mild spoilers for the Bojack Horseman finale below; also some graphic descriptions of gender dysphoria.
Sometimes, trans women take Viagra, or equivalent. I only discovered this perfectly intuitive datum since moving to New York, although perhaps my sisters in California are all hopping on the ‘agra, too. It is a perfectly intuitive use of a medicine: it allows one’s penis to become erect, but does not require any kind of hormonal intervention - so one can have erections (“achieve erections” - 👏👏👏) without hormonal intervention, ie without re-introducing testosterone into one’s endocrine system. Some people I’ve spoken to enjoy the delights a hard dick can supply when deployed by someone with an estrogenated endocrine system; others have used Viagra for work, and have more ambivalent feelings about it. I recently decided I wanted to try it, though I’m not entirely sure of my motivations. I used to enjoy the ways I had sex, and wondered whether it might be possible to put on the knowledge with the power, to use a slightly inapposite Yeats metaphor. (Yeats never wrote the perfect line for a woman deciding to resurrect her penis, sadly; “Leda and the Swan” is the closest thing we have.) Yesterday morning, I took Viagra for the first time.
Some of the more difficult to talk about aspects of my transition have been those elements that concern my masculinity. What even is masculinity, in a trans woman? Clearly it is possible to have swagger, passion, directness, and for these elements to be deeply feminine (as I think they tend to be in me). Then there is clockiness, the behavioral, auditory, and visual cues that lead people to call me “sir,” like my slightly heavy gait and my deep voice - but these aren’t “masculine,” exactly, at least not in the way (say) Chris Pratt is masculine. I have among my friends a handful of trans women who have achieved a chill equanimity about certain putatively masculine forms of social participation (broeyness, say); these have always been women who are years and years past their transition, and are rarely clocked. I love it in them, but I can’t see it happening to me any time soon: I spent my life pre-estrogen trying to get away from men, I doubt I’ll miss them at any point. Never say never, I guess. Anyway I don’t think these are the only ways of thinking about masculinity in trans women; in me, at least, there is a seam of experience that feels masculine, or co-extensive with something that I used to understand as masculinity: the hosting instinct, especially the form of hosting proper to sex. Welcoming people to one’s life, one’s room, one’s body. Not that anyone necessarily adopts a masculine position when they perform hostliness in this sense - I’m realizing it sounds like receptivity, with its complex relation to femininity, from which I think it is quite distinct in fact - but for me, hosting feels masculine in some way. I thought it would be fun to endow that side of myself with a dick.
(Parenthetically, I want to say - without overstating the matter - that talking about trans-feminine masculinity like this is a little nervewracking; one worries that one is going to end up pleasing that tranche of people who see trans women as men in disguise, or (more generously) in drag. I am so tired of these people. Yesterday I got spat at in the street - I can’t say “spat on,” because the spit didn’t reach me and I’m not sure it was supposed to. A man looked at me, sighed “oh, fucking hell” in disgust, and spat in my direction, holding eye contact. This was a couple of blocks from my apartment. Later on, someone drew my attention to an anti-trans CFP that had been posted on the MLA website. I wonder if the MLA, to whose Assembly I am an elected delegate, will respond with anything like adequate force. Last weekend, I snapped for the first time at colleagues who were routinely referring to me as “he” in a meeting. It has been two years. I know these things are on different scales, but the “backlash” against trans women now produces daily outrages of these kinds and more. It is an absolute miracle anyone still transitions at all, let alone talks about it. I guess I waited until I had tenure.)
The company that prescribes and sells generic Viagra sends you chic little packets, like silky little condom packets, dusty with lube. You tear the thing open, pop three at a time, and wait. It takes an hour, according to the instructions/directions (Viagra is both a gadget and a medication). I had been told, by various parties, to stay hydrated. You are also told to use them for the first time without any expectation of having sex, just to feel out the effect that they will have on your body - which made sense to me, so I tucked myself into Danny’s body, cosy and intimate but not sexy.
I wonder whether the obvious blurriness of that distinction was, cognitively speaking, part of the reason why my experience with Viagra was so utterly, utterly terrifying? Having never taken dick pills before, I did not know whether they would produce or merely respond to a feeling of sexual arousal. That is, whether the medicine itself would construe my cosiness as a kind of sexual come-on, against the evidence of my own sensorium. I wanted to be cosy, not aroused, and I have a sharp sense of the distinction - but what if the drugs erode that sense, and push me into a sexual intimacy against my own interest? At which point I realized the horrifying truth: I had slipped myself a roofie, and for an hour I would just have to wait for the feeling to overwhelm me. I have had few more distressing hours in the course of my transition than that one. I immediately sensed that I had betrayed myself, that I had given up the thing that I cherished (my womanhood) in the pursuit of something paradigmatically abundant and low-value. I felt guilty, because of my inability to share this potentially rather fun experience with other trans women, and perhaps because of the strange genital-centrism I was experiencing, and refusing (or at least failing) to push through. I had hoped for feelings of warmth, growth, and power, and instead I spent the first hour of this trip crying uncontrollably, my mind (uncharacteristically) obsessing over bottom dysphoria. I felt frightened that if I got hard, I would run into the kitchen and grab the sharpest knife from the drawer. I felt, and this can only be a disgracefully lurid image, but it is true, in the way feelings are true: as though my body was violating itself.
After the first hour, the panic began to ebb - still, I didn’t get hard, and I didn’t really stop sobbing. My partner was, of course, beautiful and elegant and glorious, and held me kindly and warmly. I felt guilty because I knew the idea of me sprouting a cock was kind of appealing to them - as how could it not be? - and I think they felt a little afraid that they had pressured me (which of course they hadn’t). We lay in bed and watched the final episodes of Bojack Horseman, talking occasionally about addiction narratives, justice, and healing. The previous evening, they had grasped my head and told me that they had always been moved by my capacity for healing. “What choice do we have?,” I had responded, in an effortlessly cool, Rebel Without a Cause kind of way. I am not healed, of course, as my experience with the Viagra shows; so much seems to outlast the capacity of any mental or spiritual procedure to produce healing - the universe of suffering we move through together. It’s funny in that sense that Bojack ends with prison, in the ruins of the show’s narratives of recovery, therapy, healing, and growth. The only thing that “works,” at least narratively, is metaphorical incarceration, the utter deprivation of freedom. Difficult to know, then, how to continue to relate stories, to and about ourselves, where we have been hurt and have hurt others, since the only possible end of the story would be something like “...and that’s why I detransitioned; that’s how I came to abandon my own principles; that’s how I proved myself wrong about everything; that’s how I became utterly faithless; that’s how I relapsed; that’s how I was taken down a peg or two; that’s how I sowed the seeds of my own destruction; that’s how I turned into my mother after all; that’s how I became unlovable; that’s how I disappeared from the scene of my own being.”
For me, I suppose, the dick is a mark of trauma. This, also, is no surprise, though, if I take the metaphor of “trauma” literally, it will change the way I think about bottom surgery. No longer a transformation, but the healing of a scar. It will take a while, I’m not ready yet. But I know things now, many valuable things. I am always disappointed by the simplicity of my transition, especially when it is placed next to other women’s, which always seem more glamorous and subtle to me. “I want to be a woman, of course I don’t want a hard dick, for fuck’s sake!,” turns out to have been the message, and if that seems like genital essentialism or a cumbersome investment in “the binary,” I will just have to own that. (I am always stunned, by the way, at the ease with which people can assume that any trans person will object to “the binary,” as though it were a real thing. This is another post, but if your trans politics aren’t centered on trans women, you don’t have a trans politics.) I can absolutely affirm, celebrate, and delight in my sisters who have been able to develop more subtle relationships with their dick than I apparently can at this point. And I leave open the possibility of going back for more, I have a whole drawer full of dick pills and I’ll try anything twice.
But I know things now. Last night, Danny and I and two of our friends went to see Tituss Burgess sing Sondheim at Carnegie Hall. He didn’t sing “I Know Things Now” - it was mostly deep cuts, to the great satisfaction of the two serious theater gays in the box with us - it was overwhelming. In the show’s closing sequence, Tituss told us a story of growing up in Georgia and discovering Sunday in the Park With George on PBS. “I didn’t know what the fuck I was watching,” he said, but then said he understood what was happening as a kind of worship and a kind of certainty. “I have heard God called by many names by now, but the first name I had for him was Stephen.” A bit much I thought, British. He then sang “Sunday,” and I wept again, the third time that day. Like my life depended on it.