Am I a Real Man?
Mendez Boxing gym was wedged between anonymous buildings in the Flatiron, under one of those ubiquitous green Manhattan awnings that signal perpetual construction. Though it was just a few blocks north of the office in Union Square where I worked as an editor, I’d never been within a two-block radius—the miracle of living in New York is the way you fashion and refashion each bit of it, until you’ve somehow made it your own. I circled the block, fashioning it, three times before finally heading in, looking foolish in my brand-new Adidas boxing shoes, pulled-high athletic socks, and neon yellow shorts. “Yeah?” the counter guy with the scraggly billy-goat beard said, eyeballing me. I told him I was looking for an acquaintance, Chris Lewarne, a rep from the boxing charity that arranged my fight.
He didn’t know who Chris was, he mumbled, but waved me down the stairs. I nodded back, descending into the bowels of the gym and thinking about how I’d gotten the idea from movies that men spent a lot of time in amenable, intimate silences, laced through with well-placed words that telegraphed deep truths, like the pivotal scene in every drama about fathers and sons. I suppose I had indeed spent a lot more time not knowing what to say since my transition. Silence was a kind of defense mechanism, especially in the halting stop-and-start dialogues I found myself muscling through with uncomfortable male relatives, or other people’s fathers.
I felt the front-desk guy’s eyes on my back as I hustled away. This was the sort of place I would need to be watchful, to be careful to whom I spoke and what I said. I had already decided that I would not tell anyone that I was trans. I’d decided it deep in my lizard brain as I’d circled the block before walking in, or maybe after I first reached out to Chris, or actually when I pitched the story to my bosses at Quartz, or, come to think of it, back when I’d first conceived of writing it. It was not lost on me that I was a historical anomaly, and that it was a function of a wave of newfound goodwill toward trans people that I’d been able to spend the years since I first went on testosterone living openly as a trans man with few negative consequences (and that trans people
who were not white or male did not benefit as wholly from this new friendliness and awareness of our lives as I did). Still, I suspected from the moments that I moved anonymously through space that the understanding that my male friends especially had about my body impacted the way they treated me, and my goal was to go undercover, to embed, never mind to stay safe among men who liked to beat each other up for fun.
In the coming months, that decision would dog me, not least because it highlighted a thorny truth: that, for all the world, I was just another dude in expensive Nikes learning to hit other guys in the face. The relationship between us mostly white men in high-tech training gear with pristine $180 Reyes gloves and the mostly black and brown coaches and (real) fighters using garbage bags to shed water weight wasn’t usually tense, but it was classed. Real boxing gyms, dank spots that were actual training grounds for Golden Gloves champs, were rarely open to gangly newbs like me, but a spate of legendary gyms such as Mendez followed a profitable business model that attracted scrappy Olympic hopefuls, washed-up amateurs looking to become personal trainers or to coach the Next Big Thing, and high-rolling charity fighters alike. I learned quickly that the arrangement had an uneasy economy: amateur boxers tired of the grind could charge white-collar guys (and some women) more than they’d ever make on the
fight circuit, and attorneys and hedge-fund managers never forced to expose their bodies to risk of any kind could do so for the thrill and bragging rights.
Pro boxing hadn’t found a poster child who captured pop culture since Mike Tyson, but the idea of boxing, especially among the hip and well-heeled, had entered a new heyday post–Fight Club. The sport that produced Muhammad Ali increasingly lacked in both heroes and the deeper social narrative of his era, leaving a vacuum eventually filled by a boxing-fitness craze perfect for Instagrammable moments. As I walked through the basement door at Mendez in 2015, it was clear that the latest converts were a certain sort of Wall Street guy, in an extension of the “wellness as luxury” trend that had also launched the spinning craze SoulCycle. (A hedge-fund manager I met at another boxing gym confirmed this. “I would have done blow with a client in the eighties, or gone to a strip club in the nineties,” he said. “But now when I want to impress someone, I take him boxing.”)
The stink of sweat made my eyes water as I scanned the room, eventually finding my friend Chris, a beefy, smiley Canadian, watching two other white guys in their midthirties pummel each other inelegantly in the ring near the locker rooms.
“Good work, you guys,” Chris said charitably, chewing on a toothpick. He wore the classic Adidas
triple-striped pants, a Haymakers T-shirt, and a light beard, but was the kind of handsome that required zero styling to appear stylish.
“Thomas!” he said. “I’m so glad you’re here, man.”
Chris’s fight name was the Cuddly Canadian. I’d seen his photos on social media from his fight two years before and knew he was on the board for Haymakers for Hope, a charity that raised money for cancer research by arranging glitzy bouts between brokers and day traders and venture capitalists with no boxing experience. He was the only reason I had a good shot of getting on the fight card at such short notice—just five months before the event. I was still surprised that my plan had worked, that Quartz had invested in the reporting, that anybody would let a total novice fight in Madison Square Garden with just a few months’ training. But I was still adjusting to the way I’d been treated since I’d transitioned: the ease with which my ideas were often executed, the ways my expertise was assumed before I’d proven it, the serious faces people made when I spoke, the heady faith the world seemed to suddenly have in me.
To be clear, the Before me wasn’t feminine. I don’t know what it’s like to be wolf-whistled or be told to smile. I was a short-haired tomboy who grew into a swaggering teen, regularly escorted out of women’s rooms by mall security. My younger siblings called me
their “big brother,” but underneath my practiced cool, I was still raised to fear men: men in dark streets or clustered outside bars; sketchy drivers; solo figures on park benches or in parked cars or on trains with their hands moving frantically in their laps. I didn’t question this low-grade, persistent anxiety or imagine a world where it didn’t exist. Masculinity was, as far as I was concerned, epitomized by my stepfather, whose years of sexual abuse began when I was four and looking at an anatomy book (“These are boy parts,” he’d said, a simple sentence that separated any notion of my body from his for the next twenty-five years), and the parade of strangers whose threat crowded my days long after the abuse stopped.
That’s just how guys are, I thought, glad to stand apart from their crassness and bulk, even as my body began to feel estranged from me. So what if I had to cross my eyes to look in a mirror?
“Men,” Mom said sourly, as we listened to NPR detail Bill Clinton’s infidelity. They were holding us back, the bad dads and the mass murderers and child abusers, the wife beaters and the harassing bosses and the corrupt politicians. Not until I was much older did I realize how complicated her feelings were, that she loved men too, and that her anger was forged in that love: obviously for my brother, and her father, but also for the coworkers that stood up for her, the
ex-boyfriends, the civil rights activists she marched alongside in the National Mall, listening to Martin Luther King Jr. announce that he had a dream.
Decades later, when I first had to tell her who I was, when I asked her to call me Thomas, the memory of the way she’d said “men” replayed on a loop as I dialed. I’d picked the name as an offering, after her brother who’d passed. “I love you,” she’d said, so simple and true, and I’d been so grateful for her, my mother.
All you need to know about her is that after I transitioned and despite everything, what matters most is that she never said “men” that way to me again.
• • •
Chris, a lawyer between full-time jobs, had grown out his hair since I’d last seen him and now worked as Haymakers’ de facto general counsel, riding his motorcycle to various Haymakers-approved gyms, keeping an eye on fighters’ weights and progress, occasionally hopping in the ring himself for fun.
Bearded and swarthy, standing beside him, I felt like the brainy villain next to the hero in an action movie. “This is going to be awesome!” he reiterated, and I nodded uneasily. Then he introduced me to my potential coach: Errol, an impeccably groomed, bald-headed black dude, who looked at me warily. I wondered, self-consciously, if he presumed me a certain sort
of white man, or if his assessment was a colder, more physical one.
“Have you ever played any sports?” he asked, which didn’t clarify things either way for me, though he seemed a little encouraged when I told him I’d been a goalie, a position famous for drawing only the truly bananas, a quality I assumed would help me in the ring. This was my inference, of course. Maybe he was just glad to know that a guy that was five feet six inches and 135 pounds wasn’t afraid of getting hit in the face.
“Let’s get to work,” he said. “Can you run a six-minute mile?”
Definitely not, I thought. “Probably,” I said.
Wu-Tang blared over a bell that rang out every three minutes and the constant thwap of men hitting bags, mitts, each other. I did not run a six-minute mile, but I did run three miles in twenty-five minutes, driven by adrenaline and pure terror through a hazing that lasted two grueling hours. Afterward, from the floor, I watched other men’s sweat condense on the ceiling and fought the urge to vomit, feeling proud of myself and strange for feeling proud of myself.
“You’ve got short arms, but decent strength,” Errol said, from somewhere above me. I couldn’t see him through the sweat stinging my eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then he was gone.
I hauled myself up, and Chris and I sat on the bench kitty-corner to the ring in what actually was companionable silence for a minute or two, but mostly because I couldn’t breathe. We knew each other only vaguely, and mostly from social media. We weren’t, however, actual friends. Not that Chris seemed to make any distinction.
“You did great,” he said, smiling sunnily. That wasn’t exactly true, but I’d take it.
“Listen, don’t tell Errol I’m trans, okay?” I asked, once I could catch my breath again.
He looked at me curiously, but told me not to worry about it. I meant to tell him it was to not compromise my reporting, but a part of me knew that wasn’t exactly true. As we watched a guy across the way do one hundred sit-ups, pause thirty seconds, then do one hundred more, I realized how scared I was. I wore my insistence that I be taken seriously, an inheritance from Before, differently on this body. With nobody challenging me anymore, that drive now just looked like standard-issue male confidence. I felt an acute awareness, sitting next to Chris, of the inches and muscle the other guys had on me, and within their bodies the potential for my own spectacular failure.
After he was gone, I changed furtively in the locker room, listening to two dudes talk about a cross-country
trip they’d taken on their motorcycles and hiding my nakedness by facing the wall of lockers while slipping quickly out of my shorts.
“You got a fight?” the smaller of the two guys asked me.
I flinched at the attention. “Yeah,” I mumbled, “just a charity one.”
“Don’t matter,” he said. The other guy nodded his agreement, and I couldn’t help the swell in my chest.
I had a fight! I walked all the way home, that night, thirty blocks, like the king of New York.
• • •
“The first jab better be a warning,” Errol said the next day. I pretended to be in less pain than I was as we practiced keeping our guards up, looking over our gloves, crab-walking around the ring, then turning into position quickly, so as to expose as little of our bodies as possible. This defensive style was cagey, smart. It was about staying safe by keeping your distance, always being ready, never letting down your guard.
I was familiar with the concept.
“I can see you,” Errol said, unnerving me, his gloves covering his face. Then he popped me on the side of the head. “But if you’re not watching, you can’t see me. If you can’t see me, you won’t be ready. If you’re not ready, you’ll get hit.”
I pushed through one more round, then another. He had me close out the night on the jump rope, which I immediately tripped over. Why are you doing this? I could hear my mom asking.
She always seemed to me larger than even the history I read about in school textbooks. She traveled on a Eurail pass with some girlfriends back when women didn’t do such things. She’d worked for Ted Kennedy and met his brother John when she won the Westinghouse Science fair in high school. Even after her marriage fell apart and she couldn’t find work; even after she moved to a depressing town near where she grew up in central Pennsylvania; even when she couldn’t stop drinking—she always seemed one step away from getting back on track, forever one turn away from her best self, the working-class high school girl tutored by the principal himself, she was that full of potential.
A medical “crisis,” her doctors explained to my sister and brother and me in the terrible hospital room a year earlier, is a crossroads where the patient either becomes healthier or dies. Mom, who, when she found out that her husband had been abusing me, put her hand on the center of my chest and told me I had a golden core that no one could touch. I knew I was at a crossroads too, fighting for the future that eluded her, working to become the kind of man we could both be proud of. She was in the ICU in September when the
nicest doctor of all took us into a special carpet-lined room with a big wooden table and told us, plainly, that she would not live. When she died a few days after, she passed a mighty hunger on to me. Nine months later, it was within me, a hunger that lived.
“He’s taking his time with that jump rope,” some joker said, and my cheeks burned. My legs were heavy, but sweat poured off me like a second self, washing away.
• • •
It felt good to see the guys nod hello those first weeks of training, even if I was skinny and kept to myself. Soon everybody knew I had a fight, and that made me one of them. So what if I couldn’t even throw a straight right? At least I wasn’t there for the cardio.
But I was also wary of this new, oddly warrior-like ego. I fought not to fall under the thrall of these alphas and the pride I sometimes felt when they noticed me. Given the thrill I got when another boxer so much as spoke to me, I found it hard to imagine a teenager on earth who could be immune to the spell of male socialization.
My brother suddenly made a lot more sense to me. He was five years younger than me, an athletic, solitary kid, often spending whole Saturdays alone in his room after a long day at the YMCA, where he grew progressively more jacked, his muscles covering him like
armor. On the ice, the man who raised us long gone, my sister, mother, and I watched him hit other boys in the face with little provocation. Later, his gear in the back of the minivan, we didn’t speak of bloody noses or body checks.
I knew that Brett’s fighting, both in and out of school, was almost always about me, my body, and the girls I dated in high school. He and my sister, Clare, were protective of me as if they sensed that I was not quite like them, even if we did not know we were half siblings, that their father was my stepfather, until we were adults.
“When I was younger, I was lonely,” Brett told me much later. It turned out that the sheen of our childhood, the legacy of his father, loomed as large in his masculinity as it did in mine.
He found solace in working out and played hockey as a form of protection against the boys around him as much as for enjoyment. “Within that hierarchy,” he told me, “I would earn their respect by just being authentic and being strong and getting up faster when I got hit. But I still wasn’t going to be invited to their parties.”
Despite Brett’s muscle, he’d long had a distaste for macho guys, and macho-guy stuff, no matter how mocked he was for it.
“At some point, I became pretty callous,” he said about his teen years. “At some point I wasn’t crying anymore.”
Becoming men had brought up the same question for both of us, the central worry of all sons of bad dads: How to be a man without being like our father?
It had never occurred to me, until I became a man, that my brother had felt trapped in his body as I had in mine.
• • •
Here’s another story about my brother: When I’d come out to him as trans over drinks back in 2009, before I started testosterone and when I still lived near him in Oakland, he’d hugged me. “You just make more sense as a guy,” he’d said.
Later that night, gin-loose, I’d asked him my very first dumb question about being a man: “What do you do when a guy says something sexist, or homophobic?” I figured if anybody knew how to react, it was him, after all those years he spent defending me.
He shrugged. “It depends on how many guys there are, and how big they are.”
“Oh,” I said, and we never spoke of it again.
But every night, changing in the Mendez locker room, I understood more clearly what he meant. Boys become “real” by proving their masculinity to other men, mostly through taking risks and dominating others who haven’t fallen in line. It was not unlike
boxing, where “real” fighters were distinguished from weekend warriors in the locker room by our willingness to get hit in the face. The “real” fighters ignored the “fake” ones, not blessing them with their attention, which is why it was almost embarrassing how much I appreciated two guys in particular, real fighters, who affectionately ragged me most nights.
They were a duo of white construction workers, meaty and nearing middle-aged, who took a shine to me for some reason, even though I rarely spoke. Pulling on their dusty work boots as I suited up, they traded gripes about their union, foremen, and job sites, pausing to greet me whenever I showed up with a jolliness I assumed at first was sarcastic. It wasn’t.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that their interest in me was based in something false, some agreement I’d entered into by not making myself more fully known. I suspected that the men I typically surrounded myself with censored themselves in my presence because I was so publicly trans—a simple Google search will give you a pretty good biographical sketch—and so I waited at the gym, with morbid curiosity, to either be “discovered” or for my passing to lead me someplace shadowy in myself.
One night, early on, that moment came. It was a Wednesday, and I was late, changing quickly to meet
Errol while the two dudes, teasing each other with a sharp edge that felt dangerously close to breaking into a fight, called each other “faggot” repeatedly. I’d not heard men who weren’t gay use that word since high school. I sat rigid on the bench, in the middle of lacing my shoes, shocked into the dawning awareness that my brother was right: I would not speak, I could not, even as they repeated the word over and over, because they were bigger than me and if I spoke, I was sure they would see me for what I was, and I was afraid of them.
• • •
The more I worried over how much I had to appear “real”—real as if I’d had a boyhood spent in scuffles, real as if I knew the language of fathers and sons—to survive in a boxing gym, the more I simultaneously wondered over the strange expression.
The phrase real man is at least a century old, which is when it first appeared in print in the United States. Back then, lower-status men worked the land, while richer ones kept a wistful eye on the rugged bodies that they considered themselves “better than.” But the concept, if not the phrase, exemplified later by the admiring eyes of tuxedoed ringside fight fans who fantasized about hopping in the ring themselves, is the key to a much older story. The tension between the civilized
world and a more “virile” masculinity dates at least as far back as Julius Caesar, according to race historian Nell Irvin Painter.
Her book, The History of White People, explores how white men invented race and, in doing so, made whiteness synonymous with the masculine ideal. White Western men have been insecure about achieving—or losing—masculinity, twinning that loss and gain with violence, throughout all of history. Strangely, the idea of the real man has also always been nostalgically classist. According to Painter, Julius Caesar fawned over the warrior-like qualities of his “uncivilized” rural neighbors, a common attitude among powerful men in antiquity. He also believed as many men did that “peace brings weakness” and “saps virility.”
I thought, with growing concern, of that man on Orchard Street, and the guys in the locker room. I thought of the bouncer, recently, who grabbed me roughly by my collar because he mistook me for someone else, and the rough agitation that rose through me at this insult, the worst kind of pride. Do not let yourself be dominated. Do not apologize when you are the one inconvenienced. Do not make your body smaller. Do not smile at strangers. Do not show weakness.
No wonder I felt like a hologram of myself. I’d been learning, through some cultural osmosis, how to be a real man, after all.
• • •
Larissa, a freckled attorney who had that can-do sunniness familiar to me from my time playing soccer with women in high school, was Errol’s other trainee, and she outperformed me, a lot.
Still, she cheered me on as I struggled to make sense of what was happening when Errol smacked me in the ear, the temple. Errol said I asked too many questions. My therapist said I “needed to get in touch with my anger.” He told me that was how I would “learn to trust life again.”
I hadn’t been the same since Mom died, that was true.
It occurred to me, those first weeks of training, that the man on Orchard Street tried to fight me because I too was looking for a fight. I had ventured, somehow, deep into the “man box,” a sweltering and bandaged thing, a mummy’s wrap around my body and the bodies of almost every man I know, stitched with the brutal language that ensures conformity, the outline of muscles pushed into being under the weight of “boys will be boys” and “real men” and “man up.”
A man box, drawn in the crude three-dimensional style of grade-schoolers everywhere, is used by sociologists and activists in a classroom exercise. Boys are asked what words or phrases go inside it, and what should be
left out of it. What they choose is a troubling primer in male socialization: Do not cry openly or express emotion. Do not express weakness or fear. Demonstrate power and control. Do not be “like a woman.” Do not be “like a gay man.”
But sometimes the box is squared as an office or bounded more invisibly, the tight corners scripting the jocular camaraderie at the back of the bar. Sometimes it is an icy enclosure holding a pair of lovers apart in a bedroom or is framed within a television or a phone or a movie screen. Sometimes it’s not a box, but a ring, iced or roped. And sometimes it’s the slow circles men make around each other in a street fight.
“Men tend to fight when they feel humiliated, when they feel shamed,” sociologist Michael Kimmel told me. (Kimmel was writing books with titles like Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men before the economic “masculinity crisis” and its fall-out.) “You don’t fight when you feel really powerful,” he said. “You fight when you feel like your power is being challenged.”
I assumed that fighting for my right as a trans man to be seen as “real” would be a big part of this story: but it quickly became clear that all men proving their “realness” did so through fighting the policing and shaming of other men, sadly often by shaming and policing them back.
What made me feel “real”? When Errol tied my glove on for me or poured water in my mouth, or when I tripped over the jump rope and had to begin again. I felt real when I asked for help, when I failed, when I was myself.
I did not want to become a real man, I realized. I was fighting for something better.
• • •
Chris seemed worried, watching from the ropes in his motorcycle jacket. He huddled Errol and me close to him after we ran our drills, smiling as always and yet somehow also not smiling. They both hovered over me, Chris with his artful scruff and Errol with his precisely shaved head. Chris said he was still looking for an opponent for me, with the fight just four and a half months away.
“You need to get this guy sparring,” Chris told Errol. “Now.” I tried to hear the protectiveness in Chris’s voice, and not the edge of it—the serious ring of fear.
Errol’s solution was to throw me in the ring with Larissa, whom I didn’t want to hit in the face, even with pulled punches. The unwritten rule of sparring was that guys were only ever matched with women in the ring to practice defense—even in boxing, the code stayed the same: a man was never to hit a woman, period.
Anyway, she was better than me, and I felt unsettled by the image of her head reverberating off my glove in front of the men around me, even as she yelled, “Hit me!”—as if we were in Fight Club, her glee unrestrained as the other fighters walked by, staring so hard at me my throat flushed red.
Mercifully, Chris finally interrupted my sparring with Larissa one night by hopping in himself. He’d kept up his training since his own match two years earlier, but despite the fifty pounds and six inches he had on me, he approached me with restraint. I still only knew two punches well enough to deploy them: the jab and the straight right. Chris smiled at me through his mouthguard, but my heart still thundered in my throat. I was, to my frustration, genuinely terrified by his size, frozen by his flurries of punches.
Larissa watched and yelled cheerfully for me to “go downstairs” and hit Chris with a body shot. “His ribs are open!” she hollered.
It struck me that I was a man more scared of men than she was. Maybe she’d mastered a skill I lacked, or maybe no man had ever used his body as a weapon against her, as my stepfather had against me, until I couldn’t tell where my skin ended and his began.
“Now up top!” Larissa said. I hit Chris harder. I was mad at myself for resenting her instructions, for all of the ways I was failing so publicly, for thinking of it as
failing, for letting it all get to me, for not knowing how to let it go. I couldn’t get my body to move the way I needed it to. In frustration, I hit Chris as hard as I could in the stomach and saw him cringe. It was a dick move.
It was strange and disappointing, I thought, pulling off my gloves, to see the worst parts of culture jutting out of my psyche like a glacier, knowing I’d only begun to uncover the mass that must lie beneath.
Chris, sweaty, knocked gloves with me as we drank some water.
“Look, in boxing, training is the same for all of us,” he said. His sheen of honesty made me believe him. “First, you learn not to react in fear. And then you learn how to again.”
“Fear is natural, your reaction is natural,” Errol agreed.
I could feel my eyes get wet. I nodded.
“And I will drill it out of you,” Errol said, patting me on the shoulder, before leaving to join Larissa, who, as usual, had it in her to go yet another round.