“I know for years you’ve just assumed I was gay – because of whom I’ve been romantically involved with,” begins T Cooper’s coming-out-as-transgender letter to his parents. “I don’t know how else to say it but: I’m basically a dude. . . . I’m engaged to be married, plus am now stepdad to my fiance’s two beautiful blonde children. We all live in a nice four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath house and have two hybrid cars, two rescue pit bulls, and a gray-and-white cat that I don’t like very much.”
Thus begins Real Man Adventures, a refreshing, funny, angry, startlingly insightful examination of gender and masculinity.
Once the domestic tableau has been etched, Cooper reasserts his identity: “I am a heterosexual man.” He then takes on the dominant “born in the wrong body” trope that has become pervasive. “I actually think that I was born in the right body, my body,” he continues. “It’s just a little different. . . . I haven’t been tortured, or miserable or beaten senseless in the playground because of my life experience – in fact, quite the opposite. . . . In truth, the most pain I’ve ever had over being a straight guy comes from my fears about how you would react. . . . You no longer have a daughter. But you do have granddaughters, and they really want to meet the people responsible for making me into the kind of person who figured out that he wasn’t what others decided he was, evolving into something else entirely.”
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Cooper was lucky. His parents and older brother – a Los Angeles police officer – rallied round and, for the most part, have been solid allies and defenders. Periodic – and increasingly rare – pronoun lapses aside, he reports that he was neither rejected nor disowned. At the same time, he notes that not everyone welcomed him. In fact, in one particularly nasty encounter, his wife’s cousin referred to him as “it” rather than he. Needless to say, this gaffe caused friction within the family and led to severed ties with those who refused to condemn the insult.
At the same time, Cooper wonders when a transition can be placed in the over-and-done column, so that it is not a constant topic of conversation. “At a certain point, I’m just a man who writes books, advocates for pit bulls, likes early-20th century jazz and hip hop, digs old airplanes, has a lovely wife and two kids – and not a transman who is all of these things,” he writes. Being trans, he continues, “is just one aspect of your history, like you were born in California, were orphaned at age eight, or were adopted, had some all-consuming illness, went to Harvard, went vegan, lived abroad, accidentally killed a girl with your father’s Oldsmobile. Just one of the many things on the way to becoming the person you are today – man or woman – or anywhere in between.”
True enough, and it would be great if people could take a few breathes and get over it, treating the transition the same way they treat Aunt Angie’s face-lift, cousin Connie’s breast reduction or Uncle Paul’s nose job. But it isn’t the same, and in his heart of hearts, Cooper knows this. What’s more, I suspect that he understands that he and other transpeople have to explain the whys and wherefores of surgery to those outside the fold.
Perhaps Real Man Adventures is meant to fill this knowledge gap. Indeed, in many ways it fits the bill, clearly describing how Cooper lives and what he wants from neighbors, friends and family. At the same time, he refuses to stifle his rage and rails against those who “forget” to call him he and not she. “It always makes me feel shitty inside when people refer to me as she,” Cooper admits, especially because these same people seem to have no problem remembering a woman’s post-marriage change of surname.
The indignities, he continues, add up – leading to such despair that 41 percent of transgender people in the United States attempt suicide. As if that weren’t enough, he writes, 19 percent report being denied medical care because of their gender, and two percent reported being assaulted – you read correctly, assaulted – in a doctor’s office.
While Cooper has been personally blessed – avoiding the egregious abuse other transpeople have encountered – he nonetheless acknowledges that he can never fully let down his guard, and Real Man Adventures is at its most poignant when addressing the lurking danger hovering over him and his family. Despite the fact that new acquaintances have no reason “to think I’m anything but what they see: The short dude who just moved in. A visible man,” he knows that confiding his story could lead to assault or worse. “I am not actually hiding anything or trying to fool anybody,” he writes. “I am living my life as I know how.” That said, he worries that if word gets out, he’ll be labeled an abomination, and his family will be ostracized or terrorized. “Everything is at stake,” he concludes, “pretty much all the time, even if there are long periods when I don’t think about it or don’t want to think about it or don’t even particularly care much about it at all. It will almost always come up some way, internally or externally, benignly or potentially threateningly.”
Perhaps this incipient intimidation is to blame for Cooper’s periodic macho posturing. If so, it’s understandable. Then again, his reflection on marriage – he refers to it as becoming man and wife – comes dangerously close to the proprietary. In addition, his constant reference to his wife, instead of to a woman with a name, is annoying – even if his investigation of masculinity is very self-aware. Lastly, I found his fascination with penis size and the book’s inclusion of an interview with Atlanta-based exotic dancer, ReDICKulous, a man known for his ability to perform autofellatio (yep, it means what you think it means) jarring.
Despite these quibbles, Real Man Adventures is a valuable addition to the growing body of writing that challenges conventional ideas about family, gender, relationships and love. A blur of memoir, rants, interviews, letters and astute observations, it doesn’t tell us how to define gender. Instead, it explores an even more important question – the multiple and strange ways the categorization matters.