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We Contain Multitudes


The trans author and journalist on masculinity and male privilege, writing about the body, and crafting new narratives about gender identities.

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Image by Jessica McCarthy.

“I grew up feeling not like a girl, but I was never treated like a girl at all, either,” says Thomas Page McBee about his early grapplings with gender identity. The journalist and memoirist felt misaligned with the sex he was assigned at birth, and years ago, he synchronized his gender expression and his gender identity by transitioning from female to male. However, as is often common among trans individuals, he never thought of himself as as being born into the wrong body. “My body was my body,” he writes, reflecting on his transition. “It would just evolve.”

McBee has long explored the complexity of gender in his essays and articles, including a column in Pacific Standard called “The American Man” and the series “Self-Made Man” in The Rumpus. In his visceral, lyrical new memoir, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, he offers sensitive and sometimes startling glimpses of how maleness manifests itself in the US. His meditations on gender reveal how American culture shapes our notions of masculinity and how we, in turn, are shaped by it. When McBee turns the lens on himself and shifts from an observer of masculinity to a subject of it, a complex portrait surfaces, of a journey through gender identity that has been freighted with violence.

Man Alive is a memoir of both psychological and physical transformations. McBee interweaves his personal story of transitioning with compelling and original meditations on gender roles. While the narrator metamorphoses, he also reflects on his abusive childhood and his feelings of liminality—a condition nearly universal to the transgender experience. Ultimately, Man Alive considers the power of change and the choices that create and define who we are.

Man Alive has earned praise from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Kirkus, which, in a starred review, called it “masterfully rendered.” The memoir has emerged at a particularly auspicious time for trans stories. Laverne Cox, a trans actress and one of the stars of the show Orange Is the New Black, graced the cover of Time magazine last year. The series Transparent, a comedy with a trans patriarch at its center, recently won Golden Globe awards for best series and best actor. Both of these examples from the world of television offer refreshingly positive depictions of trans people, and might perhaps even signal the beginning of a national conversation about the visibility—and the rights—of the transgender community.

I met with McBee on a recent afternoon in Manhattan, where we sat just outside the wrought-iron fence enclosing Gramercy Park. Our conversation traversed the relationships that shaped him, masculinity and its myths, and how the trans experience is part of the human condition.

Andrew Rose for Guernica

Guernica: I’m curious about your definition of modern masculinity.

Thomas Page McBee: I don’t know what defines maleness, but that’s something I’m really interested in. In fact, I’m writing a whole column for Pacific Standard called “The American Man,” which explores modern American masculinity. It’s gonzo reporting in which I explore homosocial male spaces such as bathhouses and boxing gyms. A lot of what I’m interested in is modern American white male masculinity, because that’s what I am.

I think masculinity is changing. One exciting thing that’s happening in American culture is that younger men are making their masculinity visible. Women have always had to be very conscious of being female and expressing their femininity. But the way privilege works is that it’s invisible, so only recently have men started to ask more specific questions about what it means to be a man.

Another phenomenon is that masculinity is a lot more customizable than it used to be—for all men, not just trans men. There is no longer one primary way to be a man. For me, I think of being a man as being Thomas, an individual. Personally, I try to emphasize aspects of masculinity that I like, and I try to choose not to manifest aspects of myself that I think are toxic.

Guernica: What aspects of masculinity do you like to emphasize?

Thomas Page McBee: Traits aren’t really gendered, but I do think that we are, to some extent, enculturated through gender. Physically, I think that there are ways that I enjoy being male: I enjoy having a beer, I enjoy male spaces like barbershops, and I enjoy the way that I can relate to men, which is different than it used to be before I transitioned. It’s a difficult question to answer because, again, there’s no essential way to be male.

However, on a more personal level, I do think that my perception of myself has changed. I want to be careful about how I say this, but I think that there are elements of myself—such as my tenderness and my ability to be nurturing—that shifted after I transitioned. I think that now I’m more self-contained. I don’t know how that arose. I do think that when you’re male, you get less support in one way and more affirmation in a different way from those around you.

For instance, before I transitioned, people were more likely to give me advice. But now, there’s this expectation that I already know how to master a situation. Perhaps this is related to getting older. But this assumption, in turn, has given me this confidence that I do know how to navigate the world. It makes me feel stronger. I can’t pull apart how much of that is related to my transition and how much of that is me feeling more comfortable as a person. But I do think there is something about the way in which we treat men and women differently, and I’m benefitting from it.

Guernica: Can you elaborate on the way men and women treated you before and after your transition?

Thomas Page McBee: I think I was never really a woman. I was always very masculine, but I was female-bodied. I escaped being socialized in a gendered way because I defied certain norms. When I was first starting my transition, I experienced what a lot of men probably undergo. It was a certain kind of stress about how I was perceived by others. I wasn’t manifesting dangerous or violent qualities, yet I was being judged in that way because I’m a man. And prior to my transition, my female friends would give me more physical affection, and that’s not so true anymore.

I realized that, every time I walk out the door, suddenly people assign about a thousand assumptions to me just because I’m a man. I didn’t have that kind of experience when I was female. It was new to me to adjust to other people’s responses and to grapple with the cultural forces behind those reactions.

As a man, I have the privilege of being in the world in a really different way. The other side of that reality is that this is an unsafe world for women, it’s not a just world for women. So that quickly turned into a real commitment to being an ally. I know that I’m not a bad guy, but nobody walking down the street knows that about me. For me, comprehending that reality became a really important part of being a feminist.

I don’t think being trans is some otherworldly experience. I think it’s just part of the human condition.

Guernica: In one of your columns, you write, “I think that we need to quit feeling obligated to trumpet our multitudes at the start of every interaction.” Can you explain that?

Thomas Page McBee: That quote was related to what we were just talking about—passing. I got really interested in passing as a construct. Passing is a really loaded term, but it’s something that we all do.

I don’t think I was passing as a man prior to my transition. I felt male, but I also felt that there were elements of being a man that didn’t apply to me and that were being projected onto me. I realized that perhaps everybody feels that way. Everybody endures moments in which you’re going about your life and people are making sometimes dangerous assumptions about who you are, and you can’t control that. It’s a very basic human fallibility.

The idea is to find some grace, even in positions of undue privilege and power. When do you want to be dissonant in the face of those expectations, and when can you feel like, “Well, it’s fine that these dudes around me don’t know anything about my history; they don’t really need to”? This is one aspect of the prism of who I am. This is real, too. So I think finding a way to be authentic in your passing is really interesting.

I think that being trans and the idea of passing is weird because—what are you passing as? You’re just being yourself. I don’t think being trans is some otherworldly experience. It’s just part of the human condition. Othering a person is a really violent act, and the ways in which we relate to diverse human beings is what motivated me to start writing about being trans.

I spent a lot of time trying to manifest my masculinity without having to be a man.

Guernica: Your father, whom you call Roy in the book, abused you. Can you talk about how he influenced your gender identity?

Thomas Page McBee: I didn’t transition until I was thirty. It was complicated, there were a lot of reasons that I didn’t transition sooner. Part of that conflict was that I had really negative associations with men. Subconsciously or not, I spent a lot of time trying to manifest my masculinity without having to be a man. For some people, being masculine without being male is just who they are, and that’s who I thought I was at one point.

In the book, I write about the moment when that changed for me. Roy abused me when I was growing up, and he had been my model of what masculinity meant. At a certain point, I realized I’d been very myopic and that it was holding me back from being myself. I had to confront that reality—that I was letting this one person’s maleness shape my understanding of what being a man was. I think it’s a pretty common thing with sons—deciding to be a different kind of man from your father. I had to face him and be a better man than he was.

Guernica: If you look at pop culture, we seem to be at a fairly sanguine moment for trans people. But on the other hand, you have things like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act withering on the vine. What’s your view on the state of trans people’s rights?

Thomas Page McBee: I work in publishing because that’s where I can have the biggest impact. I think that media is a space where we’re seeing tremendous shifts in visibility. I think that visibility leads to change.

Even four years ago, when I started my transition and began writing for a lot of different outlets about gender, there were very few, very simplistic, sometimes problematic, stories about the transgender community. There were many stories of trans people being murdered, which still happens, and, when it’s covered, it is usually reported in a transphobic way. That was also around the beginning of these puff-piece stories like, “I was born in the wrong body, but now I’m fine; I’m just like everybody else, and this is a heartwarming story about that.” These narratives informed the perspectives of the public and people in power.

Now we’re seeing many more complex stories and perspectives, which heartens me. Certainly Laverne Cox being on the cover of Time is a big deal. So are the television shows Transparent and Orange Is the New Black, generally speaking. All of these very visible trans writers and thinkers are important.

There’s a danger that marginalized folks are getting left behind. I’m a white, straight, trans guy who passes, so my ability to function in this world is very different from a trans woman of color who doesn’t pass—or even one who does. As with every social movement, we can’t forget the people who are most vulnerable. I do have some concerns that these populations aren’t always getting support on a policy level. This is a great moment for trans people. There’s high visibility and a lot of enthusiasm around trans causes, and that’s great. But there’s a lot still to be done.

Guernica: In the book, you portray your wife as an extremely supportive figure in your life. Can you tell me more about her?

Thomas Page McBee: Actually, we’re not together anymore. In the book, I keep that ambiguous, but we broke up quite a while ago. We’re very close friends. She is very supportive, though. The relationship didn’t work out, but we’d known each other for years before we started dating. We dated for nine years, and we were married, so our relationship continues to be familial.

I would have had a gay crush on James Dean before I transitioned, and I still have one on him now.

Guernica: How do you feel about your sexuality in regard to transitioning? For instance, what does it mean for you to have a “gay crush” on James Dean, as you wrote in your book?

Thomas Page McBee: Well, there is a little bit of queerness injected into the book, and I think I’m not really in the queer community. I’ve never been anything but interested in women. In fact, I have a girlfriend now, so that has continued. But I also think trans people have this interesting, slippery place in the queer community, especially those of us who grew up in the queer community and are now straight, in the classic sense of the word.

I date women and have sex with women, but it never crossed my mind that saying I have a gay crush on James Dean isn’t a normal thing a guy would say. So in that sense my sexuality has stayed pretty stable. I know that isn’t always true for people, but I think my openness and ability to maneuver in the world in a way that’s queer hasn’t really changed either. I would have had a gay crush on James Dean before I transitioned, and I still have one on him now.

Guernica: People have been transitioning at younger and younger ages, even using hormones to delay puberty. What do you think of this phenomenon?

Thomas Page McBee: I think it’s probably a wonderful thing if you’re young, you’re trans, and you have parents and a community that support you.

I had a very interesting conversation with Susan Stryker for a story I was covering. She’s an incredibly powerful, well-known trans woman writer and thinker. She expressed enthusiasm about people transitioning at younger ages but also wondered how this might influence trans culture. A lot of that culture focuses on the time in your life when you’re living in the world as an adult, and you realize that something’s wrong and you need to make a transition. If that intervention happens really early, do you ever feel trans? And, in that situation, what does being trans even mean?

Those kids who are transitioning will probably live their whole lives a little bit differently than your average cisgender person. I’m curious about what’s going to happen. I imagine that, at the end of the day, you’re not going to see a majority of people having early interventions because that would require an incredibly progressive and supportive community. It seems like we’re still a long way from that.

Guernica: Let’s talk about your own transition. You had chest reconstruction surgery, and then there was a period of about four years before you started injecting yourself with testosterone. How did you feel about that interregnum, and how did you feel about your transition?

Thomas Page McBee: One thing that frustrated me when I was first transitioning was that I felt like I had delayed it. At the time, the main narrative was that if you were trans, you felt like you were born in the wrong body. You knew from childhood that you were a man. You needed to fix the situation as quickly as possible. You felt suicidal. I just didn’t have that experience at all.

For me, it’s very nuanced. I grew up feeling not like a girl, but I was never treated like a girl at all, either. I sort of felt like a teenage boy all during my young adult years, and everyone around me affirmed that identity.

One thing that I always felt was that I did not like the way my chest looked. I knew it was possible to have the surgery without transitioning and, because that was the one thing I did feel very strongly about, I spent a long time planning for that procedure. I assumed that that would be the end of the story.

But after I had the surgery, I realized that it didn’t resolve my feelings. I thought that my narrative of myself since I was fourteen years old was totally wrong. But I didn’t have this immediate realization that I’m just trans and that’s the problem. I realized something was not working for me, and it took some time to unpack that.

You have this mythology about yourself, and you tell yourself that story again and again, and at some point that story doesn’t work anymore. It’s confusing: What is the story now? That was the first clearly dissonant thing that happened to me. I thought, “Something’s not right here.” And that was my first clue that maybe I wanted to take hormones and dress more male. It took some time to figure that out.

Guernica: You say that the idea of being “born in the wrong body” is inaccurate, at least in your case.

Thomas Page McBee: I think I was born in the right body—I’m just trans. Actually, I spend a lot of time thinking about technology. That is, if gender reassignment surgery weren’t possible, what would happen to those of us who are transgender? We’ve been here since the beginning of human existence, so there’s something faulty in the logic that all I needed was this hormone and then I’d be okay. What would happen if the hormone didn’t exist?

While I would still be trans, it would have just been a different manifestation of that. It’s a version that, to me, feels like a much healthier, less shame-based perspective than trying to fit into one of two genders. As if you’re one or the other, and if you were born in the wrong one, you just switch over to the correct one.

The idea of being born in the wrong body just feels inherently very shameful. It’s also rooted in medicine; it’s the thing trans people had to say in order to get their hormones. It’s become this cultural expectation that has been passed down in our community. It’s so hard now to pull apart how many people made up that story themselves, how much of that is just a medical access issue, and how much of it is an oversimplified trope for people who don’t understand what it means to be trans. I just find that really problematic. People shouldn’t need that level of simplicity to comprehend it. People should work a little harder to understand it.

Guernica: What do you think of the idea of “gender dysphoria”? How would you characterize the psychological process of someone who is pre-transition?

Thomas Page McBee: I think that it’s absolutely true that I personally had a sense of dysphoria. I don’t think you can go through what you need to go through medically and not feel that way. Some people don’t go on hormones, and one reason is that they might not feel dysphoric in the same way.

The physical feeling of dysphoria was very real for me. It was an anguishing experience, and I was very unhappy. It was a very strange thing to look in the mirror and not see yourself there. Or to see yourself and think that this wasn’t what you expected yourself to look like. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but for me it was a very real experience.

On the other hand, I think that’s one dimension of my personal experience. I try to honor the fact that I’m a complicated human being like everyone else is. To be reduced to that one element feels too simple. I’m really grateful to live in a time where there’s some sort of medical solution. But I imagine that if I lived in a different world, there would be an alternative way to address this dysphoria, and that would be okay, too. For me, there were absolutely mental and physical health issues. But I also don’t feel like the notion of gender dysphoria captures the whole picture.

We are all born with the ability to transition. It’s just a question of what the person inside you will look like.

Guernica: What has it been like taking testosterone and knowing that you will have to continue to take it for the rest of your life?

Thomas Page McBee: It’s interesting to be reliant on science and medicine. There are some ways in which you don’t necessarily have to take it for the rest of your life. For instance, some people undergo hysterectomies. You do have to have some sort of hormone in your body, but you can definitely lower your dependence on it.

To me, it’s been a magic potion. I also have a very complicated relationship with testosterone. It’s a weekly injection, and there’s a medical risk and a cost. It’s very intimate and personal, and it’s something I’m very grateful for.

The doctor whom I first saw when I started my transition said that the way testosterone works is that it turns on some genes—for instance, how much facial hair you have or whether or not you have male-pattern baldness. We all have that potential inside of us that can be unlocked. It’s a fascinating thing to be able to turn on parts of your genes. It means that we are all born with the ability to transition. It’s just a question of what the person inside you will look like.

Everybody has a trans person inside them. We have a million twins. We go through these life experiences and we’re shaped by them and we evolve. It was very cool to emerge from myself in that way. It’s almost like being your own child. It’s a rebirth.

G

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