I first learned about Tiamat Eva Medusa two years ago after seeing a sensational feature on her in an online tabloid. Her appeal is self-evident: Tiamat has undergone extreme body modification to become a dragon. Her ears and nostrils have been removed, her eyes are stained green, and she is covered in implanted horns and tattooed scales. Tiamat no longer looks human. I thought she was beautiful, and when I learned that she is also a transgender woman, I began to think about her modifications in relation to identity, and hoped that one day we would meet.
Finally, this past spring, I flew to Houston. Every profile and short video that I had seen about Tiamat was superficial and failed to treat her as anything more than a fascinating freak. I intended to do something different: to tell her story with sensitivity, and to create a portrait of Tiamat as she wanted to be seen.
It was easy to think that Tiamat was merely a body modification extremist. It was also naïve. Maybe it should seem obvious, but I was taken aback by the significance inherent to every procedure she has ever undergone. Her scales—the tattoos that cover her face and body—are modeled after the western diamondback rattlesnake. Tiamat was abandoned in the desert when she was a child; western diamondback rattlesnakes, shifting in the sands around her, became symbolic parental figures to her. Tiamat has endured discrimination, abuse, and sexual violence—a lifetime of injustice committed against her at the hands of men. So, over time, she stopped identifying with our species. As she opened up to me about her rape, and her later diagnosis of HIV, I understood: Why would Tiamat want to be human, when this is what humans have done?
She didn’t want to die looking like the people who had hurt her. Frightened that HIV would take her life, she decided to shed the skin she was born into, to leave behind humanity itself. She didn’t do it out of malice. Yes, Tiamat was traumatized and angry. She told me she wasn’t always a good father to her son, which she regrets. But she couldn’t go on living in a human body and, she said, by leaving humanity behind, she was finally able to feel comfortable living alongside us.
Tiamat doesn’t seem like a human. She seems like a dragon, a mythical entity that has, through a series of ritualistic procedures, managed to escape the confines of the human body. As a trans woman, that is something I implicitly understand. In fact, I don’t think there’s much difference between us. When I grew breasts, when I had surgery to carry my body across physical sex, I felt a sense of freedom from manhood much in the way that Tiamat says she feels free from being human.
Tiamat showed me her home, then took me to the taco spot where she eats breakfast every morning. Strangers always approach her for selfies to post on social media. She delights people. To some, she may be scary, but she exudes such a positive and magical energy that people are often drawn to her. When Tiamat took me to a local bat colony living under an overpass, groups of Houstonians approached her, grinning, eager to have their picture taken or just to say hello. Perhaps most touchingly, to children, Tiamat is a storybook come to life.
She was standing on that overpass as thousands of bats awoke and began flying in swarms up into the sky as fast as they could. Whenever it seemed the stream would stop, the bats kept flying, creating a dark, moving cloud that looked as if it it were rising from the Dragon Lady herself. Tiamat told me she would like to live with bats; a cave would be her ideal home.
Leaving Houston, I realized that Tiamat had left a permanent impression on me. I had come to her thinking her story would be interesting, but I didn’t anticipate that it would reside so neatly in the realm of existential inquiry. I am unable to cleanly separate the kind of body modification that altered my sex, and the taboo procedures Tiamat endured to become her vision of herself.
I believe that body modification is a core aspect of what it means to be human. Everything that we do to our bodies, whether we are exercising, dieting, having plastic surgery, dying our hair, changing our sex, or transitioning into otherworldly beings, represents a negotiation between our will and the forms we were born into. We make decisions every day to manifest our mind’s desires materially, and have since the eras of our earliest civilizations. Tiamat’s method is merely different than most others’.
Sealing joints with her split tongue, putting on her metal claws, and blowing smoke out the sides of her flat, serpent nose—Tiamat showed me what self-love looks like for her as an individual. She was able to overcome some of the most horrific experiences in life—to continue living with joy and hope. I needed to know how she did it. This is what she said:
“You’re only lost if you allow yourself to be lost. It takes self-love—and a real kind of self-love, beyond the kind of love that anyone could understand. You do deserve better, and if better isn’t around you, you find that better. But you have to find it in yourself first.”