“You know Riis Beach? It’s this queer beach by the Rockaways. You take the 2 train all the way to Flatbush and then you take a bus. It’s nude as well — it’s this queer, nude beach. I remember going two summers ago, and by this point I was using male pronouns, and I kind of wrestled with the idea of starting T. I thought maybe I could just be gender nonconforming. Maybe that would be enough. I remember being on the beach with no shade, sweating in my black binder. I was looking around at all these beautiful queer people; trans guys, trans women, fat femmes — all these people who were naked and so happy with themselves. I wanted to be that — I wanted to be that comfortable.
"Leaving the beach, I was on the phone being like, ‘I need an appointment right now.’"
Yaz Burrell is a 26-year-old art student and dog walker living in Brooklyn. After months of planning — and years of wanting and waiting — he scheduled his top surgery for the end of spring 2016, hoping to finally have his first truly carefree, topless summer. Reconstructive chest surgery can be cost-prohibitive or otherwise hard to attain for many transmasculine and gender-nonconforming people; others may not feel the surgery is necessary for them. But for many, like Yaz, top surgery can be life-changing — though it's hard to know exactly how your life will change until you're on the other side.
The following is the story of Yaz’s “first” summer, collected from various in-person and email interviews over several months.
"Sometimes you’re just a floating head. You’re here and your body is over there. I think a lot of trans guys are really good at dissociating with their body. For me, I try not to think about it. I don't feel like I was born in the wrong body, I feel like my gender evolved. When I was 14 I came out to my mom — I came out as liking women. I immediately fell into this depression that lasted until I was 19 — chronically; a little bit suicidal, depressed. I felt like I had gotten something wrong. I knew I liked women, but it didn't feel like that explained the whole picture. I had a friend who totally read me. He was like, 'No, you're trans.' At the time, I didn't really want to accept it. Then I went to college and, although it was my most depressed time, I began to accept and embrace that identity.
"I first started binding when I was 19 and I did the Boys Don’t Cry Ace bandage. It was terrible. I dropped out of school because of my depression and went to go live with my mom, just to rebuild myself. She — after seeing me bind and be super androgynous — she started sort of asking me, in her own way, if I was trans. That immediately freaked me out and I went back into the closet for another year. Well, in terms of just being gay. It felt safe. To be a black person who identified as a black gay woman and then a trans queer male? It was a step too far."
"The thing with binders is, your body gets used to it and it stretches out. At first I was really flat but now I feel like I’m not as flat as I used to be. I get this bump. No matter how good the binder is — you could be walking down the street one day and someone will come up to you and say, ‘Hey ma’am,’ or ‘Excuse me, miss,’ and it just devastates you. I go through in my head, ‘How did they clock me?’ Was it my face? Is my face too soft? Was it my chest? It always comes back to my chest. Maybe they caught me at a different angle and they thought these were just small — there are still boobs there. It devastates me every time. Initially, that really pushed me to want to have top surgery.
"It really sucks when you pass to most of the world and then you go home and take off your shirt to two fucking reminders on your chest that this is the body you were born in. At one point, when my dysphoria was at its worst, I would sleep in my binder. I wouldn’t take it off for anything."
"Dating has become so much better, if anything, since I came out as trans. I’m so comfortable with myself now, in ways that I’ve never been. I never realized how injured I would feel walking around in the world. I would walk around hunched over, afraid to look at people or be acknowledged. I felt like I was injured — I’m not anymore. I’m in this world and I’m not injured. I smile, I have casual conversations, I feel comfortable with myself. I realize there are so many people out there who are ready and willing to love me, there is so much love out there. If one person doesn’t accept you, it doesn’t mean some five other people won’t."
"I feel like I’m definitely more of a masculine person but I don’t follow typical masculinity, if that makes sense. And I don’t want to. I want to be perceived and walk around in this world as a guy, but that doesn’t mean that I’m afraid of being feminine. Being a dude to me isn’t being a stereotype, it’s more intrinsic. It’s my inner… not my energy… it’s in my spirit?
My ideal, when I was first forming my gender identity, was to be perceived as a man but also have feminine essence. I like the idea of being both. I like the idea of not having a chest but still having a pussy. I don’t mind — that to me is the perfect balance. I don’t want a dick and I’m proud of the sex that I have. Masculinity is this fragile game consisting of checkpoints and vague trivia that I, most of the time, just laugh at. Regardless of this, it is still something you have to navigate through."
"I give myself T once a week — do you want to see the drawer? I’ve got a little nurses' station here with my needles and syringes. This is my T. I miss it. You have to stop two weeks before surgery and two weeks after."
A Few Days Before Surgery
"Last night I was with my girlfriend and I was staring at myself in the mirror, topless without a binder, and I was freaking out at my chest. It’s really uneven — what if my scars are uneven? I was worried that maybe I should postpone it, that I wasn’t ready. But I am so ready.
"I set a goal to raise $1,500 to cover rent, bills, and groceries after surgery. I raised it all in one day online. It was really emotional for me. I feel so lucky that I’m able to have my surgery covered by insurance; a lot of people aren’t in that position. By day two, I had surpassed my goal by $700, so I closed the GoFundMe account.
"I’m going to be at my girlfriend’s apartment after surgery. It’s a comfort to have someone to take care of me. All my trans guy friends, excluding one, have had top surgery. There’s no pressure to have it done; it’s something that we all come to — or not — on our own. I see this surgery as a beginning of something, not the end. I’ve made all this prep work and it’s not going to just ‘end’ when the surgery is done. I want to work on myself, work on my body. I still need to change my gender marker on my ID and do a legal name change — which is a fucking nightmare.
"There’s still a lot to do, and I’m a student, too. I keep saying this mantra to myself: In the year 2016, I will get top surgery, change my name and gender marker, and see Beyoncé. Maybe I’ll see Beyoncé."
“Right now, Lauren, Carey and I are in our way to Montefiore Hospital. I’m writing this in the backseat of the car, feeling a little carsick and ready. By this time tomorrow things will be different. I hope that I can be different but stay the same. I hope that things work out for me.
"Right now, everyone is quiet. We made jokes at first but I think the reality of the morning is finally settling in. No one should be up at this hour. Right now, I’m feeling thankful for my friends and all the support I have received. I wonder if this is what it’s like for other guys who are about to have this done. Are they swaddled in love too? I hope they are.”
“After being registered about an hour ago, I have finally been called for surgery prep. I am by myself. I just undressed, taking out my gauges, binder, and generally the things that make me feel secure. I’m nervous and ready and excited. The sounds of the hospital suck. Hospitals suck. I super duper have to pee.”
“They just put a warm blanket on my lap. I’m feeling sleepy and hungry to the point of not feeling hungry anymore. As a person who is borderline, saying goodbye is hard for me. I become attached to things that I want to keep around only because they feel familiar.
"I’ve spent so many years it seems disassociating with my chest and now I feel as if I want to do whatever I can to preserve its memory. I want to memorize every detail of it because I fear that it will no longer be a part of me — that it's abandoning me. When I first began puberty and started developing, change was unsettling. Now I find myself not only completely aware of what’s happening, but also the curator of my own development. Maybe it’s good to have this control, maybe it’s not.
"I wonder when I will be seen."
"I've had surgeries before, but this time, as they took me into the operating room, it felt like I was in purgatory — as if I was about to pass on to this other realm or something. I was laying on the table and they were wrapping up my legs, placing blankets on me because it was so cold. I was essentially mummified on this table, unable to move, I was wrapped up so tight — I was trying not to freak out. Finally the mask went over my face and I was counting to 20. That was it."
"I remember the first thing I said when I woke up was, 'I have to pee.' I really had to pee. I wasn't even thinking about my chest or anything, I was so dizzy. I was becoming more and more awake by the time we got home. I was experiencing some pain, some nausea. It wasn't until the follow-up appointment, where they let me see my chest for the first time, it became real.
"A lot of my trans friends warned me that it would be shocking, the first time. That I wouldn't necessarily like it or feel comfortable with it. There would be a lot of emotions. As the doctor was undoing my bandages I was getting more and more nervous. When he unclipped the gauze and I saw it, it was amazing. I was shocked into euphoria. I felt beat-up and fatigued, but when I saw my chest for then first time I could have done cartwheels — I could have done anything. It was like being born again.
"The day of the surgery, actually, my mom texted my girlfriend and said, 'I'm so happy you're taking care of my son.' I think that's the first time I've witnessed her call me her son in an outside context."
One Month After Surgery, Riis Beach
"It doesn't feel real. I feel like everyone should be staring at me — I feel like everyone should know? I can't get my scars in direct sunlight but I'm keeping my top off. There is this weird part of me that is slightly disappointed that my toplessness is no longer a revolutionary act.
"I've actually been practicing walking around topless in my house because initially I felt weird about it. I remember at one point in the past, my brother was crashing at my place and he has this really built body but it made another person staying there uncomfortable when he'd walk around topless. When I started hanging out in the common spaces in my apartment, I would check in with my roommates to make sure they were OK with it. It's this very weird feeling knowing that you have access to being topless without being harassed or judged.
"When I first started going topless I almost felt like I was naked. I mean, really naked. Existing in a binder is like wearing a ThunderShirt for dogs: You know you have to wear it because in some ways it makes you feel safe from the thunder and lightning — it makes you feel protected. Not having to worry about my chest being out and open is like eliminating the thunder and the lightning. Its like these elements become outlawed, but because I've lived with them all of my life, it's hard to trust that they could ever be abolished. I got this new body — a body I've always wanted, essentially overnight. Can I trust it never to come back? Is this aspect of my dysphoria really gone? Even post-surgery, I've been misgendered. I have been misgendered with a mostly full beard and a flat chest, with broad shoulders and sculpted arms. What I'm taking from this is that people are going to see what they want to see. That's cute, but their perception of me has nothing to do with me and the way I see myself."
"An interesting thing happened a few weeks after surgery. I fell into this weird depression. There had been so much planning and so much buildup for this thing to happen, and then it happened. Now what? Where do I go from here? I combated those creeping feelings by starting to build my body in ways I couldn't before and that feels good — to go to the gym and lift weights. I'm happier now, but it's work. Four different kinds of ointments, compression vests, working out. I'm trying to get pecs, get some 'man boobs'! We've come full circle.
"It feels so cathartic to be returning about one year on from when I sat here on the beach watching other trans men be free. I thought that having my scars would further mark me, but scars show the world that I survived and fought for my gender. So fuck 'em.
"I'm so excited to be here. I'm going to go swimming. I'm going to baptize myself."