I first met Thomas McBee over email in January 2012 when I became the editor of his “Self-Made Man” column on The Rumpus. At the time, he and my teenage son were both transforming into men—growing facial hair, diving an octave in their vocal range, filling out the broadness of their shoulders and muscles. But it was much more than my son’s changes that made Thom’s writing about his transgender journey so relatable to me. Thom’s essays—like his extraordinary new memoir, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man—are about the search for personal identity and authenticity. That universal quest, and the beauty of Thom’s writing, helped build his devoted readership on The Rumpus. Now, Man Alive steps in to provide the backstory to that series, uncovering the roots of how and why his search for his truth began, and how it encircled not just his gender identity, but his whole life: his fear, his family, and his past.
I spoke with Thom recently about his memoir, his new work, and why the transgender experience has something to teach all of us.
Julie Greicius: Okay, I have so many questions. It’s hard to know where to start because I feel so immersed and I just—I loved this book, Thom.
Thomas Page McBee: Oh, good!
Greicius: You tackle some very difficult personal material in the book. What did you struggle with the most?
McBee: I rarely have a hard time being vulnerable in my work, but what was hard with this book was deciding how to be honest and also compassionate about the people I care about. It was important to me to respect other people’s narratives while also honoring my own. I am not a private person, but it seems that I am always surrounded by people who are, and so it was challenging to be contentious about the integrity of the story while simultaneously considerate of the feelings of everyone in it. I think, in the end, I was able to strike a good balance. Lucky for me, everyone in my life eventually chose to trust me with almost every editorial choice around their “characters,” and I really tried to do that honor justice.
Greicius: Some of the scenes could have strayed more graphic or sensational, but you kept it steady, which I felt really increased the tension and drew out the meaning of your experience and beauty of the narrative arc. How did you decide what to leave in, what to leave out? Why was it important to hold back?
McBee: The opening third or so of the book is paced very differently than the rest of it, and I tried to stay with the violence in those beginning scenes because I wanted it to feel visceral to the reader, as it’s so important that she be empathetic to the impact of it on the journey that follows. I’m not interested, however, in recreating trauma in such a way that it forces a reader to numb out, and I was pointed in not doing so in this story. Because I’m not interested in othering myself or anyone else, I’m very sensitive to sensational portrayals of abuse, for instance. The emotional texture of that experience is so much more important to me than the difficult details of what exactly transpired.
Greicius: The book is a chronological prequel to your “Self-Made Man” column on The Rumpus, diving into your childhood, your search for your father, the mugging that sets your transition in motion, and then the early stages of your transition itself. Like your column, it’s really a book about personal truth and identity. Why do you think that theme resonates so much with readers, regardless of their gender?
McBee: Growing up, I read books to find myself. I felt like I was in conversation with the author. I had a pretty tough childhood, but I knew that I was Pip from Great Expectations and Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web and Peekay from the Power of One. I think those points of connection, whether it’s in art or each other’s arms, are the very meaning of being alive. When I began my transition, it was an incredible opportunity to see the same world with a new perspective, and to find new ways to understand people—in love, in family, in friendships, and also with strangers who saw themselves in my story, which has been the coolest gift of all. The book is about coming up against yourself and realizing that you’re not who you thought you used to be, and deciding whether or not you can be who you know you are now. I think it’s the most fundamental story of being a person, whoever you are.
Greicius: I remembered once, early on, you said that your gender was “poet.” And as I was reading this book I felt like that’s really true.
Greicius: So how do your writing and your gender blend? How does your journey as a writer align with your journey toward manhood?
McBee: That’s a great question. And of course you’d ask that, because you’ve been on that journey with me so closely. The story of “Self-Made Man” was that I was living in New England and it was really isolating. I left San Francisco and started my transition immediately upon arrival and then realized very quickly that I was thirty and didn’t have a community or even a road map in any way to understand what I was doing. I very much felt compelled to do it, but I didn’t know how to be the man I wanted to be.
And so what I was really thinking a lot about then was that I had often found myself in books or in art. But I looked around and didn’t see a lot of representations of men in general or trans men specifically that really spoke to me. And then I realized pretty quickly that the reason why was that I was much more interested in being the person I was meant to be. Part of that, a dimension of that, was my masculinity—or my transness—but it wasn’t necessarily the defining thing about me.
I was also at the same time discovering that the people I was connecting to in New England were people who had very different genders than me but were having similar transitions—like new mothers or people who had made big life changes. And so I felt like if I could find a way to access the story in a way that wasn’t about how othering and alienating it was and instead was more about discovering your gender, no matter what your gender is, as part of your personality as an adult—I just felt like that was a story that other people in my life were experiencing but wasn’t being told in that way.
Greicius: One of the things along those lines that really stood out for me in the book was when you say, “There are two primary storylines: a stranger comes to town and a man goes on a journey.” And later that “sometimes you’re the hero and the stranger both.” And I think what makes your book so important is that that’s true for all of us: there are people who, regardless of their gender or their sexuality, are also on that search for identity.
McBee: Yeah. And I’m a universalist at heart, so I think a big thing that was strange was that, before I transitioned and I was just queer in my presentation and how I was in the world, no one really had a specific expectation of what my gender really meant. And what was kind of cool about it was that there was no right way to be what I was.
So what became interesting then was that I felt very much like my gender became some very defining thing about me. And even though—ironically, of course—it was supposed to be defining because that’s what I wanted, I also felt this very intense desire to rebel, and to be much more like, “Well, what is it to be a person who transitions, to have a big change, and, yeah, to be the stranger who comes to town and also the hero on the journey, and in what ways are we all of those things?” I have a very spiritual take on life, and I really wanted to purge this sense of being different. I’m very interested in connecting to people.
Being a writer was my identity first, which is why I joke that my gender is poet. When you’re a writer and you get tossed an interesting life, then you get to approach your life from that place. That’s an exciting and amazing gift, and I was really interested in making that the forefront of my identity from the very beginning, you know?
Greicius: Yes, and when you say there wasn’t really a right way to be what you were becoming, it reminds me of another scene in the book that really was just profound: you were coming out of the water in Mexico and were just painfully self-conscious of your body, to the point where you got down in the shallow water and crawled part of the way out. You describe this moment by saying you were “between boyhood and manhood,” and even if you weren’t sure that the world had a sense of what that transition should look like, your self-consciousness comes through, your sense of discomfort with where your body was and where your body was not. It’s really incredible. So what was that like?
McBee: Well, I think we’ve all been there—when you’re becoming something, and you know what you’re becoming, but the world doesn’t yet, and you sort of have to fake it ‘til you make it. That feeling is so—it’s like you’re broken open. It’s very poignant, but it’s also so vulnerable. I wouldn’t change anything about that time, because it really was a time to be very self-evaluatory and ask, “What kind of person do I want to be?” It’s like F. Scott Fitzgerald says, that “a series of unbroken successful gestures” is what makes a personality. But I do think that there’s something about learning who you are in that moment that is so difficult even when you have, as I did, a good sense of what you’re starting to be.
But I also didn’t want to be so restrictive about what that meant. I was dealing with this very clear dissonance, as I understood it. Because it definitely wasn’t like, Oh, I looked in a mirror and saw a man and no one else saw that man, so then I just took some testosterone and then that problem was solved! It wasn’t simple like that, though I found that narrative was one I was seeing all the time, which is part of what was so confusing to me about transitioning in the first place. Because I thought, Well, it’s not so simple to me, so maybe I’m not trans or maybe I’m not a man.
Now that I’ve been so out about this process, so many people have been like, “Well, that’s exactly what it was like for me.” I mean, it’s different for everyone, but that sort of cut-and-dry reality is not what most of us experience. So that was a really painful time. It was really strange. But it was also so fruitful to have to be in my own discomfort, because it really taught me who I was.
Greicius: It seems like it wasn’t your only discomfort. In the book, you also dive into how you envisioned yourself as a man relative to the men in your life. And what the actions of the men in your life said to you about what it meant to be a man. That aspect is terrifying. I mean, the discoveries that you make about the men in your life are really disturbing. And you have this powerful realization that “every man could turn, like sour milk.” You grapple with that from point A all the way through to a point of forgiveness and without…I don’t want to spoil anything in the book, but I do think that writing about your abuse and writing about the crime you endured in adulthood, which was the catalyst for your transformation, is especially interesting, because there’s a sense of confronting yourself as a victim but also recognizing your relationship and affinity to the perpetrators, and exploring what’s risky to you about manhood, you know?
McBee: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the primary tension of the book and of myself, the person I was in my life at that time—and even now something that I spend a lot of time thinking about—is if your models for something are so negative, then what? Certainly being a man in this culture is not something I necessarily was super-psyched about.
I mean, there’s a lot wrong with masculinity. As a feminist, I find a lot of things really disturbing about what manhood means. So to me it was interesting. What if you know you are something, but you really don’t want to be that, then for a myriad of reasons at some point you’re forced to confront that tension between those realities?
Is there a way to do it with integrity? That was my whole aim with the book, and my whole aim with my life. That means not shying away from what’s hard about it but not being afraid to be really present with it. I mean, I was mugged at gunpoint by this guy who was really terrifying—and his misunderstanding of me is what sets off a chain of events that led me to who I am. And I think a lot of that is about understanding that we create these structures and these narratives that are reflective of our own lives and our own experience, and some of them are really true. That’s a reality we all share, that masculinity can be very toxic. But just because something has been a certain way doesn’t mean it will keep being that way. And you don’t have to subscribe to that just because that’s all you know. And so I think I was just really interested in the possibility that there had to be a way to make both of those things coexist, and to live in that paradox. And I got to a point where there was no other option. So the book is about being in that dichotomy and having to make it work, you know?
McBee: And that’s what my life continues to be about.
Greicius: There’s another layer there, which is that a lot of what was harmful to you in your childhood came from your family, but a lot of what was really nurturing seemed to come from your family, too. I mean your mom’s character in the book—I just love her.
McBee: That’s good.
Greicius: She seems so responsive when she discovers your abuse. Even the babysitter has her ears open and her eyes open. Your mom responds and really listens to you and reports the crime and protects you—seems to protect you, anyway. And I think that your family and your siblings, they all seem to be incredibly positive and nurturing. Do you see it that way?
McBee: Yeah. I mean, obviously, relationships are complicated, and it’s hard to know what to do in these situations. But I think that I was very lucky to have a mom who was very interested in us being ourselves and being independent, and she really stuck to that. Obviously she was pretty upset about what happened to me, but she also, later on in my life, really was a person who’s been very genuinely supportive, just on sort of basic ethical ground around my journey as a human being.
And I’m really lucky, because I think a lot of people don’t have that. I can’t imagine how much harder my life would have been if I hadn’t been raised with that perspective. It also has given me a lot of hope in other people, you know, because when you’re raised that way, I think it’s a lot easier to feel that everyone has a right to be themselves and a right to navigate their world. And I can trust other people’s ability to do that. My sister and brother are very much the same way. They’re very deeply supportive, and we’re all very close so I hope that that comes through and I think that that’s great that it does. I’m sure they’ll be happy to hear it.
Greicius: The contrast is so stark. The justice your book does is it shows that everybody is a complex character. One of the great things that you ask early on in the book is: “Do we all have two people inside us?” You know, this sort of splitting and contrast between maybe even more than two people by the many sides of character. Your mom, for example, is this incredible woman—a physicist, which is super cool. But on the other hand, she’s in love with this man who’s your abuser, and that part of it was very complicated. It made her so vulnerable and made you even more vulnerable. And so the dichotomy within all of the characters in the book was really interesting. Not just a sense of good and evil, but a very true picture of the struggle that people have with their own pasts and their own longings.
McBee: That’s what I hope. It’s also a book about coming up with your own narrative in the face of the crushing narratives presented to you by your world or by people in your life and the need to wrestle back your own experience, which is what I was doing. I’ve read a lot of Carl Jung, who was really interested in specifically the problem of evil, as he would call it. His solution to the problem of evil was integration.
He was thinking a lot about this during the Holocaust and was very troubled, obviously, by what was happening and, because he was a very spiritual person, he didn’t understand how this could be possible. I think a lot about that because when you grow up in a situation where something terrible is happening to you by somebody you love, it’s pretty impossible just to dismiss it and go, “Well, that was just a bad person,” you know?
McBee: I think it’s a luxury to see the world in that kind of black and white. And it’s probably a detriment because most of us have the capacity to do terrible things, and we don’t do them, and that’s great. But I think sitting back and saying, “Well, I don’t do terrible things because I’m just a good person” is probably dangerous, for a lot of reasons. I was drawn to the idea of thinking past the easy narrative and interrogating it and everybody, including myself, because a big part of my anxiety about being a man was that I had this somewhat irrational fear that I would be a bad person because of it. And I just felt like that was a very childlike perspective that I really wanted to unpack and figure out an alternative to, you know?
Greicius: You know, when women gaze on the traditional male stereotype, it’s threatening, just, point-blank.
McBee: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Greicius: And so I wonder what it’s like to become a man and represent a really nontraditional version of that gender, to not represent the stereotype, to have to really create an entirely authentic way to be a man.
McBee: Right. And to also make part of being a man the responsibility of it. Because even if you’ve never done a single hurtful thing to another person, you have to realize that it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t make a difference to a woman who’s walking in front of me by herself at night in the dark street that I am a good person. I do a lot of talks on masculinity, and I try really hard to work with men to get them to see this reality that it really doesn’t make it different that you’re a good person.
If you want to be a good person, you have to live in the world that we’re in to understand what the responsibility of being in the gender that has all the privilege means. And that means, in part, being allies to other people who aren’t in the same situation as you. I think a big thing that goes wrong is that there’s a sensitivity or hurt feelings around that, when really it’s like, “Sorry. It would be great to live in a reality where men and women didn’t face the same things every day and didn’t have to worry about safety or danger or stress, but that’s not the world we live in.”
McBee: Certainly at the beginning of my transition, I had a lot of anxiety about having to move into this role where I was worried that I would have to carry that around and how it would work. But it’s pretty easy, actually, just to be like, How it works is just: I’m an ally to women as much as I can be, and I don’t take personally a genuinely reasonable need to be safe in the world.
Greicius: I think that’s amazing. With two white, male sons of my own, I find myself trying to teach them that, and it’s hard, because of the inconvenience, the kind of discomfort of knowing that you’re part of a gender that is threatening to people. It’s hard to make them realize that the discomfort is a small inconvenience relative to the responsibility for changing things.
McBee: Exactly, right. It’s the same with white people broadly and race, you know? It’s like, “Yeah, it sucks that a lot of really racist white people have created this situation that we’re all in. And I’m sorry it hurts your feelings that you might be racist and not know it because you were encultured in that way. You have to change it, or people might assume that your behavior is racist when you’re doing something that you didn’t even know was racist.” That’s a shame if it is an inconvenience. But in the face of systemic oppression happening to a whole group of people, I’m sure it’s uncomfortable, I’ve been there, but we’re in a power structure.
And I think for me personally what’s been really interesting is I’m not political in a traditional sense of being interested in activism in a very, you know, let’s-achieve-policy-change kind of way. But I do think that political art and writing from a place of understanding that we are in a power structure is really key to how I see the world. So I think sometimes what’s hard and just very overwhelming is to say, “We’re in this situation, what do we do about it?” And the answer is, “Well, we make small, conscious choices every day,” you know?
McBee: At least I try to.
Greicius: Yeah, and I agree with you. I think it comes down to those small choices and living in a conscious way so that you’re noticing when something you do falls in line with a stereotype that you really don’t want to be a part of. We’re living in a time when the transgender experience is more visible than ever, like in Orange is the New Black, and Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, and now this new series with Jeffrey Tambor called Transparent. What do you think about progress in the transgender movement? Where do things stand, and where would you like to see things go?
McBee: When I first started writing, I was writing in general a lot about this stuff. I was writing about trans visibility because there was a very restricted narrative and my initial thought was just: I don’t see myself anywhere. It’s really troubling, and it’s also creating a world where people think they understand me before we’ve even had a conversation. They think they understand me in a sense that they think, Oh, you were born in the wrong body—got it. That’s pretty weird, but I get it. There are two options and you got the wrong one. Now you changed to the other one. And now that’s all you’d know, except they’ll maybe ask me a lot of personal questions that are, you know, all about being “other.” It’s all about looking at the world from that perspective.
I think when I originally was writing stories about myself, it was just because I wanted to say—and so did a lot of other people at that time, like a cacophony of voices and everybody saying—“There’s a lot of ways to have this experience and, yeah, it’s more complicated. But it’s really important to realize that, like any experience, there are a million ways to be a person.” And now I think I’m pretty sure that we all agree that that’s true. I mean, trans people knew it, but I think it’s probably very helpful if you’re a younger trans person or you haven’t transitioned or if you’re at the start of a transition, to see a bunch of different representations.
I also think that people who are trans maybe have a little bit better of a grasp on stuff they don’t really have to understand, you know? I don’t need to understand what it’s like to be a person of color. I just need to understand that experience—I need to hear what people say about it, and I need to do my part to be, hopefully, a person who is living consciously in relationships with people having that experience. I mean, even though I was born female, I don’t really know what it’s like to be a woman. I never really lived in the world in a way that I had to deal with a lot of stuff women deal with. It doesn’t make it impossible for me to be a good boyfriend or son or brother or whatever.
So I think that change has been really great, and that the visibility obviously leads to a lot of policy changes, and that’s been great. But still, a massive problem is that the people who are the more marginalized in our culture are still the more marginalized in trans culture. Broadly, trans women of color are still facing way more barriers—way, way more barriers—than the rest of us, and that’s not something that mainstream America or media is really spending a lot of time and energy on. Laverne Cox, specifically, is a huge activist on this stuff, and she’s a really wonderful person. I know she also feels very strongly that there’s a long way to go.
I hope that we don’t lose sight of the more vulnerable and marginalized among us, because that’s historically what happens again and again. We just continue on in the same situation where the people who pass, who have power and privilege, continue to amass more of it and then the people who are the most vulnerable continue to be vulnerable.
Greicius: Yeah, and I think more people are able to normalize this experience. I have felt grateful knowing you, because it’s given me a real opportunity to talk to my kids about someone’s genuine experience, and not just what they see on TV or what they read—if they even see or read anything at their level.
I was amazed that my son’s high school had an entire segment on sexuality and gender that was really inclusive. It became a touch-point for us to talk about it at home, and on many occasions. For me, as a parent, that’s a piece of it that I think is missing: schools and families incorporating discussion of this experience into their lives, to understand it.
McBee: Sure, and beyond the fact that trans people exist, the reality is we all have a gender, and it’s a problem when people don’t realize that, no matter what their gender is. I think understanding that and unpacking it is important. Trans people make that gender conversation much more urgent and maybe more visible in a certain way. But, specifically with men, the ability to say, “You have a gender; you’re operating in the world from a gendered place. What is the gender that you’re choosing? What is the gender being put on you? What do you want to change about the way that you’re proceeding to move in the world and how would you like to change relationships between different gender identities? How would you like to operate in your masculinity that hopefully doesn’t feel as rigid?”
For a lot of men, I think that’s the biggest sort of immediate personal concern is just feeling very claustrophobic in masculinity. So the opportunity to say, “You don’t really have to feel this way,” whether or not you’re trans, creates a lot of opening and a lot of ability to be yourself without that. And I think that makes you a better person to other people, too, trans or not.
Greicius: I think that would be such a relief for everyone, not just for men. I think it makes everyone feel claustrophobic, and looking at gender as a spectrum and letting it open up—I think that’s a beautiful way to go. So what’s next for you, Thom? What are you working on now?
McBee: Right now, I’m working on a column for the Pacific Standard called “The American Man.” It’s gonzo reporting where I go into a bunch of homosocial male spaces and report back on what’s happening there. The concept is to do a survey of modern American masculinity, and also to ask these sorts of questions and maybe be surprised, and to bring a compassionate, clear perspective and interrogate some things a little bit harder.
I’m also interested in generational differences in terms of how younger men are thinking about masculinity, which I see as radically different than older men. So that’s a column I’ve been doing usually about once or twice a month, and it’s going be the basis of a book proposal that I’m working on along the same idea. So that’s the main idea, to do a more reported book. There’s still a lot of me in it, but I really wanted to bring in other voices, other experiences, especially to examine a male experience from a million different angles and hopefully get people really thinking about masculinity in new ways.
Greicius: What are some of the situations you’ve covered so far?
McBee: One is about boxing, which is me going to this boxing class. It’s about class and the ways we manifest masculinity differently, and also a lot about violence. My relationship to violence is really different. And I’m very heavily monitoring that relationship, maybe a little bit from a place of anxiety but also a place of interest, you know?
So that one is a lot about that the way men can be nurturing by being protective. It’s sort of a story about that, about what it means to feel that kind of instinct. Is there a way to be responsible when you desire to protect someone you love from a bad person? And then being in this boxing class, where everybody is there to safely unleash a lot of emotion.
Greicius: That’s a good place to release it.
McBee: The one that I just sent to my editor is about going to a bathhouse during all-male hours, so basically when it’s pretty gay. I’m not gay, but doing that as a person in this body. But it’s all really about exploring parts of my masculinity where I feel like I might not pass. And how are other men navigating those same spaces? Is anyone having the same experience as me, and how, if they’re not also trans?
Greicius: It’s wonderful, because this hasn’t been done before, not only to have a poet exploring masculinity at a depth that you’re exploring it, but also to just overturn, to look under the rock of all this stuff and see what’s really living under there. It’s a gift. It’s such a great thing to start conversations around and just really to enjoy reading. Your work is such a pleasure to read, and so I’m glad you’re doing it and you should never stop.
McBee: Thank you. Well, you’ve been such a big part of it.
Greicius: I’ve been a little part. You’re the least-edited writer I’ve ever worked with, so that just makes me look good.
McBee: Well, until you said that you loved the book, I didn’t feel like it was done.
Greicius: Oh! Well, I love it.
McBee: It’s done! Finally.