Ten years ago this month, on an otherwise ordinary lunch break from my job as an editor at a local newspaper, I received my first testosterone injection from a no-nonsense doctor at a hospital in Boston. I was 30 years old and desperate to be known.
I also wanted it known that despite the media fixation on a trite narrative about what it meant to be trans, I was not “a man trapped in a woman’s body or any cliché like that,” as I emailed my friends and family. I was a man and I was born trans, and I could hold both of those realities without an explanation that could be written on the back of a napkin.
“I will not become a different person,” I wrote in that email, defiantly and, as it turns out, correctly. “I am myself. I just want to feel more like me.”
That day, as my doctor taught me how to aspirate a syringe, she gently warned me that there was woefully little longitudinal medical research into testosterone and trans men. She couldn’t say for sure whether taking the hormone would affect my life span, but what was left unsaid lingered in the subtext: No matter how long I lived, it would be a lot longer than if I had to manage one more sleepless night, hallucinating a bearded version of myself in my bathroom mirror, mapped over my dead-eyed reflection.
“You’re a medical pioneer,” she told me, with some apology, as she handed me my first prescription. Of course, I wasn’t — generations of trans people and their doctors had made this moment possible for me — but I knew what she meant: She had no idea how to envision my future. The problem was, neither did I.
That was in 2011, two years before Laverne Cox would star in “Orange Is the New Black” and three before Time would make her the magazine’s cover and announce that we’d reached a “Transgender Tipping Point.” Same-sex marriage, the primary focus of the mainstream L.G.B.T.Q. rights movement, was still prohibited by federal law, and President Barack Obama’s views on it were still “evolving.” There were zero regular or recurring transgender characters on broadcast television, and I could count on one hand the number of trans people I knew in real life.
The decade since I began my medical transition, it turns out, coincided with another American gender story, largely centered on people who weren’t trans and, yet, playing out beside my own: Lost jobs and a slow recovery from the Great Recession created a shake-up of gender roles in homes and workplaces across the country, leading to what some experts termed a “masculinity crisis” — a widening educational achievement gap between boys and girls, the high rate of male suicides and other “deaths of despair,” and single women dropping out of the marriage market rather than partnering with low-earning men. It all led to much gender anxiety and hand-wringing. What, I wondered, might it mean to ask a new question: What makes a man, at all?
Gender, it turns out, is a language, and the more fluent I became in it, the more finding the words to express the messy humanity of myself and others like me became an urgent task — in part because it was becoming increasingly clear that, whether we asked for the job or not, trans people were going to play a key role in shaping the future of gender for everyone.
But in those first years of my transition, before Twitter and Instagram and other social media platforms became central to our daily lives, the diversity of experience within the trans community — the kaleidoscopic potential that we contained — remained largely invisible, even to those of us who were trans. Instead, if we found ourselves at all, it was often in others’ bad translations: sensational stories doled out by the entertainment industry and the news media, designed to titillate audiences and created by people who had no idea what it was like to be us.
As the fantastic 2020 Netflix documentary “Disclosure” highlights in harrowing detail, mass media depictions of trans people have long been rooted in monstrosity and the idea of failed womanhood (and manhood). From the unhinged mother-impersonating murderer in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” to ’90s talk shows (“My boyfriend is really a girl!”), gender diversity — common throughout human history — has largely been portrayed as either the sinister stuff of nightmares or shocking tabloid fodder.
Learning to tell a story that didn’t begin with “born in the wrong body” and to acknowledge the rich, long history of trans experience would become as much a part of my transition as the synthetic hormone that I hoped would broaden the muscles in my back and deepen the sound of my voice. I was confident that the otherworldly, threatening narrative ascribed to my body in the popular imagination wasn’t the truth. And I began to realize that my experience offered a view into the way gender operates on all bodies.
We are, all of us, in a constant stage of negotiation with the political and cultural forces attempting to shape us into simple, translatable packages. Trans people, by necessity, are more aware of these forces; that fluency is a strength, and it has afforded us an opportunity to question the stories about the “biology” of gender that are so foundational to American culture: Do we all really want to co-sign the notion that a uterus, and thus reproductive potential, is how we define womanhood? When a nonbinary person births a child, why must the birth certificate dictate that the person who gave birth is a “mother,” and what does being a “mother” even mean, exactly? What might it mean for all parents if “mother” and “father” were not such distinct categories in child-rearing? Who benefits from their continuing separation?
Despite the growing interest in our lives over the past decade, being the trans flag bearers of the “future of gender” usually made us the subjects, not the authors, of our narratives. As we became more visible, trans people showed up in glut of news stories with headlines such as “Transgender Love: When Husband Becomes Wife.” These tended to focus less on our experience as trans people and more on the supposed plights of our parents and partners. Our families were pitied for their bad fortune or celebrated for the enduring strength of their love, while the trans person in question was casually dehumanized. (“Don’t look at them as a monster,” suggested the wife of a trans woman in a network TV news story.) The widespread and anthropological interest in otherwise ordinary trans lives felt less about us and more about a broader gender anxiety — for better or, usually, for worse.
While much more recent three-dimensional portrayals of trans people are certainly a balm, it’s also crucial that we not underestimate the effects of those more disturbing takes. Today, only three in 10 Americans say they know a trans person, and experts and advocates twin the continuing epidemic of violence against trans people (especially Black trans women and other trans women of color) with those dehumanizing portrayals of our lives.
By 2015, a year after that Time “Transgender Tipping Point” cover and amid the urgent, intersectional calls for action against systemic racism championed by Black Lives Matter, I was working in another newsroom in New York, unpacking the continuing “masculinity crisis” from my vantage point as a still-new (and white) man. My beard had come in by then, and years of socialization as a cis-passing man after three decades as a queer feminist had left me with questions about the root relationship between masculinity and violence, and my own latent biases.
As the country roiled with pre-Trump rage, I had questions about the world I now inhabited, such as “Why won’t anyone touch me?” and “Am I sexist?” As a newcomer to this fraught landscape, I reckoned with my own masculinity in a very public experiment: I learned how to box, spending months grappling with other men in a Manhattan boxing gym, learning the rituals of the men’s locker room and asking sociologists and biologists and psychologists every “beginner’s mind” question I had about masculinity along the way. I became the first trans man to fight in Madison Square Garden. I wrote the story of my fight in 2016 and later wrote a book, “Amateur,” that expanded my examination of American masculinity.
By the time that book was published, in 2018, the #MeToo movement had toppled previously untouchable men, “toxic masculinity” had become part of our national lexicon, and trans and nonbinary artists, advocates and activists were leading powerful conversations about gender diversity, intersectionality and the limitations of the gender binary.
The entwined potential of the anti-racist, feminist, queer and trans rights movements gave rise to potent change and an equally potent backlash: Dangerous gender-reveal parties sought to reaffirm genitalia as the de facto definition of gender, no matter how many people got hurt or killed in the process; violence against trans people continues to hit record highs, with 2020 being the deadliest on record; and women of all gender backgrounds who went up against systemic injustices faced horrifying harassment.
Even as the TV show “Pose” elegantly engaged viewers with stories about Black and Latinx trans women, the (now legion) trans people in my life struggled. At a funeral for one of several trans friends who died by suicide, it was clear that the marginalized among us remained at the margins. As a white, trans man, I never forget that medical transition is — and should not be — a privilege. Trans people who either don’t want or can’t get medical interventions remain vulnerable to both the existential threat of erasure and the often-physical violence of gender policing.
Visibility, of course, is not the same as belonging. Language creates nuance, but not necessarily legislation. Stories save lives and also, paradoxically, endanger them. Seeing ourselves reflected in the broader culture may have given us more models of how to navigate the crushing weight of transphobia, but increased awareness of our existence also inflamed gender fundamentalists, who initiated a moral panic about trans kids duped into gender variance by predatory trans adults. Their rhetoric reminded me of the same sort of anxiety straight people had about gay kids like me in the late ’90s.
But, as with any civil rights movement in this country, what has been seen cannot be unseen, and in that sense, the tide really has finally turned. Even as bigots wage a near-constant legislative assault on our civil liberties via draconian “bathroom bills,” straw-man attacks on the supposed “competitive advantage” of trans athletes and medically unsound efforts to prevent trans kids from seeking lifesaving, gender-affirming care, our insistence that we be the architects of our own stories has only grown.
As a journalist, author and screenwriter, I’ve seen that firsthand. Over the past decade, I’ve found myself at what turned out to be epicenter of the movement for trans visibility — first in media, and then writing for film and television. As I filed stories and authored books and worked in writers’ rooms, I witnessed a sea change from the inside of our culture in the stories we tell about gender. Somewhere along the way I became the trans future I needed, embodied.
When I left my doctor’s office that June day in 2011, trans visibility was still a nascent strategy in the struggle for our civil rights. The prevailing advice to trans men on hormone replacement therapy was to focus on “passing” as cisgender men — even if that meant leaving your past behind. According to this myopic logic, being trans was not its own identity so much as a swift journey between two gender poles.
Now a new generation of trans young people are growing up in a much more expansive narrative landscape, one that makes room for a gender spectrum instead of a binary and trumpets evolving, reclaimed and even newly invented language far beyond “trapped in the wrong body.” They also have what most of us didn’t when we were younger — myriad paths forward modeled by real, live trans adults. The trans people making history as well as magazine covers include State Senator Sarah McBride of Delaware, Assistant Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, the writer and director Janet Mock, and the actor Elliot Page. A Black trans lives matter march in New York City in June 2020 drew 15,000 people, according to organizers. And a GLAAD analysis of the 2020-21 television season found 29 regular or recurring trans characters on scripted prime-time broadcast, cable and streaming shows.
I hope my generation will be among the last in this country forced to endure patronizing medical professionals requiring that therapists evaluate our capacity to know our own hearts. Today, self-determination has largely replaced medical gate-keeping, and with those gates open, the very fabric of our most retrograde gender narratives, like “born in the wrong body” and “boys will be boys,” has begun to come undone. Young people have a language, a history and a sense of possibility — and so do I.
In 2018, my wife and I were married. I’m an uncle to five nephews, and I work every day to model a different sort of masculinity to the many trans kids who regularly write to me online. Some of them cheekily call me “Dad,” and I’ve found it suits: Increasingly, I hope to be a parent myself someday. That’s a future I could never have imagined.
As trans and queer and BIPOC and cis youth join forces to reckon with historical wrongs and create new ways forward, I wonder with genuine awe, what new futures will bloom? I hope I live long enough to find out.
Trans time isn’t linear. Beyond the shared experience of birth and death, many of us live in loops that double back on themselves: A second birth, a second death, two puberties, a collapsing of space-time that becomes, eventually, a kind of integration.
“You don’t have to start at the beginning and go in order to achieve ‘truth,’” the trans historian Susan Stryker told me in a recent conversation about how she approaches writing trans histories. Trans people, she said, cut off from our history and traumatized both collectively and personally, live in a space without the constrictions and narrative benefits of neat arcs of time.
Our time is circular, organic, associative. Sometimes we return to the beginning and find that not much has changed. Late last year I met with a new primary care doctor who treats many trans patients in Los Angeles. He suggested I switch my injection site from my thigh to my stomach — and once again a medical professional had to teach me the way in which I can continue to make myself whole.
I asked him, as I held and stabbed a fleshy part of my belly, whether the research into the health outcomes of trans men on testosterone had advanced in the past decade. He promised to get back to me after reviewing the literature, but when he did, I wasn’t surprised to find few answers. Despite the continuing obsession with trans people as metaphors and boogeyman, there’s still very little medical research to ensure our survival.
But being trans taught me long ago that progress isn’t so much a straight line as a relentless drumbeat, a fire inside, an instinct that is clearer than the static blaring wildly in the background. Ten years later, and that’s what I see in the mirror: my body, messy and illegible and imperfect and, above all else, human. My body, a miracle beyond time.
Thomas Page McBee (@ThomasPageMcBee) is the author of “Amateur: A Reckoning With Gender, Identity, and Masculinity” and “Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man.” He writes for TV and film.
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