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Affirmation Blog 03 - Rhea Rollmann

Getting ready for surgery is, I now realize, more a psychological process than a physiological one. Yes, I tried to eat healthy and follow the surgery clinic’s instructions, no matter how daunting or odd they seemed. (No estrogen three weeks before surgery: check. No alcohol two weeks before surgery: aww…okay, check. No raw or cooked garlic one week before surgery: huh?!)

Health care providers attempt to make sure you’re ready for it before they put you on the wait-list: I had to have assessments by both a medical doctor as well as a clinical sexologist, prior to approval. Then there were further assessments, including physical assessments, by the clinic itself.

But getting my head in the right space for the surgery was just as important. When undertaking a fairly major surgery, it’s easy to fall prey to doubts and insecurities. As part of my job as a journalist, I spend a lot of time in transphobic spaces, hearing all the terrible things bigots and transphobes say about trans people and our surgeries. And of course, social media sites like Twitter are just full of trolls who deliberately target and gang up on trans people. Transphobia is a bit of a cult, and it can really infect your thinking, even when you try to maintain a dispassionate distance. As my own surgery approached, I couldn’t help but hear many of those terrible things I’d read in transphobic sites or tweets, running through my head.

To counter that, I turned to two sources.

One was the growing body of trans-themed literature. Books have always been a source of solace and inspiration for me; it’s remarkable the effect a good book can have on shifting your mood, or shifting the way you think about a topic. Reading the experiences of other trans people really helped me both to feel more secure in my decision to pursue surgery, and more excited about the possibilities of life after.

Here are a few personal recommendations. One of the best books I’ve read on the subject of trans sexuality is Queer Sex: A Trans Non-Binary Guide to Intimacy, Pleasure and Relationships by Juno Roche. Roche is one of my favourite authors on the topic bar none. Her recent book Gender Explorers: Our Stories of Growing Up Trans and Changing the World interviews young gender-diverse children, and offers a fantastic glimpse at the wonders that are possible when gender-diverse kids are raised in accepting environments. Queer Sex is more personal in nature: Roche interviews other trans folk about their experiences, including post-surgery experiences. Reading Roche and other trans people talk about the positives and negatives of life after surgery, about the challenges they encountered and the ways they dealt with them, really helped give me a clearer, more insightful understanding of what to expect. I am so glad I discovered this book.

Another must-read is To My Trans Sisters, edited by Charlie Craggs. This is a collection of dozens of letters written by trans women, to an intended audience of other trans women. I cannot understate the brilliance of this collection. The authors are a diverse lot, from an array of different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. Some letters run long, others are barely a paragraph. Some offer practical ‘passing’ advice, others offer in-depth philosophical take-downs of the gender binary. I didn’t agree with a few of them, but most of them left me swooning with joy. The letters that really stuck with me were those from other trans women outlining their personal histories and experiences. Hearing from such a diverse array of women about the challenges they faced growing up, and how they dealt with them, provided a source of strength just when I needed it the most. It also really helped bolster my nerve about getting through surgery – if so many of these other wondrous women had managed it, then so could I!

There’s some great comics out there, too. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe is a beautiful, moving book that helped me break down some of that lingering, deeply ingrained gender binary that had been drilled into my own head at a young age. First Year Out and Coming Out Again, by Sabrina Symington, offer a step-by-step account of a Canadian trans woman’s coming out, including surgery. It really helped give me a sense of what to expect – I felt in many ways I was following directly behind Symington’s own footsteps. For a bit of a humorous take, there’s Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer collection: My Early Days in Transition and My Life in Transition – short strips chronicling daily realities every trans person can relate to. In a similar vein, I hope you’re all reading the fabulous Sophie Labelle’s web comic Assigned Male (as well as all her other work). Its stab at the patriarchy and the gender binary is an unparalleled daily tonic for the soul.

The other source of support I’ve had has been talking to other trans people about their experiences with surgery. I am fascinated by the fact that so many of the trans people I’m interviewing for my book on Newfoundland queer history, also had gender-affirming surgery at the same clinic in Montreal that I will be going to. There’s an awe-inspiring symmetry about it, something that really makes you feel part of a lineage of trans people going back literally decades. Whenever one of my interviewees brings up the fact they had surgery in Montreal, I can’t help but pause and ask about this experience, explaining that it’s one I’m about to go through. In most cases, their comments are simple and reassuring: “Don’t worry. They take good care of you.”

One of the challenges I’ve wrestled with in my forthcoming book is how best to write about those heroic activists who are no longer with us. One person who was incredibly formative to my own experience and understanding of my gender, died almost twenty years ago – a tragic loss to both the genderqueer and the literary community. I learned recently that they’d had their surgery at the same clinic to which I’ll be going, and this thought makes me feel a bit better. It makes me feel somehow closer to this person who guided me in so many other ways, and who helped pave the way for today’s generation of genderqueer activists.

It’s remarkable to think that this distant clinic in Montreal unites us all across such a span of time. It’s easy for trans and queer history to be lost – for so long it wasn’t valued or incorporated into established records-keeping systems. Queer activists working at institutions like Memorial University’s QEII Library, or places like the ArQuives (Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives) in Toronto, have worked hard to preserve this heritage. But given the broader social stigmas, many queer people died without passing on the knowledge or works that they produced. Some of those have been lost forever; others have been found and preserved by people like myself who are working to document this history. (if you’re reading this and know about people, stories or items from NL’s early queer history that might be at risk of being lost, please get in touch! –

But places like this clinic in Montreal remain living, breathing institutions that also play a role in that history and continue to build new histories every day, as new generations of trans people go through their doors, climbing up the same steps their transcestors walked decades earlier.


Rhea plans to blog her continuing journey here on the Engen Books site, so stay tuned for updates. Keep an eye open for Rhea's Queer History of St. John's in 2022, and preorder Acceptance, featuring a story by Rhea, here from Engen Books.

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