What Makes a Man?
One transgender man reflects on American masculinity and male role models, pondering the question, “What makes a man?”
I didn’t want to be a real man if what was meant by it was the hypermasculine ideal or the reactionary response.
Illustration By Toby Thane Neighbors
If masculinity could be defined by a quick Google search or a drive down a billboard-studded highway, then a “real man” is a paradox, captured crudely at the uneasy intersections of faith, love, public service announcements, politics, and advertising. Real men love God, buy American, work hard, don’t hit women, have integrity, stay faithful, wear pink, don’t wear pink, are kind to animals, fight to the death.
What makes a man? When I started testosterone, I posed this winking refrain, but the notion of “real men” still stung, each joke T-shirt and black-and-white bus-stop admonishment a nick on my heart. No one’s a “real man,” I figured, but most definitely not me, with my weekly shot and unique plumbing.
What makes a man? As I grew stronger and more confident, the question remained the crux of my core anxiety. I didn’t want to be a “real man” if what was meant by it was the hypermasculine ideal or the reactionary response. I’d spent 29 years struggling against a bad translation. I wanted to be my own man, to comb my hair with Brylcreem, to tailor my jeans, grow a beard, wear a shirt: This is what a feminist looks like.
We all get the message of what a man is meant to be but, unlike feminism’s unbraiding of the ideal feminine, hypermasculinity sits like an elephant on steroids, stinking up the living room. It’s complex to examine what being a man means because most of us, whether we realize it or not, are committed to a monolithic answer.
We might pretend we’re not all engaging with the mixed-message at the heart of our every interaction: we value masculinity in all bodies because we value men more than women. Conversely, those of us who’d like to disengage with patriarchal, problematic stereotypes of maleness, even a little bit, are undermined and satirized, bullied and belittled. Every man I care about is troubled by other men, but there’s still a Stockholm-syndrome-feel to the framing: a shrugging, “That’s just how guys are.”
That’s just how guys are.
I’ve been on testosterone for 16 months. After the muscles bloomed, after my beard began to appear, after my calves widened and my jaw squared, after I mastered the politics of the men’s room, after I learned not to take personally the newly cool greetings of women strangers; a pattern began to emerge. The elephant was real, trumpeting its answer to what makes a man? Here I was, becoming one, forming at bars and backyard barbecues and work meetings; confronted at every turn with an expectation and whether or not I would meet it.
What makes a man? Here I was, not the question but the answer.
My brother and I grew up in a house where one man’s failure defined masculinity for both of us. Our father, who abused me, was domineering and manipulative, double-crossing and compulsive. Later I would come to see that he was also lonely, lost, and scared, a link in a chain of male violence that ended, turns out, with me.
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