In his extraordinary journey, Thomas Page McBee traversed trauma and wound up in the ring at Madison Square Garden, brimming with a host of wisdoms on gender, identity, feminism and masculinity.
Design Matters From the Archive: Thomas Page McBee
author / feminism / gender / masculinity / poetry
(This essay was originally written in December 2019.)
We are, no doubt, traversing dark days.
Between the 24/7 political onslaught and the environment and geopolitical crises at large and the rigors of everyday life, that darkness can often feel pervasive—so thank god for those who bring the light.
Like, say, Thomas Page McBee.
He has long been a resolute survivor—of sexual assault at the hands of his father. Of familial strife. Of a mugging at the hands of a murderer, which prompted McBee, who was born into a female body but always knew he was a man, to realize he was ready to transition.
Today, in his memoirs and other work, McBee is not just a light, but lights the way. In his lyrical, meditative writing, one discovers a universe of brilliance, and quickly realizes that McBee’s experiences offer an unparalleled and striking lens into the subjects of identity, gender and privilege: There’s the moment he realizes that in his new male body, he can hold a meeting room at rapt attention simply by opening his mouth. There’s the way people stop giving him advice and assume he’s the master of any situation. There’s the new paradigm in which other men suddenly want to fight him after his testosterone takes hold.
There’s the fact that his father abused him because he saw him as female; the fact that his mugger nearly killed him for seeing him as a man before he had transitioned, only stopping when he heard McBee’s voice at the time.
After reading McBee’s two memoirs, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, and Amateur: A Reckoning with Gender, Identity, and Masculinity, one emerges with wholly fresh insights on the trans experience and so much more. Ultimately, McBee has said that he decided to focus his work in the publishing realm because that’s where he could have the biggest impact. As he has written, “It’s strange being trans in 2018. Everyone knows we exist, but very few people know one of us well enough to see us as complex, fully formed human beings. Trans people may be on more screens and magazine covers than ever before, but for the 84 percent of Americans who believe they’ve never met a trans person in real life, we still live in the realm of the imagination, theoretical at best.”
One gets the sense that his writings are a key part of a canon that, with hope, is a turning point—a light in the dark. But to see McBee’s work as only about the trans experience is to wield a reductive looking glass. For it’s always been about the power of human storytelling at large.
It’s worth noting that his writing is not just to be read for its macro moments. Some of his best words can be found in the smaller spaces—those in-between states where a life is truly lived. The following excerpt offers one such moment, following his first encounter with his father in years—McBee’s body and mind in a liminal state, the rest of his life stretching out before him like never before.
36 • Bend, Oregon June 2011 • 30 years old
I woke to the Little Leaguers outside the motel room, running their mad circles, welcoming the morning like screeching birds. I’m alive! they tweeted, back and forth, I’m alive!
Parker looked over at me. She smelled of ocean and wet pavement and the familiar spice of morning breath. I wondered how I’d smell once I was on testosterone, if I’d be muskier to her, less sweet.
“How you feeling?” she asked. I didn’t answer, just hopped out of bed to open the blinds, watched the boys outside in their red jerseys, going nuts.
“Kind of like that,” I said.
“Best day of my life,” I said, and she laughed but she also knew I meant it.
Last night she’d been in top form, expansive and kind as I’d told her what had transpired, not once offering advice or asking what it all meant, only pulling me to her when I was done. “I’m proud of you,” she’d said, letting me rest in the quiet hum of the air conditioner and the thud of her chest. Soon I’d fallen into a clear-headed sleep, experiencing the happy nothingness I’m told children have before drifting off to dreams that don’t feature a sweaty father rising at the foot of the bed.
We packed up the car and headed into town to buy two huge iced coffees not far from where I’d met Roy. The sun was bright, hard and hot on my skin, the bite of fog burned off for now.
“Want to get going?” Parker asked, pastry in hand, the morning young and a 10-hour drive to Salt Lake on the docket.
We walked down the side street I’d parked on the night before and then past the tea shop, where the same pierced guy stood at the register, counting out one-dollar bills. He looked up at us, but I couldn’t say if he recognized me. On the corner where I’d last seen Roy, a gaggle of men in ties waited for the light to turn so they could cross.
Maybe I’d go to his funeral after all, I thought. Maybe I’d show up in this town a new man in a tailored suit, and be the kind of son who buries his father.
“Road trip!” Parker said, sliding on her sunglasses. The world was strange and we were strangers to so much of it, I thought, and yet here we were, climbing into the hatchback, making ourselves known. I flipped us into reverse, and she studied the directions and reported them to me.
“Go east, young man!” she commanded, hyped up on coffee and the prospect of adventure.
“What?” she said, catching my corny expression.
“You know,” I said.
I saw the corners of her lips move to a smile, even as she tried to hide it. So I stayed in my blurring body, an invisible man filling himself in, as we joined the line of cars moving toward the smelly, grassy cow towns, the purple mountains, the power plants, the cornfields, the trailer parks, the red desert—the truth of our united states. I felt I could hold all of it, I was all of it. I was already, always home.
—Excerpted from Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man © 2014 Thomas Page McBee/City Lights Publishers.
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman