Far from a transgender transition tell-all, here is a personal yet universal story of charting one's course to ultimate self-recognition.
About the Author
Thomas Page McBee was 'masculinity expert' for Vice and the first trans man ever to box at Madison Square Garden. His essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times , Playboy , Glamour , and Salon.
Read an Excerpt
August 2010/29 years old
What makes a man?
It's not that I haven't studied them: their sinew, their slang, their violence; but before I was held at gunpoint in Oakland on a cold April day, I couldn't have told you.
A real man, a family man, the Marlboro man, man up.
The man in the mirror.
I loved that Michael Jackson song, growing up. Used to forget my girl-hips, used to sing it to my best imagination of myself.
That question What makes a man? is what ultimately led me to my father’s hometown in hot-damp South Carolina. The story starts there because I could no longer afford to leave it alone, to let it rear up every few years, when I’d had too much to drink and it was just me and my reflection and my hungry ghosts. And so I steered my rental with my cap pulled low. I had that passing swagger, scars like smiles across my chest, a body like a unicorn, a body brutalized, a body I was just beginning to love.
But the story also begins the night I almost died, back in April. And it begins in 1985, when my father became a monster, and in 1990 when my mom found out and announced as much.
“Men,” she’d said. I’d learned to say it the same way, a lemon in my mouth.
In South Carolina I could smell it through my open window: alligators and secrets; the embers of Sherman’s march, the Klu Kux Klan, my father’s farm, burning. It smelled like my animal fear and the spicy deodorant I used to cover it.
Men, I’d thought with that old curdle, but I already knew my body was shifting. In fact that’s why I was there.
A good man is hard to find.
In South Carolina, the windshield blurred; the road was inky, the rain biblical. The cheap motel off the highway seemed like not such a hot idea after I passed my fifth gun-racked pick-up, but there wasn’t any turning back.
Once a body is in motion, it stays in motion. My mom’s a physicist; she told me that.
The truth is, this story’s a ghost story. No, this is an adventure story.
This is an adventure story about how to quit being a ghost.
April 2010/29 years old
Here’s what you need to know about Parker: she hummed with something you and I don’t have, this magic that vibrated her long strides, her quick-wit, her dressings-down. Though softened by Southern manners, her mood could turn sharp as a knife’s edge, and it wasn’t too hard to find yourself on the sticking side of it. I’d seen her make a cat-caller wither and call a real dick of a roommate a piece of shit, repeatedly, until it seemed he just sort of disappeared, his stuff packed and gone within the month.
It was like loving a hurricane.
Tonight she was wound-up and freckled, the plastic bag with a new pair of shoes tossed over her shoulder. We’d spent the day in San Francisco, bumming around and eating veggie burritos and seeing a play neither of us cared for about three generations of womenit was always three generations of womenand I felt tired and safe in a way I’d come to associate with a sense of home.
Parker was excitable, swinging her shoe bag as we left the Macarthur BART station, holding forth on the problematic and complicated nature of associating women with domesticity in narrative. She was in her French New Wave phase, and it suited her: short hair, shirts thick with nautical stripes. She looked like Jean Seberg in Breathless, her blue eyes big as saucers assessing, though beneath that, a kindness so clear it was almost painful. I squeezed her hand and she startled into holding my gaze.
“What?” she asked.
It made sense to me that she’d want to protect that softness, though I’d never been good at guarding my own. I didn’t say any of this, of course. I shook my head, and she smiled at me. Six years in, she knew.
Mostly, she was a smart ass. “I have an opinion on everything,” she’d say.
“Whales?” I’d ask.
“Love them! Key to the ecosystem; smart.”
I’d try to think of the most innocuous, boring subject. “Row houses?”
“Depressing in brick, cute in wood.”
I wished I was half as engaged, cutting through space so freckled and powerful, owning the sidewalk or the turnstile or the barstool.
Parker also had strong opinions about walking home so late, and I knew why: our friend who discovered a man under her bed, our friend who was bound to a chair during a home invasion, our friend that got punched in the face in broad daylight for no good reason. Crime in the Bay felt off-kilter, dark and secret. I’d never admit to Parker how often I’d bristled at the sound of footsteps on Market, or shrunk back from meth heads wheeling with their wild bodies down Castro.
I was the one who leapt first. I couldn’t afford to be afraid and I thought that meant being fearless.
So we walked tonight, even though it was the worst kind of foggy: you could breathe it in, feel it stick. I pulled my collar up, my hat down, my hood on. We walked because she was in a good mood, because we were broke, and mostly because I’d convinced her to.
We started down 40th, and I ignored my twitchy heart, stayed smug, walked tall. If I’d learned anything since I was a kid, it was that if I wanted my life to start, I needed to show up for it.
Foolish, maybe, but I’d peacock through a warzone before I’d admit that twitch.
1990 /10 years old
“You can tell me anything,” Mom said, her eyes wide, a flush creeping up her neck. 1985-1990. Her cursive was bubbly, effervescent, recording everything I said. The dates, she said, were for her records.
I told her, then, about Dad’s fingers in the pool, in the car on the way to her brother’s funeral, Sunday afternoons when she left for the grocery store and he parked Ellie and Scott in front of the television, when he knew no one would come for me. Ellie and Scott and I were each two years apart but it seemed we lived in three different houses then, with three different Moms and Dads, each of us seeing a different angle, each of us in separate, abutting childhoods.
Mine was chocolate milk, science fairs, camping, and the rituals that kept Dad’s hot breath distinct from the rest of it. I sat on the floor of the closet and threw shoes at the wall. I ran like a deer through the woods behind my house. I picked one tiny thing to look forward to and I shut my eyes at the worst moments. From his bedspread I jumped into the future and saw myself kicking the ball, high and sweet, into the corner of the net.
There are the facts of what happened, but the story is in parts. It is still hard to capture the salty terror of the worst of it, the freeze, the split: how I lost a body, or how I conflated the two ways my body was lost to me.
I was born female, that’s a fact. It’s true that I saw myself as a boy but it wasn’t until much later that the complex fact of my body needled at me. Later, people would say that my manhood was also always there, blueprinted in my scrappy jeans, my He-Man castle, my short hair. Maybe, but in an effort to be lifelike, let’s not make this the kind of story where I know all the answers.
What you need to know is that afterwards I’d read a book in my bathtub, and my little legs, hands, torso would return to me eventually, and that was what it meant to be alive: clean and immersed in a library book I could make sense of, breathing in the sharp smell of soap, touching the warm boundary of my skin to the scratchy bottom of the tub.
I didn’t tell Mom about this ritual, intuiting that to do so would encourage the cloak of guilt to hood her eyes, making her spooky and deaf to me. I never felt lonely when I had the damp pages of Great Expectations and the sharp smell of white soap to keep me company, but I couldn’t expect anyone to understand the good chill that rushed through me when Dickens hit me hard, the way my body spangled back to life when I saw myself in Pip’s tragic, romantic hope.
She called me Pip for years, but I never knew if we saw the same resemblance. Though I couldn’t explain it in elementary school, my hands pruned and my heart thundering from the heat, I admired his dogged faith, even in failure. I liked that he believed in something. Years later, after my transition, she’d call me “sweet boy” once, uncharacteristically, and I’d realize that maybe the similarity was as simple as that..
Either way, mostly I left out the bathtub because I didn’t want her to go mix herself a strong screwdriver and leave the lamp off in the failing light.
Instead, I allowed the translation to go forward in blue ink, sheaths of paper stacked neatly into a folder she said she’d use to ensure that we were never wanting. We were sinking into bankruptcy, and she wanted to keep him tethered to us. I didn’t understand it then, but this was her best vigilante justice, protecting us financially by hanging the threat of this story over him: it wasn’t my story but my silence that would keep me, all of us, alive.
“Just tell me the truth,” she’d said but I knew even then that most people don’t mean that so I didn’t tell her about the day in the living room, the way I retched, the terrible taste of him and the way I washed my mouth with soap and water but never got clean.
I stared out the window into the trees beside our house, my knees scratched and pulsating in a stinging drone. In 10 years, I’ll be okay, I promised myself each night now. Ten years seemed impossibly far away, double my lifetime, but something to hitch my hope to. My heart felt strung up in my chest. Panic tsunamied through me whenever I met Mom’s eyes: she looked like a stranger. Beyond her, the house felt tilted and too bright. I’d had a life of poetry and swim meets despite my father’s searching hands, and now I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I’d lost.
“I hate him,” she announced, startling me out of the gauzey silence. I nodded, but didn’t respond. I couldn’t explain to either of us why I didn’t. A part of me fluttered away, and I just let it go.
“Try to remember the first time it happened,” I heard her say, her voice business-like, the same as if she were quizzing me ahead of a math test. “You can tell me anything,” she added again, softening her tone.
I couldn’t help but think of the photographs I’d taken all summer of sticky stray dogs with matted fur and scabbed noses. The world seemed to me a place of beautiful, terrible things and I wanted to love them all. Women later touched my face too gently if I told this sort of story, as if I was some kind of miracle, as if it is not the definition of heartbreak to lose everything but faith.
I fiddled with my shoelaces and met my mom’s gaze. I felt movement in my ragged chest, a whole flock gearing up to depart. I let myself go.
“I was four,” I began. “At the old house.”
I sounded like someone else.