When I first met Thomas Page McBee in 2012, he was working at the now-defunct alt-weekly The Boston Phoenix. McBee was working to make queerness more visible at the publication – not just white, upper middle class gays concerned first and foremost with marriage, but lesser told stories of people who are less often heard. Not because the stories aren’t there, but because they are largely ignored.
McBee was the first person I ever heard give an alternate narrative to the “born in the wrong body” trope as vocalized by Chaz Bono and the rest of the transgender community’s handful of de facto spokespeople. His words were refreshing. “I’ve never felt betrayed or trapped by my body,” he wrote in The Phoenix in 2012. “At some point I realized the world didn’t see me like I saw myself, and I got sick of it. I’m not sure if any of us are born into the ‘wrong’ body so much as into a culture that values some bodies a whole lot more than others.” Meanwhile, McBee was also beginning to pen the inspired column on identity and self-transformation, "Self Made Man" for The Rumpus.
McBee shares an even more in-depth account of his story in his new memoir, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man, published this month via City Lights Books. Each short chapter describes a moment in a certain time and place, focusing on two pivotal events in his life that influence his relationship with manhood. In brief, poetic vignettes, McBee shifts between his youth and his twenties, deconstructing his own memories in a powerful, non-linear fashion. In some of these snapshots, he describes the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his father as a child, and the part it played in how he learned to distrust and dislike men. Raised hereafter by his single mother with whom he was very close, he describes learning to say the word ‘men’ “with a lemon in [his] mouth.”
Thomas also picks through an experience as a 29-year-old in West Oakland in which he and his partner, Parker, were mugged at gunpoint. The mugger held a gun to Thomas’s head as Parker looked on – but when Thomas uttered a few pleading words, his voice not yet fully deepened from testosterone, the gunman froze. In that moment, the mugger perceived Thomas as a woman, and he lowered the gun and ordered Thomas and Parker to flee. A week later, the same gunman was arrested for mugging and murdering a young man in town for an interview with Google. The gunman had a pattern of targeting straight couples and killing the man. Thomas went on to describe this experience as “one of the best things that ever happened to [him].”
"What does it mean to become a man?" While the mugging was traumatic, it sparked something inside Thomas, and drove him to seek answers to this question, and to seek closure from the trauma he experienced as a child. Man Alive chronicles Thomas’s journey, literal and otherwise, as he reflects with his mother about how things came to be as they were, visits his extended family in his home state of South Carolina, plots his move to New England, and ultimately confronts his father in Oregon. He displays immense compassion, even when talking about the men who displayed violence toward him: “You’d have to be pretty destroyed to hold a gun to another person’s face and shoot it… And you’d have to have abandoned yourself to the core to want to annihilate a child. “
Trauma, identity, empathy. These are deeply complex themes to work through, and in Man Alive, McBee works through them with artfulness. He reflects on the meaning of being a man while living a life faced with male violence, and with an understanding of the phrase his mother repeated: “A good man is hard to find.” Thomas describes the fear of what might change in and outside of him as he navigates the world as a man. Through the course of his journey, Thomas comes to realize he is capable of living out his own masculinity and is not doomed to become the monster he sometimes sees his father as.
As a twenty-something transmasculine person living in Oakland, Man Alive hit me close to home. But it’s important to note this book is not exclusively relevant to those grappling with gender identity. This is a story of the universally relatable concepts of self-actualization and self-discovery. McBee's book begins with the proclamation, “This is an adventure story about how I quit being a ghost.” Each one of us was brought into the world with expectations for who we were supposed to be. And regardless of what these expectations look like in each of our lives, they limit us. Man Alive reminds us that we all have the power to decide what we can be in this world, and what that looks like in our lives.
Rather than telling an authoritative story of what it means to be a transgender man, Man Alive tells the story of what it is to be Thomas Page McBee: a writer, a feminist, a partner, his mother’s son. It is crucial in its way of re-wiring what a trans memoir can and should look like. McBee has situated himself among other emerging voices like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock who are opening and expanding the conversation about what it means to be trans, steering the focus away from the physical and toward that of one’s whole person. As a result, Man Alive achieves so much; it is simultaneously personal, poignant, and powerful.