So, you’re trans. Don’t you think the obvious first question is: When did you know you were a boy? Did you always feel “born in the wrong body”? And, while we’re at it, was your family cool with your transition? And how wild is it to know what it’s like to be BOTH genders?
I don’t think that any of these are obvious first questions, no.
Wait–but you write about being trans. Don’t you?
Sort of! Did you read Amateur?
What would you say it’s about?
Let me just read you some of the back-jacket copy your publisher sent over:
“From an award-winning writer whose work bristles with “hard-won strength, insight, agility, and love” (Maggie Nelson), an exquisite and troubling narrative of masculinity, violence, and society.
In this groundbreaking new book, the author, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence. Through his experience boxing—learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body—McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, and the limitations of conventional masculinity. A wide-ranging exploration of gender in our society, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a new way forward, a new kind of masculinity, inside the ring and outside of it.”
Yeah. I see your point. Honestly, when I was reading the book, I saw a lot of myself in it. I just haven’t talked to a real-life trans person before, and I’m pretty anxious about getting it wrong. Plus, my curiosity got the better of me, and I forgot that you were both a person and a writer. I’m sorry.
Thanks so much for acknowledging that. I wish interviewers would do that more often. My goal with Amateur, and frankly everything I write, is to undermine narratives that frame bodies in terms of difference with the violent practice of what I call “other-ing.” I think differences are useful to explore, but only through the lens of connection. You and I have way more in common than we don’t, and that’s always my starting point. Amateur is about fighting, by which I mean questioning, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Where do they come from? Who writes them? To me, freedom is captaining my own narrative. In a culture that so often reduces so many of us to background actors, sensational headlines, and metaphors, I think it’s crucial to take control of our stories–for everyone’s sake. Stories are the way all humans make meaning out of life. Erasing the stories of people that don’t look or act exactly like us is erasing part of ourselves.
Your book is about masculinity specifically. Was it scary to question masculinity?
Yes. Most men are afraid to ever ask any questions about what we’ve been socialized to think “being a man” means. For many men, to question masculinity–and this is the twisted genius of patriarchy–is to suggest that you are not a man. It was pretty stunning for me, actually, to really look at the language around manhood closely, especially phrases I’d internalized like “real man.” I wrote this book because, as I got further along in my transition, some of the expectations I faced–and some of the behaviors I found myself performing on auto-pilot–distressed me. I realized that I’d been internalizing toxic masculinity despite my best defenses, and I figured that if I–a man who transitioned in his 30s, well into adulthood and with the presence of mind and moral compass to know better–was performing some of the very same toxic behaviors I once derided (like interrupting women, for example, or struggling to show sadness), I could have both compassion and real talk for cis men who’d experienced social conditioning at a much younger age.
So you’re saying testosterone made you act like a jerk?
No, definitely not. The book does ask that question, because I asked every single question I could think of, even the ones where I was afraid to know the answer. But, definitively, I can say that Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford researcher, confirmed that testosterone has nothing to do with aggression. In fact, the hormone actually seems to encourage status-seeking. The trouble is, Sapolsky said, aggression IS what gains status in most cultures. But they’ve run economic games where men are rewarded for cooperation, and the winners of those games were consistently the men who had the highest testosterone levels. It’s the stories we tell about biology that are more powerful than our biology itself. In fact, in those studies, men who were told that they had been given a boost of testosterone acted way more aggressively after hearing that information. The truth was, they had been given a placebo. The idea that testosterone makes us aggressive is what makes us aggressive.
So why did you fight a guy in Madison Square Garden?
Because the question that launched the book was: Why do men fight? One summer in New York, right before the election of Donald Trump, a spate of guys attempted to street fight me–three in a row. The last guy, I almost came to actual blows with. It felt like a turning point for me. I was four years into my transition, and acting in ways that I didn’t understand. I felt I was being socialized so quickly, I barely had time to think about what the implications of that socialization were.
Carl Jung suggests that the rejected parts of ourselves–both individually and culturally–form a “shadow” self that ultimately acts out if it’s not integrated into our psyches. I walked away from that fight, but I didn’t think it was enough to just say, as I often see men do, “I’m not that kind of guy” and just move on with my life. I WAS that kind of guy, at least a little. I wanted to really shine a light on why–how did I get here? I’d been reporting on the masculinity crisis for years, and I could see echoes of my personal struggle to make sense of the effect of my new body on the world in the crisis of men being described in the media. I didn’t want to become an angry man.
After I sold the book, Donald Trump was elected president. It felt to me that this story of facing my shadow so as not to become it was a story that was about more than my body, but about men in general. I think we all have a moral responsibility to root out the parts of our socialization that offend our conscience and uphold values that our abhorrent to ourselves and our communities. I feel the same way about my whiteness. So the book is about facing those questions with complete openness. The fact that I’m trans is a lens and a point of view. The book is about moving through the world as a white man–exposing privilege, questioning what makes me complacent in that privilege, and also highlighting the costs of masculinity for men.
What are those costs?
For me, the masculinity crisis is a spiritual, health, and environmental crisis. It’s evident in the rising suicide rates of men, and the fact that men are less likely to work to save the planet, and that men are conditioned out of what the NYU psychologist Niobe Way calls “everything that makes us human”–empathy, intimacy, connection. That old story trope of the man (usually) who trades love and family and meaning for a kingdom or power: That’s actually what men have done, and continue to do. It’s harmful to everyone around us, and our planet, and it’s also harmful to ourselves. I love being a man. I’ve traded so much to live an authentic life. I love my body. But I wasn’t willing to make that trade. And I think toxic masculinity will never go away until men stop seeing themselves in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” and begin to see the systemic ways conditioning effects them, take responsibility for it, and fight to change it.
So, do you feel like you’re more human now?
More and more, every day. Do you feel like I’m more human now?
THOMAS PAGE MCBEE was the first trans man to ever box in Madison Square Garden. His Lambda award-winning memoir, Man Alive, was named a best book of 2014 by NPR Books, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. Thomas was the “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 a writer on the forthcoming Netflix show, Tales of the City.