Thomas Page McBee’s “Man Alive” is a tender, eloquent ode to gender transition

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Man Alive, Thomas Page McBee’s new memoir, is an eloquent ode to his gender transition from female to male, from “Page” to “Thomas.” It’s a deeply personal narrative that’s compelling both for how the author struggles with gender identity and the tenderness with which he confronts himself and those who are part of his story.

McBee’s book comes a little more than a half-century after George Jorgensen returned to New York from Denmark as Christine Jorgensen.   A contemporary Daily News headline blared: “Ex-GI Becomes Beauty.”  Today, the decision to transition is no longer a scandal or fodder for tabloids, but something deeply personal and complex.

McBee’s story chronicles three decades in his life, from 1990 to 2011, jumping back-and-forth in time and place. Much of the narrative is reflective, a road movie of self-discovery. It’s a short book—172 pages–that seeks to address a very basic but daunting question: What makes a man? McBee answers the question through a series of crisscrossing storylines anchored in the challenges he encounters during the process of transitioning. These storylines involve his relationship with his mother, a man who raised him but turns out not be his “natural” father, a street mugger who attacked him and, most importantly, his female life-partner, Parker.     

Tenderness is the thread that connects all of these characters. In Oakland, a guy in a hoodie, referred to simply as “Darth Vader with a goatee,” mugs McBee and Parker. Yet when McBee sees the mugger at a trial for an unrelated murder, he acknowledges him to be “my ghost, just a man,” no longer threatening. Similarly, after many years of estrangement, McBee meets the man who was his mother’s boyfriend and who raised him. When McBee was 10 years old (and still a girl), this man abused him. Now, McBee listens to the man’s story, hears of his shame, and feels “a kind of forgiveness.”

The storylines that drive the narrative are like stepping-stones on a quest for McBee to become not just a “man,” but a better, deeper human being. Near the end of his moving tale, after he’s undergone his sex change procedure, McBee reflects: “Becoming a man felt bright and bracing, like a cup of strong coffee, all jangly energy and bittersweet sparks. It felt brutish and graceful, like boxing, the physical dance of my transition.” 

With much confusion but very little shame or guilt, Man Alive is a moving personal account of what was not long ago decried as an abomination of nature—a perversion. McBee seeks to honestly reveal the emotional and physical complexity underlying the process of gender reassigment, and when all is over, his transition complete, he’ll be just one more ordinary man.

This poetic memoir’s deepest flaw is McBee’s failure to situate masculinity in a social or historic continuum. The struggles waged by the civil rights, feminist, gay liberation, and environmental movements have, collectively, challenged old models of gender and social power rooted in patriarchy, yet those models aren’t entirely absent. In 2011, the Williams Institute, a research organization specializing in sexual orientation and gender identity issues, estimated that there were 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. Many of them continue to experience discrimination and social stigma with regard to employment, housing, healthcare, the judicial system (especially in prison), and simply using a public restroom. The world has changed, but only so much—a fact McBee’s memoir illustrates with heartbreaking clarity.  


DAVID ROSEN regularly contributes to AlterNet, The Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker, IndieWire and Salon. His website is DavidRosenWrites.com, and he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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