The nurse is pulling the stitches out of my face. I can tell that something is wrong because she doesn’t offer any of the typical “it’s-healing-nicely” affirmations that one usually expects. The doctor enters and tells me that the tumor exceeded three of the four margins of the diamond-shaped sliver of skin that he removed from my cheek one week ago. He explains that most basal cell carcinomas grow in one big lump, like a basketball, making them easy to remove in one fell swoop. But my tumor was a rarer, more aggressive type that grows unpredictably under the skin like an amoeba, sending out projections like tentacles. He tells me that he won’t know how far it has spread until the next surgery. Hopefully they won’t have to remove too much more tissue. But he can’t rule out the possibility that I might lose so much of my cheek that the plastic surgeon they will assign to me will have to resort to skin grafts.
Nobody wants skin cancer. And the very thought of skin grafts terrifies me. But in the three weeks prior to my scheduled surgery, what bothered me the most about the worst-case scenario was not just what I might look like afterward, but rather how it played into my trans issues. Oh, I know, you thought I was going to be a human being for a moment, talking about cancer and me facing my own mortality, an experience all humans will or have faced. But not. Let’s get to transin’!
Most people view transsexuals as constitutively artificial, as mere products of plastic surgeries and medical technologies. Because we are. Or, rather, we were until we figured out a way to get people to think “being a woman” is simply a matter of a man saying “I am a woman.” When I come out to people as trans, they often compulsively scan my body for any physical signs that my femaleness is fake. Like, how dare those people look at me? They should blind themselves when I put them on the spot by telling them a personal fact about myself that may or may not be relevant. Like when I was at McDonald’s and I told that lady behind the counter. I know she was transphobic because we only gave me 3 dipping sauces with my McNuggets. Bitch.
As a trans activist, I intellectually know that all of these attitudes are transphobic and complete bullshit. Like, I intellectually can rationalize that all rude behavior I get is because other people are bigots; it has nothing to do with that fact that maybe I am an asshole. But I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t internalized many of these very sentiments. What frightened me most about the possibility of skin grafts was not my potential appearance, but rather the symbolism—my obviously stitched-together face being interpreted by others as a metaphor for the fakeness of my entire body, my gender. I think I mean sex here. I’m not sure. And don’t tell me that all of this sounds like something that maybe I should discuss in therapy. The Political is Personal now!
Whenever I shared this thought with cissexual friends (am I labeling them against their will? Who cares? Oh, I said I care about this? Sorry, I lied. I only care when people label me.), they always responded the same way, telling me that it was nonsense, that cancer-related skin grafts have nothing to do with transsexuality. This is actually true. And while that may be true in a logical sort of way, which is what other people might call “actually true,” it seemed to me to be particularly convenient for them to say. Like, my friends are actually liars. Fuck my friends! Unlike them, I don’t have the privilege (!!) of having my body viewed as inherently natural and congruent. See what I did there? Forget about women having overwhelming numbers of eating disorders, women feeling dissociated from their bodies due to rape and other sexual abuse. THEY HAZ CONGURENCE.
My body is always betraying me, whether it was the male body that used to feel completely alien to me, or my current female (just kidding, it’s the same body) state, which others view as inherently unnatural and illegitimate. And no other woman in the world, unless they are men, have this issue.
Eventually, I have surgery. The doctor ends up removing three square centimeters of my cheek—a big hole to be sure, but there is enough tissue left for the plastic surgeon to stitch me back up without requiring skin grafts. Afterwards, I am grateful, but I really feel the need to talk about my experience.
I find out that the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland has support groups, and at first I am excited. But then it hits me that I can’t talk about my experience with skin cancer without also talking about transsexuality and the way that I’ve internalized other people’s assumptions about my supposed artificiality. I realized not only that cissexual cancer survivors would not be able to relate to my experience, and how dare they not relate to my special circumstances in the midst of recovering from life-threatening cancer (so selfish!) but also that because it was a support group for women, there was a distinct possibility that my presence might make others uncomfortable (because I’m a man), that I may even have to face accusations of being an imposter or infiltrator. So instead of attending the meetings, I did what I always seem to do: I bottled up all of my anger, frustration, fears, anxiety, and sadness, and promised myself that I would write about it later. Oh, and I did. Aren’t you glad?