Finding Leo: The Binder Adventure

This article was first published in PQ Monthly, Portland, in April, 2016.

I came out as trans in 2013. This revelation introduced a whole new level of questioning and much emotional energy invested in the question “Am I really trans?” I would review the DSM-IV definition of transgender and compare my “symptoms” as a checklist.  I would say “Ok, I may be trans, but am I trans enough to be trans?”  Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, I thought.

On spin cycle in my brain during this time was my dislike of my breasts. Summer was the worst. Wearing a bikini in the midst of shirtless men in shorts while trying to be one of the guys is less than ideal, to say the least.  Hardly a conversation went by that I didn’t bring up my dislike of my breasts. Oh, my poor friends! It even became a joke, or perhaps a desperate plea, not to discuss my breasts any more.

As soon as I came out, I wore only sports bras to keep my breasts as flat as possible. When I became brave enough to come out to more people, I decided to try a binder. A binder, or compression tee, is a tank-top like shirt designed to compress one’s breasts for a flatter chest. It can be difficult to put on, and not always comfortable, but the mental relief it provides for body dysphoria is huge and far outweighs these other considerations.

I was nervous to actually go shop for a binder, so I convinced my roommate, Patrick, to go with me. We went to She-Bop, “A Female Friendly Sex Toy Boutique for Every Body.” A pleasant sales clerk walked up to offer assistance. Too embarrassed to ask for a binder, I mumbled a question about the “gender identity section” as I had seen it described online. She kindly showed me where the binders, packers, and stand-to-pee devices were. She told me that I could try on the binders to determine which size to get. Grabbing a few, I headed to the dressing room. 

My first attempt to pull the binder over my shoulders was a complete failure. Picture a black tank top, with three layers of fabric in the front and one in the back. The fabric is deceivingly stretchy, but its job is to grip and squeeze the offending breasts into something approaching flatness.  Grip and squeeze it does! I couldn’t even get the first one over my shoulders. So I wrestled my way out of it and tried again with the next size up, but it was not any easier.

I backed out of the binder, an effort in and of itself. I looked at the red marks on my skin, and peeked my head through the curtain for the clerk. She helpfully suggested I try rolling the binder up first. Then, after I slid it over my shoulders, I could simply unroll it. There was no “simply” unrolling it. After getting stuck again, I asked if Patrick could come into the dressing room to help, but their store policy prohibits more than one person in a dressing room.

Even trying the unrolling technique again, I was completely failing. The gripping and squeezing action of the binder was incredibly effective on my underarms as I tried unsuccessfully to get the binder from over my shoulders to under my armpits and ready to roll down.

I stuck my head out of the curtain again, this time, with my binder stuck on my armpits and my arms unable to lower. In a stage whisper, I called for Patrick to come back over to help. Since he couldn’t come in, I turned my back to the opening and had him stick his hand through the curtain to roll down the binder from the back, while I tried to roll it down from the front. My pinned arms flailed as I tried to both block my breasts from view and tug down the front of the binder.

After a mutual effort, we were able to roll the binder down. Every inch of progress was preceded by strain, tugging, scraping, and probably profanities. 

But then, success!  As much of a pain in the ass, or underarm, as it turned out to be, I enjoyed the final product when I looked in the mirror – a smooth chest without the protrusions of breasts that, for me, ruined the clean line of my shirt.  Of course, I had to repeat the process in reverse to struggle out of the sample binder.

As difficult as it was to put on at first, wearing a binder gave me incredible experience of freedom, allowed me to calm my mind, and gave me some relief from dysphoria. Top surgery a year later then gave me total liberation and a lightness of spirit. I no longer trouble myself wondering if I’m trans enough to be trans, or what people will think of my decision to transition.  I’m free, and I’m me.

If you would like to help young trans-masculine men with limited resources relieve their gender dysphoria, TransActive Gender Center in Portland has a program for the donation of new and used binders. They also provide “a holistic range of services and expertise to empower transgender and gender diverse children, youth and their families in living healthy lives, free of discrimination.” You can find out how to help here:

Thank you, as always, for being so awesome.

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