Cooper Lee Bombardier | Longreads | August 2018 | 15 minutes (4,084 words)

In his new book Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man, journalist and memoirist Thomas Page McBee trains for a charity fight. The book interweaves his immersion in the world of boxing — McBee became the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden — with research, interviews and stories that explore how we’ve arrived at a moment of collective reckoning with the toxic masculinity in American culture.

Amateur is an ambitious project, questioning not only what it means to be a man in our current culture, but what it means to be a trans man, interrogating the opportunities and privileges arrived at through a shift in socialization and lived awareness. The change in how others treat him as a man — at times better and worse in equally disturbing measure — as well as reports of masculinity’s demise, like the 2010 Atlantic cover story “The End of Men” which declared America to be in the throes of a “masculinity crisis,” spur McBee to search for a healthier idea of what it means to be a man.

McBee is a compelling and thoughtful guide through the troubling maze of American masculinity. Amateur asks what we do with our privilege and our bodies and criticizes the version of masculinity we have accepted as normal. The book is an important addition to our broader cultural conversation around male violence, particularly post-election and in the wake of the #MeToo movement. McBee engages with the work of scholars who for years have been unraveling the Gordian knot of American masculinity; through their input and the author’s own journey, Amateur is optimistic about men’s capacity to transcend poisonous narratives of gender.

The harrowing moment of street harassment described at the beginning of Amateur is not McBee’s first experience of violence at the hands of a stranger. In his first book, the Lambda Award-winning Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man, McBee writes about surviving being mugged by a man who had killed other men in similar attacks, making the decision to transition, and facing off with the stepfather who had sexually abused him as a child. As a trans man who has also reckoned with violence at the hands of other men and who struggles to create for myself a path toward a feminist expression of masculinity, I was eager to catch up with McBee to discuss these issues and how we as trans men might be uniquely poised to witness masculinity for not only its flaws but also for its potential for positive change.

Cooper Lee Bombardier: Thanks so much for doing this and making the time. How is it going? What has the response [to Amateur] been like so far?

Thomas Page McBee: Thanks! What’s interesting this time around is that it’s being published in the UK simultaneously. I’ve been talking to a lot of UK media, and getting a sense of the conversation happening over there. I think that the UK is in a really different spot right now on trans issues. They’re having a lot of heated public debate about trans bodies.

How does it compare to American dialogues?

It’s been interesting to talk to folks over there who may begin the conversation with what I think of as the “trans metaphor” around their interest in the book, because we usually end in the place that I like, which is: “every body has a gender.”

Yes! We all have a gender! I love how the book reveals this, especially in the setting of the boxing gym.

I think Americans are not immune from the same blindspot especially vis a vis cis masculinity, but I think the emergence of trans visibility makes conversations with American media a bit different. But it’s still the same trick — to get folks to think about their own gender if they’re not trans.

I’m of the belief that we all have to face our own rejected parts  — what Jung calls our shadows — in order to genuinely make a cultural shift.

I really wanted to talk with you about this beautiful book because of the way my own life has been impacted by male violence — an experience with street violence was what first led me to a boxing gym. It was a long time ago, before I medically transitioned, but my gender was most certainly a factor. I stuck up for some women — strangers to me — who were being harassed and verbally threatened with sexual assault by a group of young guys. I responded verbally and got beaten up by about four of the guys. I’d chosen to engage, so I refused to feel victimized, however I was pretty jumpy for a long time afterward.

It wasn’t my first experience of violence, nor of getting punched in the face, but it was my first experience of violence like that at the hands of total strangers. I had no delusions that learning to box would allow me to emerge victoriously from such a situation, but I wanted to understand why some people move through the world intruding upon others. Plus, I’d hoped the boxing gym would teach me to emerge from such scenarios with less trauma, shame, and fear. I wanted to learn how to feel safe in my own body.

Do you have a better understanding of what compels a man to act that way in the first place? What do you think drives a man to act that way toward a total stranger?

Thanks for sharing your terrifying story. I’m so sorry that happened to you.

Thanks, man. I’ve learned better de-escalation skills since then.

I think that boxing was a proxy at first for one big question: Why do men fight? But really it led me to a bunch of related questions about masculinity, violence, and how I could possibly find a way to not internalize aspects of toxic masculinity that I could feel myself steeping in, just by living in this body in this culture. So, in that sense, I think boxing wasn’t the answer, but it was a way to engage differently with the question of violence, which gave me courage to really question my own understanding of masculinity, and to define my relationship to it from both a personal and social perspective.

I do think I know why men pick fights like that. I learned a lot, in reporting this book, about how we systemically socialize boys to divorce themselves from their humanity in order to uphold the power structures of this culture. We’re all complicit until we choose not to be anymore, and the truth is, “succeeding” at masculinity in a normative way is about power, domination, and, as the NYU psychologist Niobe Way told me, not being “girlie or gay.” The guys who hurt you are obviously responsible for their actions, but part of my thesis is that this behavior isn’t an individual problem: we’re just seeing the individual extremes in these cases. We all have to reckon with what we’ve been taught about what being a man means if we are ever going to eradicate that sort of violence.

It seems that our culture still has high penalties for not upholding the status quo of toxic masculinity for boys and men, while there has been a lot more expansiveness in terms of how a woman can be. It feels like we are at a breaking point with toxic masculinity, if not at least at a precipice. Like the forces that most benefit from this are throwing all they can into the last of this fight.

Yeah, though I think, again, that nobody is really off the hook as long as white men enjoy the status we do in culture. I mean that in reference to myself in passing, of course — as a trans man, I experience a different kind of marginalization. But I think the first step that people who see themselves — problematically, actually — as “good guys” can take is to interrogate more deeply where they aren’t so “good.” The larger cultural issues aren’t happening in a vacuum, and I’m of the belief that we all have to face our own rejected parts — what Jung calls our shadows — in order to genuinely make a cultural shift.

So, absolutely, we are seeing a wave of sexism and toxic masculinity and, relatedly, racism that is out in the open due to our current political circumstances, and it’s all being normalized within some populations in a very scary way. But, also, there is plenty of toxic masculinity going on in more subtle ways in pretty much every interaction I have with men who’d consider themselves progressive. I think it’s hard to tackle these larger problems without making it a priority to look deep within ourselves and our friends and relatives and clean up our own side of the street.

I was actually pretty comforted by the historians I spoke to for the book — particularly Nell Irvin Painter, the race historian. I think understanding the breadth of this noxious history in a deep way is actually good context, because — and I know it sounds cliché — we really are in an opportunity, if we choose to take it, to fight the dragon here. But I think, again, we must first do some serious self-reflection because none of us are immune to culture. We’re social organisms, and it’s not our fault that we live in this world, but I think it is our responsibility to illuminate it and change. And that, in my opinion, really does start with oneself.

But I agree about the breaking point. It’s sort of like — all the crises we’re in right now, which I would argue are all related to toxic masculinity: environmental, humanitarian, etc.

A big part of toxic masculinity is to not question anything about being a man. It felt to me very dangerous to do so, even in writing this book.

Right, I agree that all white men are implicated, including us. I’m glad that both here in this conversation and in the book the element of how whiteness operates in tandem with masculinity is kept in view. It’s so important, and it is vital that we start by looking at ourselves. It is easier in many ways to shrug off responsibility and to point fingers at the most obvious culprits and beneficiaries of patriarchy, but you’re right in how “good guys” still get a payoff , and it is really uncomfortable to admit, but to not face it is to stay stuck here, in this cultural moment, in a sort of purgatory.

Will you say more about the subtle problems you’ve experienced in interactions with progressive men?

Yeah, though I also want to say: I have a “no shame” attitude toward life. I think shame — as opposed to guilt — is toxic and inherently not useful. So, I think that helps in looking at these issues, and getting men — especially white men — to maybe think about this a little differently. No one is born “bad,” nor is being in any particular body “bad.” Behavior can be bad, and behavior can be changed. When I started asking myself questions about my own notions of masculinity, it wasn’t from a place of shame. I just felt so limited, so suddenly afraid of becoming the kind of man I’d grown up in fear of. So, to me, all of this is about liberation and freedom. I think we’re all interconnected, and I believe that justice for everyone comes from facing our own humanity, for better and for worse.

I feel you. Shame just keeps the machine whirring, right?

Totally. Shame does absolutely nothing but make people shut down, defensive, and toxic. But to your point, I spoke to CJ Pascoe about a great paper she wrote about what she calls the “anti-Trumpists,” where she basically argues that folks on the political left were using many strategies of toxic masculinity to undermine Trump and his supporters, like focusing on penis size, or implying that he and Putin are sexually involved.

God, yeah. I think early stories I’d heard from trans men compounded that fear for me, too. I’d read about guys who transitioned ages ago perpetuating tropes that I let hold me back from exploring transition sooner. The “‘roid rage” or “I never cried again” narratives. Not that I judge people for whom this is true, but I grew up in a very rageful environment, had to spend years learning how to not act from that place myself, to heal and undo, and I was terrified to get stuck there. I didn’t see a lot of models in the ‘90s for trans guys having choice and agency about the way they’d enact their masculinity socially.

Totally. I mean it wasn’t until really recently that I think we could feel secure at all in the hope of basic human acceptance and dignity and medical intervention for those of us who wanted it. I feel like passing into the night was the only option for a lot of trans men especially, and a big part of that — and toxic masculinity in general — is to not question anything about being a man. It felt to me very dangerous to do so, even in writing this book.

I love the questions you raise in this book. They need to be asked, we need to keep asking and writing. One of my favorite passages in the book is when you discuss Sarah DiMiuccio’s research of the Danish definition of a man, which is no longer to be a boy, while in America, men say that to be a man is to not be a woman. I love this. I want American men to take up the notion that their manhood is predicated upon them no longer being a child, not upon proving they’re somehow the antithesis of “woman.”

Yes, I think that this study, even though it’s obviously not a large one, just so elegantly nails the fundamental, sexist, and truly harrowing notion that for most American men, their entire sense of self is contingent (whether they know it or not), on rejecting women and anything they perceive as “feminine.” That explains so much about is going on in our culture.

I’ve come to realize that everyone passes. Most of us aren’t walking around with our souls out all the time, being everything that we are and ever have been.

Yes. There is an explicit misogyny in the idea that “man” means “not woman.” But if we were to focus on being adults rather than rejecting women and femininity, this could be transformative.

Agreed! I try really hard to identify as an adult, even when it’s a real challenge to do so. It’s also, as Niobe Way pointed out in a different context — she works with adolescent boys — related to the notion that, in this rejection of the “girlie and gay,” we systemically socialize boys out of supposedly “feminine” qualities that are what makes us human, like empathy and physical affection and deep intimacy. Trading away those things — she looks at male friendships in adolescence specifically — for sexual power, for instance, and other forms of status is detrimental to the girls and also the boys themselves.

How do you think this project — the idea of immersing oneself in an environment or process — informs your awareness as a writer? Did the writing process feel different?

The truth is, I wrote this book at kind of two times, which was really strange but also, I think fruitful, because it fell on either side of the 2016 presidential election. The fight itself, and the reporting I did related to that, happened before the election. I published an article about the fight in 2016 on Quartz, then sold a book based on the article, which I began in earnest after the election.

I knew that this story wasn’t about just me, and I’d made that case in the original article, but I felt like the political circumstances brought questions of masculinity to the front of everyone’s minds. So, it was a challenge, but a meaningful one, to hold what I knew intuitively before 2016 at the same time as what came to be very clear in the years that followed about toxic masculinity and its continued, cancerous effects on our culture.

I loved the chapter that discussed “passing,” its history and its implications, and also the idea that one is not “passing” if they’re being seen as what they, in fact, are. When you write about the reaction of others, the implication of “passing” as “not-trans” is really complicated. For me anyway, there’s been moments in the past when it’s been hard not to want to take the cookie from cis people when they’ve had that “I had no idea, good job” reaction, even while I know it is fucked up and creates a weird dichotomy between trans people who aren’t read by cis folks as trans and those who are. It’s so ingrained to want that acceptance in some way. What have been some of the biggest surprises to you around being seen correctly in terms of your gender?

I think, for me, “passing” has always been fraught because I feel like my queer history gets erased, and I guess I didn’t envision that because I’ve only ever been queer. I came up in queer culture, I came out at 14, and I really don’t have another lens on the world until recently. But, I think, on the other hand, I’ve come to realize that everyone passes. Most of us aren’t walking around with our souls out all the time, being everything that we are and ever have been.

Sometimes, in my passing, I do feel more seen. Other times, I feel less seen. I’ve come to see it as a fact of existence, like anything else.

At the end of Man Alive, the narrator seemed so sure of what it meant to be a man, to live as a man and to be treated as a man in our culture, at the very onset of his journey into transition, and I remember thinking, oh dude, it’s so much weirder than any one of us can even anticipate. Has that turned out to be true for you? Have you been surprised by how differently you’re treated now compared to a few years ago? How would you describe the difference between the narrators of these two books, and how has that narrator changed? 

Wow, interesting question. I read somewhere once that the first step of identity formation is to figure out who you are, and the second step is to sort out your place in the world. I think that the person I was in the first book was doing the former, and Amateur concerns the latter. I was very sure of who I was when I was alone with myself. What I wanted to interrogate, investigate, and challenge [in Amateur] was the social role of “being a man,” and that concerned my reaction to the narrative external to me, and how it was shaping me, and my desire to be the narrator of my own story. Which meant really learning what story I was internalizing, and identifying the dissonances I experienced with that story, and then working to challenge those aspects and make a new story. So, basically, growing up.

My feminism looks different on this body. Before, I was invisible, and I had to be assertive and even aggressive to be heard, to insist on myself. In this body, my feminism is about holding space, listening, and being open.

The book references Suzuki Roshi’s concept of beginner’s mind, which is a helpful lens through which to navigate masculinity, because it asks us to stay curious and not just land on a conclusion and remain there indefinitely, it allows us to always evolve. Do you think there’s a way in which the concept of beginner’s mind might be at odds with the aims of memoir as a form? In other words, do you think the genre of memoir pressures us as writers “to know” or to arrive at a conclusion that one may not have yet, or to ignore that the questions are perhaps more important than answers?

I think beginner’s mind is definitely a resistance to memoir, and I intended it to be. I’m so interested in narrative, and the stories we tell, and why. I think storytelling can be very healing, and it can also be deeply hurtful. It can make visible, and it can erase.

I specifically wanted to write a sports story because there is a format we’re all familiar with, particularly in a boxing story, and I thought it would be interesting to fuck with that format. What if being a champion doesn’t mean what we think it means? What if I don’t have all the answers, but instead all the questions? What if being visible doesn’t mean being perfect, but being messy?

That being said, a book has to have an organizational structure, and for most people, that’s a guiding thesis or central idea. I wanted to refuse a tidy narrative, but I also needed to bring people along for the ride. I tried to make the process visible instead and ask the reader to take a different sort of hero’s journey. The hero’s journey, after all, is just a cultural invention too.

Will you say more about how grief was policed on your body? Do you mean it was policed in terms of expression, like grief must be gendered in a specific way?

Yeah, I think losing my mom just made me want to cry all the time, and it also filled me with rage. And both of those expressions looked very different on this body. I was hugged and touched less by friends after she died. I also felt like my anger, though part of the grief process, came across as scarier in this body. I hadn’t had rage yet as a man — I’m not an easily angered person — and I had to do a lot of self-modulating, even though it also felt like the only feeling that was “acceptable” to express.

But in its own strange way, I’m glad that grief just howled through me to the point where I was like, “Fuck this, I have to be the man I know I can be, if not for myself, for my mom and the people in my life.” It felt like she was still teaching me how to be a better person, even in her death. My mom had a lot of courage, and a lot of pain. I really try to learn from it all.

The presence of your mother throughout the book is a beautiful testament to how she wanted to raise you to be exactly the person you are now.

Thanks, Cooper. That means a lot!

I was very moved by your exploration about what it means to no longer be touched by people other than one’s lover. What really saddens me is that this experience has an analog, right, for you of having been touched more before you transitioned, and what the implications of this are for boys who become men in a culture devoid of this basic connection. It’s difficult sometimes for me to find a sweet-spot in public; between trying to avoid taking up space in a toxic manner, or at least a less-than-inclusive manner, and avoiding shrinking up into a sad simulacrum of a person. I think being a man can be a lonely thing, especially when men choose to remain hemmed in by the societal status quo. Are you surprised by how disconnected men can seem out in the world?

I was surprised, for sure, until I reported out this book. It really upset me to feel that, in order to be a man, I had to reject what Niobe Way would say was my humanity. There is nothing about boys that make them distinctly less empathetic, or vulnerable, or capable of intimacy: We just punish them until they learn not to be those things. Even as an adult man, I struggled with socialization that rewarded my being “strong,” and punished me for appearing “vulnerable.” So, I’m with you. I think finding that balance is really important and, for me, it’s helpful to see it as a feminist act. My feminism looks different on this body. Before, I was invisible, and I had to be assertive and even aggressive to be heard, to insist on myself. In this body, my feminism is about holding space, listening, and being open.

Have you kept up with your boxing training? How has that been? 

I think about boxing every day, but I haven’t been back in the ring since the fight. I sort of thought it would be this contained experience, but now I don’t know. I kind of want to get back in there, open the box back up, and see what happens next.

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Cooper Lee Bombardier‘s writing is published in The Kenyon Review, CutBankNailed Magazine, and The Rumpusand in Meanwhile, Elsewherewinner of the 2018 American Library Association Stonewall Book Award.

Editor: Dana Snitzky