The day I got my face carved into like a Halloween pumpkin – a process heretofore known as facial feminization surgery, or FFS – was a day that the New York City skyline was blanketed in thin layers of smoke, ash, and orange creamsicle.
It wasn’t sunrise, or sunset, but rather, the apocalypse. The Air Quality Index was above 200, a classification simply called “Unhealthy” which bordered on “Hazardous.” The recommendation was to limit outdoor activity and definitely not do anything terribly strenuous like: ride a bike, cuss out a stranger, or, I imagine, have my entire face surgically rearranged.
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The morning of June 7, 2023, two weeks before the summer solstice, I woke up at 6 am with a two-hour night’s sleep, my breath hot and my skin damp from a sudden jolt out of early REM cycling. I was told to be at the hospital by 9 am, ready to report for surgery. My friend Kelly came to pick me up at my apartment in the East Village and we slowly walked hand in hand together up to the hospital on 14th Street. I drank a creamy iced coffee with oat milk, one pump of vanilla syrup, please, here’s $5.68.
The sky had not yet assumed its ominous napalm hue, though the humid air was thick with the imminent threat of rain, and I thought it might not show up. The surgery was initially slated for May 16. But due to fucked-up circumstances beyond my control – my primary care doctor waited till the last minute to send in the twice-revised letter required for my health insurance to justify my gender affirming surgery as “medically necessary” – it was postponed the day before I was supposed to go in.
I spent the three weeks between May 16 and June 7 in a limbo of panic and second thoughts. Initially I’d had a February consultation, and left it far less clear about what my facial feminization would actually entail. I knew what I wanted done. The areas that caused me the most dysphoria and rendered me clocky and trans-in-a-demonic-way to people on the street were my chin and my sixhead. Luckily, my estrogen regimen for the last two-and-a-half years had reduced the size of my Adam’s apple to barely visible.
Conversely, I always liked my Negro nose and Jackson Five nostrils.
The limbo between that consultation in February and June often left me more confused than not. I had no idea what “osteotomy,” “genioplasty,” or “mandibular angle recontouring” meant back then. Now I know it meant shaving the brow bone, chin bone, and lower jaw bone, respectively. Lots of bone shaving would soon happen. Ouch. I’m reminded of the time reality star Heidi Montag almost “died like Michael Jackson” after enduring 10 reconstructive surgeries in one day. When she was on Access Hollywood some time later to talk about the harrowing experience and describe the various procedures, I remember she literally said that she “got the bone scooped out of her back, for a more bombshell type of look.”
Me and Heidi are not even close to the same woman, but the idea of bone scooping scared me enough to not even want it.
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Kelly held my hand outside and took pictures of me by the flowers lining the bushes of Stuyvesant Square Park. It began to rain, if you can call the acidic drizzle that almost burned the skin “rain.” I thought about the singer Anohni, who, seven years before, made an album that loudly condemned climate violence brought about by this species, now hurtling toward certain death as we threaten to extinct the planet. The album, full of sprawling yet jagged electronic textures and Anohni’s booming voice, was called Hopelessness. The title track featured the haunted refrain, “How did I become a virus?”
Some years before that she made a song called “Another World,” a somber plea for a human race hellbent on its own destruction. The refrains of “I need another world” and “How did I become a virus?” played on a demonic loop of doom in my head, reflecting the inner turmoil I felt about this surgery, despite the calm Kelly said I projected outward.
They held my hand anyway.
Once in the hospital, I remember telling the intake nurses that Viva was my mother and emergency contact. That somehow made Kelly my grandpa. I’d seen my father days before this moment in New York for the first time in four years; his last visit was 10 years ago, when I was just then trying to get sober. During his recent visit, he met Michelle for the first time. I was introduced by him to people we met in passing as his daughter, when I never thought I’d live to have that kind of acknowledgment from him. I’d learned not to need this as much from him. But to hear him call me his daughter in public, in front of people, after naming me Michael after him when I was born; to hear him use the name Michelle, which means the same thing as Michael: “who is like God,” – that was a revelatory moment I historically thought I’d never live to experience.
He shared his worry with me: that I’d be in pain during my surgery, that I was changing myself on a level that he wouldn’t recognize, that this would further make me a stranger to him. I was able to assure him that I’d be well cared for, and that this felt like a gift of my sobriety I never knew I wanted, but spent my whole life chasing. The ability to have this intimacy. A sense that, finally, after a lifetime of struggle and difference and even estrangement, my dad really, truly saw me.
At some point I spoke to my biological mother. She told me to always remember that I had someone who prayed for me.
The first nurse who greeted me was Sonam, which she said is Tibetan for “lucky goddess.” I couldn’t help but think of Sonam’s presence – and the meaning of her name – as a blessing from God and as positive foreshadowing. As I entered my recovery room to change into my hospital gown – which was as big as a luxurious hotel room – with my old face, I remember saying out loud how I’d had this face for 34 years. How it had served me all this time. Days before, I told my father that I would be familiar but different-looking. “I’ll still be the same.” But, “softer?” he said.
This face got me through high school when I was gay and then college, when I started wearing makeup and women’s clothing and developed language for what and who I was. This face got me my first jobs after college. They were internships at magazines like Rolling Stone and New York Magazine, where I worked by day, and off to gigs at American Eagle by night, folding clothes in Times Square and telling customers to “try on our sexy jeans.” This face got me my first romantic relationship with James during my first job at Burger King, whose body was covered in tattoos, who fucked me without lube in a bathtub only to cheat on me months later in front og me. This face booked a random promotional gig selling Virgin Mobile subscriptions outside of Lady Gaga’s The Monster Ball Tour at Madison Square Garden. This face smiled, and was noticed by old friends of Gaga’s, and invited inside to watch her sing “Bad Romance,” six feet away from her white angel wings.
This face sat front row at New York Fashion Week with an old friend, and was photographed by Bill Cunningham for the New York Times’ Style pages. This face got me numerous sexual encounters in parks and behind dumpsters in Bushwick where I kneeled on gravel, and in hotel rooms, and in Starbucks bathrooms, and at empty Greyhound bus stations. This face got me HIV in an adult bookstore. And years later, as I reclaimed my sexuality, this face – and the body it belongs to – took up lovers last summer in Paris. It also got me booked in an international ad for PrEP that I filmed in London last year. In the ad, it faced the camera with wind in my hair like Beyoncé, and said “I PrEP without pills.”
This face sang on stage and spoke up for myself in jobs when I wasn’t treated right. This face got dirty while working on a farm in the middle of the pandemic, as the nation erupted in protest against anti-Black police violence. This face once identified as nonbinary, then wore a beard, then went high-femme with lash extensions and Botox and my favorite glam-noir makeup combo of Fenty red lipstick and glittery deep ocean blue eyeshadow. This face has been misgendered and attacked and jeered at and judged. This face has been praised and beloved and filmed with and without my permission. This face marched in the streets for abortion and was photographed for VOGUE. This face has been called “sir” in checkout lines at grocery stores. This face has been laughed at by Black men walking by. This face has watched, stunned in horror, as men have laid on top of me thrusting into me when I didn’t want it. This face has smiled broadly and been cradled by friends when crying tears of happiness, tears of joy. This face has been stretched like taffy by the wind while riding roller coasters; it’s been stung by mosquitos at night; it’s been kissed by the waters of beaches along the East Coast…
This face belongs to a trans woman.
I asked the operating room nurse if I was going to die, as other aides stabbed me with IVs, first in my arm, then in my hand. The music that played in the operating room was like Nine Inch Nails or The Faint or something industrial and metallic and electronic, like what they played on Nip/Tuck during that show’s iconic operation scenes.
I asked her again, “Am I going to die?” Then it was lights out from the anesthesia. When I came to, I screamed in pain through a face I could suddenly feel, barely audible. I was swollen like one of the five big red balloons I carried around and set free to the night sky at Coney Island on my 30th birthday. So many of my friends were there that day, when I wore a hot pink slip dress and a plastic silver tiara. There is a picture of an old friend, Colin, and me. In it, he’s lifting me up in his arms like a baby, right in front of an American flag mural. I’d just eaten a chili dog at Nathan’s.
A male nurse who was super hot injected pain medicine into my IV. Lights out again, though I could feel my bed being wheeled from the OR to the seventh floor of my recovery room.
When I woke up, I remember three things:
On one side was Viva, wearing a mask with magenta carnations and a grey Snoopy T-shirt. Snoopy stood between a rainbow. Out the window was the Agent Orange creamsicle sky. The TV mounted on the wall in front of me played Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Other visitors came to me that first night: Ross, Dominique, Benny, Marcelo. Later that night, somehow, I wrote a poem after vomiting three times before drifting off to sleep.
Oh how my heart swells
To match the size of my head
While I’m lying upright in bed
Having breakfast at Tiffany’s
Roses and calla lilies mixed with
tulips carnations and a teddy
The nurse comes to change my IV
I drift into Disneyland
Having breakfast at Tiffany’s
Daddy don’t you fret
Don’t let it go to your head
Your daughter is prettier than before
She’s lovely as can be
Mommy don’t you cry
You’re not my reasons why
I simply wanted to be
A more feminine version of me
Oh how my heart is changed
By the love that has come to my aid
While I’m managing my pain and
Having breakfast at Tiffany’s
Roses and calla lilies mixed with
tulips carnations and a teddy
I’ll remember those wishing me well
As my head continues to swell
I don’t need diamonds as friends
Having breakfast with Tiffany instead
I like Tiffany instead