Like everyone else on the planet, it took me no time at all to read and form an opinion about Angelina Jolie’s recent New York Times op-ed about her preventative double mastectomy, a heartfelt piece out of which one phrase in particular struck me: “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
Well of course you don’t; of course it doesn’t! I said to myself, Why on earth should it? Then I remembered the rest of the world, that vast population of people who don’t think exactly like me. It has always fascinated me to know that there are people—quite a few, in fact—to whom gender appears such a slippery property, able to be driven away by an initiative taken in the interest of physical health. What a fickle thing gender must seem to the people who actually like it!
I remembered a piece on the same subject, detailing a writer’s inability to find comfort in books after undergoing a preventative mastectomy. I’d read it a couple months before I had my own double mastectomy performed, and returned to it after the procedure was done, surprised on the second read to find how strongly and almost guiltily I still identified with it, despite the crucial differences between the author’s case and mine: that my procedure was not preventative, but elective, therefore less invasive; that I had no cancer to speak of; that my postsurgical period of aversion to books was not due to the pain of new absence, but a realization that most of the books I loved were written by people who couldn’t have comprehended or anticipated me, a person who had breasts but didn’t want them—and that suddenly this was important. In the druggy, dazed few weeks after surgery, it was extremely important to me to be anticipated, to be taken into account by the literature of the past. It was important for there to exist a body of work dealing with the peculiar sensation of waking up after a much dreamed-of, longed-for procedure and seeing the faces of one’s family, peering down into the frame of one’s vision like Terry Gilliam characters, and wearing a uniform expression that could not be farther removed from the joy of one’s own. It was important to read something about the strange problem of being approached, in the months before the surgery, by others for whom breasts had taken on a significant, largely symbolic meaning and who as such felt entitled to express their concern and disdain at the pending loss of my own. (“You have to understand,” I was told during some family fight or other, “that it’s a radical action.”) It was an urgent problem that nothing related to the exact moment I was living, that I had instead to content myself with Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male with its descriptions of persecution, pain, and delirium, which I read during recovery, somewhat defeatedly, and while delirious.
But the person for whom Angelina Jolie’s piece was doing more than stating the obvious was a person I had never really anticipated. And very likely, they are just as unaware of me. We are moving around in the same world, as close to opposites as two groups of people can be, and the fact of it seems almost absurd: that there are women who fear that something will happen in life to make them forcibly lose their gender, while those of us who are desperate to lose it can’t give it away with a set of china.
In the years during and after puberty, I had a recurring daydream where I would stand in front of a mirror, place my hands on my upper chest, and move them backward and forward, in and out, dissolving my breasts when I pressed in, pulling out to bring them back again. It took a wildly misguided season of The L Word years later to make me aware that an erasure of breasts was an actual, real-life option, completely separate from the treatment for breast cancer. This was the third season, in which the show introduced an ill-constructed transmale character named Max, who struggles to raise the funds for his top surgery against a complementary plotline in which another character, the tennis player Dana Fairbanks, undergoes treatment for breast cancer. With The L Word’s characteristic subtlety and tact, tense parallels between the two states—lack of tits, lack of hair—keep getting drawn, leading to an awkward semi-standoff on a private plane:
MAX: I want you to know that I can understand why you wouldn’t want to be around me. I mean, you worked really hard to create the body you have, and your whole life’s been in that.
DANA: You’re right.
MAX: I want you to know, I mean, you don’t have to accept [my transition.] Maybe I shouldn’t even say it, but it’s life and death for me, too.
DANA: (witheringly) But you don’t have cancer.
This is, in a way, the remark that puts to bed all but the most superficial similarities between elective and preventative mastectomies. It was the cold water phrase I had to douse with myself when I’d get too deep inside of fantasies of my own about getting diagnosed with breast cancer which would leave me no choice but to get surgery, before I knew an elective procedure was possible: it was part of the guilt I felt after reading The Great Gatsby and becoming unusually excited by the passage recalling the aftermath of Myrtle’s death, where one of her breasts is described as “swinging loose like a flap.” (An image which, I’m told, didn’t make it into the Baz Luhrmann film.) I found myself magnetized to this image, unable to think or care about any other detail, despite my high school English teacher’s weak invocations to pay attention to the book’s metallic imagery.
I had assumed this guilt—along with all comparisons between my identity and cancer victims—would vanish after the surgery was done, when I would no longer have need of morbid fantasies to give me the hope of it somehow coming true. I had also thought that surgery, as well as a shaved head, would solve the problem that breasts had always presented me with. I wildly hoped that it might put an end to the familiar greeting of job interviewers who, on meeting me face to face, would cheerfully announce that they were “expecting a boy,” to which I could only offer the limp riposte, “Everyone does.” From now on, I assumed that people with lingering questions in their mind about how to classify me would need only to cast a quick glance at my chest to find an answer.
But of course, what happens is closer to what happened a few mornings ago, while walking down Atlantic Avenue wearing, as I am wont to do, a mostly see-through shirt when a woman stopped me to hand me a flyer for an event celebrating, as she put it, “women who shave their heads.” She had, as many others do, mistaken me for a woman, and I didn’t have the heart to disillusion her. I took the flyer and, on closer inspection, found that this celebration was at least partly cancer-related. I felt betrayed, not least of all by my exposed nipples. What good are you, I said to them, if you can’t do the simple job of distinguishing me from cancer survivors?
But of course, it’s not their fault. It’s the problem of kindness. What prevents people from understanding my lack of breasts for what it actually is is, in the end, simple benevolence. It is essentially a kind impulse that leads people to look at me and in the small but highly visible window of time it takes for people to make up their mind about my gender, decide to give me the benefit of the doubt. The benefit being, in this case, an assumption that I have cancer, and the doubt concerning the fact that my chest is in its particular state because I want it to be, rather than my having been forced to tearfully depart with it because of a disease. It is in this way that the treat others as you would like to be treated philosophy has always seemed, to me, a misguided one. In a world where people view the lack of certain physical appendages as something tragic, people will try to be kind. And kindness will look like this: an awkward attempt to protect another person from what they themselves fear: the fearsome fate of a life lived inside a body made genderless—a body from which gender has fled in protest.
I’ve always believed what a person is should always begin and end with desire rather than what we call fact. Perhaps this is why I have such a hard time trying to figure how I should treat other people, since, clearly, I can’t use myself as an example. Thankfully, there was one other thing from that book that lives in my mind as the “boob flap” novel that stayed with me long after all the metallic imagery had faded: the part about reserving all judgments of others. Another somewhat radical action, full of “infinite hope,” and much easier said than done.
Henry Giardina is a writer living in New York.