SELF-MADE MAN #2: Old Stories


Look, it’s an old story, masculinity; usually discussed in terms of brutality and honor, power and powerlessness, and occasionally a highlighting of the tender underbelly that rises up no matter how much you try to push it down, like a grandfather spotted weeping into his hand in the kitchen. Everyone has a story about men, and the stories converge in a dervish of anxieties and constructs and wounding, a tornado of images that usually obstruct the reality of the fleshy male bodies at the center of the storm.

My own story begins twice: once long ago in the slimy hands of my father and again in April of 2010, when my wife, Michael, (yes, her given name) and I were held up at gunpoint on a rainy April night in Oakland a few months before our wedding by another very, very bad man. I had considered my gender for years before that, of course. I’d had top surgery so my chest appeared male. I had thought about hormones but reached the conclusion, again and again, that my masculinity was something shameful, a weakness. I thought being a man meant I’d given up on the body I was born with, and I figured it meant I’d internalized something brutal about myself from my dad. That night in April something thawed in me, and I woke up to the reality that the brutality was my own, the violent way I held myself in suspicion. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We had no cash. The man with the gun ignored Michael, who told him so repeatedly, keeping the black barrel trained on me. And as I kneeled, execution-style, on the dirty sidewalk, I knew on some molecular level that I was about to die. I disappeared somewhere, preparing I guess. I was great at dissociating; I’d lived a life of practice. But something in the pleading tone of Michael’s voice woke a lost part of me, something alive that wanted to stay that way, and when I said we had nothing on us, my voice was high and reedy. It was a voice I hated: a woman’s voice; but at the sound of it the mugger gave me a long look, lowered the gun, and hissed, “Run.”

We ran and I can’t find another way to say it: I sweat it off. The years in my parents’ bedroom, decades of ideas about men and women, about violence and weakness, about who gets to live and who gets crushed; gone.

The mugger now stands accused of robbing two couples and shooting the men in both cases. The women were left unharmed. But I didn’t need the newspaper to know the story. It was all there in the look he gave me, the way he gave up as soon as I spoke. Being a woman saved me. In the mugger’s choice to let me live, my narrative was disrupted. Being female did not feel like a place of victimhood any longer, a place of wounding that I had to heal into. Less than a year later, I began my hormonal transition.

Say you’re born a girl, then stolen away from your siblings and pressed thickly by your father’s knobby thumb; that 15 years and a lifetime later you’re on the pavement waiting for a bullet, and finally, somehow, it’s today and you wake up a man in New England, stitching the stories together. How did a night in Oakland in the spring of 2010 bounce back to a childhood outside of Pittsburgh and then shuttle me here, with a new name and stubble under my chin?

Sometimes it’s hard still, making sense of what happened in the space between the handgun and the needle. But it’s my masculinity, my story and the themes remain familiar. It’s about brutality and honor, power and powerlessness, and, always, the vulnerable heart that’s left when you melt the blubber of defenses away.

I grew up with an illusion of myself—a man I projected onto blurry windows and created with mascara beards for candid pictures no one else would ever see. He looked back at me in dressing rooms, car mirrors, hotel rooms before disappearing, fading into the body I tried so hard to love. For a long time he only appeared in flashes, a mirage. He did not age, just made me more square jawed and smiley.

The question I asked before I could put the first vial of testosterone in my thigh, the one that led me to reunite with estranged relatives in South Carolina looking for clues to the man who raised me, to later visit his home in Oregon in desperate hope that he’d explain me to myself, all of that wishing held the fundamental hope: if I was to be that scruffy, happy man that lived in the genes waiting to be turned on inside me, could I be myself and not my father?

Like all sons of bad men, the question troubled me. Sometimes, almost two years later, it troubles me still.

But I cannot deny that I am surrounded by good men. I see the softness underneath the guys at work, the man whose wife left him or the new dad who worries endlessly about toddler-proofing his house, the mercury in the paint, the son that needs to outlive him.

I think of my handsome friend, the one who has spent years in and out of the hospital, his body rejecting itself. He is gaunt, but a fighter. His wedding is six months off and he is not yet well, but he tells me he will be, because he has to be. He won’t be beat, he says, and plus his fiancée is all the more beautiful for her kindness He says he loves he more each day, and I believe him on all counts.

It’s funny, how trauma teaches us to love.

Sometimes now when the snow hushes the streets outside my new house on the East Coast, I look out the window and feel a blank peace. In those moments, with Michael safely asleep in our bed, I’ll look in the bathroom mirror and take myself in without the old flinch. Then I’ll think, gladly, that things might not happen for a reason. You lived, you leaped. To paraphrase Tim O’Brien, that’s your moral.

And yet: the last time I saw the projection I’d created of myself, the twin that lived in smudged windows, was after I found my father. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I’d never felt brave enough to talk to him face-to-face, but I knew I had to before I transitioned, my old body doing what my new body could remember, so I knew that the transition wasn’t about fear or loss or childhood, but instead about coming into what I’d always been.

I met up with my dad in a tea shop in Oregon, and he told me about his own childhood—a scary story not too unlike my own. He told me he tried to be a better person every day; and I told him he could be more than what he’d done.

In my reaction to him, I saw the kind of man I could be. And that night, as I slept in my father’s cold mountain town, I saw the shirtless, muscular twin of myself fully realized. I saw myself, for the first time, growing older.

Now I don’t need my imagination to know what I look like, and I never feel far from that person I was the night when I ran away from the dark sidewalk underneath the busted streetlamp, the forward momentum twinning my past and present, the possibilities endless, the story only just beginning after all.


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 →