was younger my sister got a boob job and encouraged me to get one and I remember saying, if I ever go through that is to make them smaller.
    It’s a conversation I need to have with myself and I’m not quite ready yet.
    Thank you for sharing yours.

  3. Beautifully written. Your story made me think of Dani’s piece and how true it is that people’s journeys are unique, complicated, and nuanced. I’m glad you’re in a position where you now have the autonomy to make whatever decision is right for you. I hope we keep fighting to make that true for more and more folks.

  4. I found your thoughts on aging/appearing young interesting. A lotttttt of trans men also feel they constantly are perceived as younger than their true age, as even with T they are sometimes shorter, less hairy, etc than cis men of the same age. I definitely got asked for ID much more often after starting T, because instead of looking like an androgynous adult I looked like a pubescent boy! Which is not to discount your thoughts, just to say that apparently trans people of many varieties struggle with looking young.

    • Such a beautiful quote. When I lived in Portland, for yeeaarrs I felt much pressure to get chest surgery. I can count on 3 or 4 hands the amount of times people who had chest surgery, when they would meet me, immediately look down at my breasts for some kind of.. I dunno what, but it always made me feel weird. Of course, surgery is definitely an option for many, but not for all.

  5. This is so so relatable.

    I’ve found the ages of 13-45(?) an awkward time to be butch, what am I meant to be before I grow into the kind of older butches I see around? But I guess it’s a perk of being queer, not having timelines.

  6. Thank you for this. I’m 42, and recently out as nonbinary, and conflicted about whether or not I’ll ever want top surgery. There are days where I long for a flat chest, and envy cis men and AFAB people with top surgery intensely, and there are other days where I love my boobs, and yet others where I enjoy the gentle curves under the right compressive sports bra more than either femme boobs or complete flatness, and yet others where I’m all about their functionality/pleasure and don’t care how they look.

    So thank you for talking about this in-between-ness and complicated feelings. It was a revelation to me, too, the first time I met a butch with a flat chest, and yet I still feel that “I don’t know; not yet, not now; maybe someday, or not” feeling. Thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone and not doing this thing wrong by not knowing yet, or wanting both things. <3

  7. this genuinely made me tear up. i know im not fully the target audience but im a 20 y/o bigender pre-everything dyke who’s been out in a less accepting environment since i was 12. seeing other people who didn’t get my trans identity at first come out in adulthood and get hormones and surgery much more easily than i could even without working out my identity awakens feelings in me that im not happy about and it feels so good to have someone else recognize that. thank you for writing this artile.

  8. Wow, thank you for this. My partner, who is younger than me, just got top surgery. For all the joy and pride that I feel for them, I’ve been really struggling to grapple with the somehow newly-brought-into-relief dissonance that I feel in my own body. It feels a little like reopening a wound inside me every time I see them (they look so, so good), and at the same time I don’t know if top surgery is right for me, or if it is, when the time will come. It’s hard to see other people who so clearly know what they want, and feel like I don’t have the same kind of clarity–that even if I did, I’m not sure I have the resources to take the leap as quickly and easily as they did. I don’t have words to describe how seen by and grateful I feel for invitation to live in the dissonance, to believe that the dissonance itself can be meaningful, and to trust that I can still find my sense of self and a generous spirit within it. Thank you for putting your experience into words. Sending love!

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