A powerful trans author says America socializes boys to fail

A powerful trans author says America socializes boys to fail
Image: Kait Miller
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Few people have investigated how gender is experienced across bodies with the depth and profundity that Thomas Page McBee has. In writing and speaking openly about his experiences with workplace gender discrimination, sexual assault, masculinity within romantic relationships and male friendships, and male-perpetrated violence, McBee, a trans man, equips everyone regardless of their gender identity to rethink what it means to be human.

McBee, a former editor at Quartz, is the author of Man Alive, named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014, and 2018’s Amateur: The True Story of What Makes a Man, about being the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden. He’s currently a columnist for Condé Nast’s them, and a writer on Netflix’s forthcoming show, Tales of the City.

At the heart of McBee’s observations about masculinity is the idea that there is no such thing as a “good man” or a “bad man,” and that believing otherwise only distances us from the systemic gender oppression we all contribute to, and are all damaged by.

In this interview with Quartz, McBee explains why masculinity isn’t a fixed state, how thinking about gender can be fun for men instead of imprisoning, and how we can separate the toxic myths we’ve been systemically socialized to believe about gender from the possibilities that now lay before us.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

Yes, I’ve thought about workplace inequality since I was a child. My mom was a physicist and the first woman in her family to go to a four-year college. She eventually worked for Ted Kennedy, and then as an executive for General Electric. I am a trans man, so I was not socialized male. Growing up, my mom was very invested in both my sister and I understanding the challenges of the workplace for women, and also the rewards. I later became educated more fully in feminism, and after my transition have continued to focus on gender equality broadly, including workplace gender equality, in my writing and thinking about masculinity.

I think Me Too was an excellent reminder for me that, despite my socialization (and my own experience with male violence), I don’t always know how to best support the women around me in my male body. Its rise coalesced with a moment in my life where I was really trying to think differently about how I moved in the world, and it was a really great framework for the simplest acts of allyship a man (cis or trans) can perform for women: Listening. Making space. Believing. Standing in solidarity. Speaking to other men. It was useful to be able to work on those skills in a larger social movement, rather than a vacuum.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

Yes. I’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager. I like Gloria Steinem’s definition: “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men,” though I think it leaves out folks who are gender nonconforming. But the spirit of it—the equality and, especially, the humanity of all genders—is what my feminism is rooted in. 

Feminism is remarkably elastic. It’s existed as a social movement for at least 50 years in name—longer in deed—and drawn people of all backgrounds. Feminism also recognizes the profoundly negative effects of toxic masculinity on men, as well as everyone else). True feminism upholds trans rights. The women’s marches really highlighted, for me, the best of what feminism offers: inclusivity, diversity, and intersectionality. It’s a movement willing to examine itself. I think my feminism holds the entire scope of my identity, and I’m proud to call myself a feminist.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

In my writing, my primary focus has been to highlight the reality that men have a gender, and that masculinity isn’t a fixed state, or something that “happens” to you, but a political and social gender role that we have total control over. As men, I think the first and best thing we can do to make the lives of the people around us better is to be accountable to our own behavior. My new book, Amateur, reports out every “dumb” question I had about masculinity. After my transition, I really felt like I wasn’t supposed to question anything about being a man—and yet I was so uncomfortable with some elements of masculinity: things I internalized unconsciously after a very rapid socialization (I medically transitioned at 30) and found myself doing, like taking up more space in conversations, or not showing my feelings. So I felt that to be a good person, and a good feminist, and to just live authentically in my body, I needed to root out the aspects of socialization that were detrimental to me and the people in my life. That’s a job I’m still doing, but I think I’ve got a pretty good blueprint for how to do that now. 

In reporting that book, and working on redefining masculinity to work for me, I developed some best practices that I do daily. Most of them have to do with behaving in the ways I was socialized before my transition, in order to take responsibility for my body, by making space for and acknowledging, women and gender-nonconforming people. I do a lot of listening. I ask for feedback. I say when I’m wrong. I don’t shy away from failing in order to save face. I acknowledge and share in emotional labor. I use my privilege to highlight injustice. And I do a lot of work among men to push back on notions of masculinity that are problematic.

Pretty much nothing about masculinity is monolithic. There is very little truth to the idea that gender is mostly biologically “innate.” This myth upholds the power dynamic that keeps men in charge, but at a great cost: our ability to be fully expressed human beings, since our power is predicated on our ability to deny all that is “feminine” within and outside of us. We, like all organisms, are very reactive to our environments. I try to make my environment an empowering, humane, and equal one, every day.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

The deeply rooted belief for many white men, that power and masculinity and whiteness are an entwined birthright. I think the tendrils of that belief are ingrained in our unconscious. It is encoded in our social systems, our child-rearing, and our behavior in ways that, if left unexamined, will continue to destroy us (skyrocketing suicide rates among men), the environment (men are much less likely than women to be stewards of the environment), women (men commit violent acts at rates highly disproportionate to women), and each other. 

It is hard to give up power, and I understand that it might feel counterintuitive for cis men to do so. But I really believe that we each have a true north, and there is not a person alive who can look me in the eyes and tell me that their true north involves homophobia, violence toward women, transphobia—or living within a constricted reality where emotionality is suspect and empathy is discouraged. Children of all genders don’t behave that way—we teach them to.

It is our responsibility, as a culture, to first look at ourselves and change our own behaviors so that we can be better parents, partners, coworkers, citizens, and friends. And I mean all of us, by the way. I’ve been pretty shocked to see how many liberal men quickly dis-identify with sexist behavior (“I’m not that kind of guy”) without once looking at where they actually are that kind of guy. As long as we see masculinity as an intractable proposition, that makes sense. But as soon as we begin to examine our own notions of what makes a man, we are in the position to actually challenge and change the aspects of masculinity that are harmful, even to ourselves. (And, just to say, I love being a man! I have risked a lot to live in this body, and I do so happily.)

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

Yes. The most effective strategy is to talk about masculinity and gender long before addressing sexism explicitly, which is something I do with all my male friends because I think gender is something we are all negotiating, not just women and trans people. If I witness sexism and I haven’t laid the groundwork, I find that the simplest strategy is to use my passing privilege to align with women, in whatever way is appropriate. Men are often bystanders, thereby making us complicit in behavior even if we don’t participate in it outright. Unless my immediate safety as a trans man is at risk, I refuse to be a bystander.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

After writing a book about all my biggest anxieties, I really feel like I’ve shed them. I have anxieties as a trans man that have to do with my physical safety, health care, and basic rights. But as a man, I know how to face my own shadows, and I realize that I don’t have to let the worst parts of masculinity define me. I’m sure more things will come up, but having a road map for that has been hugely useful. I feel much more comfortable and happy in my body after doing that work, and much more productive and aligned with my values in the world.

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

I feel like I’ve been pretty open.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

That it’s not about winning. It’s about being in reality. As a culture, we systemically socialize boys out of so many of the skills they need to navigate relationships: empathy and intimacy are traded for power and domination.  Winning is the problem.

If men criticize you for saying something you know is true, perhaps it’s worth getting centered in your own truth and questioning the notion that you have been taught to believe: that other men can decide if you are a “real man” or not. That’s a bizarre and pretty brilliant structure to keep you silent when you see things that aren’t right. As for not speaking loudly enough, I think that’s only true for men who are silent in the face of injustice. It’s hard to speak when we’re just parroting what someone on social media said, or attempting to keep our social standing with men while simultaneously not pissing off the women in our lives. It’s dishonest, and people can smell it from a mile away. I think men feeling this way should first get quiet with themselves. We are taught to act before we know what to do, to talk before we know what to say.

A meaningful life is one where your true values define your existence. What do you truly believe? Are you acting in accordance with those beliefs? In what way do expectations about your gender go against your core values? What if you experimented with standing for your values, and not your masculinity? I would suggest that the lasting work doesn’t begin on the internet, or at work, but alone with oneself.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

I continue to work on interrupting. I feel I’ve gotten much better at this, but sometimes I get excited and talk over a woman (I’ve noticed that it’s always a woman), and it silences her. Before my transition, I could talk at the same time as a woman on occasion and it made me part of a chorus. Now, it makes me a bulldozer. I work really hard on not doing that, and apologizing when I do. I mean, I’d take back a million things, but that’s the most persistent.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

My book is about boxing, and learning to fight in order to answer the question, “Why do men fight?” My coach, Danny, is the closet I’ve ever had to a male role model. His advice was to not be ashamed of my perceived weaknesses. Instead, he taught me to study them, to work with them, to turn them into strengths. Weakness is just a narrative we create when we haven’t figured out how to channel one of our strengths effectively. Our greatest strength and greatest weakness tend to be two sides of the same coin. For me, I think that’s being a beginner in pretty much every way. Embracing that, and building that out as a clarifying point of view, on gender and fighting, has changed my life.

My best advice for young men? I’m not so worried about young men. I think they are being exposed to a lot more diversity of gender expressions than any other generation of men before them. But for young, white, cis men I think the key is that you’re the captain of your story, and your story includes how you behave in the world. Masculinity is probably the single biggest mediating social aspect of your life, because it’s been designed to be that way.

My advice is to spend a little time investigating it, and making sure you’re cosigning on the role you’re being asked to play. If you care about gender equality, don’t just care about it in theory. Look at how gender impacts your body. See gender as a system that you can have a hand in changing.

Gender is actually a lot of fun. There’s nothing more liberating than living authentically, standing up for what you believe in, and not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks of you. That doesn’t come from toxic masculinity, no matter what we’ve been taught. That comes from critical thinking, the courage to question the stories that we’ve been taught, and using the power of your body to help other bodies gain access to the same power. There is no scarcity in an equal world. I think, in our hearts, if we really are willing to look, we all know that.