Getting laid. A first fight. Scoring the winning shot. These teenage rites of passage, especially for boys, and most especially for white boys, have been the subject of countless TV shows, movies, songs, paintings, and more. But where are they from? Whom do they serve? According to sociologist Tristan Bridges, co-author of 2015’s Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change, these cultural moments are created to will masculinity into existence, not the other way around. “For boys specifically, a lot of rites of passage are centered around violence and humiliation,” Bridges explains—for example, the hazing that’s common in fraternities, which requires boys or young men with very little authority to “initiate” boys or young men with even less.
This pattern of initiation, Bridges says, is “ripe for abuse,” and not, as some would believe, an important part of becoming a man. “Whenever you define masculinity as a set of things, it’s the stuff most of us will define as toxic: capacity for violence, knowing I might have a capacity for violence, feelings of shame,” Bridges says. This creates a false dichotomy of “toxic” versus “healthy” masculinity, when the truth is much more nuanced, and requires of boys an inward-looking approach to gender formation that we rarely encourage.
That’s what I thought of when Topic first approached me about a “rites of passage” story about trans men: that looking inward. I didn’t think about needles, or testosterone, or the way my body broadened. Those things—the physical “transition”—are endlessly obsessed over in media and, frankly, boring. Aligning my body with my mind was the easy part. For me, and a lot of trans men I know, the challenge was grappling honestly with our newfound place in the world.
This is because trans men, like all humans, don’t stop growing once we pass through the encultured trials of adolescence. But trans folks are perhaps more aware of that growth, especially if we transition as adults. “We tend to think about socialization as something that just happens as kids,” says Miriam Abelson, a sociologist at Portland State University and the author of the forthcoming Men in Place: Trans Masculinity, Race, and Sexuality in America. “But socialization is a constant, and to the extent that we recognize that it’s happening, we can decide to push up against it or to take part in it.”
Still, stories about trans men, in the rare cases when we hear them at all, often position us as transcendent of gendered masculine norms—potential “feminist warriors,” as Abelson puts it, just by nature of existing outside the typical path to manhood. This ignores the reality that we all face challenges that are baked into a racist, sexist society. The men I spoke to for this story are men, then, who are exceptional, not because they are trans, but for the fact that they are actively grappling with all of the pressures men face in American culture to conform to “traditional” ideas of masculinity, in addition to the resistance they face due to the transphobic sense that their masculinities are “fragile” and up for debate.
Because I medically transitioned in my 30s, the privileges of white masculinity—and the perilous constriction of the “man box” that newly constrained me—were much clearer to me than they might have been if I’d been socialized male from birth. I saw the expectations of violence, the greased-wheel trajectory of my career, the new fear I inspired in women alone on a dark street late at night.
What I’ve learned is that all men have the capacity to examine what is expected of us. Surviving my transition has involved some of the traditional rites of passage (such as “becoming sexuality active, sports, military service, gaining physical mastery, having a strong body,” as Abelson says) but also, and at almost every turn, a radical reimagining of what being a man even means.
Patricio Manuel, 33, made history by becoming the first trans man in the United States to fight—and win—a professional boxing match, on December 8, 2018.
Sparring men in a serious way was the rite of passage I looked forward to most after my medical transition in 2013. I was 28. I’d been fighting for ten years prior to my transition. I was really in high demand as a sparring partner on the women’s circuit, working with other world-class athletes, and so I knew the difference between light sparring and real sparring. I didn’t want men to just “work” with me. I wanted intensity. I wanted someone to give me honest-to-God, hard-work sparring.
Six months into my medical transition, my coach found me a guy to spar, an undefeated pro fighter. One of my biggest anxieties was to switch over to the male cup. I remember having to borrow a teammate’s cup to do it because I didn’t have one yet. Putting on that cup was claiming my manhood in this gym where I’d trained for years before my transition. I mean, this wasn’t like a small gym or anything. These are guys that have gone on to be undefeated, challenge world titles, could have been Olympians. They knew I was trans, and everyone was watching to see what would happen.
In the end, my face was a mess. He could have went harder on me, but he was a really good puncher, and a heavier weight. I’d gotten big, but I didn’t know how to transfer my force. I really didn’t have my full strength. I was like, “Oh shit, is this gonna get better?” I had some hesitation, even though I was telling myself, “You just started, you’re going to get stronger, you know how this works.” I felt frustrated, and a little coddled by my old coach, who had a hard time seeing my face busted up. It was a little like, “Do you believe in me?” And then ultimately he didn’t, and that’s how we ended up parting ways.
To be honest, it took a couple of years on testosterone to adjust, but I have an advantage over 12-year-old boys going through puberty. When I really started grabbing my masculine identity, I realized how much that shit was toxic. What my masculinity was prior to that was me emulating. You don’t know any better, and often that’s to the harm of so many femmes around us, and harm to ourselves because we’re trying to prove ourselves, just like kids do. I realized as I went through my transition that I had to prove things to myself, but I also got to choose what I wanted to prove.
I think one of the biggest problems with these rites of passage into masculinity under patriarchy and Western culture is domination of women and children. I wish I knew more about rites of passage in terms of my dad’s side, the African side. Slavery really fucked that up.
I love being a man, but my least favorite thing about being a black man is constantly being seen as a threat, or guilty, or prone to violence. I’m more likely to be arrested, and more likely to be killed. I’m not worried about being gay-bashed like I was before my transition, but violence is still present. It’s terrifying.
But then I’m thinking about older practices, indigenous practices. How can you become a man if you don’t know yourself? That was a big difference: I knew myself. When you look at older practices, there’s internal reflection, rather than seeking external praise for what you’re doing. We need to return to the spiritual side of masculinity. Boys and men are hurting, and damaged, and fractured. Men need to learn to do the internal work on themselves to put those pieces back together.