Fighting talk

Thomas Page McBee on the cover of The Observer magazine

Crossing gender lines is interesting. On the one hand you suddenly need to learn and live by rules and roles that other people have known their whole lives; on the other, you have to unpick and unlearn the rules and roles you internalised before your transition. Depending on your direction of travel you will either lose some of the privilege you’ve been accustomed to or gain privilege you previously didn’t have.

I think that’s particularly interesting because when you’re coming to this from the other team you’re seeing things fresh that other people may not. For example, trans men may be more keenly aware of, and questioning of, their masculinity than cisgender men.

Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, is a fascinating and wise writer whose books try to make sense of some of this. His memoir Man Alive is a gripping, insightful and sometimes harrowing document of his transition, and his second book, Amateur, is something else entirely.

It’s about how McBee became the first trans man to box in Madison Square Garden.

Boxing turns my stomach. At school I pretended otherwise as a fitting-in strategy: football was far too complicated for me to fake an interest in it, but I could bullshit my way through a conversation about who the greatest boxer would be (not least because back then, the only possible answer was Muhammad Ali). That would restore my man-credentials for a while.

Boxing’s a man thing, because violence is a man thing.

Isn’t it?

McBee’s book is an attempt to answer that, and it doesn’t go where you might expect. Here’s The Guardian in a profile of McBee from a few years ago:

It takes much of the book for McBee to comprehend the enigma of the boxing ring, where men are comfortable hugging, or swatting each other on the ass, showing affection. “With its cover of ‘realness’ and violence, it provides room for what so many men lack: tenderness and touch, and vulnerability,” McBee writes. It’s not violence that lies at the root of masculinity, he concludes – it’s shame.

It’s a very different book from Norman Mailer’s The Fight, that’s for sure.

Amateur‘s a really fascinating read. It’s not sports writing, although the fight is rendered in painful detail. It’s about identity and belonging and trying to work out not just who you are, but who you want to be.