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Amateur, a trans memoir of masculinity, boxing and being a man
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-09-19

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Thomas Page McBee is many people: a husband, an uncle, a brother, a son. He's also the first trans man to fight in Madison Square Garden.

Amateur: A True Story of What Makes a Man ( Simon and Schuster ) is McBee's second memoir, the followup to the Lambda Award-winning Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man. Like many trans individuals, McBee felt different his whole life. He also had to deal with his stepfather's sexual abuse and a complex relationship with his brilliant, alcoholic mother. In Amateur, McBee takes a hard look at masculinity and its effects on him as a trans man, as he prepares for a charity boxing match, having had no previous ring training. The result is a short but powerful glimpse into a man who, despite his muscles and beard, fears that his hard-won masculinity is leading him down a rougher path than he anticipated.

"Men keep trying to fight me," McBee told his brother in 2015, after almost getting in a physical altercation with a stranger after a simple misunderstanding involving McBee's phone camera. By then, McBee had successfully transitioned and embarked on a relationship with his now-wife. He'd also lost his mother and still wasn't quite sure who his birth father was. To deal with these changes and the growing feeling that his own new masculinity was a complicated beast, McBee enters a world of smelly locker rooms, bulky gloves and fighting with one's own shadow. And his newfound insights are often surprising.

McBee's writing is both gritty and lyrical, putting the reader smack in the middle of sparring matches and ringside pep talks. Anyone who has seen Rocky or is familiar with the rise and fall of Mike Tyson ( who McBee talks about extensively ) will be drawn into the violent and strangely intimate world of amateur boxing. Though McBee and his fellow fighters are relentless in the ring, they touch gloves before and often hug after. Boxing is as full of support as it is smack talk and, well, actual smacking.

True to its subtitle, Amateur is an exploration of masculinity as much as a boxing memoir. McBee observes, with much discomfort, how his attitudes have changed since his transition. "You're like a guy, but better" is what many women told McBee pre-transition, and he realizes that his new body has changed how all genders view and treat him, as well as his own behavior. Though McBee, who is white, now enjoys security on city sidewalks and increased respect at work, he finds himself unintentionally talking over and disregarding the input of women—including, at one point, his own sister. Using copious research as well as his own experiences, McBee delivers a knockout punch of gender and societal rumination, paralleled with his own journey as a boxer.

Though I wish McBee would have delved more into his relationships with his mother and girlfriend, as well as his search for his birth father, Amateur is a unique and self-aware take on masculinity, its problems and its potential. McBee's voice is as strong as his presence in the ring, and his willingness to pick apart his newfound privilege is a positive example for all men. Amateur is a deft peek into the inner life of one who has already transitioned to his true gender, and is now coming to terms with what that means.


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