Amateur: A True Story About What Makes A Man by Thomas Page McBee (Canongate) $37
The ability to change gender is a feature of our age. The first pioneering reassignment surgery (male to female) occurred in Berlin in 1930. In the 21st century, such operations are routine.
Beginning with Christine Jorgenson’s autobiographical article The Story of my Life in 1953, there have been many memoirs of male to female reassignment. There have been fewer first-person histories of female to male transitions. Thomas Page McBee is one of the recent writers who is reshaping social views.
Born a woman, McBee is now a married man and a journalist. His second memoir, Amateur: A True Story About What Makes A Man uses his participation in a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden in New York as a pretext to untangle the links between masculinity and violence. It is an approachable and thoughtful account.
Injecting himself with testosterone each month, McBee is physically familiar with the chemical basis of gender. As a consequence of his hormone shots, he has a beard and a masculine body shape. Testosterone has also forced him to confront male violence: how much is hormonal, and how much is culturally instilled?
Amateur, however, is not simply McBee’s story. He works out and trains in two New York City gyms. His book is often the story of men together. They compete. They share. They teach. His sparring partners, trainers, friends and the worlds they inhabit are acutely observed.
So too is McBee’s wife, Jess, with her doubts and affirmations. The story of their relationship is a vital undercurrent to the book. Her belief in ‘‘the person beneath rather than the appearance’’ is a practical take-home message.
McBee’s status as an outsider – where only a few people know his real story and his birth-gender – means he sees things in the world of boxing that others would not. His personal history requires an awareness of expectations and interactions that open up fresh perspectives in an old debate.
While Amateur goes to authorities in the fields of gender and aggression for information, it is also willing to debate their views.
McBee’s memoir is a paced and suspenseful reading experience. With its focus on preparations for a competition and the final event itself, the book becomes more than an exploration of gender. The fleshy thuds of Madison Square Garden’s boxing arena are translated onto the page.
In an era where gender has become such a triggering subject, Amateur provides a refreshing alternate version. It is a book which ably demonstrates how central the debate is to modern life – and how little it should really matter. – David Herkt