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In the center of it all was Kerry Downey; it was her party, and well-wishers came up to the lanky woman to give her kisses and hugs. Dressed in a button-up shirt, bow tie, top hat, and slim-fitting pants, she was beaming, but not nearly as much as her breasts were, lit up by LED lights to call attention to them. Downey hoped, however, that this would be one of the last times in her life that her 34-Ds would be the focus of attention.
The party, dubbed "Kerry's Bye-Bye Boobie Party," was a benefit to raise funds for "top surgery"a double mastectomythat Downey is undergoing this month. Though she now has a bust that a porn star could love, she desires a more androgynous outline. Soon, with the help of the funds raised from the party, she will sport a male chest.
Downey is joining a growing number of people redefining gender. Some take the route of surgery, hormones, and a legal sex change; some split the difference, skipping hormones, or surgery, or both, while still identifying as the opposite sex.
And still others are like Downey and wish to be simply androgynous women without breasts; for them, hormones are unnecessary. They resist simple binary gender definitions, replacing pronouns like he or she with words like hir and ze, living in a world where terms like gender queer and boi are as common as butch and femme.
Like her transgender brethren, Downey has had to raise her own funds for the surgery she wants; health-insurance plans generally don't cover such procedures, which cost about $8,000 for top surgeries and don't include the price of plane tickets, hotel rooms, and other expenses incurred by traveling to see a reputable doctor.
Downey wants a subcutaneous mastectomy with nipple graphsthe technical description of what is basically "a top surgery for trans people," she saysand she has to come up with the cash herself. So she's doing what many other transgender folk have done before her: She's throwing a party. She hopes to raise $2,000 from the benefit, and has saved $1,500 from her job as a freelance educator at the Museum of Modern Art, and from her other part-time job working with the elderly and providing companionship, which she does while trying to finish her MFA in fine art at Hunter College. Her mother, who Downey says doesn't make a lot of money, is loaning her the rest of the funds, which Downey hopes to pay back using low-interest student loans and with money that comes in through PayPal on her website. "I will owe a lot of favors," she says.
Surgery-benefit parties have become so frequent in the lesbian and female-to-male communities, they are almost trendy. Even the Showtime series The L Word included a top-surgery party for the character Moira/Max (played by local actress Daniela Sea) in a third-season episode.
Downey says that her own reasons for throwing a party were deeply personal, but they also served a larger purpose: "I decided to throw one first and foremost to raise money fast, and secondly to raise awareness." It was a chance, she says, to bring friends and family into a decision that she's been working on her entire life. And to connect to a larger community of people challenging the basic notions of who they are.
Topher Gross was once described by friends as the "king of the lesbian mafia," a drag king who went by the name Donatello Lesbiana and hosted dyke community events.
Gross is now a short, balding round guy with a reddish beard and lots of piercings and tattoos, including one for his former clothing company, Pussy Power. When he transitioned to male, Gross relied on his deep social contacts to throw two parties, one at Southpaw and another at the Slipper Room. He smiles at the memory of them.
"We basically did a burlesque show and had like DJs and go-go girls and go-go boys and sold clothing. And people donated stuff for auctioning." He raised $3,500.
The parties are becoming a rite of passage: Think of it as a trans person's bar mitzvah or prom, a ritualized event in which all the rules are rewritten. Beyond raising money, it's a coming-out party, a celebration of a new self.
"That's the way that I think transgender people can honor their transition, and honor their being out, is by having parties and benefits," says Nicco Beretta, one of the trans men featured in the documentary Boy I Am. He's had three events: two for his top surgery and one for his hysterectomy (necessary for unrelated health reasons). When he had his first surgery party in 2003, at ToyBox, he hadn't heard of people holding benefit parties.
"I really feel like it's been primarily in the last three years that you've seen a real hike in people throwing benefits," says Beretta, a handsome, charismatic guy. By the time he had his third party (at Cattyshack, in 2005) for his $8,000 hysterectomy, benefit parties had become almost de rigueur. "On average for those following two years, I would see anywhere from five and 10 benefit parties a year, which is an extreme amount. It's a lot of parties for just one purpose. I feel like there was a peak. It's kind of slowed down a little bit."