SELF-MADE MAN #1: The Truckstop


I am in a public restroom off 95 in southern Maine, wondering what makes a man and also if I can muffle my piss stream with balled up toilet paper so as not to draw attention to myself. Will I ever be able to walk into a bathroom and not think about the sound of urine on porcelain? Can I be proud to sit down and have the foreign echoes of  my splashing business announce me to the universe as a transman, a crosser of the great divide, a miracle. Can I be a man and a miracle at once?

It’s not necessarily time for philosophy, but I have just begun to pass and I am still whisker-less and slight compared to fellow travelers.  My biggest concern currently is not spiritual but physical, specifically the physicality of the two huge dudes who walked in right behind me, linebacker in size and head-to-toe in leather and flannel, sort of like Libertarian, less mullet-y versions of Dog the Bounty Hunter. I hurry ahead, trying not to look tweaky, and keep my head up. I am, more and more, shading “guy” in people’s first-glance assessments. I am “Sir” and sometimes “Son.” I am, finally, never “Ma’am.”

I drop trough and try to relax, but the particularly barrel-chested one takes the stall next to me, which stops my stream mid-flow. I see the leather-daddy-ish one in front of the stall on my other side, the zipper of his motorcycle jacket glinting menacingly in the fluorescent light.

This is not good. I’ve used men’s rooms even before taking T without ever an issue, but now bowel-quivering visions of cracked skulls and internal bleeding dance through my head. The floor is tacky with urine and dark with something I’d rather not meditate on; not where I want to faceplant.

When I started hormone therapy eight months ago, I’d already had top surgery. I’d spent most of my young adulthood making old folks working the register at CVS tongue-tied, and I thought knowing how to cock my hat and swagger a little so as to not get my ass kicked while refueling in Wyoming was all I needed to navigate the world of men. I figured I’d mostly stick to my own kind: queers and sensitive straight dudes who made art and knew their rising signs.

But that’s not how it turned out. I moved back to New England after years in the woo-woo Bay Area, and suddenly I was a sausage-less guy in a sea of sausage, a dude who knew astrology and wrote lyrical essays and halfway paid attention to the Steelers but only if they’re winning. No “think fast,” no Sox hat. I am a lover, not a fighter. In high school I chased girls and wrote poetry and went to metal shows with my queer best friend. Now I co-edit a style blog and have a messy pompadour and kind of gay obsession with James Dean. That about catches us up, and now here I am in a restroom off the interstate in southern Maine in desert boots. And glasses.

I realize that 30 years of blurry insults about my indeterminate gender by drunks outside of bars, rapey newspaper headlines, and some run-ins with a few exceptionally bad seeds (including the one, most memorably, that held a gun to my head a couple of years ago) has made me pretty afraid of dudes. Now that I am one, this is becoming a problem.

I flush the toilet to give myself a minute to think. I could wait them out. I could run (right?) But what if my wife wasn’t waiting outside? What if she went to the snack bar? If I made it out alive, I wouldn’t even tell her that I was scared, because then she would imagine me getting boot stomped to my face every time we stopped for food and I couldn’t let that happen.

As the whoosh subsides, I decide to stay, and just as my thoughts crystallize and the water settles, the dude on my left, in a soothing , breathy falsetto, says, “Alright, I’m going to lift you up, ready?”

And a tiny voice squeaks, “Yeahyeahyeahyeahyeah.”

I exhale, and almost laugh. There it is. This is what being in the world of men means to me. It means the threat of violence, knife-sharp, ready to explode in a brushed shoulder at a strange bar. It means head nods from maintenance workers, a whole team of humans welcoming me wherever I go. It means women cross the street away from me at night. And it means that I know nothing, that a man stands guard over his son’s stall on my right and another praises his kid’s tinkles on my left, and it’s heartbreaking, almost, how little we really know about each other.

What does it mean to be a man? To me it means a lot, and nothing at all. It means I’m 30 years old and I love my body. It means that men look at me and see an ally, or a threat. It means that in male spaces I am often apprehensive, that I keep my head down, but lately, when I look up my co-worker has stopped by to get advice on tailoring, or the guy in the stall next to me sings “Good job” unselfconsciously to his child.  It means nothing is what it seems, that none of us can look at another and know what’s in his pants or his heart, and that surprise is inevitable, but how you react to it is who you are.


Rumpus original artwork by Jason Novak.

Thomas Page McBee’s Lambda award-winning memoir, Man Alive, was named a best book of 2014 by NPR Books, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly. His new book, Amateur, a reported memoir about learning how to box in order to understand masculinity’s tie to violence, was published in August to wide acclaim. Thomas was the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden, a “masculinity expert” for VICE, and the author of the columns “Self-Made Man” for The Rumpus and “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. His current column, "Amateur," is for Condé Nast's Them. A former senior editor at Quartz, his essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, and Glamour. More from this author →