A Transfemme Pain Scale
B Rivka Clifton
You’re in a private space. You don’t watch TV or scroll through Instagram. You wear baggy clothes. You can’t tell where your body begins or ends.
Three months into HRT, your tits hurt. You brush against a surface and wince. Someone asks what’s wrong. You say nothing. Or you say, “I have growing pains.” If the latter, if they’re cis, you both laugh uncomfortably, the real pain.
You book the next available surgery consult—12 months in advance. For FFS, you look at the surgeon’s gallery. You look at a mirror. Every masculine feature is exaggerated. For bottom surgery, you know it will be 18 months before you can wear the clothing you want to wear. As if in a viscous liquid, the months flow out before you while your physical features distort your self.
You are topless in a sterile room. The technician enters. She doesn’t remark on your breast growth. She runs a razor over your collarbone, your nipple. The laser comes to life with a little beep. The technician glides a gun over your body. It’s like lying in a bed of stinging nettles. Your chest heats up. After the initial shock, the writhing. Then the technician puts the gun away and says, “We’re done.” Always just shy of pleasure.
A man shouts, “Seattle Pride!” at you in the street. A woman says, “Yasss, slayyyy.” At a roller rink, a man whispers to you, “You look so good out there.” In their words, a wink, a nudge, an implied distinction—you are not like us, you will never be like us. You think about a man who nonchalantly said, “Miss, you dropped your keys” in the parking lot of a Fred Meyer. This is the only compliment you need.
The genital laser technician says, “You weren’t lying about being pink down there.” You are reminded of your incongruities. It’s like body laser hair removal but kissed with a desert wind. The pain takes longer to wash into pleasure. You remind yourself this is so you can finally have a pussy—the surgery date still undecided. You try not to think of insurance and wait times and the unending bureaucracy of being yourself. Then it’s over. For the next few weeks, when you take off your underwear, you peel off your genitals layer by layer.
The electrolysis technician sticks you with a thin, electrified needle and cauterizes the blood vessel at the base of each follicle. Each stab a new pain. Each pain, a deeper burning. For a week before, you grew what’s left of your beard. You felt the stares. Their burning. After, your face scabs over. You heal. Finally, you can shave. Finally, some semblance of the self you burn for.
“They use when you begin HRT as a metric,” the gender-health social worker tells you. “Until you reach one year, they won’t authorize any surgery.” This translates to 24 – 30 months before you will have your own body. Again, the viscous liquid. The months a microscopic plod. Every few weeks, you fill out paperwork, collect receipts for hair removal for authorized reimbursement. You think about the hours lost to your insurance company.
“She pulls the trigger and I’m crying before I know it... She tells me I’m brave for what I’m doing.” These are the first lines from Jordan Rice’s poem Laser Therapy. The laser snaps its whip across your face. You wait weeks without change. You start to believe you’ve been had. Finally, as if in a wave, they all fall out. You think about tarantulas flinging their stinging hairs at threats, the film that introduces a heel to one’s carapace in front of a man and his double. Your hair regrows.
You sit in a gynecology chair, complete with stirrups. You joke it’s practice for the real thing. For an hour, you are reminded of your girldick. Every few seconds a bit of searing unbearableness. Every few seconds an exhalation of relief. Endorphins introduce you to subspace. After each session, your girldick looms larger like a neon sign of who you are not.
You think about the slumber parties you missed, the collective getting-readies, the types of connection you needed and need, the low-grade depression you feel you’ve always felt. Sure, it’s melting away like an estradiol tab under a tongue. Sure, you will eventually get to be yourself. But nothing erases time lost to boyhood—it throbs through you. You ache.