I read a lot of terrible articles for blog-fodder. I feel like I have been inoculated against a lot because of it. Every once in a while I read one that still manages to get through my defenses and makes me sick to my stomach.
This is one of them:
Somewhere in the boondocks of America’s Pacific Northwest, near the city of Olympia in Washington state, there is a long gravel logging track leading off the main road between a field and a forest.
If you follow that track for about a kilometre, you will find a rustic-looking wooden house that has stood there for about a century, with an old tractor barn converted into a small outbuilding. There might be chickens, sheep, and geese honking raucously at your arrival.
And, if you had entered that tractor barn between 2004 and 2006, you would have found a secret underground transgender surgical clinic run by two trans women with an autoclave and a cauterisation machine bought on eBay.
In an era when trans people were routinely blocked from life-saving healthcare, and often discriminated against or abused by medical staff, this clinic aimed to treat its patients with respect and never charged more than $500 for a procedure that usually cost thousands.
Yet despite its clandestine nature, it operated legally – and according to one of the women behind it, it was even inspected and approved by Washington state health officials.
That is a hell of an opening.
This article is practically a hagiography of some of the most grotesque stuff I have ever read.
I have been informed by the media that being transgender is an identity that must be respected.
I, personally, concur with the pre-Woke science that says transgenderism, or gender-identity disorder, is a mental illness.
The evidence of that, to me, is evident on its face. The individual has a perception that does not match physical reality. Much the same way someone with anorexia feels about their body.
I am a compassionate person and so I have sympathy for anyone who has a mental illness. I do not want to see them suffer.
But I’m one of these old school individuals who wants to treat people to cure them of their suffering.
I accept that for some trans people, some form of transition does alleviate some of their dysphoria.
But what comes next is a horror show. Literally. This could be the plot of a horror movie.
More than that, the way it is covered in this article, and the way that it has become part of trans culture or the trans experience takes this way beyond the realm of helping and into the world of a cult.
“No one was going to take care of us. We had to take care of ourselves,” says Eilís Ní Fhlannagáin, a software developer and veteran protest medic who helped set up and run the clinic.
Now 50, Ní Fhlannagáin spoke to The Independent about her role in an almost forgotten moment in LGBT+ history, which until the pandemic had only been passed on through zines and word of mouth within the trans community.
A moment in LGBT history that should be looked on in shame but instead is being covered almost romantically by this article.
This is one of the things about the LGBT community that I find strange.
Years ago, before trans took over, shortly after Obergefell was decided, I read a number of articles that made the point that while gay marriage was good, there was something lost to gay culture because of it.
What was lost was the seedy underground side where men went to bath houses and theaters and had filthy, disease transmitting, anonymous sex with one another.
It was exciting, dangerous, and subversive. Gay marriage was just like regular marriage, boring and pedestrian.
This has stuck in my mind because it’s and attitude that is antithetical to social inclusion.
Moderate, middle-class social doesn’t want that degeneracy, get some part of the gay community identified it as part of gay culture and bemoaned its loss.
This article feels like the trans version of that.
Back before trans was the Left’s cause celebre, real trans culture performed unground surgeries in a barn.
It started in Philadelphia in the early Noughties, when Ní Fhlannagáin persuaded her doctor friend Willow that she could totally perform life-changing surgery on Ní Fhlannagáin in her adopted trans mother’s living room.
When Ní Fhlannagáin transitioned, around 1993-4, most cisgender (or non-trans) people were barely aware trans people existed and would never expect to see one in real life. For those who lived openly, or were outed against their will, tremendous discrimination was the norm. Few countries had formal legal protections, and the world wide web had not yet given isolated trans people a lifeline to each other.
For trans women, the game plan was to get hormones any way you could, stay on them for a year or so without coming out, burn away your facial hair with electrolysis, then disappear from your old life and go “stealth” – meaning no one, except perhaps other trans people, knew you were trans.
“You came up through certain ways,” Ní Fhlannagáin explains. “You came up through the clubs, came up through drag shows, you came up through the support groups – I kind of knew some of those folks – or you came up through gender clinics.”
“I knew no one from there. That was the rich girl s***. Rich girls got sent to gender clinics; I didn’t get into a gender clinic.”
The first step in a medical transition is usually gender-affirming hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which slowly reshapes a person’s body and emotions by adjusting their balance of estrogen and testosterone. For many the impact is life-saving, not only making them happier with their appearance or more able to “pass” as a cis man or woman but connecting them to their body in a profound new way. Some compare it to seeing the world in colour for the first time, or coming up from underwater and breathing air.
“It was calling up the physician that got his licence taken away because he was prescribing one too many narcotics,” she recalls. “It was online pharmacies, because online pharmacies became a thing. Or if you weren’t online, that friend of yours who went to Mexico and brought back a suitcase.”
This was the time of “Butcher Brown”, alias John Ronald Brown, a San Francisco surgeon who specialised in trans women but was forced to set up shop in Mexico after his US medical licence was suspended. “The quality of his results was generally considered unacceptable,” writes Andrea James on her widely consulted Transgender Map website.
By the turn of the millennium, though, Ní Fhlannagáin was running in punk anarchist circles, absorbing riot grrrl feminism and radical environmentalism and transgender separatism. It was a scene that shaped a generation of North American trans women.
“We’re not going to ask for permission for something that we should be able to just do,” says Ní Fhlannagáin, summarising their attitude. “It’s my f***ing body. If I want to go get my ears pierced, no one’s going to say, ‘oh, you can’t do that, you need two letters from psychiatrists’.”
All of which helps explain how Ní Fhlannagáin convinced Willow to perform an orchiectomy on her – that is, remove her testicles – in a reclining chair, working from photocopied pages of a medical textbook, while her trans mom was sleeping off her night shift upstairs.
The procedure almost went smoothly. But the instructions for bandaging afterwards were written for cis men, whose genitals function very differently than trans women’s after a year or two on HRT. Six hours later the bandages fell apart, and Ní Fhlannagáin was rushed to hospital. On her first try, she was thrown out for “drug-seeking behaviour” (“yeah,” she recalls, “I needed antibiotics”), and only got treatment days later after nearly dying.
“Overall the DIY orch is very simple and teachable,” wrote the trans novelist Sybil Lamb in 2010. Sure enough, orchiectomies – under the more traditional name of castration – were performed without modern surgical equipment or anaesthetic around the world for millennia, with all manner of religious and political purposes.
“It’s just not a complicated surgery – mine took like 40 minutes,” says Jules Gill-Peterson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who is writing a book about the history of DIY trans medicine. Her research has found evidence of underground trans orchis going back to the 1950s, as well as hormone sharing and smuggling, making the Washington clinic part of a “hallowed tradition”.
The “hallowed tradition” of underground castration is more in line with a cult than the treatment of a mental illness.
Willow was not only a doctor but, rarely for the time, an out trans woman. Ní Fhlannagáin declined to provide Willow’s real name because she now works as an abortion doctor facing threats of violence, and told The Independent that Willow does not wish to speak to journalists.
Why do I not find it normal that a person who would do underground castration on trans people would graduate to working in an abortion clinic.
It’s almost as those these people are attracted to a dark side of medicine, soaked in blood and misery.
By 2004, Ní Fhlannagáin had burned out on anarchist activism and moved to Washington with her girlfriend Chrissy, where Willow was doing a residency. Ní Fhlannagáin needed money, and Willow had an “eBay addiction” where she would buy old medical equipment and fix it up. They hatched a plan.
Still, both women had been involved in abortion activism, and they drew political inspiration from an underground women’s abortion service called the Jane Collective. Operating in Chicago between 1969 and 1973, it was founded as an antidote to unsafe illegal abortions often done by unqualified men.
Again we see that overlap of dangerous underground gender surgery and dangerous underground abortions, both written about as inspiring stories of rebellion against men in the established medical world.
They didn’t tell the neighbours, nor the landlord. Nobody out there knew that Willow, Ní Fhlannagáin, or Chrissy were trans – rural women weren’t expected to be feminine in the same way as city women – and they intended to keep it that way.
One week before the first surgery, on the 256-acre farm that Ní Fhlannagáin and Chrissy were renting, they built a front and sides onto one of the bays in the tractor barn; put in a door and a window, ran in electricity, and tiled and sealed the floor.
That tiling, Ní Fhlannagáin adds, is still there today, though the room is now used as an organic chicken processing factory. “They still don’t know what I did in that room,” she says, “which I plan on never f***ing telling them, ever.”
That’s fucking horrifying.
Also, if they read this article, they will know.
If, one day in 2005, you had driven down that logging road for your appointment at the clinic, the geese would have heralded your arrival.
The two women explain what will happen and how it will work. You get a prescription for vicodin and pre-emptive antibiotics, which you have to fill at the nearest town 20 miles away. You take the vicodin in front of the medics, and then begin the surgery.
Afterwards, they’d apply tight bandages and drainage tubes, following new procedure designed specifically for trans women after Ní Fhlannagáin’s near-death experience. You were required to stay in the area for seven days in case of complications, but Ní Fhlannagáin says they never had one. Most people simply crashed on her couch.
The clinic charged a sliding scale, depending on circumstances, never charging more than $500. For another $400, you also got 40 hours of electrolysis, which Ní Fhlannagáin had learned by practising on her own arm.
The amount was based on the cost of materials and the minimum amount needed to pay for Ní Fhlannagáin’s daily Amy’s Mac and Cheese and tobacco bought in bulk. Usually, an orchi alone would cost $2,000 to $5,000 – about $3,000 to $7,500 in today’s money.
What heroes! Performing castration in a converted barn with medical equipment from eBay, having patients illegally obtain their own narcotics. But they weren’t charging what doctors charged. Castration equity for the poor!
One day, while Ní Fhlannagáin was drinking her first cup of coffee, the geese began honking because a big dark blue car with government plates was coming down the track.
The officials said they were from the state Board of Health, and they were looking for Willow.
Ní Fhlannagáin remembers telling the bureaucrats to wipe their feet. They didn’t, and tracked mud into the clinic. They asked to see autoclave logs, business licences, narcotics stores, all of which Ní Fhlannagáin was prepared for. Then she spotted something catastrophic: a little cup, with two testicles in it, left just behind the cautery machine.
Normally, patients were supposed to bring their balls with them after surgery. But Dana, last night’s patient, was “an absolute lightweight” and was zonked out on vicodin. Ní Fhlannagáin and Willow had to haul her into the house, then give the clinic a quick wipe down and focus on looking after her, intending to clean up fully tomorrow.
Excuse me while I go vomit.
Luckily for Ní Fhlannagáin, she had learned a “cheat code” for situations like this. “When a cis bureaucrat is getting in your face, and you want them to disappear, say the words ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’ as loud as possible and as many times as possible,” she says. “They get very uncomfortable and they back away.”
This just makes me hate these people.
They scrammed, allowing Ní Fhlannagáin to grab the organs, stick them in her pocket, dart into the house, and tell her patient: “Dana, you left these.”
Now I have to go vomit again.
She is proud of the work she did, saying: “I don’t regret helping a bunch of girls that wouldn’t have been helped.” But the clinic did not last long. In 2006, Willow’s residency ended, taking her out of the Pacific Northwest, while Ní Fhlannagáin herself was burned out.
Worse, Chrissy was suffering from slowly worsening mental health problems, including alcohol and substance abuse, leaving Ní Fhlannagáin straining to keep her away from patients as much as possible. About three years after the clinic closed, they broke up, and four years after that, Chrissy killed herself.
“It’s the same story, right?” says Ní Fhlannagáin. “This is a world not built for us. And how do you live in it? It’s 35 people now, queer folks, and about two thirds of them trans, that I’ve lost over the years.”
So much positivity and mental health in this underground castration barn in the woods.
Trans history, she argues, has been “over-narrated” by medical institutions, which often defined mainstream discussion about trans people from within its own narrow worldview. She believes that researching and remembering DIY healthcare can challenge that, restoring the diversity of the many trans communities – from “black and brown trans-fems who came up through the ballroom scene” to mostly white punks in the Pacific Northwest – that have carried knowledge through the generations.
What did I say?
Underground castration for equity, diversity, and iclusion.
A modern day Robin Hood tale. If Robin Hood cut Little John’s balls off so he could become Maid Marian.
The story also reached Nicki Green, an internationally exhibited sculptor and lecturer in ceramics at the University of California, Berkeley. She contacted Ní Fhlannagáin and gained information about the clinic, making an artwork about it called Operating in Bright Sunlight, featuring paintings of the old farmhouse, the trees, and the procedure itself.
A proper shrine in this hagiography of trans saints doing the good work of castration the poor.
Tell me this is not a cult.
“A sure sign that something is seriously missing in a society is a generation gap. If the younger generation does not take pride in becoming like its elders, then the society has lost its own continuum, its own stability, and probably does not have a culture worth calling one…”
Ní Fhlannagáin believes that applies to trans people too. “I’m 50 and an ‘elder’. How the f*** does that happen? Well, because the previous generation, a lot of them died – in the Aids crisis, or for the many, many reasons we died early – and no one gave a s*** except us. Or you went stealth, and you never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever talked about it.
“That’s by design. If you don’t have continuity of culture, you have no ability to stand up and say, ‘this is wrong, stop treating me like s***’. So how do you unf*** a people? How do you create a culture of resistance?”
To younger trans people seeking that goal, she offers this advice: “Don’t ask permission for how you live your life… what are they going to do, get you in more trouble? You’re trans, honey; you’re already in trouble. Just don’t get caught.”
Underground castration in a barn is part of the hallowed tradition of trans culture that young trans people must learn about to be proud of as part of a culture of resistance.
This is a cult.
A cult of blood and pain and mutilation.