SELF-MADE MAN #9: Passing


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.


Rumpus original art 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 →