Okay, this is a pretty unique Givealittle but hear me out. I'm transgender. I don't like what I've got downstairs. It causes me distress, and I'd like to renovate.
Most mornings in the dining room of the Chon Inter hotel in Chonburi, Thailand, you’ll find a table of a dozen or so women trying to finish their breakfast before the nurses start check-ups at 10am. They’ll likely each be sitting on an inflatable C-shaped cushion.
As per usual, in mid-December last year there was a table like this with a breakfast catch-up for women from all corners of the world: Australia, U.K., Brazil, Canary Islands, Texas, Holland. Rosie Muir, a 26-year-old from Christchurch, was there too.
Their conversation gravitates towards the usual topic: The brand new sets of genitals they’d all recently acquired.
Since figuring out her gender identity in her early twenties, Rosie Muir has been frank about it. On a Givealittle page set up in May last year, she urged people to “fund invasive surgery to change my P into a V”. She called the page “Buy Me A Vagina”.
The procedure Rosie was counting her pennies for is called gender confirmation surgery, or gender reassignment surgery. When she was a kid she dreamed of somehow magically transforming into a woman. She grew up in a Christian family, so there was a time when she would pray each night that she’d “wake up as a girl”.
Rosie points out that when she was young, transitioning from male to female wasn’t something she could just Google. It’s tricky searching for something you don’t have a word for and transgender wasn’t in her vocabulary. Connected to the dial-up internet, she typed in words like “transvestite” and “crossdresser” because that was all she knew.
“That’s what I thought I must be, because I didn’t know it was possible to be something else,” Rosie says.
“Crossdresser” didn’t sit right with Rosie, but it was over a decade ago and she says accessible information for young transgender people simply wasn’t available.
When Rosie started coming out to a few friends in mid-2015, she well and truly knew who she was, after spending 24 years figuring it out.
Looking back, Rosie says there were signs she was trying to figure things out dating back to when she wa sa child; Like trying on her mum’s bra when she was a kid, wearing her sister’s nightie, taking the What Would You Do If You Were The Opposite Sex? game way too seriously and later on, realising she always saw herself as a woman in her sexual fantasies.
After telling the first few friends, it took Rosie a year all up to come out to everyone she wanted to come out to. It seems she hit the friends and family jackpot. They’ve all supported her from the word go, save a couple of outliers.
“After I came out on Facebook two people deleted me as friends, but I don’t know who they were and I don’t really care,” Rosie says. She’s lucky enough to look back on coming out as a fun process, because “inevitably, [friends] tell you how great you are and how much they support you”.
The only real hurdle for Rosie was her family. Reading coming out horror stories online probably didn’t help, and she convinced herself they were “Going to disown me and be like ‘she’s going to hell’”.
After a day of tiling work together, Rosie’s dad pulled up outside her flat. As she hopped out, she gave him a letter, and walked away. It was easier to put it all in a letter, she says. It also meant that she could get it out all in one go without her parents interrupting.
Later that day, when they spoke in person, Rosie’s dad looked her straight in the eye and told her he’d known since she was seven years old, because of her performance as a piece of sushi at her school’s wearable arts show.
“There was no gender attached to it. Because it’s sushi. Sushi doesn’t have gender.”
But apparently that was The Moment for her dad.
“Maybe I was just a really good performer and could evoke femininity through sushi,” Rosie says. She loves that story.
Her parents have been nothing but supportive since. They pitched in for her gender confirmation surgery and her mum went the whole 9000km to Thailand with her, sharing a hospital room and looking after her when she clicked the morphine button too many times.
After coming out to her friends and family, the next step for Rosie was to go on hormones. Puberty: Round Two required seeing a therapist who then referred her to the district health board. Rosie says she felt a certain amount of pressure to be “more transgender” in front of the therapist in order to prove she was serious.
“As soon as I got the hormones from the pharmacy I was like ‘oh my gosh I’ve been waiting for this all my life’.”
For the record, surgery is by no means something that every single transgender person will want. And for those who want it, few will even have it as an option - because not many people have $23,000 lying around.
And those on the waiting list for publicly funded surgery can expect to do a lot of waiting. In 2016, male to female surgeries were carried out at a rate of three every two years, meaning those at the bottom of the list could be left waiting for up to 47 years. Only one female to male surgery is carried out every two years under the public health system, so those on that list could be in line for up to 34 years.
Fortunately, Rosie was in a position where she could get together the funds to pay for the surgery to be done privately. For her, and many others, it wasn’t an option not to - gender dysphoria was taking a heavy toll.
“Just booking it in helped with my mental health.”
After that, everything in Rosie’s life was put on hold. Saving and preparing for gender confirmation surgery became top priority.
When Rosie started up the Givealittle page she was already living on a steady diet of cereal and two-minute noodles and had taken a break from studying law so she could work full-time and save.
Rosie found masses of information online about the surgery experiences of other transgender women, and narrowed it down to a clinic in Chonburi, Thailand, run by Doctor Suporn Watanyusakul.
She says surgeons in Thailand have many surgeries and have decades of experience. “I think when you’re investing in a vagina, you probably want to get a good one.”
Dr Suporn has been performing reconstructive surgeries since the early ‘90s and is in hot demand. Rosie constantly refreshed the website for new surgery dates, like refreshing a page for ticket sales. About a dozen dates came up at once and she locked in December 8, 2017.
A few years ago Rosie would have only needed to save up for the cost of the surgery, and the travel would have been the 10 minute drive from Burnside to Merivale. She could have had face-to-face consultation with the team of surgeons too, headed by Doctor Peter Walker, that used to offer gender confirmation surgery in Christchurch. Instead, she had to get together $25,000 and rely on information online and emails from the clinic in Thailand.
Dr Walker and his team performed 61 surgeries over 25 years. When he retired he couldn’t find anyone to take over the work, and no one in New Zealand ever took on the job. “Of course it was a disappointment because we had a transgender team already in Christchurch that could have carried on with the surgery, but as nobody was forthcoming, I retired and the clinic stopped.”
As a country, New Zealand comes out on top for funding gender confirmation surgeries. But although we’re the only country in the world that has a fund for these surgeries, that one fund has to cover all high cost one-off treatments - high cost meaning anywhere from $50,000 to $2.5 million.
Of the 20-30 annually approved applications, Dr. Walker says only three or so transgender people benefit from the fund every couple of years.
When the topic of public funding came up with Rosie, she responded with something you could describe as a full body eye-roll. “Impossible. No point at all. A total waste of time, cause it would take like two decades if not five decades. It’s just not even worth it.”
With the Givealittle, a variety show, savings and a little bit of debt, Rosie made up the $25,000 by the end on October. She splashed out that week and bought herself a packet of raspberry buns.
It’s not often that you transfer tens-of-thousands of dollars online for life changing surgery, so Rosie was understandably cautious about sending it through. “I’m nervous I’ll put one number in wrong … and it’ll go to someone who’s not going to give me a vagina.”
The day before Rosie flew to Thailand we catch up and talk fears and menstrual pads.
It was only in the two weeks before the surgery that she’d felt any nerves, which she described as “only one percent bad nerves”.
Up until then, when the topic of fears came up, she’d been very cool, saying “I’m nervous to go under anesthetic because I’ve never done that before, but that’s about it.”
Now the fears are more along the line of: “My mind’s been going ‘do you really want to do this Rosie?’ … I feel like it’s the biggest fork in the road my life will ever have.”
She’s prepared everything she can. “I cleaned my room, cleaned the house, cleaned my car ... Got all my money sorted, got my insurance sorted, went to the doctor to get some more prescriptions and make sure I’m not dying or something”.
For a lot people, and maybe I’m projecting here, buying sanitary pads for the first time is not a fun activity. But for Rosie it was. “I was real amped to buy pads, which probably most people aren’t, but it’s a sign of things to come, so that was cool … I was standing there proudly”. No, Rosie’s new vagina doesn’t come with built in menstruation - but the pads will come in handy for the mess that comes with essentially having an open wound for a few months.
Rosie flew out with her mum on December 4. They were picked up from the airport by the Suporn Clinic van at about 2am, and arrived at the hotel in time for a few hours sleep before Rosie’s first appointment at midday.
“I got rushed around various assessments: Blood pressure, EKG, X-ray, temperature, some thing where they put sticky balls all over you with some clamps. I don’t know what that was,” Rosie says.
The next day she had another clinic appointment. “They make you whip your pants off and then lie there and then the surgeons come in out of another room and just look at everything and touch everything”, then they sat her down and ran her through everything.
“They give you a little quiz beforehand which is about what things you would prioritise between sensation, cosmetics and something else. I can’t remember what the other one is.”
Rosie said they way patients answer the quiz has nothing to do with what they end up with. She says the surgeons don’t prioritise one thing over another. She thought it might have been used to gather data on what results transgender women wanted and prioritised in general.
They also showed her pictures of what the surgery looks like half-way done, which Rosie said “was a bit confronting”. Much to her relief, they ended the appointment with pictures of the finished product.
I talked to Rosie via FaceTime two days after the surgery when she’d just woken up from a nap. A nurse walked in within seconds, gave Rosie four colourful pills, pointed to one of them and said “reduces swelling”.
Rosie turned to me and said dryly: “This is an action packed time”.
She asked if I wanted to see, before turning the camera and lifting up her blanket to show the flat expanse of bandages covering her brand new vulva and vagina. “There’s nothing there ... there’s an ice pack to help with swelling”.
When I asked her if she was feeling spacey she didn’t respond for eight seconds, and then she said she’s been really low energy. “It’s really hard to sleep in general because you can only lie basically facing up or slightly to the side,”. She has to be careful to keep her legs together to assist the healing.
She couldn’t remember much about the days following the surgery and her mum helped fill in the gaps, but she remembered the moments before she went under.
“I went into a room full of about eight nurses and they were all preparing various things. They were really nice. Lots of them came over and asked me my name and where I was from ... and then the anaesthesiologist came over and said ‘You’ll be asleep in 10 seconds.”
Two weeks later, when we speak again, Rosie has absolutely no memory of our last conversation. In that time she has started walking again, seen her new genitals, been on a trip to Dr Suporn’s beach house and had her morphine rights taken off her.
“What was it like seeing your new vulva and vagina?” I ask.
“It was awesome … But I think the best part about it besides seeing it myself (and it looks a lot like a vagina) is my mum coming around and looking at it and being like ‘wow!”. Getting the thumbs up from her mum was reassuring, “It made it all good, that she also thought it was a good vagina.”
The final result is always going to be a surprise, because the surgeons make the most out of what’s already there. The only part that isn’t used is the testicles.
Rosie started dilating days after the surgery, which is (in her words), “when you put a huge lubed up dildo in your poosee for 30 minutes.”
She has to dilate for 30 minutes, three times a day for around three months. Then down to two times a day after that, then just once a day after six months until it’s completely healed, which could be another six months or so depending on the person.
She’s been having regular check-ups too, with the occasional “sensation check”. This might include someone saying “sensation?” seconds before giving her clitorus a prod, to make sure everything’s in working order.
Rosie only had one complaint for her entire stay in Chonburi, which was when she was given a deadline to pee. She was told one morning that she had to pee within two hours. “I was in general pain at that time and they were telling me not to push because that could cause bleeding, which made it even more stressful because I had to pee but not push … It was a horrible experience and felt like they need to not do that”.
She added that peeing with a penis was a somewhat better experience than peeing without one.
Rosie survived 24 hours in transit without dilating, made it home to Christchurch and is back to work. She’s on short shifts to work around her dilating schedule, just a few days a week.
Every morning Rosie wakes up around 6am and dilates. She goes to work and talks to octogenarians over the phone, telling them how to turn their router off and then on again. She goes home just before 2pm to dilate again. Then just before bed, she dilates a third and final time.
She has one more month of this, then it’s another three months of dilating twice a day, until eventually just once a day. If she doesn’t keep on top of it, she could lose depth permanently.
Something that’s working in Rosie’s favour is that her employer, an internet service provider, is in the process of getting a Rainbow Tick: A sign that a company is LGBTQI friendly and inclusive. “Well I’m pretty sure I’m the only transgender staff member in Christchurch,” she says.
She has a feeling her work will be fairly accommodating over the next six months or so.