Thomas Page McBee, the author of Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man (City Lights/Sister Spit, 2014), published a new essay on Quartz in which he writes about being the first transgender man to fight at Madison Square Garden. It is a riveting account, and a nuanced meditation on gender performance and violence.
“Men have to fight someone or something at some point, don’t they? For my entire life, and certainly for the four years since I began injecting testosterone, I’ve been fighting, whether it’s myself, the world or my place in it. Masculinity and aggression seem so inextricably entwined. But why? Here I am, in the most extreme, darkest space I could think of to tangle with that question …
A whole lifetime of confidence seems to have evaporated in a week. Outside of the gym, I am a certain kind of man: tattooed, bearded, always up for long back-of-the-bar chats about whatever gives your life meaning, be it philosophy or working out or physics, but also radical feminism or camp takes on high culture. I move between all the lives I’ve lived, like the time I got ensnared in a passionate debate with a group of women at a bar about the queer merits of the character Samantha on Sex and the City.”
Because I’m trans, the history of my body is more complicated than it looks. I dated my first girlfriend at 14, spent high school driving around Pittsburgh listening to Depeche Mode with my gay best friend, worked through college at Boston’s favorite lesbian coffee shop, and landed in my 20s in San Francisco’s enormous queer community.
When I transitioned at 30, I entered a world I didn’t understand. Though I have always had a stray guy friend here and there, it wasn’t until I became one that I really experienced “Hey, brothers” and side hugs and now, this rowdy, good-natured group of jocks. Without a boyhood, I don’t quite know how to translate the camaraderie, how to find the right teasing note when I joke around, when to ask a guy who’s bleeding if he’s okay and when to leave it alone. I am not sure how to be my whole self anywhere: The queer bar isn’t my world anymore, not exactly—and this isn’t, either.
I sense that my quietness and discomfort is telegraphing a kind of failure. In the ring, my humiliation is heightened: I am gangly, a toddler learning to walk. I have only been taught the jab, which I attempt to employ as Errol rushes me and unleashes a terrifying series of combinations: one-two, hook, straight right, jab to the stomach, come upstairs, another hook. I lose track.
All of a sudden, instead of blocking or moving, I feel leaden, paralyzed. An ancient part of me gives up.
“Don’t stop, don’t stop,” Errol yells, pulling his punches but still hitting me in the gut, the head, the face. I can’t seem to make my arms move. I hate the way my ears pop. I hate that I’m thinking not of this ring and Errol, but of a night in 2010 when I found myself on my knees on the wet concrete in Oakland, Calif., a gun to my head, victim of a mugging gone wrong.
And how in that moment, I made the coward’s choice: I froze. And despite the reassurances of the cop who later told me that “not being a hero” saved me, I am haunted by the uncomfortable feeling that maybe, when it comes down to it, I give up on myself just a little too easily.
“There’s no stopping in boxing,” Errol [Hyppolite, Thomas’ boxing coach] says. He won’t stop talking. I grit my teeth and take every blow.
Read the rest of Thomas’ piece here. Also includes a 10-minute documentary, “Fight Like a Man,” of Thomas’ training and fight at MSG.
Thomas Page McBee was the “masculinity expert” for VICE and has written the columns “Self-Made Man” for the Rumpus and “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. His essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, TheAtlantic.com, Glamour, Salon, and Buzzfeed, where he was a regular contributor on gender issues.