I first met Thomas Page McBee in graduate school. It was kind of love at first sight: I was instantly drawn to his work but also his person. He was always so tender with people during workshop, and upbeat about the work of others. I believe that the reasons behind his success are manifold; he worked hard at writing, at being open to the world, and at being a great man. McBee writes a column for the Rumpus, Self-Made Man, in which he charts his journey of transitioning and explores themes of gender, identity, and masculinity.
McBee’s new book, Man Alive, is a memoir that I’ve read in many iterations and had the pleasure of helping to edit. It’s the gentlest book you’ll ever read about violence and trauma. It’s a book about what it means to take on the project of constructing one’s own identity. While so many books about identity are rendered specific and individual, McBee manages to paint a universal portrait of all of us trying to find ourselves in the world. I almost don’t know how he does it.
The Rumpus: Let’s start by talking about your work at the Rumpus and how the idea for the Self-Made Man column came about and what the column has meant to you.
Thomas Page McBee: I owe a lot to the Rumpus—specifically, the Self-Made Man column and the writing community I met there. Self-Made Man came about because I moved from San Francisco to New England a few years ago and started my transition the next week in terms of hormones. So pretty immediately I was in a space where I felt very alien because I had left a whole life and community in San Francisco and moved across the country. I had a major transition physically and socially and it was just a lot to deal with at once. One thing that was really hard when I started my transition was that normally in that kind of situation I would look online or in books and find myself reflected back to me but I was having trouble finding that. I wasn’t seeing a lot of stories about people who transitioned after 30, but I was also interested in having a different kind of conversation about not just transitioning but about gender in general. I’m a really spiritual person and a universalist so what I was experiencing was a lot of points of connection. I was really connecting to pregnant women who were also going through massive changes physically and who weren’t sure what their identities would be on the other side. I was also talking to people making massive career and life changes. I was talking with people who were coming up against ideas about what it means to be a man or woman in the world and navigate the world socially during huge life moments and I was finding a lot of solace in those connections in real life, but I wasn’t seeing that reflected in larger narratives about my experience. In general, I was seeing a lot of cleaving, othering narratives about being trans. I started Self-Made Man because I wanted to write about what it was like to go through a real-time transition, and navigating the world from a place of finding connection with all kinds of people and exploring that in a meditative way. Everyone at the Rumpus was really great about all of it and got behind me the whole time. The whole community connected to the Rumpus is wonderful and it’s such a labor of love. Everyone writes for free which I think is why everyone is so committed to everything that goes on the site and the relationship with the site and each other. The concept of the column was that these connections exist and transcend our bodies and that’s what my experience of the community at the Rumpus has been.
Rumpus: When you moved you said there was a state of feeling alien-like. What was that state of feeling like for you?
McBee: I think anyone who has moved into a different culture as an adult can relate to the idea of culture shock. Moving from the Bay Area to New England was a culture shock to start. On top of that, I was also being perceived very differently in my body. It took some time to fully embody what being a man was. I was used to being queerly embodied which had its own drawbacks because it didn’t really work for me. On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of associations people had with the way I was presenting myself before. Suddenly I found myself in this very heteronormative, New-Englandy environment, where men acted one way and women acted another way, and I suddenly felt like I was in a different world. On top of that, in terms of looking outside my immediate world to writing that I could look at for help and guidance, so much of it was defined by these very translated narratives that presumed the person reading the story of the trans person was just never going to get it. I was seeing simplistic, reductionist narratives about being born in the wrong body, taking hormones and suddenly being in the right body, as if “great, that’s it.” Some people feel like that and great for them, but my sense was the reason why that story was being perpetuated so much via these profiles of trans people in culture was first for shock value and second a presumption that it’s important to understand why trans people are born the way they are which presumes there’s something wrong that needs to be “figured out.” It also starts with the assumption that instead of starting from a place of “How can I relate to this experience?” it starts from “this experience is so other worldly that we need to get in there and try to make it clear for people.” That wasn’t how I was experiencing my own body and gender, and I was really looking for a different story, not only about being trans but also about being a man. This was during the mancession after the economic collapse, when people were rethinking masculinity. A conversation was happening, but I didn’t see myself or the kind of man I wanted to be reflected in that conversation. I felt alienated in a lot of different ways. In my experience, when you don’t see yourself anywhere, the cool thing about being a writer is you can write yourself into existence.
Rumpus: Talk about what you perceive this new masculinity movement to be about. Obviously there are lifestyle-y permutations and other deeper conversations. Where do you see masculinity headed?
McBee: What’s exciting is that in the last four years everything changed. I think a lot of that has to do with the incredible rise of new media. Suddenly there were all these new voices. Instead of going to the New York Times to get a classic take on an issue—now more and more people look to someone who has had direct experience to talk about the issue at hand. There’s been a rise of so many different kinds of voices, and people, especially younger people, don’t generally trust one monolithic voice about anything, but certainly about gender. In the time that I’ve been thinking about this stuff, everyone has been questioning not just masculinity, but gender in general. What feminism means and how it relates to marriage, work, children, housework, and those sorts of questions. I can say that younger men, when I talk at colleges, are really engaged with questions about what being a man means and how much they want to engage with stereotypes and ideals. There’s a statistic that people point to all the time, that younger men do more housework and are more likely to stay at home than any generation preceding them. This points to a shift in understanding what these gender roles mean. I think a lot of that has to do with the internet. The more you’re exposed to different narratives, and the more you see there’s not one way to be anything, the more you question and interrogate your own way of being in the world. I know that’s an optimistic and hopeful way of seeing things, but I really believe in it, and that was the bet I took when I started writing Self-Made Man and for other outlets, and more and more that’s a bet that’s paid off.
Rumpus: In terms of your own engagement with reading, you were saying that there weren’t a lot of texts that got at what you were interested in in terms of complicated issues around identity and gender. But were there any texts that you felt influenced or helped guide you during that time?
McBee: I’ve always been drawn to writers who are fearlessly exploring difficult things and putting that out in the world. Stephen Elliott’s book The Adderall Diaries, David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, Nick Flynn, Cheryl Strayed, and also a lot of the work I was reading on the Rumpus had a similar flavor to it—people willing to be vulnerable and brave and ask big questions about being a person. That’s the writing where I’ve always found comfort, and I was translating that to my experience, but that’s what’s beautiful about great writing is that you have the opportunity to do that. I was really just looking for people doing the hard work of excavating themselves—those are the people I most connect with.
Rumpus: In terms of your own book, Man Alive, it’s a book you’ve been working on a long time. What has it been like to work on a manuscript for so long and what were some of the things you encountered during the process of publishing it?
McBee: Working on it so long was great, because I was trying to write a book about a lot of these subjects, and because there’s not a big barrier between my life and my writing, I was having trouble finding coherence in my own story. The book starts with this trauma that happened where I was mugged at gunpoint. That actually was a very strange way that coherence came into my life in general. I was trying to write a book about a lot of things, but that incident allowed a flashpoint for everything else to come from. The book unfolded in real time, after that moment, which was an interesting experience. I worked on it for two years before that experience, and then the next two years with more clarity where there was a story to tell. Life happened and the book grew out of that. In terms of selling it, it was a challenge to find a home for it. In some ways big publishers were struggling around how much risk to take and maybe they still are. At the time I went out to sell it, about a year ago, there was still some anxiety about a book that isn’t really about transitioning. Also, because I’m a trans man, people weren’t sure who the audience was, but the irony is that it’s a universal story. I was really lucky that Michelle Tea and City Lights had taken an interest in it early on, and they acquired it, really understood it right away and did such an amazing and beautiful job editing it, promoting it. They really got it and weren’t interested in making it simplistic or reductionist; they really saw the vision of the book and approached it from that place. I’m really lucky about where it landed.
Rumpus: Do you feel like there’s pressure on you to tell a narrative about yourself that’s reductive? That people want a certain story from you?
McBee: I think what’s interesting is that immediately a few years ago when I started to write publicly—I got a sense that people had an anxiety about clarity. When you’re writing about trans people and using pronouns, it can sometimes confuse people, which is where the anxiety initially came from. I’m pretty amenable and also interested in clarity, so I’ve had great experiences with editors where we find a compromise where things are clear but my story and identity aren’t compromised in any way. People are generally respectful of that. I’ve definitely been approached to write things that I’ve chosen not to write because they are too sensational or that don’t echo how I see myself. I’m a writer and I happen to be trans and like writing about masculinity but I’m not so interested in situating myself in this way where being trans is my shtick. So I avoid that kind of content. But people who like my work know I’m not going to do that writing anyway. I also work in media, and I can see from the other side, that when you’re a writer or editor, you have this problem that life is complicated but you need to tell one story with an angle that is clear, with a take away, and need to angle that toward the readership you have. As an editor I understand that dilemma, and am conscious of that in my own writing and when working with editors on my own writing. As long as I’m not compromising my integrity in any way, I’m happy to work with people to solve that problem.
Rumpus: How has transitioning made you aware of the difference between how people relate to men versus women? Can you also talk about what you’ve learned about how people relate to men and how men relate to each other?
McBee: I think people never related to me as a woman but as female, in the sense that I wasn’t seen as a man, but more as neutral. I think when you’re not male-bodied you’re treated differently than when you pass. I think the more people realize there’s room in masculinity to be gentle and that you can be publicly a man who is compassionate and gentle towards other men and that there’s intimacy and healing in those relationships, the more possibilities opens up. Pointing to that is really important too because it makes visible a different kind of masculinity and gives men more latitude to be full human beings in the world. I definitely found a lot of tenderness in masculinity that I wasn’t expecting to find and that’s a really beautiful thing. I’ve also found the things you might expect. Women generally have to operate in a sexist world where men behave in ways that are really problematic. I’ve experienced being a man in the world where women walk faster and quickly away from me when we are on the street, or where it’s a little harder to make conversation in the coffee shop because someone thinks I’m hitting on them. We live in a culture where men are a constant threat for women, and I’m experiencing very viscerally what that looks like, and it’s very painful for women and that reality is very sad. I hadn’t experienced that before because I wasn’t a feminine woman, and I didn’t live in the world that way—I knew that existed, but now I see those facts in a different way. It’s sad, troubling, and really important to report back on. The other side is that I see a lot of beautiful things about the way men behave towards each other that are rarely discussed.
Rumpus: A lot of men that I know don’t feel like they have community and a safe space to talk about their feelings. What are some trends that you see in male culture that are making more room for different ways of being a man?
McBee: Look at traditional gender roles and how they are changing. We are in a moment where being a father is becoming an identity in the same way that being a mother is. It’s a really different approach to what it means to be a father. Can you be an intentional father that takes on that role as seriously as you take on your full-time job or career? Look at roles in marriage and how they are starting to change. In the heteronormative world those roles are evolving and changing, and there’s a really different kind of conversation happening about traditional gender roles. You didn’t see that before, or even the questioning of that. The rise of feminism in a mainstream way, has certainly drawn a lot of conversations out that weren’t happening before, especially around college campuses. I’ve talked to a lot of young men who understand the term “rape culture,” are concerned about it and don’t want to participate in it. To simplify my answer: ultimately, men are realizing they have a gender. That’s happening because of feminism, shifting gender roles, what degree you want to subscribe them, visibility of trans people; and all of that is creating a situation where people are looking at these things differently. Normally people who have privilege or power don’t realize that privilege exists. If you’re a man you might now realize that you have a gender, but also that it’s shaping your behavior and how people see you—the question for men is: Do I really want to do all of these things? Hopefully that question leads men to live their lives in a more integrous, authentic way, and address some of these larger, deep political issues.
Rumpus: Your writing is very personal. Have you had a lot of contact and engagement with readers for whom your writing has made a difference in their lives?
McBee: Oh man, I get the best emails from and interactions with people who read my work. I’m so lucky about that. I pretty regularly receive some sort of contact from people and it’s usually a diverse array, which I appreciate, because it fits my thesis that if I write openly about myself and ask questions from a personal space it will connect in a universal way. I hear a lot from women, a lot from mothers of sons. I hear a lot from men who are and are not trans, younger people and teenagers. Usually people use my work to tell me their life story and own experience. I feel like I give them permission to lay it all out. I always write back because it’s important to validate that instinct. Being able to see and hear each other is the whole point of being a person. It’s very touching. I get very beautiful correspondence from people who like my work.
Rumpus: When the mugging happened to you—which you wrote about for Modern Love in the New York Times—how did you process that trauma and did it initiate changes in you right away? Trauma can often be an altered, strange, fertile place where unusual insights can happen. What was your traumatic experience like in terms of how things changed for you?
McBee: The reason why the book came together after that, my experience of it was that this terrible thing happened, but my body knew exactly what to do. I was held up at gunpoint by this man who turned out to be very dangerous. I really thought I was going to die, but I was able to escape. So, the ability to get away and the trust that instilled in me and my body and my own instincts was invaluable. The whole book and that time in my life was about: why do I feel so weirdly good after having this terrible experience? I think it’s because it delivered me back to myself in a physical way, and also to my own intuition and instincts and gave me an opportunity to reclaim my own story. That came from a very embodied and physical place and also that’s a lot of why my gender became clarified. I spent a lot of time trying to live up to other people’s expectations and understanding of my identity and I think that because it was inescapable for me to be embodied in that way during that experience, and because I realized being embodied in that way was healing—it all gave me an opportunity to re-embody myself in every way. It’s really a book about re-embodying.
Rumpus: The book also deals a lot with the notion and practice of forgiveness. That appears in a lot of your work—can you talk about what that means for you? Maybe some of the unexpected outcomes or challenges of forgiveness.
McBee: I think that forgiveness is the natural byproduct of integrity. If you’re trying to live an integrous life. For so many reasons I’ve had no other option. I grew up in a situation where evil things were happening to me, and so it’s not like I got to look away from that. I learned early on that I was going to have to engage with reality. In order for my life to make sense and for things to fit together, part of that was the willingness to integrate all experiences. It’s really hard to integrate experience when you’re holding one thing far away as this separate thing that never has to be looked at or examined. For me, forgiveness is not this ideal I hold myself to. It feels like an organic response that happens naturally when I’m pulling my life together. If I’m not forgiving then I’m operating from a place of holding on to something, instead of integrating it in. It’s a way for me to continue to look and move forward despite what’s happened. I’m not a person who is good at compartmentalizing and I don’t want to be. For me, moving forward in an integrated way requires forgiveness.
Rumpus: Then do you think it’s a misconception people have that forgiveness means condoning behavior? I think a lot of people are reticent to forgive because they don’t want to appear as approving of something that shouldn’t be condoned.
McBee: Yeah, that’s a misconception. Forgiveness is a spontaneous spiritual act. It happens not because you’re accepting people’s behavior, but it comes from self-compassion and self-empathy which creates a softness that allows you to move on and let go of something that’s a splinter in your life. In my experience, when it happens it’s usually because I’ve found a way to relate to that person who has trespassed against me. I also mean that in small ways. When you’re in a fight with someone you love, the fight doesn’t turn on you suddenly saying you’re condoning their behavior, it’s usually that you’ve decided to not be in the fight anymore and that loving the person is more important than to continue to dissect the appropriateness of their behavior. When you’re talking about bigger problems it’s the same thing. There’s never a circumstance where child abuse is okay—but I also feel that walking around feeling angry about my own situation for the rest of my life would be very toxic for me. It’s a paradox, but you have to hold both things. You can let something go, and not let it be harmful to you and give the other person an opportunity to repair their own life, but you also can say their behavior is not okay and never will be.
Rumpus: It’s like creating a new space for yourself.
McBee: The truth is if you really want someone to change their behavior or to reform themselves, it never happens from a place of shame. Shame is the most toxic emotion we have and we use it on each other all the time, and very little good comes from it. I don’t mean guilt. I mean shame. If you do the work in yourself and you get to the point where you genuinely really let it go, and hope for something better for someone, maybe saying that can sometimes allow the other person to do that, too. I don’t mean that in a naive way. Change can only happen in another person from their own place of self-love, and being treated with kindness. Shame never leads to anything good.
Rumpus: You write a lot on social media about how moved you are by living in New York and working there, partly due to the sheer number of people that remain anonymous to you. They are these strangers, and yet they are everywhere. Can you talk about how the experience of living in that city has emboldened the way you see the world? That sheer number of people can bum me out, but you seem to have all this warmth for them.
McBee: I really love people, so being in a situation where I can walk to work is great. Yesterday I was walking to work and somebody was sobbing in a grief-stricken way in a public park, and then I saw the clichéd image of two people holding hands, and then a young guy on his way to an important meeting, and homeless people, and someone singing to themselves. Within five blocks in twenty minutes the entirety of human experience is available to you. I think that’s magical. I think that the human experience is pretty magical in the first place, and I like being reminded of that constantly. I can see how it could be overwhelming; I think if you’re sad and having a hard day it’s pretty easy to look around and only see the sobbing lady and feel like the world is terrible, but I make a conscious choice to not just see her but see everyone else around her. I like living in a place where I can remind myself that I’m part of the human condition and that for all of us we’re all kind of in it in the same way every day. Any moment can be your sobbing moment, and any moment can be your blissful, falling-in-love-in-New York-holding-hands moment. You can be at the top of the Empire State building or you can be down in the stinkiest subway with someone throwing up. That’s life. I think being in a place where I’m reminded every day that I’m not special is actually for me a really beautiful thing.