How Ben’s penis came to be.
Trans men are getting more and more phalloplasty, which is surgery to make a penis. But because there are a lot of problems with it, it is still a controversial procedure.
Nothing about Benjamin Simpson’s change was a given, and his penis was not one of them. Even though he grew up to be a man in the end, he freely admits that in another place or time, he could have grown up to be a sad woman, the town’s weirdo, or a person who committed suicide when they were too young. Growing up in a village near the Finger Lakes, where cell service is still spotty to this day, he didn’t know what “transgender” meant. When he was a little girl, he thought he would grow up to be a man. When he realized that he wouldn’t, he gave up on the idea and started looking for other clues to explain why something always felt wrong in his life.
First, he wore clothes that were too big for him in the summer. (Although, a lot of teenage girls don’t like how they look.) Then there were rumors about lesbians at school. (Ben knew he liked girls, but he didn’t feel at all like a lesbian.) To stop the talk, he started dressing more like a girl and had a few dates with boys. He was more interested in judging their bodies than in getting sexual with them. He wanted to know who he was when he looked at a MySpace group for lesbians. Where did he fit into the big picture? He tried to kill himself a few times because he couldn’t understand what was going on. Soon after that, he went to New York University to find himself.
In 2009, Ben started college. There, he started calling himself a “queer lesbian” as a way to explain how he could like women but also be interested in men’s bodies. He joined an LGBT group on campus and met people who seemed to know who they were. They called themselves things like “gender-fluid” or used “ze” or “zir” pronouns. Ben didn’t think these words fit him, but for the first time, he had a group of people and a language to help him figure things out. This was a tense and interesting break. He went out wearing clothes from both sexes, including things he would never wear today. He argued for a long time about what the difference was between a “butch” lesbian and a “transgender man.” Why did you use these words in the first place?
In the spring of 2015, Ben went to a Midtown barbecue place with two friends for happy hour drinks. As usual, they sat at the bar and talked about sex and gender, taking them apart and putting them back together. They had done this many times before, but something clicked this time, and Ben suddenly realized he was a man. He got off the bar stool and said to his friends, “[Expletive]! I’m a trans person! I have to go!” When he got outside, he took off his shoes and ran five blocks to the train while crying. That night, he started the paperwork for his transition. He texted his mother, updated his Facebook status, and made an appointment with his doctor to start taking testosterone.
Soon after that, Ben quit college and moved with his cousin to North Carolina. There, he became an adult. He got a job at a hotel, wore a uniform, and smiled when people from the South called him “son.” The so-called bathroom bill in his state sent him back to his hometown. Neither bathroom in North Carolina felt safe to him. Back in New York State, he could finally relax, knowing that he wasn’t just a man, but a certain kind of man who belonged in the country. College had helped him learn more about gender, and now he could finally narrow it down. In 2017, he had “top surgery,” or a double mastectomy to change his gender. As far as he knew, he had made the change. His gender confusion was not too bad. He was happy with his sexual life. Even though he’d read about “bottom surgery” online, he didn’t think the results were good enough to be worth the risks. He says that people were saying that the results looked like soda cans. “They said that they weren’t working. You couldn’t urinate through them. You weren’t able to feel anything.”
In the fall of that year, he was out with some friends at the local college dive when his calculus changed. It was a dirty place. The management took away the bathroom stalls so that people wouldn’t use cocaine there. A urinal next to an unprotected toilet is not the best place for a trans man to go to the bathroom, but Ben was sure of himself and had to go. He walked by a man who was using the urinal, then quickly unzipped himself and sat down on the toilet. The man kept his eyes to himself (the men’s room code), but when he left, he told the people waiting, “It’s going to be a while. “That person has just sat down.”
This wasn’t much of a call to harass trans people, though. He just thought Ben was going to the bathroom. Still, as Ben sat there acting like he was going, he thought about how a more hostile group of drunk men might act if they saw his penis was gone. Bathroom bills were going up, and taking a leak would always mean taking a risk for the rest of his life. He was only 26, which was still pretty young. When I thought about doing this for the rest of my life, the bad things about surgery suddenly didn’t seem so bad. Even if he still had to sit in a stall, having a penis would make him feel safer. “I thought that any problem that might come up, even death, would be better than the alternative,” he says. That night, when he got home drunk, he looked up “FTM bottom surgery” and spent the whole night reading about phalloplasty. He asked for a meeting with Dr. Rachel Bluebond-Langner at N.Y.U. Langone the following week.