SELF-MADE MAN #14: Untroubling the Body


When I push through the restroom door, especially if I’m someplace tawdry and dangerous like South Station after dark, or the lockless stall of a dive bar, I still taste something acrid and fearful in the back of my throat, a remnant of days when my neck was thinner, my voice higher.

I still brace for a crowbar-swinging lunatic, still await a wild rage, still feel my stomach loosen when the door shoves open and it’s just me and some giant, alone in a darkened, dank space.

What I find, though, is that I’m invisible—a passable male, a hormonal reconstruction, a head nod-and-move-on. I am a square jaw, sideburns, a mass of leg hair. Testosterone in its amber vial, the science that produces it, the manufacturers that bottle it, and the pharmacy that dispenses it assure my safe passage.

Like Victor Frankenstein’s stitched vision, I am a man born of medicine. I’m not saying that I’m a monster, just that he’s not, either. I see that the parallel is uneasy, that the implication is uncomfortable. But I’ve read that book over and over because I think it tells us something brilliant about the slippery nature of monstrosity: that the body is not ever evil; it’s the mind that bends.

I relate to the “creature,” the gentle man who was brought into the world a collection of parts. The scorn that turned him lonely and, finally, violent was at the hands of those with untroubled bodies: smooth-skinned villagers who feared his difference. But my sympathy rests with the haters, too: only because everyone knows that letting fear vine through your heart makes hate inevitable: that you will direct all your noxious energy somewhere eventually, and that — if you pay attention — everything that makes you sick will look like a twisted version of yourself. There is a mirrored quality to our most evil acts.

I am queerly bodied, and I’d rather be an open-heart than a pitchfork-toting villager any day. Because, unlike some trans folks, I don’t think my body is tantamount to a birth defect. I believe I was born in the “right” body, and still had to change it.  I may be safely drifting among the urinal cakes, paradoxically visible and invisible at once, but I know I’m not a ghost.

I don’t want to pass the smooth-skinned like a perfect reflection. I don’t want to keep my arms at my sides to hide my surgery scars, to worry about the press of my swim trunks, to sit in an ER bed and wonder if the doctor notices the shape beneath the paper gown and what she will say when she does.

I’m already here. I don’t want to pass at all.


I ask non-trans people about how they imagine transitioning, and on a good day the answers mostly make me laugh. On a bad day, the gulf between us echoes; a game of telephone.

No, it’s not like wearing a mask of your face on your face. Also, it’s not addition and subtraction, not a math of beating heart – breasts + beard.

I want you to understand the sort of dissonance that pressures the body into a kiln of synthetics, the needles and scalpels, the drains filled with blood. I know our bodies are driven by the same yearning engine, that you, too, just want to be naked with yourself. I know that you are fractured, and that the mystery of how you got here and the ways in which you get stitched solves the puzzle of who you are. We’re all chasing monsters, that’s the moral. Whether we’re holding torches or hunting our father across a tundra, it seems humanity’s lost when we see our bodies as splintered, discrete.

That’s why I need you to know me. It’s selfish, but I don’t want to forget the way I fit together.

So, I try to translate. Here: my uncle, a spry 80-year-old with sparkling eyes, described it perfectly by accident. He’s a hiker, a dam-builder, a pocket-knife-carrying former Boy Scout. He’s the first on the rollercoaster, the leader of camping expeditions, wiry and calloused. He’s had heart trouble lately, and that sidelines him. “I wake up every morning, go to the mirror, and expect to see myself,” he told me recently, his voice softer than usual. “But I just get this old man, instead.”

I know you know this feeling: the crow’s feet, or the stretch marks on your belly, or the plate in your knee. Age is the equalizer, the hardest adjustment. I know the pinch of it, too, the double-take.

So start there, but back up. Let’s get broad, think about that niggling feeling you get when you see yourself as more than a sum of parts. Maybe it’s after a regrettable night with your ex, or the second you realize you’re pregnant, or upon the survival of a car accident. Maybe you’re bloody or gleaming, triumphant or lost, and you look in the mirror and think, This isn’t what I expected. You can see it: the distance between who you thought you were and where you stand, and even if it’s all glorious growth and poignancy, it’s disorienting.

Is this working? Can you magnify it out? Can you squint and imagine a moment of truth, squirming or cool, expansive or buckling? Can you multiply that magnification, imagine a mirror of parts coming together, a growing distance, a wail of worry: I’m doing it wrong I’m doing it wrong I’m doing it wrong.

For me the siren howled four years before the hormones and a year before the surgery. I’m in a bar in Los Angeles. I’m under a baseball hat and hoodie, I’m social anxiety. I’m so drunk I’ve eclipsed even philosophy; I’m just fucked up. I’m watching a cokehead sing ironic Journey. I’m thinking about when I stopped believing, and then I’m staring at my face over a dirty sink while a woman pees endlessly behind a shower curtain divide.

I see all the parts of me that look right: nose, eyebrows, eyes. But I look long enough to notice what I skip: my small mouth, the feminine delicateness of my jaw, the high swell of my cheeks, the billboard bulge of my chest. They all come together and I really see myself, you know?

Just as some tomcat howls “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” I telegraph myself a SOS: This isn’t what I expected.

Then I went home, slept it off, and went back to living in parts.


Even a year later, after top surgery, which brought my chest out of a fuzzy blur into something cleaner — I still relied on a Picasso flattening of my image: haireyesnosechestarms. I wanted skin that stretched over all of me, I wanted a recognizable face. Instead, I’d settled for keeping the floating pieces sort of in the vicinity of each other.

Everyone wants the trans narrative to be triumphant. But one thing you don’t know about me is how hard I tried to not be trans. I thought that to inhabit my birth body was authentic. I thought I shouldn’t have to inject anything in order to be myself.

But here we are. The story always arcs the same way: I had no choice. The parts drifted more and more until I looked in the mirror and it was all eyes and teeth, until I was a body on the brink of disappearance. That’s a poetic way of suggesting suicide, but that’s not what I mean. I mean I was fading, an amplified version of my uncle, shaving a wrinkled cheek.

I looked at my wedding pictures and thought: This isn’t what I expected.

I thought: I’m doing it wrong.

I thought: That’s not what I look like.


And so I am a man of medicine.

When I carefully label my needles and the accompanying vials and display them prominently in my luggage, when I walk through the body scan at the airport, I wait for the alarm to sound, for time to stop, for the parts to detach and crumble.

I’m constructed, how can I forget it? On days my hand shakes and I worry I won’t be able to stick myself, I take a deep breath and push because without that oil, I will divide, an astronaut orbiting my befuddled body, looking for a home.

The arc is supposed to end here, I’m supposed to distill it down to  “1 year, 2 months on T and I’ve never been happier!”

I’ve been happier.

But my body, my body, my body. I am the person I expect myself to be. You know what I mean, right? It’s something about growing up, you find yourself sober under harsh lights, down the hall from the person who sees through all your bullshit, thinking about what it is exactly that shines through the stubble and tattoos and scars, and aren’t you just trying to align that tremendous light that blasts through your stitches with the person in the mirror? Aren’t you trying to be a better Victor to your stumbling creature, a better parent to your flesh?

Yes? Then you’ll believe me that sometimes I do really say, I’ve never been happier.  Me, the self-made man. I am the technology and the beating heart. I am the result of latex gloves and operating rooms, but I see the parts welded together, and I know that the difference between me and Frankenstein’s monster is that I’m not a misguided ego or a cautionary tale, not a parable or an invention.

Those are the sorts of stories the villagers tell.

My body is not troubled. I construct myself.


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 →