Suzanne was considering a nose job. She had undergone sex reassignment surgery and completed six electrolysis treatments. Now she was wondering if she needed another procedure to really look “like a woman” or if she was just feeling that pressure that so many women feel, to look like a “better” woman. Suzanne didn’t want to be “always looking for the next procedure to feel more complete, to be the person I should be,” she told me at the time.
I had been reading Suzanne’s blog for a few months. I was interested in her perspective on womanhood and all its physical and social expectations that most women (and men) are never forced to consider. I interviewed her for a story in a local newspaper, which ran with a photo. On her blog, she said she liked the piece—but thought her photo looked “like someone pasted a guy's face on a picture of a woman.” She added: “I want every procedure they've got.” A few months later, she posted a new picture. Her smiling face was bruised and wrapped in gauze. Stitches lined her nostrils.
What makes a woman? Who decides? Clicking through Suzanne’s blog that day, I realized that I had played a role in the phenomenon I was attempting to understand myself—the way that we are all collaborating to determine one another’s gender all the time, without even thinking. These decisions are hardly anything—an extra letter added to a pronoun—until they are everything: A month after I profiled Suzanne in the paper, another trans woman in our city was stabbed to death by a man who had apparently decided she was not woman enough. When the police reported the murder, they identified her as male, not understanding that little insistences like that were the reason she was dead in the first place.
Real Man Adventures, a memoir from the novelist T Cooper, investigates how all those big and little gender decisions have played out in his life—a man who has always known he was a man, though he was not born that way, “not in any conventional sense, at least.” What everyone else thinks of Cooper’s gender—parents, subway riders, government officials, law enforcement officers, journalists like me, strangers like you, Cooper’s stepkids, himself—gets a thorough accounting in the book.
Cooper, of course, could just keep his head down, present as a regular white dude, and cash in on all the advantages that comes with: a raise, a spot at gatherings where men talk about women in the way that they do when no women are around, maybe even “an in-ground pool and attached garage.” But what happens when Cooper needs to pee in a truck-stop bathroom? Or gets caught in an airport body scanner? Or someone Googles him? Cooper can try to “live completely stealthily as a man,” hoping that he’s never discovered to be an “imposter” by the wrong redneck. Or he can lay it all out for everyone to see, hoping that if he presents his transness in the context of all the beauty and complexity of his life, everyone will just learn to deal. “I don’t really want to write about this thing of mine,” he writes, “but I think I might have to—to stop it from being a thing.”
So he writes the thing, which poses its own identity crisis—Cooper is now a trans dude who writes about being a trans dude, presenting dangers both physical (“in my and my wife’s heads, it all ends up with me getting fastened to and dragged behind a pickup truck”) and existential. “Will you still love and respect me if I am ever accidentally referred to as a ‘memoirist’?” he asks his wife at one point, and you can understand his concern. Cooper writes novels about Eminem impersonators and polar bears gone Hollywood; the transgender memoir conjures images of belabored “journey” metaphors and brave, steadfast author photos. “I am not a ‘man trapped in a woman’s body,’ ” Cooper protests. “That’s asinine.” So he tucks his memoir behind a tongue-in-cheek pulp illustration of a snorkeling Adonis preparing to stab a shark in the throat then assembles the book like a scrapbook of masculinity, as kept by a guy who’s had to fight for every inch of it. It involves drawings of unicorns.