SELF-MADE MAN #18: In Real Life


I used to believe that collapsing the Venn diagram-space between the public and private self was the best way to ensure authenticity. Like how we know we’re not our food porn, party pics, and pouty lips, that we are in fact the clammy hands smearing the camera phone but sometimes we need a reminder.

I’ve changed my mind.

I’ve come to think that the interplay between our constructions and realities are, in fact, the metaphor for what makes identity meaningful. You got me at this angle, and that doesn’t make my image a lie any more than passing does.

Online, people say IRL—In Real Life—the distancing code of it hiding the underbelly of need. In Real Life is where awkward pauses live. I’m in real life with onion breath and too many drinks. I’m a million failures per revelation; I’m not just constructing myself but absorbing each reflection of who I am –  divided by all of your eyes, spinning like a disco ball.

In real life I’m a man, a trans man, an invisible man, walking among you. Is it any surprise that it was a passing queer poet Walt Whitman, who wrote, “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”


In real life, today I smell of talcum. I’m with my barber in Jamaica Plain shooting the usual shit. He’s a big-bellied Italian guy, a little leather, a little bear, a little old-school New England. Picture the accent, the gruffness.

“What do you do?” he asks, and I say I write.

“About what?”

“Gender,” I tell him, struck by the simplicity of the word, how it can hold me, the man getting his hair clipped and the me here with you.

“You know what would be a good story? Trans guys have been coming in by the dozens, wanting men’s cuts.”

My mind pinwheels. Which me is he speaking to? The writer, the trans man, the guy in glasses with a fine spray of glimmering grey hairs and a day job at a magazine? You can Google a pristine version of my depths, or you can take me at my face value and in both cases you’d be wrong to think you know me.

Here’s what I think passing is: that moment when one reflection eclipses the rest. The party pic that doesn’t reveal the panic attack, the scruff that doesn’t tell the story of the needles and the hormones I’ve metabolized to produce it.

He’s still talking. “I work hard to make them feel good about themselves,” he says.

Them: I hear who I am to him in the pronoun. I look at my face and see the many truths of it.

“It breaks my heart,” he says, shaking his head. “These guys, being trapped in the wrong body?”

It’s a question and it hangs there. I’m a man, a trans man, a considered man, a man who doesn’t know, in real life, what to say.


Something important: at the University of Chicago last month I gave a talk about taking control of trans narratives and the importance of diverse masculinities in general.

It was called, “Born in the Right Body.”

Here’s what I told the students and not my barber: My body’s never been wrong. I’m suspect of such a simplistic translation.

After, here were my two favorite questions:

Do you ever worry that being trans will define you?  

How can I, as someone who’s not trans, tell a counter-narrative about gender?


The barber asked if he could find my writing online and I said yes.

Hello, if you’re reading this.


This is not a joke: a trans friend goes to the same bar after work most nights. He’s a blue-collar guy among other solo blue-collar guys and they talk about work and relationships, and if they’re sloppy enough, maybe about their disappointments or (similarly) their fathers.

He says later he wishes he felt right telling those guys he’s trans. He says he feels like he’s betraying them. This bugs me – sits heavy in my gut. The word betrayal, of course, but the scene in my mind: this guy eating peanuts with some man who wants to know him, and my friend doesn’t see his reflection in the other guy’s affirmations. I know because this is how it happens: a guy calls you “bro,” he says, “Being a man, I…” Guys really do say these things. My friend, though, he doesn’t see a refracted version of reality, a facet of himself looking back at him.

He sees a betrayal. I want to tell my barber that that’s what breaks my heart. Not a guy just starting hormones whose sideburns aren’t square, but the sense that that we need to warn the world of who we are; that because we have always been defined by the force of our difference we must now announce it ourselves.


There’s another way to tell this story.

I had the best conversation with a guy I interviewed for an article about masculinity a few weeks back. He was friendly and smart, and he called me “brother,” not knowing I was trans. He said something about grappling with negative role models growing up and how tough it was to break out of masculine expectations.

“You’re a man,” he concluded, “you know.”

And the thing was, I do. No fucking question.

The shame of passing is a shame of deferring: you either are or are not the monolithic identity projected on you.

I think that we need to quit feeling obligated to trumpet our multitudes at the start of every interaction. We’re all angles anyway, and there’s one I might be missing in someone else’s interpretation.


In real life, I cannot possibly keep up with the construction I’ve made here for you. I may pass as compassionate or contained. I may be this story but it’s important to note that I’m another one, too.

So, the answers are related:

Do you ever worry that being trans will define you?  

No. I define myself. All I can hope is that you’ll stick around.

How can I, as someone who’s not trans, tell a counter-narrative about gender? By understanding that you too, have a gender and a story to tell. Tell it, because if you’re not a singular self, then none of us are.


There are as many ways to tell this story as there are many ways to know me. In real life, my sideburns have grown square. In real life, I’m the only man I’ll ever be.

And if you are my barber: I’m no more trapped in my body than you, brother.


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 →