SELF-MADE MAN #10: Pride


Last June, after he showed me how to pull back on the syringe and shoot the air bubbles skyward, my nurse injected an oily universe of possibility into me. My transition is a Gemini, I thought in the jittery moments after my first testosterone injection, the needle’s pinprick still ghosting my thigh.

The nurse, a sweet, bubbly gay guy, flipped the plastic safety device over the needle. “Congratulations, Thomas!” he’d said, shaking my hand with ceremony, and then led me out into the waiting room, where a dozen sets of eyes looked to me expectantly.

“You’re just in time for Pride,” he announced cheerfully over his shoulder, before disappearing behind the door.

Pride. Supposedly, it was a stone butch who’d been hit over the head with a billy club outside the Stonewall Inn who ignited the crowd, shouting to bystanders: “Why don’t you do something?” After years of raids and rapes, beatings and humiliations, pride was what grew out of that answer.

Pride was the farthest thing from my mind that day. I was thinking about how Gemini means twin, and nothing felt truer as I walked through the clinic’s sliding doors: not the thick air, a wallop of heat and sweat; not the dog days that followed and the squirm of my androgynous body on the beach, a still-skinny bulls eye for staring families. I was my own twin, negotiating strange territory with my slowly thickening chicken legs, a little stubble, a pervasive fear of violence.

Have you ever seen a hermit crab switch shells? There’s always that moment of vulnerability, when the fleshy crab emerges from one home and grasps towards another with touching, clumsy faith.  That was me: tripping over my jump rope until, finally, I ignored the calf cramps and we matched speed, married in one long, graceful rhythm. I could feel the stomp in my heart and I jumped until I could trace the skin and bones and guts of my shape, until I could map out the negative space between who I was and who I’d become.

With fall came layers and long hours of working out in the dwindling daylight, pull-ups and split squats and ropy muscle for the hell of it, because I was lonely and I needed to prove something to myself about strength.

For a while the dissonance of my two lives warbled off-tune, but then they grew more and more into a blending call-and-response, a boxer’s increasing speed, a thumping, cardio rhythm. Who am I? I’m Thomas. WhoamI I’mThomas. WhoAm I Thomas? Am I Thomas? I’mThomas.

It was snowing by the time instinct twisted my head in response to every “he.”  “Mr. McBee?” said telemarketers and hotel professionals, and it got easier, until “Thomas” was the blur of my life embodied, until I looked around at my wife’s backyard birthday party in May and realized I hadn’t spent one minute feeling like anybody but myself.

Last year at this time I would not meet your eyes. Last year I hid in the stall until the men’s room was empty, until the funk made me nauseous. But the twin of shame is pride, and at some point I realized that the bravest thing I’d ever done happened long before my first shot.  Courage is finding yourself unhappy and daring to ask the question put to the crowd at Stonewall: “Why don’t you do something?”

I see that my pride is located in the fact that I did; that a year ago I grit my teeth through pointed stares as I lay stubbornly shirtless on the beach, twinning. My body, exposed as it was, needed to be vulnerable to grow this shell, the one I crafted with all my selves, the me that holds a universe.

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 →