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Gender under the knife

Artists Chase Joynt and Mary Bryson swap stories about gender-reassignment surgery and cancer surgery in "Resisterectomy."



In 2007 Mary Bryson, a genderqueer artist and academic based in British Columbia, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a double mastectomy, she found herself pressured by her doctor to undergo breast reconstruction, a procedure that would return her to a supposedly more desirable shape, which is to say a more womanly one. She wasn't interested, but her doctor signed her up anyway, telling her, "You're just crazy right now."

Chase Joynt, a transgender man in Toronto who underwent a procedure similar to Bryson's—"top surgery," in the trans male lingo—also confronted a medical establishment that lacked much of an understanding of his gender. Called in to a women's diagnostic clinic for an ultrasound, he found himself faced there with a medical professional who looked at him and asked, curiously, "What are you?"

Joynt and Bryson tell these stories in "Resisterectomy," which juxtaposes their experiences of gender-reassignment surgery and cancer surgery. But beyond detailing the routine indignities that trans and genderqueer people confront, the show takes those challenges much further, into a complicated and complicating series of musings, both textual and visual, about the narratives that bind us to gender.

The accepted story about trans bodies is that trans people are "stuck" in the wrong one, and that their success lies in finding the way to a body grounded in the "right" gender. While that is indeed the experience for some, that logic underpins the medical field's understanding of and response to trans bodies to the exclusion of those with less straightforward relationships to their gender. Those who refuse the logic, like Bryson, have to find ways to circumvent it in order to inhabit their versions of what their bodies should look and feel like. Bryson eschewed breast reconstruction but opted for chest contouring, a procedure favored by trans men who've had mastectomies. To do this she had to convince her surgeon that the contouring was, as she put it in an interview, "a genderqueerly appropriate form of post mastectomy/breast cancer 'reconstruction surgery.'" Her eventual strategy was to call on gender equality, written into law in Vancouver: if the procedure was available to men, she should have access to it as well.

Joynt eventually had a hysterectomy, and was sent to recover from the procedure in the maternity ward; he said he "never felt more invaded and prodded and exposed" than when various medical personnel came in to examine him and his body as a curiosity. In a video that loops alongside Bryson's narrative, Joynt says he understands "the need for women-specific medical spaces." But that hardly mitigated his own need to not be treated as a freak show, or to not have to negotiate a space where the forms only offered "Ms." as a category for self-identification. As is common for trans people faced with a medical-industrial complex that, for the most part, remains resistant to meeting their needs, Joynt found himself both an object of scrutiny and an educator (the forms, he pointed out, could be easily doctored to remove gendered salutations).

"Resisterectomy" emerges from a longer history of textual and visual archives about gender and medicine. Breast cancer in particular circulates as a cultural narrative with familiar tropes: survivor, woman, superhero. One of the most iconic such images is Deena Metzger's Tree Poster, which features Metzger after a mastectomy, topless and with her arms and hair to the wind, fearlessly showing her scar, a tree branch tattooed on it, to the world.

Bryson makes her own version of this image in "Resisterectomy"; her commentary on it demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of her participation in the project. Despite—or perhaps because of—her familiarity with queer theory, she doesn't inhabit its language very comfortably: "The most difficult thing about the requirement to become mimetically self-identical with the female model in Metzger's Tree Poster is entailed in my metabolization of the profound anxieties that I experienced with its apparent imposition of a particularly gendered mode of affective expression," as she puts it. "Let's just retitle this iconic image The Joy of Survival or You Might Really Feel At Home at the Michigan Womyn's Festival." She's at her best when she's wry and unsentimentally funny, as in the second sentence.

"Resisterectomy" also considers Loren Cameron's 1996 Body Alchemy, a famous series of portraits of trans male and masculine bodies that Joynt reproduces here, confessing a conflicted relationship to it. In his video, he says, "There's that narrative that exists of, 'I had surgery, and I feel so much more myself.'" But, he wonders, "How do you hope for something that you have no context for? I felt pressured to make the connections. . . . I'm just not sure that those stories are true in the way they're told. Maybe for some people, but not for me."

It's through its theoretical musings that "Resisterectomy" challenges the viewer to think more contextually about how gender plays out in material ways. In current discussions about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, for instance, it's often forgotten that the law would in fact prescribe that trans people adhere to normative ideas of gender presentation; protection is only guaranteed on such grounds.

Bryson and Joynt challenge such narratives conceptually while acknowledging the physical realities of their experiences—Joynt, after all, did go through surgery, and Bryson does have an idea of how she wants her body to look. "Resisterectomy" locates gender not as a finite end but as a more fraught series of questions, and it's essential viewing for anyone interested to see where those might go.

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