Q&A: A Trans Man in a World That Loves Binaries

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"You know, what's interesting is that I still face mansplaining actually proportionally to how often people know I'm trans."
"You know, what's interesting is that I still face mansplaining actually proportionally to how often people know I'm trans." Photo: Rick Loomis

After his transition five years ago, Thomas Page McBee realized, first-hand, the privileges that come with masculinity. His lower voice meant people listened up, paid attention, and took him seriously without question. As a more androgynous person, his ideas and voice hadn’t been recognized on nearly the same level. In a May 13 piece for Quartz, McBee recalled these first few observations — this discovery of what it means to live behind the lens of male privilege.

And that privilege extends to the trans community, where he says that, as a white man on testosterone who also passes, he doesn’t face the discrimination many other trans people have to deal with daily. McBee writes that after his transition, he walked into a meeting with his boss, nervous for a tough negotiation in salary raise — part of what a colleague told him was “a female socialization.” But his superior offered him the raise on the spot, without the kind of haggling he’d expected.

As a writer, he focuses on stories that get men thinking about gender broadly, and as an editor and media advocate, he works to bring more visibility to trans issues. “A lot of what my work has been about is being like, ‘Men have a gender, too, and where does that gender come from?’” he said. “Being intentional in your own gender is an act of rebellion in a lot of ways, I think, culturally.”

And though his is the only story he has to work from, he’s picked up a lot along the way about what it means to be a trans man in a world that still has a lot to learn. He shared a few of those lessons — mansplaining included — with the Cut.

Did you anticipate any of these differences in the way people perceived you?
Honestly, those things were not top of the line for me. All the things that I needed to process about transitioning more spiritually and emotionally were more meaningful to me. But I do know I noticed the difference. When I started taking testosterone, part of all this was that these effects happened very quickly for me; within three months I was passing.

So, I went from living in a body that was much more androgynous, and therefore, people just didn’t know where to put me at all, and took me less seriously. I think I seemed almost not like an adult in that way, because there wasn’t really a place of where I came in the world to having sort of the crush and benefit of having all these expectations. I think once I had all these benefits at work, it was like, “Wow, people suddenly listen to how I talk.”

Does anything about these differences make you angry?
I think all of it makes me angry. I’m angry and I’m tired, but I’m just so sad for everyone. I manage a team of all women … and I try to be sensitive to what they’re experiencing and what it must be like every day.

But I actually feel really sorry for men, too, because I think that it’s almost like we’re in this cultural pact that’s just shitty for everybody, and of course some of them benefit materially from it, and that’s real, but it’s also like, “What do we do?” My overall experience of all this is: “What the fuck are we doing?” This is damaging and troubling not based in anything that I think any of us would sign off on if we understood consciously that this is something we would agree to. And yet, we operate our whole lives without ever considering, “What’s going on here?” So, yeah, I feel really angry. I think everyone should feel angry.

Do you experience any kind of condescension or mansplaining now, or is that totally gone?
You know, what’s interesting is that I still face mansplaining actually proportionally to how often people know I’m trans. But what’s different is that mansplaining in the context of being perceived as a cis man is that that becomes a power dynamic. So, what I’ve had to learn is negotiating in a power dynamic with a man, which is very different when culturally you’re equal. When I am mansplained to I have had to learn how to sort of flip that power back around.

If someone wanted to sit down with you and ask you questions about being trans, what is one of the main things you’d want them to know?
There’s a real spectrum of what trans people experience, and the most vulnerable among us are the ones that are the least represented and the least often spoken to and whose voices are being upheld. I feel awkward being their voice, but I think what people should know is that there is an epidemic where trans people are at the highest risk of suicide of any population. There are people who can’t use the bathroom because there’s a narrative that trans women are sexual predators who are going to go into the women’s room and prey on people.

That alone is mind-boggling, but that’s not something that’s happening outside of you. If you’re a person that’s reading about it and commenting about it, even if you’re not saying something outright negative, if you’re not saying something outright positive, you’re adding to the problem, too. So, we need to take some responsibility for each other and those of us who aren’t able to protect ourselves. I’m fine. I’m a white guy; I’m okay. I’m a white guy with a job in media. But there are people who aren’t okay, and you realize there are a million small ways that you can make other people’s lives better.

You write a lot about trans issues in your own work. What are some things you’ve learned or want to transfer through your work? And what are some of the challenges of being a trans voice in your field?
I try really hard to be a representation of a trans voice in media. When I first realized I was trans, I started looking around, as a writer would, at where the narratives were. They were either outright awful, transphobic, or they were just sort of these shock-y weird, “I was born in the wrong body” stories, which a lot of us feel. But it literally is a medicalized narrative that’s put on trans people, and it’s a thing you say to get your hormones. It doesn’t feel authentic, so my interest in being sort of publicly trans in my work has been about: “Let’s diversify the story, let’s talk about what being trans means in a way that’s honest.”

What was some of the feedback you get from your own work?
I got a lot of feedback of people saying, “Thanks for writing it.”

But I guess what surprises me in a good way is that I think the things that I write about might put somebody on edge a little bit conceptually, but I hope that if you read it, you realize it’s not a story about what an asshole you are for not realizing it; it’s a story about an opportunity to make a better decision and to be a better person. I don’t know how to be an amazing person, but I’m really trying, and this is the particular material I have to do that, and I’m hoping that the rest of us can do it, too. Men especially, we have a real legitimate impact on a daily basis on other people’s lives — women’s lives and people who are not men in general. These things happen in media in ways that are invisible unless you make them visible, unless you become intentional about it. That’s really dangerous, but it’s a really brutal opportunity to do something different.