A year ago, Dane Woodland was feeling very anxious and self-conscious about his appearance. He was a MUN student bartending on the weekends, who couldn’t look himself in the mirror without feeling uncomfortable, alienated, wrong. So much so, he’d tape a binder under his shirt to conceal his breasts.
This year, he found the time and resolve to change how he was feeling: he recently had a “top surgery” in Ontario, meaning a double mastectomy, and chest sculpting operation to help him better identify as a male. He has since had his gender changed from female to male on his birth certificate.
Grappling with Gender Dysphoria
Gender dysphoria refers to a person feeling incompatible and uncomfortable with their birth-designated gender, and for those like Dane, gender dysphoria is real and crippling. The identity disassociation causes measurable stress and discomfort.
Prior to undergoing bilateral male chest reconstruction, Dane’s life was preoccupied with doing anything he could to look less female. “Although this may sound like the typical experience of someone who simply doesn’t know what to wear,” Dane says, “it is not the same. Many times, it lead to the decision to return to bed and stay at home, feeling defeated.”
Like an overwhelming tic, he’d spend his days preoccupied, tugging his shirt away from his chest, adjusting his shoulders, adopting postures, anything, to mask the body of which he was ashamed. “I was anxious, I was unable to relax and be myself, and much of the time, I was too focused on my own self-loathing to pay attention to much else.”
He acknowledges that the importance of physical change varies from person to person, but for him, “not all of my dysphoria could be cured by learning to love myself, which is why I opted for top surgery.”
Fear of Persecution, or New Places and People
For a lot of transgender people, there is a fear of persecution if they’re outed. “I have found myself on high alert in social settings, wondering if I’m going to be ‘outed’ at any point; wondering if people may be having private conversations in which they are mocking me, and, wondering if my safety is at risk.”
And as Dane adds, “there’s fear in meeting new people, going to unfamiliar places, and many things that are most often taken for granted by cisgender people are major stressors for those of us who are gender diverse. Even access to different public services causes distress for transgender folk.” Is someone going to get contentious of the bathroom Dane chooses between male and female washrooms?
“These layers of stress can compound and have serious consequences for transgender people. From being unemployed or underemployed, from underperforming in academics to dropping out of school, from seeking professional counseling services to committing suicide. Aside from the distress that many transgender people experience from external sources, the relationship an individual has with oneself can also be quite harmful.”
Are These Surgeries Cosmetic or Necessary?
The topic of whether surgeries like Dane’s should be deemed cosmetic, or, be government funded, cause an uproar online when discussed. For his own surgery, Dane opted to avoid the typically-five-year waitlist and go to a private clinic in Ontario for his surgery. It cost roughly $8,000 not including travel costs. He raised the funds himself, through a Go Fund Me page.
“Every aspect of my life has improved – in fact, I sometimes catch myself smiling at what I see, which is a totally foreign experience! I feel more confident, my posture is better, my mood is better. In short, everything is better. Although top surgery may not be the ultimate treatment for those coping with gender dysphoria, for me, it was just what I needed to move on and focus on other things.”
“I have had conversations with people who have expressed that my desire for reconstructive surgery was purely cosmetic. Those conversations were extremely harmful. It hurt like heck to think that someone would minimize my needs so much.”
“That said, I recognize that many of these attitudes are formed in places that lack education. People are only just beginning to learn about gender diversity, and it is incredibly tough to understand a pain that you haven’t experienced, or to which you cannot relate.”
He says those who are around him on a regular basis “continue to remark that my surgery has made such a huge difference in my demeanour. I am no longer exhausted by simply attempting to dress myself, nor am I preoccupied with every glimpse of myself when I am near a reflective surface.”
“I am more motivated to pursue my ambitions, take better care of myself, and help others when I can. The efforts I make to love myself are no longer met with gender dysphoria’s harsh rebuttal of dismissal and insecurity.”
Accommodating These Surgeries is Arguably Less of a Strain on the Healthcare System Than Not Accommodating Them
When the news of Dane’s top surgery broke on CBC this year, some pretty deflating and transphobic comments were made about Dane’s decision, and how these commenter’s children shouldn’t have to hear “people like Dane” advocating for and raising awareness about transgender struggles. It seems some people would rather their children quietly agonize with the struggles Dane has liberated himself from.
“Although there tends to be a focus on how much we could end up spending to cover surgeries for transgender people, we often forget how much we are spending to treat the distress of those who are seeking surgery but cannot afford it. Visits to the emergency room, medications, and sessions with various professionals all cost money, and they all take up time.”
“In a mental health system that is already strapped, how do we justify forcing transgender people to wait until they can provide exorbitant amounts of money?” As he says, the time during which a transgender person is awaiting surgery is the time during which they are most likely to commit suicide, and the rates are alarmingly high.
The cost of mental health intervention takes up a part of our budget, too. “Whether we support funding for surgery or not, we are paying money for the treatment of transgender people, but we are not providing the best and most efficient methods of treatment.”
Why fund the side effect – anxiety, depression, therapy – instead of the cure: transition surgeries? “Beyond that, the successful treatment of gender dysphoria allows that person to move on with their life so that they can pursue their ambitions and further their contribution to society. Transgender people are tax payers, too!”