Thomas Page McBee’s new memoir, Amateur, is a powerful exploration of the costs of toxic masculinity and the joys of an authentic life. It is also a classic fight story. Superbly written and keenly observed, Amateur manages to juggle all of these elements with grace and wit. In Jennifer Finney Boylan’s words, this book is “urgent, generous, and fearless.”
McBee is also the author of the Lambda-award winning memoir Man Alive. He has been a “masculinity expert” for VICE and has written the columns “Self-Made Man” for The Rumpus and “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. A former senior editor at Quartz, his essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, and Glamour. He is also a writer on the forthcoming Netflix show, Tales of the City.
I sat with McBee in a quiet Brooklyn cafe to discuss amateurism, queer adolescence, and true liberation.
The Rumpus: Let’s start with the timing of Amateur, which feels like a rare gift.
Thomas Page McBee: The timing was really interesting. I published the article upon which this book is based, about my fight in Madison Square Garden, in February of 2016 on Quartz. The fight itself was in 2015. When I began the book in earnest it was after the US presidential election. I was aware that the issues of toxic masculinity illuminated by the election were bubbling up even before Trump became president, but I had to figure out a way place them in the context of the fight. That’s why my intro addresses these issues head-on. It felt like acrobatics, doing that.
Rumpus: It was such a great read. Your sentences were great.
McBee: Thanks. I credit my interest in sentences to my training as a poet. My problem is sometimes finding a container for the larger whole. Because of this, I usually try to come up with very clean narratives that are didactically— and hopefully deceptively—simple. Like: The Rocky-esque hero’s journey of training for a fight. If I’m unbound, it’s just a mess. I learned how to write villanelles when I was in high school and it was transformative. I realized I could use a familiar form and then put in whatever weird shit that I wanted to put into it. I could transgress that familiarity even as I emphasized it.
Rumpus: Speaking of randomly inserting weird shit, I was walking over to this restaurant and listening to a podcast called Hidden Brain.
McBee: Were you listening to the “Rebel” episode?
Rumpus: Yes! There were a lot of connections to your book. The premise is that being an amateur in a field is something people often resist, but that it’s required if we really want to tackle complex issues.
McBee: This is definitely the approach I took in my book.
Rumpus: What does it mean to study masculinity from an amateur perspective?
McBee: I’ve had to do a lot of code-switching since I transitioned, and so I got pretty intimate with the “rules” of masculinity as I tried to learn them. I also knew how uncomfortable I was with a lot of what was expected of me, and being an amateur, for me, was about seeing that information as useful and not repressing it. I also felt very aware of how trans media narratives had operated on me in the years prior to my transition and how I didn’t see much of myself in them. I didn’t feel “born in the wrong body,” and I didn’t even feel like I was “finally myself.” I was a person who’d experienced a life-upending transition, which I think a lot of people can relate to. Mine just happened to give me a very different perspective on gender socialization because it was happening to me in real time, and in my thirties. I could see things that are often invisible to people who are having to cast back to adolescence to unpack how they learned to “be” their gender.
Rumpus: Media were portraying trans experience in a way that didn’t make sense to you?
McBee: Now that more trans people are telling our own stories, we are breaking down that primary narrative that was happening around the late 2000s that basically said, “Trans people exist, isn’t that wild? They’re born in the wrong body, now they get to go and live in their right bodies!” It was an overly simplified explanation that insulted everyone’s intelligence. It’s a pretty bad translation based in an anxiety that cis people won’t understand our experience. It’s incredibly othering, and flattening.
Rumpus: I imagine it also doesn’t take into account the fact that people might be in different stages of transition.
McBee: Or that gender is not a binary. For many cultures, that’s always been true. I grew up in a queer culture where that was held as fact. And at the same time, my paradox was that I was experiencing gender dysphoria. My instinct was that I didn’t want to let go of either reality: I knew I was a man, but I also knew that being a man for me was both a matter of body and social role. Those are two different things. I was at home in my body, but not in the way the world saw it. I wanted to come by being a man honestly. Every time I left the house I felt myself being formed by the world around me. And I think part of masculinity is being taught to keep your head down and not say anything, especially if yours is a fragile kind of masculinity, like mine is. Men in general, but trans men in particular, are not supposed to mention it or think about it or talk about it. We’re just supposed to be glad to be in the club.
Historically, trans people have “passed” and disappeared into the night, but what brought me to writing the book was that I had the good luck of being surrounded by people of all genders who were going through their own life transitions. So I spent a lot of time connecting deeply with people who were not trans about things that were happening to me, and it gave me the sense that, if we give people the opportunity to share in our humanity they often are able to see it, but if we don’t, it’s invisible because of the way culture and the politics of gender work on us. I’m never really interested in writing explicitly about being trans, but I am very interested in what is true about my experience that anybody can relate to. I wanted to make that visible and make gender visible in a different way. If a reader is willing to open up and see that, then they won’t be reading the book saying, “Wow—this feels like a really trans experience.” They’ll see themselves in it, because I see them in my experience.
Rumpus: I had so many moments of revelation reading this. Though my experience was very different, being put through conversion therapy made me realize just how masculinity is formed. #Allmen have to deal with this, of course, but our experiences made it so that the construction of masculinity was laid bare.
McBee: When I first started writing the book, I was afraid that that wasn’t true. If I actually laid bare all of my fears and insecurities, I hoped it would help me realize that all men deal with these things. It’s very healing to actually face those questions and answer them. A lot of the things that were challenging for me about being a man are also challenging for other people who don’t have the perspective of thirty years of not being in a male body and skipping that whole socialization and boyhood, etc. It’s a lot easier to have an adult brain and be able to think critically when you are constructing your masculinity. I think if I was facing the same questions at the age of twelve that I was facing at the age of thirty, I wouldn’t have been particularly better at developing my masculinity than anybody else. I don’t know what you were doing at thirteen; it sounds like it wasn’t so great—but I was queer at thirteen—and I was being exposed to the world outside my small town through the Internet. I realized that there was another harsher reality for queer people outside of my community, but very early on I developed a queer lens. It helped me see the world differently. If I was born a boy, I’m not sure I would have had so much access to that experience. To be a masculine-looking person who is not male, because of sexism, is much more tolerated than being a feminine boy for all of the reasons I wrote about in my book.
When I transitioned, my body suddenly became “acceptable” in many places it had once been disruptive. And I was expected to pay for that privilege by “behaving.” I hit a point where I was having the same dissonance being in my male body as I’d had before I transitioned, just in a different way, where I felt very out of step with myself. I felt like I was living a new kind of lie, and I had to talk about it. I didn’t feel I had a choice, because otherwise, what’s the point of going through this whole thing, risking my health and my life and then just performing parts of masculinity that troubled me. Why would I put myself in that position? I had to do the opposite of that.
Rumpus: I’m having a moment here because I don’t think I’m comfortable with the man I am.
McBee: In my experience, many men feel that way if they’re quiet with themselves and really willing to examine how their sense of the world has been shaped. I suggest noticing where your integrity feels most offended and starting there. For me it was the expectation of violence—the expectation that I would do violence and that I would need to enact violence because of this body. I was like, “What the fuck does any of that have to do with me?” I mean I’d been the victim of male violence prior to my transition, but then suddenly I was in a world where violence was a part of the language of my body in a way that I didn’t understand, and it felt so bad and wrong to be feeling that way all the time. So that was where I wanted to start.
Rumpus: So turning to an older form of controlled violence (boxing) was a way to enter that experience?
McBee: Yes, because it’s consensual. Really looking at violence head on and asking what it’s all about, and having a language for it, and being willing to face the parts of myself that were interested in it, because of course there’s an element of that in this subject for me —even that which repulses you draws you in. And also what interested me and what made me afraid—I felt like if I just faced it all I would be able to understand it, and then be able to be really intentional in my relationship to it. It’s a metaphor for masculinity in general. Like if I can face it and face it all the way, even the hard or challenging or disturbing parts, then I can have the freedom to choose how I construct it, but if I’m just reacting and just being formed in reaction, then I don’t have any agency at all as a person.
Rumpus: I’m really interested in your ability to delve into these issues at a time in our culture when men are basically seen as evil.
McBee: A masculinity studies professor I spoke to said the first thing he would change about the idea of masculinity is that there’s only one masculinity. There are many ways to be a man. It’s not this fixed state that you’re either transgressing or participating in.
Rumpus: I grew up in a place where men were often terrible to women. I remember thinking, “In order to be a good person I have to fight against being a man.” It’s fascinating to me that I need to rethink that assumption, because otherwise we are leaving a lot of people behind. There are a lot of people who have been given only one version of masculinity.
McBee: Also you’ll be leaving yourself behind and all of the men you love, because we’ve all internalized masculinity, both toxic and not. There’s no escape. I think men have to model having these conversations. Every person has a gender, right? Not just trans people and women. But I feel like most men rarely talk about that. What does it mean to construct your own masculinity in a way that can be spiritual and political and erotic? Without our own self-examinations about how we are men, it’s challenging to have a conversation about gender that’s not binary, that’s not a good men vs. bad men discussion. And that’s a cheap way out.
Rumpus: How do you think we have these conversations when there is such disparity in the way women and men are treated in the culture? Is there enough room for all of these discussions?
McBee: As an artist, I think it’s impossible not to make political work. My job is to think about the spiritual ramifications of being a person. That sounds really pretentious; I’m sorry. I truly don’t believe—and this is borne out by my experience as a trans person who has spoken to a lot of well-meaning cis people who know how to use proper language but have never thought of their own gender identity—and what happens when you do that, when you have a conversation from that place—
Rumpus: Like you’re having with me—
McBee: —No! I think you’ve thought about it some. When you’re talking to someone who’s never considered their own place in things without a basic, “Where do I stand and how am I being shaped by culture?” and who hasn’t thought about that in a deep way, I don’t think that person can truly be an ally to someone else in a way that’s not coming from pity. I genuinely believe the first step toward coalition-building comes from genuinely having compassion and empathy for other people’s experiences, and I think you have to do that work on yourself before you can extend that to others. Otherwise you’re just performing your politics. There’s no scarcity here. Or there is, but it’s like this: you can one-hundred percent see that there’s urgency to talk about the violence facing trans women of color, for example, and we should be thinking about why we’re not talking about that as much as we should, and why are some stories more comfortable to hear than others, but you can’t even engage with that question of “why” if you don’t understand your own prejudices and fears and anxieties and everything you’ve internalized. That takes some reflection, away from Twitter. That takes work. That takes examining your own feelings about gender in a non-judgmental way, so that you can shift ideas that don’t serve you or others. We’re all in this culture and we’re all facing our own shit around gender, so I just think it’s important to start with yourself.
Rumpus: You’ve just explained to me why I get so annoyed by all of these well-meaning people who act so incredulous about the realities of queer lives. Just from my own experience, conversion therapy felt like a more explicit version of what the culture tends to enact on all people in terms of sexuality and gender. Why act so shocked? I almost wish people could just read all two-hundred-seventy-five pages of that conversion therapy handbook so they could see what’s really underneath most of our cultural assumptions.
McBee: Right, but then we’d have to admit that those cultural biases are inside all of us unless we’ve consciously rooted them out. We can start that process by saying out loud, “Here’s the thing I’m worried about, here’s what’s bothering me, here’s the thing I believe that makes me uncomfortable.” That’s why I think making these assumptions and stereotypes and biases visible really matters.
Rumpus: I think it’s also really difficult to be open about all of this stuff. I do think it’s difficult to have these conversations, especially online. I am always self-censoring.
McBee: Identity politics are so helpful and meaningful and this desire to create a language for identities is very important, but the problem as I see it is sometimes we can end up with a desire to perform a feeling of allyship that we haven’t actually earned. We need to be self-aware. I truly believe that there’s not a human emotion or experience that we can’t find compassion for, if we know ourselves well enough. And we need people in our lives who we can be vulnerable with as we struggle to work through these things, people who hold us accountable to be better and make space for our process. Building our capacity for compassion and for nosing out our own biases seems as worthy an endeavor as anything else we devote time and energy to doing.
Rumpus: I’m thinking of my dad and people who grew up in my hometown. Obviously you’ve done a very efficient thing by making a book, so you don’t have to go around telling every single person about your experience…
McBee: You’d be surprised.
Rumpus: I keep thinking about people like my dad who are never going to see your book. How do those people access someone to talk to, someone they can be vulnerable with?
McBee: You may be that person! I think figuring out how much space we have to give to people in our lives for that sort of discussion is different for all of us. I have a lot of vulnerable conversations with the people in my life about our struggles to face the shadowy parts of ourselves. I don’t think this is about needing to sit across from a person of a certain background and ask them questions. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. We should be asking each other and ourselves questions about how we came to be who we are. Start there.
But in terms of trans people, we’re only one percent of the population. I think that the outsized obsession with us is actually part of a much bigger social anxiety about gender and technology, which hopefully just underscores my point about what is up with us all, culturally, in terms of gender. I know on a much broader scale the masculinity crisis and the sense that the old binary just isn’t working like it used to is driving a lot of this interest in trans bodies. But we’re also clearly in a moment, if you look at the media created by cis people, where trans people are metaphors for something. We’re also real people who exist.
For me, I have a lot of faith in my ability to have one-on-one conversations that open people’s minds, if I feel up to doing so. I have a rule that if someone asks a question, I can ask the same question back.
Rumpus: I’m stealing this technique.
McBee: What’s cool is that I’ve learned a lot about my own judgements by doing that. For example, I talked at this elderly LGBT center once, and this person raised their hand and said, “Do you think you have a male brain or a female brain?” I paused, offended, but I was like okay, time for the rule. So I asked them the question. And this person said, “Well, I thought that I had a female brain, but now that you’re talking about all of this stuff, I actually wonder if I have a male brain.” And I was like, “Oh, this person thinks they’re trans.” This was a butch-appearing older person. That to me was a very big moment. You never know what’s happening in other people’s heads, even people who use problematic language, and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch your language, but it was very clear to me that there are probably a lot of missed opportunities because of language. When I first transitioned, for geographical reasons, I was often around people who were not trans, and I had to find ways to stay connected with people so that I could survive my transition. So I got a lot out of my friendships with pregnant women. We would share stories about hormones, and fears about who we would be on the other side of our journeys. So I discovered a way to bridge those gaps that can seem unbridgeable for people obsessed with difference. So, as to your question: I don’t think people who don’t want to connect with you can be connected with, but I hope that people who are in positions to talk to open-minded family members about challenging things can sometimes find the capacity to do so.
Rumpus: That’s why I keep returning to Arkansas every summer. There’s a definite cost, though. Last time I went home, someone actually called me a “fag” when my family and I were out watching the new Star Wars movie.
McBee: That’s hard. And clearly that person isn’t worth your attempts to connect. I occasionally go through periods where I try to engage with online trolls who comment on my work. They’re not open. On a rhetorical level, there is just zero interest in actually having a conversation. So in that case, on the level of mental health, there’s nothing you can do. That’s genuinely disturbing to me. But I’m not focused on people who choose to stay stuck, or live in fear or anger. Maybe this is naive, but one of the reasons I try to get my story out to larger audiences is that I hope that people can see through my story that it is their story too, because we’re all being hurt by patriarchy. And that’s even true of the people yelling “fag.” That is toxic masculinity, by definition. The masculinity crisis, as I see it, is a health and environment and spiritual crisis that affects people of all genders, and it’s in the way we train boys to over-value domination and control over the people around them. Those boys grow up to be men that hurt others, and reject their own humanity in the process. It’s in our general best interest to try to shift this culturally, and that’s my bigger argument.
Rumpus: One of the most insulting things to happen to me as a writer is to be placed only in LGBT sections. I can fit in two sections! I want my story to reach people who have not had my experiences. Put us on the front shelf.
McBee: I think people across the gender spectrum can be having meaningful conversations about the issues in my book.
McBee: My interest has always been in how we connect rather than divide. I don’t mean that in a Pollyanna way, like people can’t or shouldn’t be angry about injustice. And I think we all need to do some serious reckoning and face the worst parts of what we carry around, our cultural inheritance. But I also think it’s our job as human beings to know ourselves well enough to take care of each other in a real way, and if we don’t then we’re just going to teeter right off the edge. But I think it all starts with mapping where you are at the jump. What do you believe that troubles you? What do you notice in yourself that doesn’t align with your values?
Rumpus: It’s really scary to actually take a look at yourself though. I avoid it at all costs.
McBee: And it’s also an ongoing process. I don’t think I’ve figured it all out.
Rumpus: This is not a sexy message though, which is why we don’t see it very often on Twitter.
McBee: The sexy message is the freedom that comes from facing yourself, and getting to choose who you are on your own terms. That’s my sexy message.