The Discovery of What It Means to Be a Man

The week I began testosterone back in 2011, whispers of an American version of the masculinity crisis had already begun. No surprise, really--in the year leading up to my transition, the "mancesssion" had everyone hand-wringing about the fate of displaced male workers.

Meanwhile, though I couldn't have been happier with the hair bristling my face or the muscle blooming at the gym, I was baffled by the sudden turn of every social encounter. At first, I tried to keep up. The rules were stated (my uncle, trying to be helpful, offered his hand when I went in for a hug: "You're a man now," he said. "Men shake hands"); and some crept in, as if by osmosis: don't cross your legs, don't talk too fast, don't admit confusion, don't ask for help, don't make eye contact with strangers, don't cry. At the train station, another guy turned to me as an unhinged woman attacked the man beside us, apropos of nothing, and I realized I was expected to help stop her. I reoriented, like a plant turns to the sun, but I couldn't help but think I was losing a part of myself, that it was being scrubbed from me every time I pretended to care about the ball game at the bar, keeping track of the score so I could answer if asked, so I would not be found failing.

While I increased my testosterone level, there was a wave of stories about fathers' hormonal fluctuation as proof of the "naturalness" of a male parenting (the interpretation of this data has been questioned, but the celebration of it is, I think, the more crucial point). As I rounded the bend to my one-year "maniversary," some guys began to use the "crisis" to embrace a new version of the masculine ideal, while genius songwriter Frank Ocean announced his fluid sexuality ahead of his massively successful debut album, and we saw the release of Magic Mike, based on the real-life stripping experience of star Channing Tatum, which was surprisingly effective in challenging gender roles around sexuality (even if it wasn't quite a feminist "homerun").

It seemed I wasn't the only guy trying to figure out how to be a man.

But I was exhausted. I'd look at myself in the mirror after a long day of uncrossing and smiling less and saying "man" and trading facts at cook-outs, and I'd think: Is this the kind of man I want to be? It was a valid question, one I'd paid thousands of dollars and stuck myself weekly with long, sharp needles to answer. Here was my--and our--masculinity crisis.

Two years on testosterone and squarely in the middle of this grander, cultural sea-change, I can say that I've found a road map. Turns out, asking the question was a kind of answer, the revealing of the liberating truth of choice.

What kind of man do I want to be? The kind I am. I think vulnerability is the foundation of courage; I love aesthetics; I stand up for myself; I box and lift weights; I listen. I'm the type of man I'd want to hang out with, the kind of guy who thinks masculinity is diverse and that real men don't exist.

Despite the dinosaur machismo I encountered in the beginning of my transition, I've reason to believe that the old guard is falling away, and the new man taking his place. Since I've come out as a wine-drinking feminist with feelings, I've met many guys who are embracing a wider definition of masculinity. Not just the stay-at-home dads, but the elderly man who told me he's just now told his best friend of decades that he loves him, the ex-varsity jock who works with men to redefine what masculinity means, the straight, burly artist who documents friends shotgunning beer who is matter-of-fact about the homoeroticism of male bonding, and whose skater buddies pose for his delicate homages to just that.

"It's almost a curse," he tells me, over coffee. "Once you see masculinity, you can't unsee it."

I know what he means, but I don't think making the invisible visible is ever a curse. I'm glad I know what kind of man I am, just as I'm hopeful that we've reached a moment where many of us are, finally, looking in the mirror together.

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Thomas Page McBee is a columnist for the Rumpus. He speaks regularly on gender issues and is currently at work on a memoir. 

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