SELF-MADE MAN #16: Trapped in the Right Body


Almost a decade ago, way before I was a man, I looped around fancy culinary stores and children’s boutiques in a WASP-y mall in central Pennsylvania, looking for a restroom. It was a road trip pit stop, an attempt to avoid the stink and stickiness of an unheated gas station john, but I realized too late that I’d charged myself with a tougher landscape: the homosocial bathroom, site of our troubling relationship with vulnerability, all animal sounds and body patrols. So I stood in the bleak hallways, trying to decide if I should pull my hat down low and use the men’s or stick it in my back pocket and hassle with the women’s.

The isolated feel was unnerving, the whole place half-empty on a Saturday. So, creeped-out as I was by the long, fluorescent hallway, the surprising, murder-y backwoods vibe, I went with what felt safer.

When I opened the door a lady at the sink saw me, startled, then sneered. She packed up her make-up kit, made a production of checking the sign on the door, then let it close behind her, a trail of toilet paper flapping from her heels. I still had to pee, so I did, washing up and softening my expression for a beat, anticipating the mall cop, who arrived just as I toweled my hands.

A big guy, he thrust out a gut and assessed me in my jeans and T-shirt, my high-tops and tattoos. There was a long moment, just me and him in almost companionable silence.

“Sir?” he said, finally. “I think you’re in the wrong place.”

I knew I’d have to show ID, I knew I was in the middle of nowhere, that I was alone. But, fuck it.

“Maybe,” I said, a Big Bang located where our words collided. “But so are you.”

The expression on his face was worth it.


Eight years later, I made the mistake of conflating the howl of my body in the mirror with the perspective of the mall cop and the pinched-lip lady. So I watched that first needle heading for my thigh and thought, not a little sadly, that it symbolized a certain compromise. I figured being a man meant a blind faith in the gender taxonomy, a byproduct of hormones and ease of bathroom use, sure as facial hair and increased muscle tone. Because we’re primed to believe in binaries: before and after, say, or the real me versus the me I thought I was. Most of us would rather pass than be seen.

And so I did. Like a trade made in a fairy tale, I moved through the first few months a projection of my former self, trying to keep up my end of the bargain. I was more a ghostly highlight reel of social conditioning than anything else. I reluctantly nodded along to a run-down of last night’s game, I kept my voice low, gendered cocktails, and quit crossing my legs.

But testosterone can only bring your body into alignment, as the story goes. Everything else is up to you. I saw that I was trapped in the right body, and I couldn’t stick a needle in my thigh every week, couldn’t risk cancer and prejudice, just to wrap myself in stereotype and keep my head down.

It’s an elegant physics, not drawn in bathroom signs but in the radical shift of a world waiting beyond four-wall boxes, one where comfort is snake oil, where life happens whether or not we can define it.


Before I got my math straight, my body seemed to float restlessly on my bones. I strapped myself together with endless, spooky narration: you comb your hair with the black plastic comb, you run the rubber track, you kiss this girl,  knocking teeth.

If I tightened my abdomen back then, a weird trauma whirlpool would swirl into a wily predator no one else could see. You lie on a stinky mat. Your sweat slicks your upper lip. You see that cloudless sky. The air’s cool like it was made for you.

On testosterone, I looked for the narrator, but it was gone. There’s no tidy world for the man who embraces paradox. Binaries are luxuries I can only study clinically; they lost their soothing qualities when I prioritized my reality over yours. Now I can’t read the news and see right and wrong, I can’t gloat in my goodness, I can’t see politicians or parents or partners as more than their own mysteries, shifting in the light, just like me.

Are you a different person? That’s the question, the big fear, what pins us tight to what’s familiar. Of course, I say. The landscape inside me changed: there’s the new anger, hot and resistant, flapping to the surface like a bird let loose. There’s the soreness of sadness, a wet choke in my throat, a ragged refusal to manifest. There’s the sun-blare of my focus, the muscle of my energy pulling me wildly forward. Then there’s joy conjured, incredibly, by simple splash of a diving seabird, or the sweet pain of teeth knocking teeth without a mediating story.

What you mean to ask is if I’m more me.

I can’t tell you, but last week a firework sparked my chest, twinkled through my limbs, a neon realization: I love my body. It seemed impossible, but I actually thought those words, and there was my electric self, aligning, all the answer I need.


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak and Gertrude Novak, age 1½.

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 →