If you're not sleeping with the person attached to these legs, their crotch is not your business. Photo via
One shouldn't have to have seen the Laverne Cox-Katie Couric kerfuffle from earlier this week to know that the last thing you want to do when talking to a trans person is ask them about their genitalia.
Unless you’re in a sexual relationship with said individual, or maybe their doctor, the state of that person’s privates is really none of your business, a point my colleague Sarah Ratchford made in an interview with trans supermodel Carmen Carrera a few weeks back. So imagine talking about your privates in a very public sphere so that your privates can look the way you want them.
For some trans people, sexual reassignment surgeries (SRS, or gender reassignment surgeries, depending on who you ask) are a way to modify one’s body to align with their gender identity. Not all trans people feel the need for surgical intervention(s), or specifically, surgeries which affect one’s genitalita. But for those who do, gathering the funds to make such surgeries possible isn’t easy.
The variables of costs for people seeking out reassignment surgery are as differing as the surgeries themselves. For example, a vaginoplasty can run between $17,000 and $18,000. The cost of facial feminization surgery will vary depending on how much or what you have done. A brow lift? A jaw or Adam’s apple shave? As well as the actual surgeries, there are also the costs of post-operative care such as medications, hospital rooms, or hospice care. In Canada, most provinces will cover the payment of the actual surgery, but those other costs may have to be undertaken by the patient.
There is, however, a recent wave of trans people gaining access to money the same way that everyone from artists to start-up businesses have been doing: crowdsourced funding for their surgeries. There have been a few major stories circulating about this in the news in the past few months. There is the student whose frat brothers helped pay for his reassignment surgery; there was the former Mormon and current fellow from the Kinsey Institute, Samantha Allen, who wrote about crowdsourcing her SRS. And there are many more stories, some garnering media attention, and some not.
In the interest of full disclosure, I think it’s important to point out that I am not transgendered. I’ve also always been a big follower of the cardinal rule stated at the top of this article: not your junk, not your business. But in the case of this story, I had to talk to people about their genitals, insofar as their own needs and desires towards SRS. In the case of those who seek out crowdsourced funds, they often find themselves having to talk about their genitals, either directly or indirectly, to the world.
Shakina Nayfack is a theater director, producer, and performer based in New York City. She’s currently in the middle of her own campaign to raise $52,500 for her SRS. The money would cover the travel costs to see a doctor in Thailand who specializes in vagnioplasties and facial feminization surgeries. It would also include the cost of said surgeries, as well as post-operative care. Nayfack has already spent thousands of dollars for electrolysis and hormone replacement therapy. ”When I started on my medical transition I was so overwhelmed by the cost,”she told me. “My campaign started as a joke, like the only way I would be able to complete the transition would be if I Kickstarted my vagina. I think I tweeted something about it really sarcastically, but then more and more of my friends encouraged me to try it.” Nayfack has been interviewed by multiple news sources about her “KickStartHer” endeavor, including the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail. But interest in her story hasn’t always meant dollars towards her campaign. “I’m trying to stay optimistic, but so far it's been hard to encourage folks beyond my own circle of friends to contribute, even if my ‘KickStartHer' campaign has gotten some media attention.”
For Nayfack, crowdsourcing is also about putting trans people—and the issues they face in terms of accessing health care—on people’s radar. “I think my campaign and others like it serve a much larger function than just raising money for surgery,” she pointed out. “They increase transgender visibility, demystify the medical nature of the transition process, and help create necessary conversation around transgender health care and access to health care in general.”
But putting yourself in the public eye isn’t easy. That’s what Audrey discovered the hard way after starting her own campaign. Audrey—who asked that her real name not be used for reasons I will soon disclose—is based in Vancouver, but grew up in a small town on the east coast of Canada. “Growing up I was constantly forgetting the fact that I was male,” she said. “I'd always been sort of feminine. All my friends had always been girls. When I was 12, I started growing out my hair. At 13, I bought big platform boots. At 14, I came out as liking men. At 15, I started wearing women's jeans and tight T-shirts.”
Audrey recognizes that being gender atypical during her time in high school didn’t make things easy. “I knew that I was a target, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to be one step ahead,” she said. “I always had to have a better joke to use as a comeback, make them laugh so I wasn't a threat, and I never let them see me weak. But I always had to know which hallway was safe to walk down at what time.” Audrey graduated high school a semester early, exhausted and depressed from the stress.
But even when it was bad, Audrey knew she had to be true to herself. She remembers how her mother bought her heels for her 16th birthday. Excited, Audrey wore them to school. “I guess the best way to describe how people reacted was that it was a bit of a spectacle,” she recalled. “Some people snickered, stared, made comments, but for the most part it was sort of business as usual.”
A few years later, Audrey eventually came to identify as transgender. She left the East Coast, and has been living in Vancouver ever since. She had entertained the idea of SRS before, but was worried about the financial and medical risks involved. “I held off on surgery because I was terrified something would go wrong, and have to live with the regret all because I was chasing ‘better’,” she says. By the time she’d hit her mid-twenties, she came to the realization that, “No one ever gets to live their authentic, ideal life without risk. I think the best activism comes through living and sharing your truth.”
Unfortunately not long after Audrey decided to go through with SRS, she lost her job, and was unable to cover some of the costs associated with it. Although the province of British Columbia would help with some of it, she would have to travel to a private clinic in Montreal. The real problem was paying for her post-patient care, something she described in her campaign as “absolutely necessary for a successful recovery. This facility has 24/7 nursing care who not only monitor your healing, but also provide guidance on how to ensure successful healing at home.” So she started a crowdsourcing campaign to help raise $2,500. She ended up raising a little over $2,600, for which she is incredibly grateful.
But the experience of putting her life and her gender identity out there for the masses was not easy. “I realized, since the campaign began, that I've opened a bit of a Pandora’s box,” she said. “Lots of people on my friends list knew but I'd never talked to them about it, and a few had no idea. Now suddenly I'm being messaged by old coworkers to let me know they had no idea when we worked together. It’s all positive, but it unexpectedly feels very intrusive.” It’s for these reasons that Audrey ask that her real name not be used for the purposes of this story. She finds being reduced to what she describes as a “topic of conversation” difficult, but acknowledges she opened that door. Still, she explained, “I’ve felt as if this deeply personal and private aspect of my life is open for conversation, and I haven't liked it.”
Caleb Arring wants to make that space between the personal and the public a little easier for trans people. The Bay Area lawyer is getting ready to launch Trans Body Fund, a website where trans people can create profiles and access crowdsourced funds. “It is a very sensitive thing to put yourself on display in such a way,” he said. “We want to create a place where people know they are in the hands of people who care about them and their issues.”Unlike sites such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, Arring is opting to create a site where donors can make tax deductible donations, as well as for “people who want to donate to transitions, but not to a particular person’s fund, can make donations.”For Arrings, it’s also about listening to, and helping out a community. “The whole project will be open to changes as it develops, based on feedback from the community, he says.
Arrings came up with the idea when a friend of his posted about their own search for funds on social media. “I saw a need in the moment,” he says. “Trans people need a place where their campaigns can be visible. I believe there are many people who would want to donate to transitions, this site will make the people who need donations visible.”
For Arring, it’s about giving trans people access to health care they might not be able to access otherwise. “Some people see transitioning as the only way they can live. I am starting this site to help trans people become who they really are.”
Back in New York, Shakina Nayfack has until June of 2014 before she finds out if she will have raised enough money. “If I don't get enough funds I will just have to keep going,”she said. “I'm committed to getting the surgeries, and I'm trying all sorts of ways to raise the money.” Nayfack has created an autobiographical show entitled, ONE WOMAN SHOW: A Work In Progress, and may end up taking it on the road. But nothing will stop her in becoming who she is.