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Doing The Hard Work Of Becoming A 'Real Man'

Sep 1, 2014
Originally published on September 1, 2014 7:08 pm

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.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our series on men will wrap up next week, but in the meantime we've asked a few writers to share a must-read on the subject of being an American male. Poet Saeed Jones has this suggestion of a book that means a lot to him.

SAEED JONES: Here's something I wish I'd known when I was still a limp wristed little boy. Any guy who pulls off that classic red-blooded man act like it's easy is lying. He's lying to you, and maybe he's even lying to himself because being a man is damn hard work. Building that kind of persona is a precarious business. Some men just stop trying. We settle into an easier, more breathable version of ourselves. More desperate men might resort to sexism or violence to show that we measure up.

And then there's the writer T Cooper. His latest book is called "Real Man Adventures," and he opens it this way. (Reading) I am a visible man, by all appearances white, middle-class, heterosexual male.

Cooper is a happily married guy with two young stepdaughters. He's also transgender. This isn't a paradox. And through the book, which is made up of essays, lists, diagrams and interviews with family and friends, Cooper shows us what he's learned about manhood on the way to becoming himself.

One chapter is a list of changes he and his wife have noticed since he started taking testosterone. I am angry more frequently, he says, or it takes way less to make me blazing mad. People defer to me more, and I say less to strangers. Later, Cooper interviews the mother of a transgender friend. He admits, 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 grapples with the idea of being or becoming a real man. He's smart and vulnerable, and he gets to an essential truth that I think is comforting for all of us. Manhood is something we create like a work of art. The stoicism, the toughness, the strength - each one is like a painter's brush stroke on a self-portrait. By acting them out we're saying this is who I am. This is who I want you to see.

But if we're going to be real men, Cooper seems to imply it's because we're real to ourselves. Writing this book was an accomplishment, but it involved risk and sacrifice. Cooper knows the possible consequences of exposing his family and his personal life. For all the acceptance of transgender people in America, there's still a lot of work to be done. But if anything, the truth about manhood begins here, with the honest questions answered and the self laid bare. I would have loved Cooper's book when I was still a boy, but I guess since becoming a man is an ongoing process, his brilliant writing arrived right on time all the same.

CORNISH: That's poet Saeed Jones recommending T Cooper's "Real Man Adventures." Jones also has a new book out this month. It's called "Prelude To Bruise." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.