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Thomas Page McBee on his brush with death, transgender stories, and his agnostic mother

Author Thomas Page McBee tells RNS about the religious themes of "Man Alive," the influence of his agnostic mother, religion and the transgender community, and how men can address their own privilege.

'Man Alive' author Thomas Page McBee. Photo by Jessica McCarthy, courtesy of McBee.
'Man Alive' author Thomas Page McBee. Photo by Jessica McCarthy, courtesy of McBee.

‘Man Alive’ author Thomas Page McBee. Photo by Jessica McCarthy, courtesy of McBee.

“The world is vicious and beautiful and, to some extent, unexplainable,” writes Thomas Page McBee in Man Alive, a bold and brilliant new memoir. “But that doesn’t stop us from wanting a story all the same.”

As vividly told in Man Alive, McBee’s story is at times beautiful and at others vicious: He struggles to make sense of abuse and violence, comes out as transgender, and journeys toward forgiveness and reconciliation. It is an utterly unique story—but also, in important ways, a universal one.

Formerly the “masculinity expert” for VICE, McBee writes the column “Self-Made Man” for the Rumpus and the new series “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. I spoke with him about the religious themes of Man Alive, the influence of his agnostic mother, mortality, religion and the transgender community, and how men can address their own privilege.

Chris Stedman: Man Alive is full of references to religion—you write about being “worried that I’d sound lost, or worse, religious”; about being asked if you go to church and not being sure what to say; about the “mysterious” religion of your extended family; about faith, your sister’s spiritual counseling, and rituals. How do you identify religiously or nonreligiously?

Thomas Page McBee: [tweetable]My mom was a physicist and an agnostic, so I was lucky to grow up in a home where mystery was welcome and the more troubling social and moral aspects of religion disregarded.[/tweetable] I’ve also always been a seeker and a person interested in universals—the areas where humans retreat or sever connection are very troubling to me. I turned to contemplative faiths when I realized that integration was key for me to make meaning out of life. I do it with my work, and I do it with my spirituality—I meditate and attend Friends [Quaker] meetings, though I have also studied Buddhism.

CS: Another recurring theme in Man Alive is mortality—a brush with your own courses throughout the book. Have your thoughts on death and mortality changed over the years? Do they inspire the way in which you live your life?

TM:[tweetable]My brush with death made me reconsider my life.[/tweetable] But it was more being with the physical fact of survival, of healing my broken relationship with my body, that changed me. Once I was embodied, I realized that I needed my body to change. I wasn’t mad at it—it didn’t fail me; in fact, it saved me. But that didn’t change the innate fact that I didn’t feel good in the world—and I had to hold that paradox, which is really beyond words.

[tweetable]Until my mom passed away last month, anything I would have said about death would have been arrogant.[/tweetable] I don’t know anymore what I think about death except that energy isn’t created or destroyed—Mom taught me that. There’s some sort of “there” there, inside our bodies, and if you are ever able to be with someone when they die, you see it disappear. Where does it go? I don’t know, but I’m listening for her to tell me.

CS: I’ve spoken with a number of transgender people—atheists and religious alike—who have struggled with religion. What would you say to anyone who suggests that trans folks can’t, or shouldn’t, be religious?

TM: I don’t believe in blanket statements.[tweetable]Any human system has the potential for abuse, and certainly some religions have amassed power and a troubling relationship to that power.[/tweetable] What I think we could use a lot more of are self-reflective, open, honest, courageous people willing to question and explore themselves and the world they occupy. That especially includes people in positions of power—men, white people, religious and political leaders. If the leaders of your religion are responsible for abuse, I certainly think the humane and self-respecting response is to hold them accountable. We need people to insist on themselves and each other in every realm of humanity. [tweetable]I think religion isn’t the issue exactly—an unquestioning response to power is.[/tweetable]

Chris Stedman: Many movements emphasize the power of storytelling to bridge and humanize differences. Do you see your writing as a kind of activism?

Thomas Page McBee: Yes. As a writer and an editor,[tweetable]I believe that diverse narratives—and the visibility that results from complicating reductive stories—heals us from the violence of making one another “other.”[/tweetable] I started writing “Self-Made Man” a few weeks into taking testosterone, when I couldn’t find myself in any of the stories I saw about trans men or even men in general. I didn’t feel born in the wrong body. I felt like an intentional man, a man with a gender that is complex and beautiful and common and unique. I’m no different than anyone, really. I wanted to write into that universality.

CS: You’ve written a lot on masculinity and male privilege. In recent years, the atheist community has struggled with sexism and with the perception that it is overwhelmingly male (as well as white, upper class, heterosexual, and cisgender). Do you have advice for men—atheist or otherwise—who want to become more aware their privilege and take action to address it?

TM: The first step is to notice that you have a gender. [tweetable]The definition of privilege is that we who have it are the default and thus more likely to not question our inheritance.[/tweetable] If you notice that you are a man, you will begin to ask yourself what that means. You will be uncomfortable with the way you are treated with reverence in business meetings in the way that your female colleagues are not. You will see the ways you are able to move through the world with ease—late at night where women feel unsafe, on city streets where women are catcalled.

You will also see the way your masculinity is policed and claustrophobic—how you may have been stunted by stories you’ve been told about what a man is or isn’t “supposed” to do. You will find a great freedom in being your own man, and with that freedom comes a responsibility to be a man that stands up to these stories about what men are allowed to do. It’s also a responsibility to empathize with and be angered by the legacy of violence we’ve inherited as men—toward women, toward each other, toward ourselves.[tweetable]When you see that you have a gender, you can make a choice in how you embody it.[/tweetable] I know that you’ll do the right thing. You just have to be willing to look.