The Discovery of What It Means to Be a Man

What I learned about the so-called "masculinity crisis" as I transitioned from female to male
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Is there a masculinity crisis? British politician Diane Abbott said in a speech last month that shifting social roles, unstable labor markets, and a "pornified" culture were creating a tsunami of anxiety for the modern British man and trapping him in "perpetual adolescence."

Perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but she spoke after the release of lagging unemployment numbers, and day after a speech in which Labour Policy Chief Jon Cruddas suggested the party focus on encouraging fathers to participate in their childs' lives by offering better employment protections for new dads, like paid leave to attend hospital appointments during pregnancy.

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In the United States, the pressure as a man to be the primary provider in a failing economy and to fulfill outmoded masculine stereotypes is a story we're quite familiar with. A generation of feckless, frustrated, unemployed guys had some pronouncing the "end of men" just a few years ago.

But, turns out, the "rise of women" and the shifting social tide isn't a zero-sum game, at least not for the man no longer interested in being shackled to social expectations of what his gender means. Instead, a new man seems to be emerging: a stay-at-home dad, forced by a failing economy and shifting workplace demographics to discover that he is, in fact, happy with a different, more expansive social role. American men expect their wives to work, according to a recent Pew research study, and want to be engaged fathers.

The new American man is freer in his gender: free to carry a diaper bag, yes, but also free to get a fancy barbershop haircut or talk about his feelings. Buddy comedies outpace romantic comedies, and the on-screen "bromances," inevitably reach a point of almost homoerotic tenderness between fart jokes (James Franco told GQ that he wanted his character to have "some sort of human connection" after reading the script for the new meta-sausage fest, This is the End. His solution? Make him "a little obsessed" with Seth's character). That's another thing: Younger people in general hold blasé attitudes towards gay marriage, eroding the homophobia at the heart of generations of male machismo. Stony Brook University just announced plans for the Center for Men and Masculinities, which will study the emerging discipline, and lead to a master's degree in masculinity studies.

So what about that crisis? There's still evidence here in the States that some men are clinging to the worst aspects of masculinity--and we, as a culture, aren't exactly enforcing a new code of what makes a man. Look no further than the media coverage of Steubenville and the emphasis of the loss of the rapists' "promising futures," the Steubenville School Board's extension of a coaching contract to the man who helped his players cover up their crime, and the victim-blaming most recently modeled by no less than Serena Williams in Rolling Stone to see that we're still besieged by contradictory, and often toxic, ideas about manhood. Peruse your standard-issue men's magazine for confirmation, or check out a parade of Super Bowl commercials for a bossy dictate claiming to "get" us while defining us to ourselves: what we can drink, how we relate, what we can care about, even how we feel.

"Like the film Fight Club," Abbott said in her speech," the first rule of being a man in modern Britain is that you're not allowed to talk about it." The same is true here: Being a man is a deeply entrenched series of social norms that we're only just beginning to question, and often by accident. The main problem isn't pushback from blowhards who don't want anything to change (though that's a problem, too).

The problem, if you're a man, is how you answer this question: do you have a gender? If you said anything but yes, then that's what I mean.

Masculinity is not as a magical state defined by advertisers and secondary sex characteristics but, like femininity, a complex amalgamation of socialization, biology, style, and stereotype. Men aren't in crisis, we're in opportunity, but only if we can each look in the mirror and decide what kind of man we are.

I should know. I've had my own model-scale masculinity crisis. Well, two: the first was the slow-burn way I realized I wasn't a girl; but the second unfolded for me on an intimate scale as the larger, society-wide crisis came to its collective fever-pitch. I've been a man, for all intents and purposes, for two years; one of the very few of us that can say I became a man just as a whole lot of people started asking what makes a man in the first place.

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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