Aron A. Moe Macarow is a writer, web developer, and public speaker.
Before I had top surgery, I always assumed that I’d parade my newly flat, masculine chest around outside at every opportunity. But that wasn’t quite how it happened. Although I was out as transgender, I had little experience being seen as trans in the way that I forever would be after surgery. While I was less noticeable as a trans man in many respects, going shirtless presented new vulnerabilities that took time to fully appreciate. I was proud of my chest. But my scars? They were another matter entirely.
The first time I took off my shirt in public and had someone ask me about my chest scars, I was on a group trip in Israel with my partner. It was a warm Spring night, and six of us were on a beach at a kibbutz in the Galilee. The company was mixed; not mixed as in men and women (although that was true as well), but the more significant kind of “mixed.” I was the only transgender person present.
“If it’s not too personal, can I ask what your scars are from?” a guy on our trip politely asked partway through our conversation. He didn’t know that I’d transitioned yet. Neither did most of the other couples on our bus.
“Double lung transplant,” I deadpanned. My answer might have been a mildly panicked attempt at humor; I’m still not sure. It was definitely all that came to mind.
Before we flew out of Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, I had meant to think through an answer to that question. During an 11-day tour with 38 other people, I knew my scars would invariably come up. But I’d put it off. While thrilled to finally have my top surgery – I would be able to float shirtless in the Dead Sea! I wouldn’t have to wear a chest binder while hiking in Petra’s sweltering heat! – I also dreaded the questions that my surgical scars would birth. And even though nearly eight and a half months had passed since my procedure, I’d somehow managed to avoid planning for those inevitable conversations.
I was ecstatic with my results, but taking pride in them was something else. That pride seemed like a public comfort that was out of reach. Instead, I simply felt exposed – and nervous.
This might come as a surprise to those who know me, and why wouldn’t it? I’ve written and spoken openly about my experience as a transgender man, and I’m out as queer and trans in most areas of my life. I was even fairly open about my journey toward top surgery itself. Even the moniker I assigned my fundraising campaign, “Operation Hipster Tank Top,” came from the sleeveless shirts that I had always ogled but could never wear without a telltale binder showing.
Still, it was one thing to be happy with my new chest privately and entirely another to have my scars in full view. Those 19 inches split into two red lines shouted to any passerby that I was once seen in the world as a woman. Scars tell stories, and that visceral reminder wasn’t one I was ready to share yet.
That’s starting to change.
Looking in the mirror today, about two years after that first question about my scars and almost three years after the surgery, I still see both incisions that clearly mark me as transgender, although they’ve since faded to a soft pink. But as they’ve softened, they’ve also seeped inward, developing a significance I couldn’t have predicted before surgery. I’m beginning to grow proud of my scars.
In the United States, the average top surgery can range anywhere from $3,500 to $9,000, and some well-known surgeons command even higher rates. Because these gender-affirming surgeries are frequently not covered by medical insurance, this can leave transgender people to cover the large sum themselves. I was one of those people, with the total bill from my surgery exceeding $14,000.
How does a 20-something afford a surgery like this without the help of insurance? It often takes a village, and that’s what I encounter every time I look at my scars – the love of my community. I imagine the signatures from all 58 backers of my fundraising campaign, like tattoos on my skin. I see the support of my partner and my family. I acknowledge the skill of plastic surgeons who have devoted their careers to making a small population’s lives immeasurably better. I recall the years of multiple jobs that I took to save up the first $10,000 of the payment.
Instead of looking past my scars to the chest that I want, I choose to confront them directly now. And through them, I’ve found a portal that reminds me of some of the best of what the LGBTQ community and our allies are capable of when we all band together.
Scars tell stories, and to my surprise, mine have begun to say more than I expected. I just had to learn how to listen.