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.
“Men!” my mom would say, a single word that held the universe of her rage, everything we needed to know in the way it was bathed in acid. In elementary school, my little brother would sometimes tear up his room, blank-eyed and sleepwalking. After years of bullies, B went to the gym and grew chiseled, played varsity hockey, then American Dreamed his way into a dot-com. In college, he made a bronze sculpture of a grown man crouched with his arms around his knees. “You remember?” He asked me once, and it was the kind of man he became that allowed me to believe in something better than our father.
Now he’s sensitive and muscle-bound, successful and stylish and, like me, a little brooding. I told him last April, in a bar in the Mission, of my plans to take testosterone, back when I also lived in San Francisco. I couldn’t figure out why, but I was more nervous to tell him than anyone else. That’s a lie. I was nervous to tell him for the ways I’d grown up projecting my father onto his little-kid frame, seeing their similar grins as proof of something dark. We’d thrown around a baseball, beat each other up, gone to the movies, but we’d also fought bitterly. I sat in that bar waiting for his “I told you so.” He knew intimately the ways I’d misunderstood myself.
He smiled wide, shrugged. “I’ve been saying my whole life that you’re a guy,” he said.
That was that. We ordered another round, he reported some work trouble, and we were like the brothers we were meant to become, if I’d only been paying attention.
Last I saw him, this summer at our grandmother’s funeral, B looked at me meaningfully and said, “Don’t let anyone tell you you don’t look totally different.” I swear he was teary eyed.
Still, a sticking point for us is his interest in the destiny of biology, the reassuring, essentialist refrain of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Sometimes his understanding of me feels limited by hormones and science, the framework that helps him understand his maleness. But as he tells me how terrified he was of becoming a “monster” growing up, I begin to understand the comfort of biology. Being a boy, the strange rush of testosterone, the two-faced dad: he worried he was broken, much in the way I did. In his worldview, there’s room for me, and he’s eager always to compare lifting strategies. “You’re cut like a Band-Aid!” he joked on a recent picture I posted on Facebook.
I feel it, too, the need to make muscle to guard the pinkest, most scared parts of myself. I watched him spend hours at the Y and come home calmer. There’s something to pushing all that anger and confusion into a weight that can bear it.
“I felt this shame growing up,” B told me a couple weeks ago, when I told him I wanted to write about us. “I remember sitting in the van with you guys when you told me what Dad did to you, and I felt dirty. I felt, ‘That’s my father,’ one; and two, ‘I’m his son.’ It was the beginning of this whole thing for me when I felt ashamed.”
“I struggled with the fact that I was a guy. I think it’s been a lifetime struggle,” he said. It makes me curious how many men are fighting similar fights, shadowboxing the worst aspects of maleness, trying to grow something sweet from the toxic waste of inheritance.
I asked him how he feels about other men, if he’s suspicious of them in the way the world has taught us to be suspicious of ourselves.
“A guy that doesn’t show any emotion? That’s scary.” I think of our father, his silence, his far-off stare. I think of how, almost always, naming what scares you is the primary way to avoid becoming it.
“I’m very up front with people,” B said, as if an answer. “They know how I feel.”
Before I transitioned, the struggles of the men in my life felt gritty and strange to me, a little unwashed. They’d get uncomfortably vulnerable over beers, easily crushed about fathers and exes especially, like animals without shells. It was a little foreign and often so raw I’d leave wondering how it was possible that the young women I knew seemed so much more resilient in reclaiming their identities in a world of intense violence and inequity, while the men seemed genuinely baffled as to how to make it all add up to something meaningful.
How naïve, I see now, to think the crush of gender expectations only affects the most obviously oppressed.
My best friend in high school, a wiry eccentric whose religious parents didn’t know he was gay, was my first exposure to a man wrestling with masculine expectation. Late at night, stoned in his beat-up Camry, he said he felt alien next to his jock brother, afraid to disappoint his father. He was hilarious and well-liked, John Waters meets Robert Smith, but it was clear that a girl of a similar stripe would have an easier time finding a template through which to translate herself. Hell, even before I was on testosterone, I was treated by pretty much everyone as a dude without much issue, while the many interesting and sweet men who marched through my life, arriving on cue in Pittsburgh, Boston, San Francisco, seemed to always be head-butting masculinity’s brick-wall boundaries.
So the crushed-shell seemed to me, eventually, to be about claustrophobia, the way that the sexism underpinning hypermasculinity is a vice grip on even the most rebellious among us. To be your own man is to acknowledge that you’re not “real” unless everyone’s “real,” that all the power located in a monolithic masculinity is a house of cards built on your back and you, pulling yourself out of the stack, are helping to upend the whole foundation.
What makes a man? It’s not just my question then, but one for all of us, and the answer depends on how much one can extricate oneself from the war cry of a society intent on destroying femininity, enforcing a reductionist binary, and flattening complexity. Every man I’ve known well enough to get a little drunk with has eventually addressed the dilemma: how to be yourself in a world that expects a monster or a hero, but never a new dad struggling with how to raise his own child under the weight of a bad relationship to his own father, or an effeminate straight man struggling to accept himself for who he is when his own family can’t believe he’s not gay.
We eat peanuts, drink beer in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Boston. A guy tells me, upon his marriage, that his mother reminded him to be good to his wife. A real man respects women, says the ad campaign, which only exists to tell us exactly what real men have failed to do, a reminder of what isn’t expected.
A memory: in Napa for his birthday a few years ago, before I was on testosterone, I looked up my brother’s astrological chart. This is a thing I do, inevitably, at parties and birthdays and long car rides. Anyway, I told him he was a Cancer rising, started to read the description off my phone as we drank coffee near the French Laundry, surrounded by tourists despite the drizzle.
“What does that mean?” he asked, his aviators mirroring myself back to me.
“It says you’re imaginative,” I told him, “and sensitive, and nurturing.” He looked chiseled and young, a little out of place still, living in a city after so many years in wintery, industrial towns. I could see, in the months since he’d arrived, that he was becoming himself.
“I’m nurturing!” he echoed, his thick arms crossed across his chest. He turned to his girlfriend. “I’m nurturing,” he told her.
Since I’ve transitioned, I’ve revisited that moment: my surprise at his enthusiasm, the emphatic way he announced it, the pride in his voice. What a reward it must have seemed to him to be seen as the man he was, not the father he was afraid of becoming, but the person he’d grown out of thousands of reps and all those cracked-shell moments when the vice squeezed too hard. Here he was, the person he’d been all along.
“I’m nurturing,” he said, shaking his head. “Did you know that about me?” We were leaning against a car, the two realest men you know, and of course I said yes.
Thomas Page McBee writes about gender and culture for TheAtlantic.com, Salon, the San Francisco Weekly, and the Phoenix, where he is an editor. Reprinted from The Rumpus (October 12, 2012), a literary website with a focus on publishing good writing.