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.
And it’s more about us than it is about him. To reveal all the arbitrary factors by which we measure a “real” man, Cooper conducts Q-and-As with his journalist wife, his LAPD officer brother, his brother’s trans co-worker, a male exotic dancer known for his ability to fellate his own 11-inch penis, and the parents of a trans friend. (He can’t bear to interview his own.) He presents a partial transcript of a phone conversation with a representative at the State Department who wanted to know what he had in his pants before he presented him a passport listing him as “male.” He compiles a list of 40 men (Elijah Wood, Prince) who are shorter than he is and a list of ways testosterone has affected his personality. He writes an imagined letter from Shiloh Jolie-Pitt to a blogger who has expressed concern that she dresses like a boy. He relays a nightmare he had about being thrown in prison. Writes a romantic poem for his wife. Draws a pyramid representing how difficult it is for others to refer to him as the correct pronoun, with “parents, brother” having the most difficulty and “people I just met today” the least. Rants, in footnote, at a New York Times book reviewer who called him a “she.” Conducts a survey of his male friends about how often they sit down to pee (often).
Cooper’s accounting of modern masculinity is informed as much by what he does not include. When he glides over a scary detail—“(there was the time on the subway at knife point)”—he sets boundaries for just how far this exercise ought to go. Just because Cooper tells us one thing (like that he is transgender), it doesn’t mean we’re entitled to know another (like the exact status of his genitals). And so Cooper starts a chapter on how he has sex then leaves it blank, save for a footnoted exchange with his wife over the prospect of writing about their sex life: “I’m definitely going to work in something about how I’m far and away the best sex you’ve ever had, ever—a world champion—but that’s pretty much it.”
It’s the way Cooper resolves that last point that is of particular interest to me, as a woman. Of all the measures of “real men”—length, girth, height, weight, stubble, testosterone, a helicopter pilot’s license—Cooper continually refers back to one: He is a man because he satisfies a woman as one. He spells this out in his contribution to Esquire’s “How to Be a Man” issue, which the magazine omitted “in favor of insights from guys like Tom Cruise.” He tells Esquire that “the unconditional acceptance from and love of the best woman in the world” has “probably made me more of a man than any of the other shit out there, including testosterone.”
This sentiment replicates throughout the book, a running self-conscious joke told once and then twice and then a dozen times until it turns more serious. Cooper fears “that my wife will leave me and I will end up a sad and lonely freak with nobody to truly understand and love me in my dying days.” He fears that he is “not the man she and the world need you to be.” He cannot stand a particular smug-faced actor because his wife once dated him briefly, and he doesn’t like the idea of said actor “FUCKING MY WIFE.” In an interview, he asks his wife, “Are you secretly waiting for a man who’s taller, bigger, smarter, richer, tougher, more handsome, more talented, and—most importantly—was born male to come along so you can leave me and run off with him?” Whenever she leaves his sight, he is “instantaneously seized with the distinct notion that she might never come back.” Cooper has never felt so normal as when he groped his wife’s ass without her permission, onstage, at a David Copperfield show.
Here is one way I treat T Cooper as different from “normal” men: I don’t read passages like those and dismiss him entirely as an all-out creep. Partly that’s because it’s unfair to expect Cooper to transition into the man of the century, but also because we know that for him this male posturing has been a life-or-death kind of thing. Take the time when Cooper was stuck alone in an emergency room with doctors unaware of his medical history and only felt safe when his wife arrived; her very presence said to the doctors, he relates, “I’M NORMAL AND NONTHREATENING AND DESERVING OF YOUR EMPATHY BECAUSE THIS NICE LADY CAME TO MY BEDSIDE.”
But Cooper’s relationship with his wife is not just a constant validation of the author as a real man—it’s also a reinforcement of what a real woman should be, the kind who can make a man like him. Part of Cooper’s privilege as a man is predicated on the fact that he is married to a pretty, nice, hetero, “normal,” “real” woman who accepts her role. Writing on their relationship in O, The Oprah Magazine, his wife returned the favor, writing that Cooper “has made a girl out of me.” That’s a deeply personal thing, but it has implications for women like Suzanne and me, too.
Real Man Adventures by T Cooper. McSweeney’s Books.