50 Years Ago Today I Had Sex Reassignment Surgery

In the late 1960s and early 1970s we were far more existential than people are today. We were because of actions, identity not so much. Which is not to say that identity wasn’t important, identity bought the entrance into the tribe.

We called ourselves transsexuals in those days and saw ourselves as different from the queens. Queens might be friends, smoke pot with us, even be roommates and lovers but actually getting a sex change operation made us different.

In those days SRS cost about the same as an entry level economy car, which is to say about 3000 dollars. Minimum wage was IIRC 2 dollars an hour. Many of us did sex work to earn that money.

I had my surgery as part of the Stanford Gender Identity Program, so identity did play a role even then. We were screened carefully because the program itself was considered extremely controversial and faced opposition from conservative forces.

I was considered the “perfect transsexual”, the ideal candidate. I was what we called a “natural beauty wonder” which meant that I looked like a girl even when I was dressed as a boy. That my aura was feminine and not exaggerated. I breezed through the initial screening at San Franciscos’s “Center for Special Problems”. In the summer of 1969 after4-5 months on hormones I saw Dr. Benjamin and he blessed me with his approval and told me I was one of the most perfect candidates for surgery he had ever seen. He told me that after a year he would write my surgery letter.

Then came the struggle to accumulate the money to pay for surgery. A visit to Dr. Barbosa intimidated me because while both he and his immediate staff spoke English much of his support staff did not. My grasp of Spanish at that time was at best tourist phrases level.

In 1971 I saw Dr. Benjamin again and he told me to talk with Dr. Laub at the Stanford Program and wrote my surgery recommendation letter. Then came the lengthy pre-program entrance questionnaire/exam.

About that time, I started working as a volunteer at the Transsexual Counseling Center, which was at Third and Mission in San Francico. I finally had a lot of sisters in my life, and it felt good, others like me who I loved and cared about.

In October I went in for my preliminary interview. I wore a tiny purple velvet mini skirt as part of my make a good impression look. I knew the power of being cute and sexy when it came to dealing with men. I was very pleased with the reaction I got from Dr. Laub. I was the quintessence of the cute hippie chick, Years later Diane Mancuso of blessed memory quipped, “Sally, Marti, Judy, Suzy.” (First Sally then Marti followed by Judy were Dr. Laub’s assistants over the span of the 12 years or so I was part of the program) noting we were all of a certain type, we all looked like early 1970 hippie grad students.

I was scheduled for the physical and lab test as well as my interview with Dr. Fisk. The psych interview was more of a conversation than an examination. After the two hours he asked if I had any questions. I looked him in the eye and asked, “Do you think we are born this way or is this the result of how we were raised? Nature or nurture? Dr. Fisk said, “We don’t know. But, in your case I would say you were born this way.”

In late December I was told to come in in early January to schedule my surgery.

On June 21, 1972, I received my surgery at Harod D. Chope Hospital. It actually required two surgeries spread over some 18 months and was crude and primitive when compared to more modern techniques. The first surgery created my vagina and the second a year later gave me a natural appearing vulva.

When I had SRS in 1972 there were perhaps a couple of thousand of us, in ten years there were tens of thousands. SRS went from experimental to routine although it remains as much an art as a surgical procedure. Drs. learned on our bodies. Sometimes we were placed in uncomfortable positions and wound up feeling like exhibits. In the 1980s I said enough, I wasn’t going to be a subject to be studied. Especially after the Johns Hopkins Study which abused us.

I think I said, “I’m tired of being treated like a fucking Replicant, almost human but not quite.” Being female had become normal. I could both know on that one level that there had been a before and that on another level that I had always been who I am now. SRS was like a ritual that removed the past.

I started to look for words to describe how I thought of myself and the profound life experiences I had lived. I had to struggle with an extremely hard life including having been disowned. I became alcoholic and was extremely lonely.

In the summer of 1996, I booted up a 486 computer I built. It had a dial up modem and I loaded the Netscape browser. The first search engine I used was Yahoo and the first word I typed was transsexual. The world opened up. I figure out how to get on Usenet that night, I also found Alta Vista.

I started volunteering at the LA Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. I met Jacob Hale, who introduced me to a bunch of brothers and to Susan Stryker. I started realizing I was someone in history. I angered people by clinging to the word transsexual instead of embracing transgender. Transgender felt like erasure.

But even transsexual felt wrong, and artifact of a time of becoming anachronistic these many years after I had become, and the memories of the process are historic rather than an active issue for me to deal with. Tina and I came up with Women Born Transsexual as a credo, a way of stating our belief that we were born this way. I now sometimes use post-transsexual. But I wonder if even that has been swallowed by the mists of time. This I know and know quite well there are now a number of us out there who are 50 years post and more will join us and take our places when we pass on.

The paths we blazed, the sacrifices we made we made for our tribe. The scars we carry make heroes of all who created those paths by living and showing that doing what we did was possible not by theorizing but by doing. For me this year is the fiftieth, for someone else it may be the sixtieth. Or the twenty-fifth or tenth or maybe someone waiting for their appointment to make the same passage.