Here is something I wish I'd been taught when I was still a limp-wristed little boy: Any man who says that the performance of red-blooded masculinity comes naturally and is easy to pull off is either lying to you, or worse, himself. Being a man, or, constructing manhood is damn hard work.
Some of us just give up and eventually settle into an easier, more breathable version of ourselves. Others resort to all sorts of desperate shows of sexism, violence and general havoc in an attempt to convince ourselves and our culture that we are up to measure.
T Cooper's recent book, Real Man Adventures, examines manhood's precariousness through the lens of his own experiences. The memoir opens, after an epigraph from Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, with these three sentences: "I am a visible man. By all appearances white, middle-class, heterosexual. Male."
Cooper, a happy married man with two young step daughters, is also transgender. His identity as a transgender man is not and should not be regarded as a paradox. And through the book, via essays both humorous and heartbreaking, lists, illustrated diagrams and interviews with family members and friends, Cooper strives and ultimately succeeds in illuminating what he has learned about manhood on the way to becoming himself.
One chapter is a list of changes he and his wife have noticed since he first started taking testosterone, among them: "I am angry more frequently. Or: it takes way less to make me blazing mad." And, "People defer to me more." And, "I say less to strangers." Later, there's a chapter in which Cooper interviews a trans friend's mother. He begins the interview by admitting: "I'm asking you these questions because I'm too much of a wimp to ask my own parents. Or maybe I'm not ready to hear their answers."
Cooper writes with intelligence and vulnerability as he grapples with the idea of being or becoming a "real man." And in doing so, he gets to an essential truth that we'd all do well to heed: Manhood itself is a work of art, you might say. The stoicism, the toughness, the strength are like a painter's brushstrokes on a self-portrait: "This is who I am. This is who I want you to see." If we are real men, Cooper seems to say, it is because we are real to and with ourselves.
What he has accomplished with Real Man Adventures was not achieved without risk or sacrifice. He weighs the possible consequences of writing about his personal life and thus exposing himself and his family. For all the progress America has made regarding acceptance of transgender people, there is still a great deal of work to be done. But the necessary change, the breakthrough we seek and need begins here in this book, with the honest questions answered and the self laid bare.
I would have loved to read Cooper's book when I was still a boy, but I suppose — since being a man is an ever ongoing process — his brilliant writing has arrived right on time all the same.
Saeed Jones' next book of poetry, Prelude to Bruise, comes out next month.