A Better Body Is Possible. These Anarchist Biohackers Want to Build It

I'm feeling like a ghost in a shell - deltron 3030


Instead of trendy magnetic implants, the biohackers at 'Please Try This At Home' want to make biomedical bureaucracies obsolete.

Walking into “Please Try This At Home” meant walking into a conference nothing like any I’d been to before. Instead of a bright, shiny convention center, I found a community center, jammed with writing sheets and tables and food and hubbub. Instead of suited salespeople, I was surrounded by an overwhelming rush of diverse and joyous bodies. The event was a gathering of “Anarchotranshumanists, Xenofeminists, and Queer Cyborgs” who spent a weekend trying to imagine and build something better than the medical system marginalized bodies are frequently harmed by.

I often joke that there are two types of trans people: the kind who are anarchists, and the kind who haven’t tried to come out to their doctor.

It’s an over-simplification grounded in reality. The fact of the matter is that healthcare in the United States is broken by default, and it’s entirely and comprehensively fucked for anyone outside that default. For transgender people, accessing healthcare is necessarily more difficult within a system that frequently subjects trans people to gatekeeping and discrimination merely for existing. Similar barriers and disparities exist if you’re black or disabled, making the healthcare system especially perilous for people who fall into multiple boxes outside the white, cis, and able-bodied norm.

This justified mistrust of powerful biomedical institutions is what leads many trans people to autonomous and community-oriented politics, centered around the notion that we can’t trust anyone but ourselves. It’s also what led to the conference—and led me to the conference.

Co-Creating a Conference

Just as traditional medicine has its biases, so too does biohacking. People who self-describe as “biohackers” and run biohacking events tend to be white and middle class, and are frequently more interested in questions of theory or chic “tryborg” stunts than in the material needs of marginalized people. Often, the result is conferences filled with white academics discussing magnetic implants in a building that isn’t wheelchair accessible.

PTTAH is trying something different. As one of the organizers noted when I spoke with them, it’s guided by an emphasis on “accessibility and inclusivity, particularly for folks who don’t usually come to other biohacking cons.” There was a dedicated sensory room for people who needed time away from the noise and bustle of a conference space, and the venues were intentionally picked to be accessible by people with wheelchairs or other mobility aids, for example.

Now in its second year, PTTAH was organized around the change its participants want to see in the world. Part of that meant that the conference was not “run,” but co-created—kind of like a biohacking potluck. The explicit goal was to ensure that attendees, rather than organizers, had control over the content available. This resulted in a much wider range of voices deciding what got on the schedule, and correspondingly, a much wider range of perspectives represented, discussed, and addressed. And that, ultimately, was what it was all about: autonomy in determining what happens to your body, how it’s shaped, and how it moves in a space.

One example was the materials being distributed by Power Makes Us Sick (PMS), a research group focused on developing practices around autonomous trans healthcare. PMS’s work is designed to be shared widely, remade by anyone with a printer, and contributed to by anyone who wants. The result is links to sources of no-questions-asked estrogen, synthesized by trans people for trans people; narratives and stories of navigating and bypassing medical gatekeeping in a range of countries; advice on surgery prep not just for the person being operated on but community members who want to support them. It’s about separating medical needs from hierarchy, and infusing that hierarchy with community wherever that can’t be done.

The focus of the session “I took my surgically removed organs home in a snow globe and maybe you can too” was, as the title suggests, on sharing knowledge about how to get doctors to let you keep your removed body parts. Several audience members had kept theirs, and joined in for some questions and answers, and the speaker provided a “teaching aid” which was passed around the room: their testicles in a snowglobe.

“Here are my balls in a jar” might sound like a flippant frame for a talk, and very different from autonomous trans healthcare, but to me they’re part and parcel of the same thing. It matters that we can keep our organs, because behind that practice is the finding and sharing of paths through medical bureaucracy, and new techniques to evade control.

When I spoke to the presenter (who wishes to remain anonymous) about their motivations, they made clear that to them, it was ultimately about allowing people to have these options.

“People care about what gets done with their bodies in a lot of different ways for a lot of different reasons,” they told me. “It bothers me that people are having their freedom to choose taken from them when they might, for whatever reason, be invested in making their own decision that's different from the one that's seen as the default.”

Co-Creating Community

All of this work highlights the importance of building spaces and sharing medical knowledge outside the normal, gate-kept institutions of healthcare. When we’re unable to afford medicine, it matters that we can make our own insulin. When we’re used to being treated by doctors like a sack of disposable parts, it matters that we can literally seize our body back from them—in a jar or otherwise.

More vital, though, is the community that is formed as a result: a collection of people normally disincluded from the discourse around medicine and biohacking. I watched bearded mutualists seeking a stateless society chat with trans social workers building community-based care networks to provide post-surgery care on the patient’s terms; autistic philosophers sit down with bioscientists. The point of the conference is not just watching talks, but the potential for new communities, collaborations, and networks of resistance.

Os Keyes is a researcher and writer based at the University of Washington, where they study gender, technology and (counter)power. Their current projects cover facial recognition, critical tactics for technology, and the consequences of classification.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

There are 9 Comments

As a trans anarchist I want to fight the notion that medical transition is the only acceptable way to transition. I’m truly not against medical transitions or finding ways for us to take care of ourselves outside the system. I’m curious how that can be done outside of an industrial life way?

Could someone who was at this meetup explain some of the methods and means talked about by participants? I hope it’s clear that this is coming from a place of inquiry and not hostility.

If you accept that gender is just social roleplay (within the theory of "society as stage play"), by just playing the role you're like 3/4 of the way into being the gender you choose to be.

So beyond that, what is the purpose of making it more biological? To have it recognized by State medical authorities... so to be officially accepted as a member of this gender, so you get the legal cover that may come with it?

I guess that things like body hair and pheromones can be also an issue.

have material online for performing medical procedures/surgury on a DIY basis along with making medical drugs?

I am in my 50's, do not have health insurance, and have never been conventionally employed. More than once I have self-treated out of necessity something that could have caused serious harm if I didn't deal with it right away.

Most clear-cut case was a vicious infection that set up shop in a broken blister on my foot after a wet and soggy round of IMF/World Bank protests in 2006. From nowhere that blew up, with pain enough to wake me up and the whole area turning red. I knew this could get nasty right quick, with bacteria doubling every 1/2 hour when unconstrained. Waiting six hours in an emergency room for uncompensated care would have been 12 doublings, or about 4,000 times as many bacteria-enough to possibly cost me my whole foot. I prepared a paste of salt and water and applied it to the infection. It felt like hot iron, but by morning both the pain and the infection were gone, and I still have my foot.

Luke next time do a brine, not saltwater paste, and ideally with sea salt, as the iodine is a strong antibacterial agent. It's be much less painful and equally effective.

What's even better is fir resin in its clear liquid form, if you can find it around. I've never had anyinjury-related infection that stood up to this, not even a flesh-eating bacteria!

I wash my wounds with hot ùrine fresh from my penis, them smash some garlic with bricks into a paste and place that around and into the wounds, using some bark and vines to bind it in place.

I dunno... as much as I believe it should be every person's freedom to pander with their own organs and hormones so to be more comfortable with their bodies, it also sounds way so fucking privileged to be focusing so much on autonomous medicine STRICTLY as solution for gender issues, while there's so many poor people all across NA who can't fucking have the basic health care without astronomical hospital costs. Is this just now that we can talk about anarcho doctors, because Trans Cause is sooo fucking central to everything!?

And here's a long list of whatabouts...

Let's start with ppl suffering from AIDS.

But sure.. we only got to support Democrats more so that we'll get a universal healthcare to solve these matters, right?

Nope, I'm taking the autonomous Stirnerian health course and going solo with the garlic paste!

To reiterate are anarchists actually doing this and is it possible outside an industrial exploitative system? I have seen that article about the forty thieves collective but I’m not fully convinced.

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