What It Means to Be a Man

Transitioning is about more than aligning your body with your mind: it’s about recalibrating your relationship to the world. Five trans men talk to us about their real rites of passage.

Getting laid. A first fight. Scoring the winning shot. These teenage rites of passage, especially for boys, and most especially for white boys, have been the subject of countless TV shows, movies, songs, paintings, and more. But where are they from? Whom do they serve? According to sociologist Tristan Bridges, co-author of 2015’s Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change, these cultural moments are created to will masculinity into existence, not the other way around. For boys specifically, a lot of rites of passage are centered around violence and humiliation,” Bridges explains—for example, the hazing that’s common in fraternities, which requires boys or young men with very little authority to “initiate” boys or young men with even less.

This pattern of initiation, Bridges says, is “ripe for abuse,” and not, as some would believe, an important part of becoming a man. “Whenever you define masculinity as a set of things, it’s the stuff most of us will define as toxic: capacity for violence, knowing I might have a capacity for violence, feelings of shame,” Bridges says. This creates a false dichotomy of “toxic” versus “healthy” masculinity, when the truth is much more nuanced, and requires of boys an inward-looking approach to gender formation that we rarely encourage.

That’s what I thought of when Topic first approached me about a “rites of passage” story about trans men: that looking inward. I didn’t think about needles, or testosterone, or the way my body broadened. Those things—the physical “transition”—are endlessly obsessed over in media and, frankly, boring. Aligning my body with my mind was the easy part. For me, and a lot of trans men I know, the challenge was grappling honestly with our newfound place in the world.

This is because trans men, like all humans, don’t stop growing once we pass through the encultured trials of adolescence. But trans folks are perhaps more aware of that growth, especially if we transition as adults. “We tend to think about socialization as something that just happens as kids,” says Miriam Abelson, a sociologist at Portland State University and the author of the forthcoming Men in Place: Trans Masculinity, Race, and Sexuality in America. “But socialization is a constant, and to the extent that we recognize that it’s happening, we can decide to push up against it or to take part in it.”

Still, stories about trans men, in the rare cases when we hear them at all, often position us as transcendent of gendered masculine norms—potential “feminist warriors,” as Abelson puts it, just by nature of existing outside the typical path to manhood. This ignores the reality that we all face challenges that are baked into a racist, sexist society. The men I spoke to for this story are men, then, who are exceptional, not because they are trans, but for the fact that they are actively grappling with all of the pressures men face in American culture to conform to “traditional” ideas of masculinity, in addition to the resistance they face due to the transphobic sense that their masculinities are “fragile” and up for debate.

Because I medically transitioned in my 30s, the privileges of white masculinity—and the perilous constriction of the “man box” that newly constrained me—were much clearer to me than they might have been if I’d been socialized male from birth. I saw the expectations of violence, the greased-wheel trajectory of my career, the new fear I inspired in women alone on a dark street late at night.

What I’ve learned is that all men have the capacity to examine what is expected of us. Surviving my transition has involved some of the traditional rites of passage (such as “becoming sexuality active, sports, military service, gaining physical mastery, having a strong body,” as Abelson says) but also, and at almost every turn, a radical reimagining of what being a man even means.


The Boxer

Patricio Manuel, 33, made history by becoming the first trans man in the United States to fight—and win—a professional boxing match, on December 8, 2018.

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Sparring men in a serious way was the rite of passage I looked forward to most after my medical transition in 2013. I was 28. I’d been fighting for ten years prior to my transition. I was really in high demand as a sparring partner on the women’s circuit, working with other world-class athletes, and so I knew the difference between light sparring and real sparring. I didn’t want men to just “work” with me. I wanted intensity. I wanted someone to give me honest-to-God, hard-work sparring.

Six months into my medical transition, my coach found me a guy to spar, an undefeated pro fighter. One of my biggest anxieties was to switch over to the male cup. I remember having to borrow a teammate's cup to do it because I didn't have one yet. Putting on that cup was claiming my manhood in this gym where I’d trained for years before my transition. I mean, this wasn't like a small gym or anything. These are guys that have gone on to be undefeated, challenge world titles, could have been Olympians. They knew I was trans, and everyone was watching to see what would happen.

In the end, my face was a mess. He could have went harder on me, but he was a really good puncher, and a heavier weight. I’d gotten big, but I didn’t know how to transfer my force. I really didn't have my full strength. I was like, “Oh shit, is this gonna get better?” I had some hesitation, even though I was telling myself, “You just started, you’re going to get stronger, you know how this works.” I felt frustrated, and a little coddled by my old coach, who had a hard time seeing my face busted up. It was a little like, “Do you believe in me?” And then ultimately he didn't, and that's how we ended up parting ways.

To be honest, it took a couple of years on testosterone to adjust, but I have an advantage over 12-year-old boys going through puberty. When I really started grabbing my masculine identity, I realized how much that shit was toxic. What my masculinity was prior to that was me emulating. You don't know any better, and often that's to the harm of so many femmes around us, and harm to ourselves because we're trying to prove ourselves, just like kids do. I realized as I went through my transition that I had to prove things to myself, but I also got to choose what I wanted to prove.

“When I really started grabbing my masculine identity, I realized how much that shit was toxic.”

I think one of the biggest problems with these rites of passage into masculinity under patriarchy and Western culture is domination of women and children. I wish I knew more about rites of passage in terms of my dad’s side, the African side. Slavery really fucked that up.

I love being a man, but my least favorite thing about being a black man is constantly being seen as a threat, or guilty, or prone to violence. I’m more likely to be arrested, and more likely to be killed. I’m not worried about being gay-bashed like I was before my transition, but violence is still present. It’s terrifying.

But then I’m thinking about older practices, indigenous practices. How can you become a man if you don’t know yourself? That was a big difference: I knew myself. When you look at older practices, there’s internal reflection, rather than seeking external praise for what you’re doing. We need to return to the spiritual side of masculinity. Boys and men are hurting, and damaged, and fractured. Men need to learn to do the internal work on themselves to put those pieces back together.

The Critic

Henry Giardina, 30, is a culture critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, NewYorker.com, New York Magazine, Popula, and other publications.

I used to have such a limited blueprint of masculinity. When I first came out as trans, I had this idea from early American literature that to become man required a rite of passage that was, basically, total isolation. I really internalized this idea that you go into the woods, and you either survive and come back a man, or you don’t. I thought to transition, I’d have to cut myself off from friends and family, take testosterone, transform, and come back when I look cis. I definitely thought I’d have to pass, that I couldn’t involve family, that no one could see the process because then they’d see my weakness.

I didn’t do that exactly, but I was always terrified of needing anything from anyone, so started I working at 14. I felt like asking for help meant I’d failed. I was using archaic ideas about manhood that came from books, movies, film noir heroes. These were guys who don’t talk, have maybe one line, and the rest of the film is them brooding alone. As an adult I can see that these are very dysfunctional characters, but as a kid I thought that’s what being a man meant.

And people did see me as strong. There was a way that isolating and having no social life, never talking about feelings—that was perceived as strength. I went back to college early during one winter break to work more, and my dad said, “You’re so strong, it’s really incredible.” But my mom and the female members of my family were like, “There’s something wrong.” They identified it as something fucked-up and weird; my dad was like, “Cool, man.”

I came out as trans at 20, and I read all these books by Victorian and Edwardian men, and adopted that voice in my writing. It felt strong and assertive, like no one could question me. I felt like a brain without a body. After my top surgery when I was 23, I got really interested in this beautiful, sacrificial-lamb type of masculinity: strong, but soft, like Morrissey. I was very influenced by the idea of the beautiful boy who was too pure for this world. I ended up with an eating disorder. I still struggle, but I’m more conscious of it.

A few years ago, I had a breakdown. I started to let go of not just my ideas of isolation and my body, but ambition as I’d understood it. I got a shitty job at a grocery store and worked there for a year and a half. I finally had a community. When you start caring about other people, when you let people in, listen to them, and are not afraid to show yourself to them, life becomes a lot better. It doesn't matter whether it's stereotypically female or not. I was lucky to be forced into a place where I couldn’t be an island.

I’m 30 now, I don’t pass at all, I’m not on testosterone, and I’m on the fence about taking it. Most people assume I’m female, which I used to hate but now I don’t care. I’ve realized that you have more control and more power than you think. If you let someone else determine your worth or your masculinity, you’ll always feel like shit. It's not about these mysterious forces that are either working with you or against you. It's about you, and it's about what you want to feel. There are literally no rules.

The Actor

Marquise Vilsón, 37, is an actor and man of trans experience. Catch him in the film Ben Is Back, on this season of The Blacklist, and in the forthcoming Netflix series, Tales of the City.

Going to the barbershop was a rite of passage for me when I first transitioned in my early 20s. I wanted to be accepted, respected, and to assimilate the way other men did. I wanted the privilege of being seen as aggressive and dominant. As a young person, I thought it was supercool. But the reality was often disturbing.

The way that men speak about women in those spaces can be disgusting. There’s often slander of queer culture. Homosexuality and gender identity are bashed at a lot of barbershops across the United States in black communities (though not always, I've had good experiences, too). But, overall, seldom have I heard men stand up or say something about what they’re hearing.

For me, what happened initially was a lot of not saying anything. To speak up is a challenge, and to play along with it is a challenge too. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt more empowered. There’s nothing cool about suggesting we can’t prioritize a woman’s needs, or respect women. I’ve realized that staying silent has nothing to do with keeping me safe. I have had to not only reimagine, but also reject and reframe that rite of passage to fit in line with my working moral compass and be unapologetic about it.

It’s part of growing up in New York City—in urban communities, speaking up is a rite of passage in and of itself. It comes with age, experience, navigating the world. Masculinity looks like a lot of things. It’s not the same in white culture as it is in black culture. Because I’m a black man, I live in a world that consistently says I need to make myself smaller so other people can feel safe. It’s off-putting and unsettling to be met with hostility and aggression because I’m black. I don’t appreciate being feared.

I’m also not less of a man or any less black because I have trans experience. In fact, the moment someone learns about my transness is the very moment my masculinity is being put to the test, with comments like, “Oh, I knew something was up,” or “You’re too well-groomed or clean-cut,” followed by, “I would have never guessed you weren’t a ‘real’ man.” Most people who use this phrase, “real man,” don’t have the slightest idea of what that even means. To be male, to be masculine—it is a privilege, and it comes with power. That’s true for cis men, and it is true for trans men. It’s not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all thing. But what it looks like, ultimately, is up to you.

The Dancer

Ashley R.T. Yergens, 26, is a dancer and performance artist. He’s a 2018–19 Jerome Foundation AIRspace Resident at Abrons Arts Center, New York.

A rite of passage for a white male dancer who has cis-passing privilege is the ability to do dance that’s not “about” identity. Or to a choose a form, like ballet or classic modern, where you tend to see men being more acrobatic and impressive and loud and lifting women, and basically creating very phallic imagery.

Because I’m out as trans, there’s a very narrow path for me in the dance world right now, because I'm not interested in perpetuating unintentional imagery of violence and domination toward women, which is exhibited in, say, ballet, with an emphasis on lifting up women who are, shockingly, still expected to look limp and waiflike.

Sometimes it’s about choices, and it’s hard. There is a white choreographer who’s asked me to try on her work. She has specifically said, “I don’t see you for your transness.” A part of me wants to hear that, but I know that “color-blind, gender-blind” idea is bullshit. If you don’t see that I’m trans, you don’t actually see me. Similarly, I don’t think it’s appropriate for whiteness to go unnamed. I’m going to have to say no.

I really don't know many trans women or trans men dancers who have undergone surgeries and hormone-replacement therapy and who get a lot of work, and I feel like part of the reason why is because some cis choreographers think our movement looks odd. Like, I look like a man, but I “have tendencies to move like women do.”

What is a masculine body? What does that mean to you? For a long time, unbeknownst to me, the way I understood masculinity was to think it meant actively choosing dominance and limiting my range of emotional expression to stoicism, or constantly repelling American stereotypes of femininity. It felt like all I was doing was deleting parts of myself, and not adding anything. What does this actually leave behind?

For me, a lot of issues related to being trans stem from disassociating and not confronting my body, not being objective about my body. I’m only two years into my medical transition, and even though I can’t always define what masculinity is, a lot of the work for me is to acknowledge the stereotypes of femininity that I have been trying to actively reject. As soon as I can identify them, I reconsider them. When it comes down to it, I always envision myself as a body with T in normal range. This is how I feel good.

The Writer

Thomas Page McBee, 37, is the author, most recently, of Amateur: A True Story of What Makes a Man (2018), a reported memoir about learning to undo toxic masculinity

For three months in a row, back in 2015, guys kept trying to street-fight me. I was 34 years old and four years into my medical transition, and my mom had just died. I think I was angry with grief, and so constricted by what I would later learn what sociologists call the “man box,” that I was—on some primal, dark level—looking for a fight.

I ended up asking this question, “Why do men fight?” and that led to me taking up boxing in order to report out a story, that later became a book, about the relationship between masculinity and violence.

I’d internalized that I wasn’t supposed to ever question masculinity, that the questioning itself made me somehow less “real.” That’s the great trick of patriarchy, right? For it to work at all, we have to agree that some of us are “real,” and that means the rest of us are not. To not be “real” felt terrifying, but to be the man I felt like I was “supposed” to be in the world felt equally troubling. The privileges of white masculinity were shocking and immediate. Whenever anyone thought I was cis, it was as if a world existed on top of the world I’d lived in all my life. At the same time, the pressures of being “real” were disturbing, and I found myself a bystander and even an active (if unconscious) participant in sexism at work, for example. I hated that my body at night on the street felt like a threat to women who crossed to the other side. I felt like I’d gone through all this to feel more at home in myself, which I did, but I felt less at home in the world.

The most vulnerable rite of passage for me was dealing with the locker room. It was one long bench, a dank space where guys stripped butt-naked after sparring, everybody on top of each other, talking shit. I was friendly with everyone, but I’d decided not to out myself as trans as I reported out my story, and it was scary to think that any of the guys could have looked at my junk and understood immediately my difference. There were times I was silent when I should have spoken up, times when dudes said homophobic things in front of me, and I said nothing because I was scared to draw attention to myself. I was afraid of being hurt, and that fear looked like complicity, because it was.

As I trained and then spent the next couple of years speaking to sociologists and historians and neuroscientists, I learned that asking my “basic” questions about masculinity was a way to upend all the toxic bits I’d internalized, while embracing the parts that resonated with me. It was a beautiful thing to find tenderness, vulnerability, and intimacy alongside aggression, fearlessness, and strength. I learned that I could fight for what I believed in, and that fight existed inside of me, even if I’d never been socialized into it. I could be the man I wanted to be—not “real,” but real. I’ve learned since how to speak up to men who say things that are homophobic or sexist or transphobic, and I think that knowing I know how to fight, that I have it in me—I think that helps.

The rites of passage just keep coming, though. I’m not boxing anymore, but I find myself in locker rooms a lot, and, until very recently, still found that nudity could paralyze me. But, to me, the best parts of boxing were about vulnerability—the unmasking of “weakness” is where I found bravery and strength, again and again. I learned that to be a man was just to be myself in my body. That was always ever enough.

So, just last month, I was at Korean spa in New Jersey that had a no-bathing-suit rule for the gang-style showers. I took a deep breath, and in a tiny towel, tried my best to peacock past a horde of men of all shapes and sizes, until I found a spot of my own between two middle-age guys. I didn’t look at them, and who knows if they looked at me. We were just a group of guys, naked together. I took a very long shower, fully exposed in front of a group of strangers, and I realized that I was confident in my right to exist as the man I am. I didn’t know how much I needed to know that until I did.

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