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SELF-MADE MAN #13: Queerly Beloved

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Here is what I wore before I was a man: dark denim, unbuttoned Henleys, white T-shirts, fitted flannel, tattoos, desert boots, boat shoes. In a lesbian bar, I looked like a lesbian. Which is why, as the mirror went more and more funhouse on me, I quit bars where anyone might mistake me for one.

Because, try as I might, I wasn’t gay. The two self-identified lesbians I’d dated in my nearly 30 years of Meow Mixes and Lexingtons and Eagles and Phoenixes and El Rios were exhausting in their efforts to convince me of my femaleness. I get it: they loved women, they wanted me to be one.

“You’re butch,” one ex told me, and I’d take a gulp of my G&T and look at the butch women across the way, in their Levis and boots, their beers and buzzed-head, breasty bravado or their quiet, motorcycle-jacket strength.

“I’m not,” I’d say, but she’d just pull me by the belt loops, and I’d close my eyes and pretend I was somebody else until she was gone.

*

The first girl I ever loved was straight. “You’re like a guy, but better,” she’d say, looking at me with these, big washed-blue eyes. Here’s what I wore then: a brown baseball cap, dark denim, too-big T-shirts, Chucks.

This was a narrative I could get behind. We were 14 and moony, Springsteen-esque. When she first said it, maybe she meant I wasn’t too gangly or smelly. Or maybe she meant that I was a romantic, that I’d wooed her with a bravery that emerged, blessedly and out of nowhere, with puberty. Who was this person that, holding up a makeshift canopy of plastic bags, kissed the popular pretty girl near the bus stop with cocksure abandon?

Only later, as we got to high school and the boys grew broader, did it occur to me that not being a dude might be a liability. “Is it weird, being with me?” I asked her. Every memory I have of those years is tainted a hormonal, sun-bleached gauziness. Picture a dewy summer day, and we’re lying  on our backs in the park near school. She’s the rare adolescent whose good-looks never soured into awkwardness, just straight-swan from day one.

She got up on her elbows to look at me, and I couldn’t believe how dumb I was for asking the question. She paused long enough for my heart to palpitate. She’d had a couple boyfriends at her old school, and I pictured them as popular, handsome, and decidedly boob-less. No matter how you cut it, I was an outlier, and all the swagger in the world wouldn’t change that.

“No,” she said, tying up her ponytail, like she’d never considered it. “You’re like any other guy.”

A rush of something heady and primal overtook me, and I looked in the mirror later and winked at myself.

I see sixteen-year-olds now, with their subway chatter and baby fat, and try to imagine the ways they are saving each other’s lives.

Like a guy, but better.

I rode that wave for 15 years.

*

It was in a bar in the Haight in 2003 that my old friend and now-wife, Michael (you know, she says sassily to male Michaels who insist it’s a guy’s name that they, point of fact, have “a woman’s name”) said she would “totally date me.” Here’s what I wore: dark denim, a black T-shirt, tattoos, a size XS hoodie zipped to the throat.

“You would?” I was shocked. She was rock-and-roll and art school, warm hugs underneath a smart mouth. Her hair was angular, her surfer-girl freckles a swoony counterbalance to her good-natured saltiness.  And she, like every woman who’d ever mattered to me, had a similar clarity about my gender. She said I was like every guy she’d dated: skinny-jeaned, thoughtful, big-hearted.

When I told her that I planned to take testosterone, she wasn’t surprised. It had been seven years since our first date. She’d sat in the waiting room when I’d had chest reconstruction surgery in 2008, in a last-ditch attempt to lessen my growing mirror-to-mind dissonance. She’d seen me twitch at every “ma’am,” watched me withdraw into myself. She’d seen the jangly growth of shame speed cancerously, present an every social interaction, a many-headed monster.

It was Michael that painted a mascara beard on my face one winter night in 2010; Michael who told me to go look in the mirror. I’d stared, struck with a slick sort of fear, a dizzy, humming recognition.

I’d washed off the mascara and told myself to not blow this. I’d built a shit-start into something beautiful, an epic childhood trauma into a fucking fireworks display of love and I wasn’t going to risk Michael and all her faith in the new and improved me for a bet on my twin, the guy whose fuzzy features I’d squinted into being in a million mirrors.

But by spring, the buzzing was making me sick, and I told her in an airport in Mexico on the last day of our honeymoon that, when I pictured myself, I saw that guy that I’d been blooming into at 14, that anybody else was a stranger. I knelt down beside her like I was proposing, and said softly that I’d decided to take T.

She nodded, the winter light bright through the window. People don’t believe me, but she didn’t miss a beat. Maybe it was because the conversation had been going on for years,  or because she was travel-stressed and distracted, or maybe it was that I was backlit, and she saw, in her squint, what I meant. Or, most likely, it’s because Michael’s most basic, hard-earned value is that no one should stand in the way of you becoming yourself.

All I know is that, after saying her principle concern was not being the recipient of my inevitable stress, she said something like, “Alright, that’s that. Might as well grab a drink at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville,” and pointed goofily across the way to the cheesy airport bar.

*

 A few months later, I was Thomas. Michael practiced saying my name until she no longer slipped, seven years of the old, single-syllable moniker out the window.

I fluctuated between excitement and sour fear. I’d imagine swimming, muscle, a light beard. But my dreams were a sweat-soaked parade of needles, lonely houses, rapists who turned around and looked like me.

Here’s what I wore on our move cross-country last May: dark denim, a grey T-shirt, tattoos, Ray-Bans, a wedding ring. I was to begin T in two weeks.

I didn’t tell anyone but Michael this, but I had to practice my name, too.

The light was waning in the Hudson Valley as we approached our new home in New England, and my shirt stuck to me in the heat. The headlights ahead grew more visible with each passing minute.

“I’m worried about this one thing,” she said, suddenly. This was her first and biggest waiver, and I could tell in her tone that I was about to face a hiccup of true doubt. I was ready for it, I told myself. “It’s stupid” — and here a long, awkward pause — “but what if you seem gay?”

Then there was a rush of words as I drove us on in stunned silence. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with being gay or seeming gay, but I thought it might scramble my attraction, you know?  I hadn’t even considered it, this wrinkle, my signifiers mistranslated, a new kind of aloneness.

She looked at me pleadingly, and I could tell she wished she hadn’t said it. Did I understand, though? What if a switch flipped in her brain, an indicator that said “gay, hands off”? It was awful, she said, this knot in her stomach.

She drained my tentacle drains after surgery, she held my hand when we told her mother, and she called me “he” with confidence, long before I passed, and with more bravery than I could summon in myself. I knew this was a fluke moment, a metaphor of larger losses. Didn’t she deserve it? For everything I wanted from her, wasn’t she allowed her fear?

I wish I could say that I’d handled the situation with that wisdom; that I’d cut beneath the words to the pulse underneath.

“I can only be myself,” I said, sharply.

I stayed up that night in a hotel in a grimy town in upstate New York, feeling a boxing match play out in the hollow of my heart.  It was very late when I felt her hand grab mine.

“I’m sorry,” she said sleepily, sensing the rigidity of my body. She put her free hand on my chest. “I’ll work it out.” It’s possible I was crying and maybe we both were, exhausted and anxious and fully aware of the weight of what was ahead.

“Remember what’s important,” she said, “is that you’re you. I can’t promise for sure, because no one can, but I think that I’ll love you, whoever you are.”

And I believed her. It was only because of the former that the latter was possible. This was our shared promise on a cliff in Mendocino, the core of our wedding vows.

*

“I should never have made my fears about you,” Michael said months later.

This was back when I was scared I’d never know myself, when I thought I’d only be a hurricane of adrenaline and agitation and acne and need. She was there, though, even when I did, in fact, become an irritable mass of stress and social anxiety.

And yes I felt ugly, and yes I doubted myself. Yes, we fought, stretching into new people in a new place. It wasn’t easy or pretty.

But the reality is, a few months in there was homeostasis doing its magic, recalibrating my body and our bodies together, and if I could sum her up I’d show you Michael, running her fingers through my hair and saying, “You are a beautiful Thomas.”

*

Picture this: it’s June, September, March; it’s the tenth of every month, the anniversary of the first testosterone shot. Here is what I wear: a soft grey T-shirt or thermal or tank top, my body resisting the old clothes a little, pressing up against what holds it. The dwindling stock of once-loose shirts that still rest like scarecrows on my hangers are now fitted, the tightness across my pecs a testament to all that’s shifted.

The thing is: outside of cities where masculinity is a spectrum, your San Franscicos, Los Angeleses, New Yorks: I often do get read as gay. Me, of the studied aesthetic and seersucker shorts; me of the neat hair and fast speech. As promised, I can only be myself: my evolving body holds the same gender. I pull on an old T-shirt and fulfill a promise I made to the me who bought it. I get cruised, I get flattered. I shed internalized transphobia. I try.

And when the hick in the pick-up truck this weekend stared me down with dead-eye aggression, I remembered that I’m still queer, even if I’ve never been gay.

Just wait, I told him, and the world that wants me different. I know I look like the men I used to admire in magazines.

Here’s what I wore: a strongman tank top, a dream of myself from another lifetime. It finally fits.

And so: I am baptized in the genderless sunlight on a summer day, holding Michael’s hand. She looks at me just as he does, and I know that I’m a beautiful Thomas —queerly beloved, whoever I am.


Thomas Page McBee's essays and reportage have appeared on TheAtlantic.com, VICE, BuzzFeed, Salon, and in the New York Times. MAN ALIVE, 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 forgiveness. He is the managing editor of PolicyMic, and lives in the city that is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter, @ThomasPageMcBee, or visit thomaspagemcbee.com. More from this author →