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.