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Boys Do Cry: An Interview With Thomas Page McBee

with Scout Rose
Thomas Page McBee
Photo by: Kait Miller

 

Thomas Page McBee's Amateur is easily the most compelling trans-narrative I have ever read. But even writing that sentence feels weird, because Amateur is not the typical trans-narrative as you know it. There is no, "trapped in the wrong body," no "I've always known I'm a man," no voyeuristic descriptions of injecting T, and no tidy ending with McBee gazing in the mirror at his new "complete" self.

Make no mistake, McBee is trans, and this autobiographical account is indeed about transition, but much in the way that all stories - or good ones at least - are about struggle and growth. In fact, McBee regularly makes connections between his experiences and other broader human experiences, and in doing so, pushes against society's impulse to "other" trans people. 

No matter what you call it, Amateur is an incredibly important work that is especially timely as we escalate our reckoning with toxic masculinity. So vital are the discussions here that I'm tempted to gift this book to every masculine person in my life, trans or otherwise.

Prompted by an incident in which a stranger attempts to street fight him, McBee initially sets out to answer the question, "Why do men fight?" To answer this query, the author jumps head first into the world of amateur charity boxing and along the way is spurred to ask himself more questions such as "Am I a real man?" and "Am I sexist?" The result is a beautifully written and relentlessly honest exploration of masculinity and vulnerability.

I caught up with McBee to chat about his new book, gender-policing, crying, and more. 

--//-- 

 

You've made a career studying and writing about masculinity. Can you remember the first time you were aware that you were being gender-policed as a man?

 

When I started taking testosterone, I was 30 years old and I thought I knew the basics in terms of what masculinity was, and how I could transcend expectations that didn't resonate with me once I began my transition hormonally. But the way cis people attempted to affirm me was generally to treat me like "any other (cis) man"--and a lot of that kindness involved really rigid and relentless instruction about "how" to be a man.

Between the well-intentioned people I knew, and the feedback I got constantly from strangers, I remember that first year especially as a constant state of being policed. I was lucky to not experience much overt transphobia, but I was frustrated quickly by the expectations that went unstated in pretty much all my social interactions: That I be strong, stoic, and dominant (what I later learned sociologists call "the man box," which is also the foundation of toxic masculinity and, therefore, sexism).

Most of all, the message was that I not behave in ways associated with femininity, especially because my masculinity was "fragile," and so I was policed around qualities I really liked about myself, like my willingness to be emotionally open. This went on for years, actually, and it took me some time to identify what was happening, as I was also horrified by and attempting to manage all of the privileges I inherited for absolutely no reason in my white male body.

I think it took me a while to develop language around all of this, even though I knew it was going on. The time it became most clear to me that I was facing a different set of expectations was when a queer, feminist cis woman friend who I'd known for a long, long time gave me dating advice that was drastically different than she would have before my transition.

She told me that women didn't like "vulnerability," and that I should not be so honest about my feelings. I didn't listen, but that was when I realized how much everyone I knew had been encultured into toxic masculinity. And it was also when I seriously began to try to figure out how to escape it.  

Amateur Thomas Page McBee

 

 

How was experiencing grief as a man different from before? 

I lost my mom very suddenly a few years into my transition, and grief was another area where I realized that expectations of my body were very rigid and specific. I noticed that, even when I was sad, people rarely touched me. The older men in my life all shook my hand, no matter how catastrophic the situation we were all facing. My friends were great, but I noticed a remove that wasn't there before.

Eventually, I realized they were taking MY cues: I was removing myself, and I was doing that because I unconsciously believed that nobody wanted to hear about my feelings. I got that message so much in my years on testosterone, I'd just internalized it. I remember a few months after my mom had died, reaching out to a good friend who's known me since I was 16, and telling her that I was so depressed and felt so alone, I didn't know how to keep going. She was (understandably) shocked, and asked why I hadn't told her what was going on.

The truth was, asking for help had gotten harder (toxic masculinity). These sorts of dissonances helped me realize that I was losing myself, despite my best efforts, in really essentialist gender conditioning--and that it was happening beneath my awareness. These incidents built up until I couldn't manage them anymore, and that's when I began asking "basic" questions about masculinity which became my book, Amateur

 
 

I hear a lot of trans guys say that they have a harder time crying when they first start hormone therapy. You talk in your book about how testosterone does not make people angry. In your research did you find any correlation between testosterone and the expression of sadness or grief?

Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford neuroscientist, told me that the biggest myth about testosterone is that it "causes" aggression. It doesn't, because there are no "aggression receptors" in our brains. He did say testosterone causes "status-seeking" behavior, and that we reward aggression with status in our culture. They've run economic games where the point of the game is to cooperate and, in those games, men with the highest T levels are the most cooperative. BUT, when they give men a placebo and tell them it's testosterone, those men ACT more like assholes, despite not actually having taken testosterone. The impact of the narrative we have about testosterone and aggression cannot be overstated. 

The impact of the narrative we have about testosterone and aggression cannot be overstated. 

I did not, however, ask about the relationship between testosterone and expressions of sadness (or anger, explicitly), so I can't speak to that. I know that it's too easy generally to fall into the trap of thinking that hormones "cause" behavior when actually research seems to indicate that our behavior is largely shaped by our environment, as well as our bodies within that environment. That being said, "nature versus nurture" always seems a bit strange as a framing to me. How can you separate the two? In a parallel universe?

I think the broader point is that not expressing sadness is not "innate" to men. Plenty of men express sadness. And we know that boys are conditioned in boyhood to not express emotions because that's linked with "femininity." It would be wild to attribute an inability to cry regularly solely to an injectable hormone, when that is, in fact, a touchstone of how we condition masculine behavior in our environment. And, more importantly, I think searching for answers in hormones reifies this narrative that masculinity is innate when we know it's not. I don't think some trans men cry less on T because T makes you unemotional. I think some trans men cry less on T because, on some level, we've all internalized what being a man "means," and most people think that "boys don't cry." That doesn't make it easier to override your unconscious, but crying is healthy and normal, and plenty of boys--and men--of all gender backgrounds do it. 

 

 

Can you talk a bit about toxic masculinity? What exactly is it? And if masculinity and toxic masculinity are not the same, what is non-toxic masculinity? Does it exist? Can it?

 

This is a big question. Let me whittle it down so I don't write a whole thesis here: Masculinity is a gender expression and also a gender identity, though it need not be both. Toxic masculinity is shorthand for "hegemonic masculinity": A documented set of socialized behaviors in patriarchy that starts in boyhood (for those of us who have had boyhoods, and later for those of us who hadn't) by teaching boys that 1) masculinity is a state that is attained by being "real" 2) that feminine characteristics threaten that "realness" and 3) that the only way to be a "real man" is to be policed and police "realness" constantly by eradicating the "feminine" (aka empathy, vulnerability, listening, a need and capacity for intimacy) in oneself and others, and by being dominant over women and children, as well as other men. It is, in fact, the source of sexism, the foundation of patriarchy, and also (because I'm speaking mostly of how white masculinity is constructed here), the underlying structure of dominance that reinforces racism in our culture.

Literally, toxic masculinity is destroying the planet. 

It is also the driving force behind the "masculinity crisis" that has arisen post-recession, where out-of-work (white) men largely choose not to work over taking "pink-collar" jobs in fields like nursing, and the rise in "deaths of desperation" like suicide among middle-aged white men. It's also likely an underlying cause of environmental destruction: Men, a recent study showed, are much less likely to be environmentally friendly than women. The reason they cited? They felt that environmentalism was "feminine." Literally, toxic masculinity is destroying the planet. 

 

In your book, you also take a close look at your own behavior to examine the ways in which you might be performing toxic masculinity. What are some of the problematic behaviors that you discovered in yourself? 

Each chapter of the book is a question that came up for me about masculinity, and one big one for me was: Am I sexist? It was hard to admit at first, but once I took a close look at myself, I saw that I'd internalized all kinds of sexist ideas, especially at work. Also, a lot of my behavior was rooted in feminist ideas from before my transition: Being assertive, not taking shit, and so on. That worked well before, but it had really negative consequences for the people around me once I'd transitioned.

It was humbling and upsetting, but once I tracked my own behavior, it was very clear: I talked over women more than men, and answered emails from male colleagues faster. I was less likely to do emotional labor. I was aware that I'd gained many privileges (people listened to me more, I advanced faster, I got paid more, etc.), and I thought I'd been a good ally to the women around me. But, until I was willing to see how I had been impacted by our cultural conditioning, and really look at myself, I wasn't making conscious all of these things that had seeped into my unconscious, and so I couldn't see or change them.

Once I learned what I was doing, I could make the appropriate changes, which are ongoing and include: doing more emotional labor, listening instead of talking, being sensitive to not only my own voice but the voices of other men in a room and calling out when a woman is interrupted, and getting feedback from the women in my life about how I can be better. I had to re-learn how to ask for help in this and many other arenas, and it was crucial to my health and the wellbeing of those around me. 

 
 

Did you have a particular process or line of questioning that guided you to those discoveries? And what strategies did you have for figuring out how to change those behaviors once you found them? 

I think I answered that in the above, but I'll add that generally asking questions with what they call in Zen a "beginner's mind" really helped me. The idea for the book came to me after a guy tried to street fight me outside my apartment, and we almost came to blows. I wondered, in a very deep way, "why men fight," and I began to train for a boxing match in order to report out the answer. That led me to realize that I'd somehow come to believe, like most men do, that masculinity is a monolith and something I shouldn't question.

But asking questions, and being a real "beginner," led me to see that my perspective and history actually provided me a key to freedom. The questions weren't disconnected, but in fact, all led me to sociologists, historians, neuroscientist, and psychologists who'd been studying this conditioning, and who were empathetic about its effects.

This wasn't a unique issue for me, or for trans men: These questions were, in fact, intuitively leading me to people worried about the impact of socialized, toxic masculinity just as I was. I think asking questions with an open heart and mind always leads you back to yourself. But it can be scary to put yourself out there, especially if you still believe that "real" men don't question anything. It's a process to divest from toxic masculinity, but I think we're all capable of it. 

It's a process to divest from toxic masculinity, but I think we're all capable of it. 

 

Switching gears a bit, you've said before that you are thankful you didn't have a boyhood. I think a lot of trans guys really lament the fact they missed out on a cis childhood. I'd love for you to flesh out some reasons why you are happy you did not have one...


I wasn't thankful until I reported out my book. I wish I'd had a boyhood, of course, in some ways--but once I saw how much of this toxic socialization happens for boys, and what a terrible trial boyhood appears to be, I found myself happy that, as an adult, I'm much closer to the qualities that we train boys to reject. I only had a few years of socialization in this way, and I was already grown enough to understand that something wasn't right, and to be so uncomfortable as to write a whole book about it. Realizing that boyhood would have meant being indoctrinated much earlier into these ideas really allowed me to let go of my grief and be grateful to my adult self for seeing what was going on and stopping it. It also gave me a lot of empathy for boys. 

 

 

Following that thread, would you say that you are happy that you are trans?

Definitely. Trans people have existed across space and time, and I'm honored to be part of a long and crucial lineage. 

  

In terms of safeguarding against some of the more damaging effects of male-socialization, do you have advice for trans guys who transition young?

To be aware. To stay in touch with their intuition, and to ask questions. To learn what male socialization is, and to consciously choose what aspects of "masculinity" (and "femininity") resonate with them spiritually, and to integrate all parts of themselves into a holistic identity. That's the work of being human, trans or not. I think trans kids in some ways are way better positioned than most to really see that early. Don't let culture tell you what gender is. You're a literal expert. 
 
 

I saw recently that you now have an advice column for Them. I love that! Are there questions that you get asked repeatedly by other trans people?

They're pretty wide-ranging. I get asked a lot, as I assume most trans people do, how you "know" if you're trans. I think that's one of the more beautiful aspects of our lives: The way that we must know ourselves so deeply, and take this big leap of faith. I also think that that experience is part of many stories, trans or not, and that we're all better off seeing the trans experience as universal. We all make leaps of faith. If we're lucky, we get to know ourselves better in the process. It's messy and non-linear, and what you need most of all is an internal anchor.
If you transition, don't let anyone take [your] intuition away from you. Don't fall into "norms" merely because you're told that's "what men do."

I think that trans people have a powerful relationship to intuition because of it, and intuition is what allows for a liberated life. If you transition, don't let anyone take that intuition away from you. Don't fall into "norms" merely because you're told that's "what men do." I always say I didn't go through all this just to be dysphoric in a new way. But that sense of dissonance is important because it can guide you to a more authentic expression of yourself, no matter where you are in your journey. You just have to listen. 

--//--

 

You can find more of Thomas Page McBee's thoughts and work on his website and in his advice column for Them magazine. 

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