In the back room of Galapagos, a young, artsy crowd watched the queer-friendly, all-girl rock band Marla Hooch perform
a raucous pop-punk set. Lights cast a pink blush on the space, and the crowd—a mix of tattooed-and-pierced dykes, fresh-faced collegiate straight boys, and fashionable girls in sexy dresses—danced to the band.
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 mastectomy—that 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 graphs—the technical description of what is basically “a top surgery for trans people,” she says—and 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.”
Beretta pointed out that females seeking to become males tend to throw fundraising parties, but males becoming females don’t. The FTMs, he says, tend to be just out of college and working low-paying jobs. Beretta was working at the bar where he threw his first party, pulling in only $2,000 on a good month.
Beretta’s first party raised $1,000. But his surgery was postponed when his job working in the nightlife industry didn’t provide enough cash. A second party then brought in $2,000. It took a benefactor’s loan to bring in the final $5,000, and Beretta is still paying it back.
Not everyone thinks the benefit parties are a positive—or necessary—thing. One of the world’s most prominent trans men, porn star Buck Angel, thinks that benefit parties only lessen the seriousness involved in transitioning to a new gender. “Ugh, don’t get me started. That’s my hugest pet peeve,” he says. “You wanna be a man? Act like a man. Men take care of themselves. Very rarely do they fucking beg for money. Get a fucking job and save your money, and save money like a man. Asking a handout for surgery—it really bothers me. It’s just wrong, and it adds to that element of trendiness. It’s ‘Let’s have a boob-removal party!'”
For Kerry Downey, the benefit scene is uncharted territory. “I don’t know what a top surgery party is like,” she says. “I’m just throwing the birthday party that I’ve always wanted.”
At Galapagos, a giant pink poster hung on the back wall. It read “Sayonara!” and featured a cartoon drawing of Downey cutting off her orbs with scissors. An artist who lives in Queens in an artists’ collective called Flux Factory, she has a healthy sense of humor about her situation. She handed out bright pink pamphlets titled “Kerry’s Bye-Bye Boobie Manual” which featured a section called “A Brief History of My Boobs.” The party invite featured Downey’s grinning mug Photoshopped onto a buxom, pigtailed woman’s body, proudly announcing, “Help us say goodbye to man’s two best friends in one ho-down!” Her Flux Factory buddies made a video set to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” in which giant melons were smashed and cut to bits by people wearing medieval costumes.
A day before her party, at a café on East 18th Street, Downey talks about growing up and hating the way her body was changing in puberty. The more her breasts grew, she says, the more she grew to loathe them. She is lean and slight, and has a shock of curly reddish-brown hair that resembles Lyle Lovett’s pompadour. She has fair skin, light blue eyes, and an easygoing manner. She was wearing a fitted, light-pink button-up shirt and tight-fitting pants, but the shirt only accentuates her bust size. As she describes how much she disliked her breasts from the moment they began to emerge, how they caused her back and neck pain, and how she wants to avoid an elevated risk of breast cancer (her mother fought the disease and had a double mastectomy), it becomes evident that her ample chest is incongruous for her wiry frame. But what’s wrong with a simple reduction?
“I love boobs. Boobs are great. Not on me—any amount of boobs is too much boobs. I want a dude’s chest. It just makes sense,” she answers.
Her choice is also political. “The queerness becomes a really positive aspect of your identity,” she says. “That’s why it’s much more comfortable for me to take this in the direction of trans surgery, because gender-queer people understand that it’s more than physical discomfort. Moreover, it’s that the physical discomfort cannot be separated from psychological discomfort. They’re deeply interwoven.”
Downey is fortunate. Her parents are supportive and understanding; she told her father about her plans last month, and was surprised that he didn’t make much of a fuss. “I was afraid that he was going to say something like, ‘Aren’t your girlfriends gonna miss out on fondling your breasts?'” she says. “He was a little shocked, but he did come around and say, ‘All right.'” Her father then immediately talked about breast cancer in his family’s history. “That made me feel good—that he was thinking about it just in terms of health, physical transition, recovery.”
When she gets the surgery in Baltimore this week, Downey’s mother will be at her side. A friend will document the event, photographing Downey and her mother with their shirts off before and after the surgery. In a way, a puberty-blooming Downey actually envied her mom’s new flat chest. “It’s a strange position to be in—to be jealous of your mom’s surgically removed chest. I didn’t really understand what cancer was. All I knew was that my mom had come home from the hospital titless.” She says she learned from her mom that “a woman can still be a woman without breasts.”
It was this past December, when she was lying on the table at the gynecologist’s office having her breasts checked for cysts, that Downey finally had it. “The last experience of it was so uncomfortable and so horrendous for me, to be exposed on this table. All of a sudden, I’m just bawling on the doctor’s table. In that moment, I was like, ‘I’m doing it this year!'”
Despite the relatively positive media attention transgenderism is getting lately—everyone from Barbara Walters at 20/20 to Tyra Banks to Newsweek have focused on the issue—life after a gender change is no picnic. Even the simple act of using a public restroom is a stressful—and sometimes dangerous—proposition. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that 32 percent of transgendered people surveyed had attempted suicide.
Changing genders, or living between genders, is not a decision that should be made lightly, says Angel. “This is not something to play around with. It’s not a joke,” he warns. “It’s a life-changing, altering experience. Once you start hormones, you can never go back. There are 20-year-old kids jumping on this thing. Have they been through therapy? Them saying, ‘Hey, how much T [testosterone] do you shoot?’ It’s this trendy thing to be on T. It takes the seriousness out of what it means to be trans, to have a sex change. It’s upsetting to me.”
Surgery, after all, has an unsettling finality to it. According to a report published by International Journal of Transgenderism in 1998, as many as two out of every 100 transsexuals report having regrets about surgery. Beretta says he knows of two people who opted to go back to their original gender—one person was only a few months in transition, but the other had to make a full transition back to female.
On the other hand, Downey points out, what she’s doing is not much different from women who have their breasts enlarged. “What I’m interested in about trans top surgery is breaking down this gender binary and alleviating some of the social expectations to align yourself with one or the other [gender],” she says. “And I feel like a lot of cosmetic surgery reaffirms stereotypes.”
Buck angel comes clean about boob-removal Parties: HE HATES THE VERY idea.
It is hard to put an exact figure on the number of surgeries or transgender people in the country. The U.S. Census Bureau does not track such statistics. Nick Gorton, a female-to-male doctor who works at Lyon-Martin in San Francisco, says that because of privacy concerns, many trans people don’t allow their data to be recorded for fear of discrimination by insurance companies and employers. But the sense is that the trans movement is growing; Buck Angel says that transgendered people are the “world’s fastest-growing population,” pointing out that last year’s Transmarch in San Francisco drew 8,000 people. Gorton says that extrapolating from a population study out of the Netherlands suggests that there are 5,000 trans men in the U.S. It’s a number he thinks is too low. “Using that, there would be exactly 13 FTMs in all of San Francisco. I saw more than that between last week and today,” he says. More likely, he thinks that the number is closer to 15,000.
Gorton has a favorite anecdote to illustrate how transitioning has become so common, it’s almost run-of-the-mill. At a conference a few years ago, Gorton ran into his former college roommate—who, it turned out, in the time since they’d last seen each other, had also become a man.
If top surgery has become more popular, it’s partially because there is more access to information. Beretta credits the Internet for spreading the word: Websites like transster.com show results from different surgeons, and people find Beretta on MySpace routinely. Partially because of this visibility, top surgery is now a more popular option than it was 30 years ago: “People only change when the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same,” Gorton says.
Dr. Michael Brownstein, who is considered one of the best top surgeons in the U.S. and was featured in the movie
Boy I Am, says that he became known for trans surgeries “purely by accident” in the late ’70s. Since he started, the demand for the procedure has increased. Now, he says, “I do four to six of these a week. It’s been like that for a few years. Early on, there were very few.”
Downey says the three surgeons she was in contact with “were all booked. They’re doing surgeries three times a day, five or six days a week—and not all of them, obviously, are top surgeries, but a high percentage were trans- related surgeries. It’s a lot.”
She was surprised to learn how popular the procedure has become. When she called a friend in San Francisco to announce her plans, she was shocked to hear her friend say that top surgery is all the rage. “She was like, ‘You have no idea how many people are having this surgery. The shit is a crazy trend.’ ” It bothered Downey to think that something so serious could be considered trendy. “I was like, ‘Well, why would you say a trend? This is not a tattoo. This shit is so expensive, and it’s so physically painful, that how can you possibly call it a trend?’ ” says Downey.
FTM visibility in particular has led to a heated debate in the lesbian community about “butch flight,” something that was addressed in Boy I Am. Identifying as a butch in the lesbian community means taking on a visible—and much respected—role. So when those who are perceived as butch decide to transition to men, some in the lesbian community feel betrayed.
But all four of the trans men interviewed for this article—all of whom lived in the lesbian community before transitioning—say they were misperceived as butch.
“People thought that I was a butch lesbian,” says Topher Gross. “But I was never butch. I was always, ‘Yeah, I’m queer. I’m a faggy queer.’ But I would never disrespect butches by saying I was butch. Butches sort of like paved the way for me to be who I was. . . . I was queer and I was tough-looking, but I was not tough at all.”
There’s also a generational gap: To the younger generation, the
butch label is old-school. In places like New York, Beretta points out, gender is now exhibiting a new “fluidity.” Downey just wants to inhabit a space between traditional notions of “man” and “woman.”
What’s also changing, Angel says, is how widespread the desire for surgery seems to be. When he transitioned 16 years ago, Angel says he lost many of his lesbian friends. But as trans awareness has grown, he began getting calls from those who had ostracized him, asking how they could transition. “They are hardcore feminist lesbians, and now they are wanting to become a man. Those are the things that make me feel like it’s a weird, trendy thing,” he says.
“I know 100 percent, it’s much easier to live as a man than it is to live as a woman in society,” Angel adds. “The person that’s the least on a totem pole is a butch lesbian. They get treated worse than anyone in society.”
Angel is admittedly old-fashioned when it comes to gender. “I don’t have a problem if you want to be in between genders. But you can’t jump on the transsexual movement and say you are trans.” New names have emerged to define the state of in-betweenness that people like Downey want to exist in, Angel points out. ” ‘Gender queers’—you know. Some of them are even calling themselves ‘XX boys.’ They’re not male or female.” Angel admits to having unpopular opinions about the new ways of thinking.
“I’m so old-school,” says the male porn star without a penis. “But I am a male with a pussy, so I am fucking up the system, too.”
Kerry Downey is bothered that she might be considered trendy.
“I just find this abominable—like, what is so great about being a part of a crowd? That sounds like a goddamned nightmare,” she says.
Though she is a lesbian, she isn’t entrenched in the dyke community the way Beretta and Gross were and still are. “There’s always that fear that I’m not really a part of the trans scene. I’m not really a part of this process. I’m the marginal of the marginal.” She’d be the ultimate loner, in a way, were it not for all of her friends.
At her party, swinging a cane and donning a top hat, she dances with her pals, both male and female. The room is buzzing with love. “You asked me if I belonged to a community before,” she says, and sweeps her arms around the room, gesturing to the several hundred people who’ve come out for her. “This is my community.” She fell $500 short of her goal, but said, “What I did not make in money, I made in love capital.”
A few weeks after the party, a wrench had been thrown into her plans. The “totally ignorant” therapist she’d been seeing had dropped her; the therapist was leaving the office, and Downey had to fight to get someone there to write the much-needed letter for her surgery—which she eventually got.
Downey doesn’t think she’ll be one of those people who regret their choice; she’s known what she’s wanted ever since her boobs announced themselves. “There are people, young women, who really don’t know themselves and are looking for quick-fix solutions to all kinds of issues about their identity. Loving yourself is a complicated mess. It takes us our entire lives to work through that shit.”