SELF-MADE MAN #9: Passing

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I don’t know if this is the biology of it, but on the day of my testosterone shot sometimes I think I can feel my vocal chords widening, a throaty expansion. It’s an itching sensation that manifests as an upper-register croak and then, inevitably, a crack.

(Yeah, like a bird bursting out of a shell. I know, but it’s hard not to traffic in metaphor when your whole body is blooming.)

I went to karaoke last night but couldn’t sing any of my old standbys—Tom Petty, New Order, alto-y, old-school Madonna. Inexplicably sad, I arrived home at 2 am and played through every song on my computer until I found a few with enough bass to keep me from straining.

On the phone, within months of starting the T shots, I passed; as in my voice was read as male, but passing means something more than that. By and large, to be perceived as “a man” is to be translated into “genetic man-from-birth.” The new voice didn’t just bring “Sir’s.” It was a whole customer service chorus of “bro’s” and “dude’s,” and friendly banter; it was a difference of such scope and subtlety that I can only describe it as startling. This passing was not the same as the queer equivalent in my teenager years, strutting into gas stations with a baseball cap pulled down low and a too-wide stance. That was for safety’s sake, and therefore thrilling and scary. This was benign, and full-immersion. My voice embedded me into a parallel world beset with assumptions: about my competency, my sexuality, my predilection for fraternity.

But I didn’t worry too much about it at first, so glad was I that I no longer sounded reedy, womanly. My voice always bugged me. I remember pitching it so deep it disappeared, warbling off-tune to my favorite songs, trying to get low enough. Now I can still sing “Walking in Memphis,” but not “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I’ve passed right through the axis of space and time that made that possible.

Passing: I called my mom and she mistook me for my brother. “That’s a good thing, right?” she said, because she has been breathtakingly supportive. If she misses my old voice, she never says so.

Passing: a lot of trans folks hate that word, and I get it. It suggests something duplicitous, it undermines one’s identity, suggesting there is such a thing as a “real” man or woman and that you are not it. Being a man, for me, is simply about looking in the mirror and seeing myself reflected. I no longer have a dizzy, dysphoric allergy to my body, which is a miracle. But passing is different, strange. It creates in me a feeling in the gym, the train, and the bathroom where I translate as someone unfamiliar: a stranger who understands the rules of binary gender engagement; or worse, who has agreed to them.

My queerness isn’t as clear as it used to be, my rebellion masked by a bookish adulthood, a tailor, a body that suddenly seems to make sense to a world that’s never seen me. Perhaps now the most non-normative aspect of my gender is how reflexively suspect I am of the lens in which I’m newly seen.

Passing: at a sporting goods store in Seekonk I test the weights, no longer worried about danger, no matter the broken-down strip mall or wall of teenage football players goofing off beside me. “Can I help you, sir?” The salesman asks, and when I say no, he backs away respectfully, like I am an animal.

Animal logic is visible to me in ways it never has been before. I calculate, size up, turn my head at the sound of a motorcycle in tandem with the crowd. In high school, all my friends and I had shaved heads and wild, fuck-this-town posturing. Now I speak a pigeon language of past and present.

My wife says that when people discuss “masculinity” derisively, they’re talking not talking about neutral gender descriptors but rather about masculine privilege, and I think she’s right.  Masculinity gets a bad rap because of its lowest common denominators, but in the weight section I too gave the pack of young guys a wide berth. They walked with their chests-out, dared each other to lift heavier and heavier dumbbells; their soft faces twisted into something ugly. The salesman didn’t approach them, just let them horse around. I exhaled when they finally left, pushing their boys-will-be-boys bodies out into a summer afternoon, my new affiliates, my butt-slapping colleagues. Two surprised me by nodding my way in acknowledgement and I nodded back, peaceably. Passing is an ugly word, but not always an ugly feeling. That said, I know when I’m passing and when I’m being, and the break is something I work daily to bridge.

I’m trying to tell you that, after I broadened beyond question, how I was seen suddenly ceased to be my goal and simultaneously became a kind of responsibility.

Over and over, I think, I’m Thomas. All you have is your memory and your body, and those are barely guarantees.

Passing: gay men hit on me with flattering regularity. I know I am neat and put-together in a region where that is a rarity for dudes. I know that we are lighthouses, sending signals into the sea. I am something different; I am refusing the new, distressing, self-policing voice. It’s the one that says, “A man shouldn’t ______.” A man should, I counter. A man should take fancy baths, drink white wine, admire another man’s looks, cry. A man should say he doesn’t know; and say it often.

On my worst days, I feel alien. On my best, I see myself in everyone, and there is nothing more queer than either of those positions; inverses dependent on how much you give a shit about what anyone else thinks. Most days, I sing whatever song is within my range, because who knows; maybe I’ll become the kind of person who can do it in front of a crowd. I wrestle through “Here Comes Your Man,” my voice squeaking until I learn to handle its new pitch, thinking maybe someday I will stop passing as someone unafraid of being myself, and just become him.

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Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Thomas Page McBee's essays and reportage have appeared on TheAtlantic.com, VICE, BuzzFeed, Salon, and in the New York Times. Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, his memoir about violence and what makes a man, is forthcoming this fall from City Lights/Sister Spit, and he is now at work on a book about masculinity. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter, @ThomasPageMcBee, or visit thomaspagemcbee.com. More from this author →