Being Trans Doesn’t Mean You Were Born Into the Wrong Body
Existrans demonstration, Paris, October 21st, 2017.

Being Trans Doesn’t Mean You Were Born Into the Wrong Body

In a newly translated book, a prominent Spanish trans man rejects the idea that transgender individuals require bodily modification.

Miquel Missé
Miquel Missé
9 min read

I was 13 years old the first time I entered a trans collective to ask for information. It was the Col·lectiu de Transsexuals de Catalunya (CTC, or Transsexuals Collective of Catalonia), which at that time met at Barcelona’s Casal Lambda—a gay and lesbian organization. I went in alone, sat down, listened to the entire meeting and then left. What I heard there scared me so badly that it was a full year before I returned to another similar space.

It’s not that they were hostile toward me; just the opposite. The members, mostly trans women, were very welcoming. But they were locked in very serious debates about the rights of sex workers, the limits of the term “transsexual,” discrimination among trans people over whether a person wanted to have surgery or not, among many other things. I left terrified. Terrified at the thought of being someone like them in the midst of a wave of transphobia that I’d internalized. It terrified me to think of my body being operated on; I was terrified of all those things they talked about falling on top of me like an avalanche. I wanted to run away and that’s basically what I did.

When I was ready to try again, a year later, I found a new space that had been created by a group of trans men, former members of the CTC, called Transsexual Men Group of Barcelona (GTMB for its initials in Spanish). And this time I stayed. Every Sunday I raced through the streets to the city’s Gay Collective, which housed the weekly meetings of this small, magical family of trans boys, sometimes accompanied by their siblings, parents, partners, or friends. It was a place I would love to return to if it still existed, where I learned the immeasurable value of building support networks among trans people.

I remember vividly one of our favorite pastimes: looking at photographs of results of operations. It sounds surreal, but at that time it felt necessary. We would sit at a big table in the meeting room and open up the three-ring binders. Inside, like a photo album, were images of men, mostly from the United States, who had undergone mastectomies, hysterectomies, phalloplasties, and other surgeries. Below each photo the name of the man was neatly printed, English names that sounded strange to us and were hard to pronounce (Bruce, Jack, Richard, Joe…) along with the date of their operation and the name of the surgeon. We commented on the images, compared them, and we imagined ourselves in their shoes. The lucky ones among us had already had an operation or two and recounted the process to us over and over, from pre-op to post-op, sparing no details.

My favorite days were when someone had managed to tape an episode of a BBC documentary series about being transgender that aired in the middle of the night on Canal+. We plugged in a huge TV set that quickly swallowed the VHS and watched in rapt silence. We almost always recognized the surgeons and almost never the anonymous protagonists. And that’s how we spent every Sunday, eating sunflower seeds, laughing, and welcoming new members to the tribe.

I was happy there in that group that was my oxygen after a week at school, and I dreamed of being one of those boys in the photo album. I couldn’t wait to have a body like theirs, and sharing my impatience made me feel lighter. But unlike the other members, I’d have a long time to wait because I was still a minor. It would be years before I could even get my diagnosis.

So I waited, and in the meantime I participated in the shows of support from which I was never excluded, even though I was just a kid. I went to the hospital to visit friends as they woke up from anaesthesia, accepted hand-me-down girdles (chest binders didn’t exist at that time) from members who had finally been able to get rid of their breasts, and commiserated with those who woke up to discover that things hadn’t gone so well, that their scars were huge, that they’d have to go back under the knife to redo something. All these experiences shaped my thoughts on corporal modification as I realized it was much less romantic than the photos had led us to believe.

Even though that time in my life seems distant to me now—I’m talking about the mid-2000s—it wasn’t that long ago. More than a decade has passed, and in that time the trans movement has taken a giant leap forward.

Back then, the body was the epicenter of the debate. And I don’t mean body positivity as an empowering idea, but the body as testing grounds for surgical techniques as life-saving tools. The debates we had at the GTMB—a time- and place-specific snapshot of Barcelona’s trans movement—sowed the seeds for a different way of approaching trans activism, although we didn’t know it at the time. Despite the fact that bodily modification was an omnipresent topic of conversation at our meetings, there was something vitally important about those relationships, which is that we never judged anyone for deciding to put their bodies through one process or another. No one was seen as more or less transgender (at that time, the umbrella term “trans” didn’t exist) for choosing to have an operation or not. Unlike what happened in other collectives of transgender persons (generally women), in which there were fierce debates about whether a non-operated trans woman should be considered a woman or even transgender, the GTMB took a different stance.

I don’t mean to imply that we were better: trans women discussed these issues with greater intensity because they were much more vulnerable to stigma and violence, making the issue of projecting a positive image in society essential. What I’m trying to say is that whatever one of us did with our bodies was not judged by other members, and the safety of that environment allowed us to ask questions without fear of being exiled from the community.

The arrival of trans men on the trans activism scene in the late 1990s brought with it new ways of thinking about the work done by trans organizations. The main reason is probably that gender transitions for trans men had different implications: if we weren’t talking about the same things as our female counterparts, it’s because we didn’t have to combat the same stigma surrounding sex work or constant violence in the public sphere that they did.

Then, in 2006, a pressing debate began within trans organizations across different parts of Spain, causing us to reconfigure everything. There was a major push for the passage of a law that would allow trans people to change their names on their ID cards. This was something that then-president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had promised the trans community, but his term was about to end and he had yet to enact the measure. So a group of activists decided to put forward an emergency proposal to try to get it passed before the upcoming elections. And they achieved their goal.

We weren’t accustomed to debating trans politics at the GTMB; we were more like a group of friends who supported each other emotionally. We were invested in each member’s everyday adventures, but had never waded deeply into legal issues and political strategies. The e-mail calling us to participate in the drafting of the law sparked internal debate, revealing our vastly different political stances. Some members of the group considered it a worthy cause and they went to Madrid to help work on the law, while others thought the underlying proposal was totally unacceptable and needed to be discussed further.

And that’s how some of us sat down to develop a critical response and ended up forming a new collective, the Guerrilla Travolaka [Trannie Guerrillas]. A few months later, the GTMB definitively disbanded and our small family dispersed. But I still hold in my heart the memories, friendships, and experiences I had in that space, the best incubator for activism that I can imagine. I daresay that everyone who spent time there holds a profoundly loving memory of their experience.

The Guerrilla Travolaka started out as three trans guys—quickly joined by some lesbian activists who were ready and willing to throw themselves into the project as much as (or more than) the rest of us. We didn’t know how, but we knew that we wanted to denounce the outsized role of doctors in decisions that so greatly impacted our lives, as well as the perpetual medical treatment of trans people, which concealed an asphyxiating, normalizing gender system. The collective was frenetically active for three years and, by the time we finally halted our work, the seeds we’d sown sprouted into many other projects and initiatives that further disseminated our interpretation of the trans struggle.

My time with the Travolakas was without a doubt one of the most brutal experiences in my life, because it represented a very deep rift between what I’d learned about trans people and what I began to experience. I’d say that this was when I began to feel that my body had been stolen from me, that we were being robbed of our bodies. I wasn’t yet able to articulate this sensation in any coherent way; instead, it manifested as an overwhelming rage and acted as the driving force for our small but important activities that helped raise awareness for trans issues among other social movements in Barcelona.

There were two episodes that had marked me profoundly, and which motivated me to join the Guerrilla Travolaka. Both occurred in France, where radical trans activists had been meeting for years. In July 2006, some of us made a pilgrimage to the Universités d'été euroméditerranéennes des homosexualités (UEEH), an event with a very long name created by radical lesbian, gay, trans, and intersex activists, which has been held every year since 1979 in Marseille, France. I never would have heard about it if I hadn’t been invited by Karine Espineira, a French-Chilean activist and now a good friend. What I experienced there was transformative. More than 600 people from different countries participated in debates and assemblies, attended concerts and exhibitions.

I suddenly found myself inside a bubble filled with trans activists from around the world, hearing empowering speeches that were critical of the medical discourse and the psychiatrization of those who identified as transgender. I was awed, in total admiration, and I dreamed of the day that these political proposals might find their place in my hometown. The meetings were held in the Calanques National Park, a paradise of seaside cliffs and hidden beaches. And it was here that I experienced an awakening. As the final day drew near, a beach trip was planned. Groups of people, some of whom had known each other for years, but the majority for only a matter of days, began to prepare for the excursion.

I wanted to go, too. I wanted to participate in the group experience but, as I stumbled over the rocks, I was anxious about what I would do when I got to the water. Of course, I didn’t plan on swimming, not if it meant exposing my body.

And then I got to the beach. I didn’t know what to expect but when I lifted my head and looked around, I saw a scene that would forever change me. Gender categories had disappeared. There were a thousand possible bodies, bodies I’d never seen before and which at the same time looked so similar to my own. Trans bodies in the water, dressed or naked, loud laughter and sunscreen everywhere.

And, just like that, after so many hours, weeks, and months spent admiring the bodies of the boys in the three-ring binder, I suddenly found myself face to face with the exact opposite of what I’d imagined. I don’t remember anything else about that day, I don’t remember if I went swimming, I just remember that I was happy. I no longer wanted to be a boy like the ones in the photo album. I wanted to be like those people on the beach, wild and free, jumping from the rocks into the Mediterranean Sea. For the next nine summers I returned to these meetings and, yes, I eventually got into the water.

That same summer, the French trans activists I’d just met (and fallen in love with) invited us to join Existrans, a trans rally in Paris, the following October. We immediately agreed. I couldn’t stop thinking how great it would be to have something like that in Barcelona, where trans visibility was practically non-existent and we needed to do something about it. These experiences motivated me to return home and work nonstop with our small guerrilla trans group toward this goal. Six months later, our French trans friends came to Barcelona to help us with great enthusiasm and generosity. And a month later, in October 2007, Barcelona hosted the first trans rally in all of Spain.

Although the Guerrilla Travolaka’s main objective was to denounce the pathologization of transgenderism, a challenge to bodily modification can be read between the lines in the group’s manifesto, in which we said:

We defend Doubt, we believe in “going backwards” medically as a way of moving forward. We believe that no process of construction should be labelled irreversible. We want to shine a light on the beauty of androgyny. We believe in the right to remove our bandages and breathe easy as well as the right to keep them on, in the right to good surgeons and not butchers, in free access to hormonal treatments without a certificate from any psychiatrist, in the right to self-administer hormones. We demand the right to live without asking for permission.

This excerpt denounces blind acceptance of the medical model, and defends bodily autonomy. Although it may seem that essentially what is being defended is the right to modify the body, it is also defending the body that does not desire modification, the body that remains androgynous.

Originally published in Spanish as A la conquista del cuerpo equivocado, 2018. Editorial Egales, S.L., Spain. © Miquel Missé. This excerpt has been adapted, by permission of the author and publisher, from the English edition, The Myth of the Wrong Body, 2022, © Polity Press, translated by Frances Riddle.  

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Miquel Missé

Miquel Missé Sánchez is a Barcelona-born sociologist and trans activist.