This article contains sexually explicit content.
I’m used to the Internet hating me.
When I advocate for minority concerns in the gaming space, for example, I often experience vicious blowback. I’ve been called every anti-woman, anti-gay, and anti-transgender slur in the dictionary. I’ve read 3,000-word emails from anonymous readers who just want to let me know that I’m a disgrace to my community.
I even know of one Twitter account that was created with the express purpose of tweeting out pictures of me with a swastika on my forehead. I’ve heard it all, from mansplaining to death threats and worse.
So if you had told me last year that I would one day be tearfully thanking the Internet for supporting my gender transition, I would have laughed in your face.
I didn’t think I needed much help anyway. I was lucky enough to be working for a university with trans-inclusive healthcare. I was supported by friends and a handful of family members. And I had an amazing wife who saw me not as a transgender woman but as a woman full stop. I thought I could take care of my transition on my own.
And then I saw the price tag for a new vagina: over $20,000. All things considered, a vagina is probably worth 20 grand. A vagina is the most beautiful thing in the world, after all.
But I didn’t have $20,000. My health insurance, I discovered, would cover a sizable portion of the cost, but I would still have to pay about $8,000 out of pocket for the surgery and the subsequent hospital stay. At the time, I was a graduate student living off of a stipend that put food in my mouth, sure, but it didn’t exactly line my savings account with velvet cushions.
Not all transgender women seek out genital reassignment surgery, but I certainly wanted it.
For me, having a penis was a source of suffocating shame and self-loathing. My wife and I couldn’t have good sex if it was centered around me. There was too much wincing, too much awkwardness, and too many tears. I couldn’t comfortably wear the kind of clothes I wanted to wear either. The thought of going to the beach in a bathing suit filled me with dread.
Deep in my heart, I knew the surgery needed to happen, but I just didn’t know how I would be able to afford it.
The idea slowly dawned on me that I might be able to ask my small but sympathetic group of Internet readers to chip in a few dollars apiece to cover the cost of my surgery. I watched crowdfunding efforts from afar, eyeing my chances, dreaming of the future. Then one day my friend successfully raised $1,000 overnight for his cat’s veterinary bills, and I thought, “If he can get $1,000 for his pussy, then I can get $8,000 for mine!”
Emboldened by his success, my wife and I spent a memorable September afternoon creating an Indiegogo campaign to fund my genital reassignment surgery. I shared the story of my transition in more detail than I have ever done before.
As I told the Daily Dot at the time, “asking for money is a vulnerable act and I wanted to honor that vulnerability.” I further explained, “It was the first time I had ever publicly talked about my relationship, my family, and my health.”
My partner came up with hilarious perks to incentivize our funders, including T-shirts that said “Chief Vagina Engineer” and laminated “Super Rainbow Vagina Friends” certificates that would look like Lisa Frank high school diplomas. When we were all finished, we checked over our work, took a collective deep breath, and clicked submit.
There was a lot of uncertainty hanging in the air at that moment. I didn’t think we would make it to our goal, but I was hopeful we could make a small dent in the total cost. In my wildest dreams, I envisioned the contribution total eking across the finish line in the moments before the campaign closed. The Internet eats people like me for breakfast, I thought. There’s no way we would make it in time.
Then I clicked the refresh button on my Web browser. $500. Refresh. $1,000. Refresh. $1,500. I watched in disbelief as Twitter and Tumblr spread the campaign like wildfire across the entire Internet. Even folks who had once caused me grief online opened their virtual wallets and sent me a few bucks. My wife and I could not believe it.
By the end of the first day, we had reached almost $5,000 in donations.
The campaign crossed the finish line the very next day. We were fully funded for a vagina in under 24 hours.
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have the time or the emotional energy to fully understand the weight of what had happened. Instead, I tried to carry on with the regular business of living. I went to work, clocked in, clocked out. I came home, fixed dinner, fell asleep.
And then it hit me. My life was changing forever and it was all thanks to the generosity of strangers and friends who only knew me through the imperfect lens of the Internet. I sat down and I poured out my heart on my blog:
Wherever we go, you and I will always be together; what you have given me will always bring me back the thought of you. You’ve given me something that I’ll touch, use, think about everyday. You might be my close friend or we might never have occasion to speak again. Some of you don’t know who I am and some of you might not care to know much about me besides my need. It doesn’t matter because we’re all in this together now.
The wait for surgery was a big, busy blur. I kept myself so busy that I barely had time to feel dysphoric about my body. I did as much travel for work as I possibly could. I took every speaking engagement I was offered, said yes to every interview. I wanted to cryogenically freeze myself and wake up on April 23; booking my schedule solid was the next most distracting thing I could do.
But the wait for surgery was also emotionally draining.
Genital reassignment surgery completely changes the configuration of your body. Having sex with my wife, however awful that act could be for my emotional well-being, was at least something I knew how to do.
Having sex after surgery would be like re-learning how to ride a bicycle in my mid-20s. Patterns that felt instinctive would have to be relearned. I knew everything would be different and I was scared for the future even though I knew I needed to have a vagina to feel at home in my own body.
And there was a veritable mountain range of paperwork to complete. I signed so many papers in the leadup to surgery that someone, somewhere, probably owns my life rights.
The most interesting paper I signed was a “Consent to Sterilization Form” which asked me, in very stern language, to acknowledge that I was aware that I would not be able to impregnate anyone once my testicles were thrown in a surgical garbage bin. Thanks for letting me know! But I crossed every “t,” dotted every “i,” and, by mid-April, everything was finally in place.
Life was more manageable once I knew that my current anatomy had an expiration date. There was a light at the end of the tunnel—or, if you will, a tunnel at the end of the tunnel. I tried my best to let go of old hang-ups surrounding my body. I wouldn’t have to deal with them much longer, I told myself. All I had to do was wait.
And I waited for seven months until the surgery was finally just around the corner.
I met with my surgeon a couple of days before the surgery. She explained to me that creating a vulva and vagina wasn’t like reinventing the wheel: I had so much tissue that was anatomically homologous to cisgender women’s genitals that the surgery was more like a furniture rearrangement. Clitoris? I had one already; it just needed to be bundled up. Vagina? The space was there, it just needed a lining. Labia? No problem. I had the skin already.
A genital reassignment surgery does not create a vagina ex nihilo; it shifts, it modifies, it re-adjusts, and it rearranges your own body in a beautiful, natural way.
I wish I could report that I got to spend the day before the surgery having a nonstop vagina party. But instead I had to drink three liters of a delicious “bowel prep” medication to turn my body into a perfect, empty vessel for surgery. As I made my 37th trip to the toilet in one day, my wife reminded me, “It’s for the greater good.”
I was in bad shape when I arrived at the hospital. Between my excitement and my nervousness, I only managed to sleep for one hour. I was exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and scared. My wife held my hand and cried with me as the minutes ticked away.
We were finally here. Seven months ago, we were just a couple of girls dreaming big as we wrote up an Indiegogo campaign and, now, we were two women who had taken a difficult journey together to this life-changing moment. I got one final kiss as I was wheeled away. The anesthesia dripped into my IV and everything went dark.
I woke up woozy and a little desperate for air. I knew what had happened but I didn’t have the wherewithal to understand it while the anesthetic was still in my system. I slept and woke up and slept again, blinking big sleepy eyes at my wife who watched over me from across the room.
When I woke up, I tweeted a sequence of four perfect words: “I have a vagina.” The Internet bought it for me, so the Internet had to know.
Like any overwhelmingly good thing—and like the funding of the campaign itself—the surgery took a second to sink in. But the tears came, in time.
I was wrapped up in so much gauze and wound dressing that I didn’t exactly know what I had, but I knew what I didn’t have, and that was enough to make me feel elated. Imagine something obtrusive, something alien attached to your body for nearly three decades and then imagine that something suddenly gone. The profound sense of calm that washed over me was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
My convalescence in the hospital was uneventful: lots of bedrest, pain pills, and bad reality television. A couple My Cat From Hell marathons later and I was in a car on my way home.
I still had a catheter inside of me. And my vagina was still filled with “packing,” a bundle of cloth that helps soak up blood and maintain the shape of the vagina in the immediate aftermath of the surgery. I couldn’t really walk so much as waddle around, peeing into a bag and scratching at the nagging feeling that there was something inside of me in a place I had never felt before.
But semi-ambulatory awkwardness aside, I finally got to see my entire body when I got home. I didn’t exactly want to look at my vagina. Everything was puffy, swollen, and bruised. I was worried I would be disappointed with how everything looked.
But I had to dutifully apply ointment to some incisions as part of my aftercare routine, so I laid down on my bed and held up a hand mirror.
I felt beautiful.
For the first time in my life, I loved my body, my whole body. I could see past the swelling, the bruising, and the blood. I could trace the curves of my vulva and feel the luscious folds of flesh that now defined my center.
And there, filled with packing, was my vagina, clearly present but still unknown. In the hospital, I cried because I knew what was gone. At home, I cried because I finally saw what was present.
In a phallocentric world, we’re accustomed to thinking about vaginas in terms of negative space but, on that bed, I got to witness the beautiful presence that was now my own. I stared in wonder at what my body had become. And I didn’t dread my aftercare anymore.
A few days later, the catheter got removed back at the surgeon’s office.
And when the nurse took the packing out, it looked like she was performing a neverending handkerchief magic trick. The cloth just kept on coming and coming. How deep was this vagina I had been given?
She also taught me how to dilate, which, in essence, means holding a large dildo inside of myself in order to maintain the shape and depth of my vagina. Except this dildo essentially has a ruler on top of it so I can measure how far I’ve managed to insert it into my vagina.
My vagina. The words still feel foreign on my lips. Since my follow-up appointment, I have been basking in the beauty of this new anatomical reality. I have a vagina. And I have the most pleasant surgical recovery in the world: All I really have to do now is take pain pills and hold a dildo in myself a few times a day.
I’m watching Murder, She Wrote while I do it—so, if i someday develop an elaborate Jessica Fletcher sex fantasy, I’ll know why.
In one week of recovery alone, there have already been so many tearful moments: looking in the mirror, putting on a pair of jeans, crossing my legs extra tight. I can’t believe that this moment is finally here. And I can’t believe how I got here.
My thoughts at the end of this journey turn to the 344 denizens of the Internet who carried me here. Their support for me has now been permanently inscribed into my flesh.
Living life on the Internet can be weird. It can certainly be scary. Even now, as I share this story online, I am bracing myself for the sexual harassment and the transphobic comments that will inevitably follow.
But the Internet has also changed my life forever, for the better. I’ll never forget how I got here, how my story is bound up and braided through the lives of hundreds of people—some of them strangers, some of them friends.
The Internet bought my vagina. Thank you, Internet.
Samantha Allen is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. In addition to writing regularly for the feminist gaming blog The Border House, her writing has also appeared on Salon, Jacobin, Kotaku, and First Person Scholar. You can find her on Twitter at @CousinDangereux or on the Web at www.samanthaleighallen.com. A version of this story was originally published on the Daily Dot on May 5, 2014.