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More than the sum of our parts: Trans and intersex bodily diversity

I am a person who has both a penis and a vagina.

I’m not intersex; despite what people often think, no intersex variation can result in having two sets of genitals.

I’m a trans man who has had bottom surgery and also opted to keep some of my original plumbing.

That means I have a dick and balls, and behind that, a vagina.

Yes, I can and do use all of those parts for sex.

Most trans people don’t have bottom surgery, for various reasons, but those who do can choose from a range of procedures – there is no single Surgery.

Sex and gender diverse people are more varied than you can imagine in all aspects of ourselves, including our genitals, which some cis people can’t seem to stop thinking about.

I hear so many assumptions and misinformed ideas about what trans and intersex people have in their pants, so I invited other folks to share about the diversity of what they’re packing and what it means to them.

‘I have no urge to get rid of it’

Non-binary trans woman Sky began social transition a few years ago, in their teens, and they have just started hormone treatment.

“[Transition is] always a slow process, as you need to adjust to yourself, and others need to adjust to the new you,” they say.

“Some people just won’t, but ultimately you start feeling more you.”

Sky has no plans to change their genitals with surgery.

“I don’t have dysphoria surrounding my dick, so I have no urge to get rid of it,” they explain.

“In saying that, it’s not like I’m massively into using it for penetrative sex either.

“Even though I have a dick already, I have the inclination to use a strapon.

“Of course, with [hormones] it’s going to make more sense, as erections are going to be harder to have.”

Sky hasn’t been out for long, so they have not yet especially encountered the common problem of being interrogated about their body parts.

“Not that I haven’t had looks,” they add.

Sky says the expectation for non-binary people to medically transition – or not to – is “a grey area”.

“No matter what is done, people will probably find criticism for it, especially when it’s something complex,” they say.

“People expect non-binary to be in the middle, but it’s not, so there’s always a level of expectation and criticism.

“A lot of people feel the need to put things in boxes.”

‘An abstraction between my gender and my parts’

Non-binary Alex*, 19, was also assigned male at birth.

They are masculine in appearance and, like Sky, have no intention of pursuing any gender-related surgeries.

Like many trans and non-binary people who have not undergone medical transition, Alex has had a social transition, moving to using their chosen pronouns and dressing in a way that expresses their gender.

Alex explains while they don’t want to change their body, that’s totally separate to their sense of gender.

“I feel probably as comfortable in the body I was born with as a cis person does with theirs,” they say.

“I create an abstraction between my gender and my parts, in the sense that I don’t use my parts as something to identify myself with.”

Alex says they often feel that male-assigned people are invisible among the non-binary community.

“I enjoy the fact that non-binary people are getting more attention within media, but it always seems to be androgynous [female-assigned] non-binary people,” they say.

“It’s pushing an idea about being a non-binary person that is easier to consume – I’ve heard the term ‘woman lite’ used – and absolutely not representative of the wider non-binary community.”

While comfortable with the anatomy they have, Alex prefers to avoid some of the usual terminology for it, such as ‘cock’.

“I’ve never liked [that word],” they say.

‘Viagra helps a lot’

Trans woman Kiara* worries that many cis people fixate on genitals and equate having a penis with “not being a real woman”.

She has had no bottom surgery yet, but is planning an orchidectomy – removal of the testicles.

“You can choose to have the scrotal tissue removed also, or leave it in case there might later be a desire to have a vulva,” she explains.

Kiara says trans women might choose an orchidectomy for various reasons: it largely stops the body from producing testosterone, and removing the scrotum can make tucking easier for those who don’t want (or can’t afford) to lose their penis.

Other surgeries can create a vulva, with or without a vagina.

“For many who realise things aren’t right at an early age, the presence of a penis is the focal point of their dysphoria,” Kiara says.

“When they commence transition, it seems that it’s the thing they most need to change first, even though few people see it.

“For people who realise and transition later in life, it seems common that facial feminisation is more important – it sure was with me.

“That was the primary source of my dysphoria and my ability to get back into gainful employment.”

A lesbian, Kiara has been with several women since transition, including another trans woman.

“It was a bit weird to touch a penis on someone else for the first time,” she says.

“But ultimately, it wasn’t about what bits this beautiful woman had, but giving her the best experience I could, as she did for me.

“I lost my virginity, you could say!”

Hormone treatment affects the genitals in different ways.

“After a couple years of decent estrogen levels and minimal testosterone, the penis and testes atrophy and shrink a bit,” Kiara says.

“Ejaculate reduces to almost nil – no mess.

“Erections can be harder to achieve and maintain, but Viagra helps a lot!

“The 20-minute lead time for it to kick in can be tricky but worth it.

“And no premature ejaculation issues! You are there for the long haul.”

Kiara finds her sexual experiences have intensified since medical transition.

“I have these estrogen-based orgasms that are nothing like male orgasm,” she says.

“They now roll on and on for what seems like minutes, with jumpy legs that just won’t stop.”

‘Proud of my vag’

Harry*, a trans guy in his mid-30s like me, has chosen not to have bottom surgery – and is often asked about it.

“People ask on dating apps pretty regularly, but not a lot of people are bold enough to ask in person,” he says.

“I’m pretty happy with my junk generally.

“I feel lucky that bottom dysphoria isn’t too much of a thing for me.”

Harry adds that being the penetrating partner during sex is easy enough with the aid of a strapon.

His larger concern is having chest surgery.

“I would sell my soul for top surgery, but I’m pretty proud of my vag,” he says.

Problems like vaginal dryness and atrophy can happen over time with testosterone (and are easily treated), but Harry has avoided these so far.

Harry says his feelings about being a gay man with a vulva have changed.

“When I was first kind of getting comfortable with my identity, it made me feel inferior to cis guys – like, how could I ever find a guy who would also see me as a man?” he says.

“But as time has gone on and I’ve actually really addressed those feelings, I’m more comfortable with my vulva – more than I ever was before I came out to myself.”

Hooking up with some cis guys who have been with trans men before has helped Harry gain confidence in his body and sexuality.

“I feel like there’s a lot more awareness lately that some guys have vulvas, which means there are fewer guys who are baffled by people who don’t have organic dicks,” he says.

“I’ve had a few people basically say that not having a dick means I’m not a man, which was pretty hurtful when I was early in my transition, but now I just send them a picture of my collection of strapons and dongs then block them.”

Like most trans guys using testosterone, Harry has experienced significant genital growth.

“I had no idea that the clit is basically a little penis,” he says.

“I feel like I learned so much about my body just by experiencing the changes that testosterone brought.”

He also sometimes wears a packer, or prosthetic penis for everyday, non-sexual use.

While he doesn’t have dysphoria about his genitals, he sometimes prefers how a packer looks.

“If I feel like I need a confidence boost, I’ll wear one, or if I know I’m going to need a laugh,” he says.

“I always forget about it, and it falls out of my pants when I go to the toilet – I haven’t gotten to a point where that’s not hilarious yet.

“I’ve had to text my parents to say: hey, if you find a little penis just lying around, that’s probably mine.”

‘I’ve got a few extra bits’

Lisa* is a woman who found out about her intersex status when she started gender transition as an adult.

“I got accused of self-medicating during the early consultations, and I decided to go get tested,” she recalls.

“Multiple tests and a couple of biopsies later, turns out I’ve got a few extra bits.”

Growing up assigned male, Lisa had “a weird puberty” but put breast growth down to her weight and “man boobs”.

While some intersex people are born with ‘ambiguous’ genitals and often undergo forced, unnecessary surgery as infants, others like Lisa have no obvious outward differences.

Lisa finally learned that she has an ovary and a uterus, in addition to her penis and testicle.

Now, she is planning bottom surgery to create a vagina and vulva.

She says the delay in her procedure due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been “like someone punching you in the guts”.

She has experienced dysphoria because of her genitals that has impacted parts of her life, including sex.

“If I’m honest, that disconnect probably makes me terrible at sex involving my penis,” she says.

“To me, surgery is about being able to have the sex I want to be having.”

In terms of how intersex trans people are seen by wider society, Lisa believes it makes little difference.

“Ultimately, we’re still seen as abominations to some and curious creatures to others,” she says.

“Most cis people have never questioned gender and so treat intersex folks as just being trans.”

She adds that intersex people are sometimes even avoided within the trans community.

Though intersex variations are little understood by the wider public, Lisa, a healthcare worker, says they are extremely common.

The most commonly cited figure is that 1.7% of the population is intersex, but Lisa says at least 5% is more likely, with many people never finding out about their own variations.

People’s reactions to Lisa’s trans and intersex status vary.

“My grandma just wanted to know whether I could get pregnant, which is still nicer than intrusive questions about my penis,” she says.

Lisa says she is altering her anatomy to better represent herself.

“Will it be perfect? Probably not,” she says.

“Will I be satisfied? I hope so.”

She notes that the rate of people regretting trans surgeries is lower than for knee replacements, and says all should be covered by Medicare.

“There’s a ridiculous amount of soul searching that goes into this decision,” she says.

‘This woman’s body happens to have a penis’

Joan says the number one question she is asked as a trans woman is whether she has a penis.

“In mixed company, at events, at networking drinks, people ask it quite blatantly,” she says.

“Have you had surgery? Do you still have a penis?”

Joan is happy with her body but less so with the intrusion.

“I absolutely do have a penis,” she says.

“I am pretty comfortable with that fact.

“I’m just not comfortable with people assuming that my transgender nature means they have a right to ask about it in public.”

Joan disagrees with people who equate a penis with necessarily male anatomy.

“This woman’s body happens to have a penis, and that doesn’t make it any less of a woman’s body,” she says.

“I’m really quite comfortable with my genitals, in every area of my life, sex included.

“I just want my bits to be afforded the same respect as everyone else’s.”

Joan says that she initially had to spend some time understanding feminist theory around biology and identity in order to not internalise transphobic rhetoric about her body.

“There is no ideal woman’s body; there are just bodies we’ve been taught to believe are more or less beautiful by societal standards of femininity,” she says.

“Every woman’s body is different, and there is a beauty in celebrating that, whether it’s the difference between a woman’s penis and a woman’s vagina or any other physical feature.”

*Not their real names.

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