‘Unbound’ Shows Transgender Men Ripping Up Old Scripts

Posted June 12, 2018 4:51 p.m. EDT

As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, sociologist Arlene Stein learned about homosexuality in a medical textbook she found at the public library. It delayed her process of coming out by at least a decade, she writes in her new book, “Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity.” She was horrified by those “scary pictures of naked people looking plaintively at the camera, arrayed like mug shots.”

This story hovers over her book, which delves into the lives of transgender men and other “gender dissidents.” It feels as if Stein has written this book imagining it might fall into the hands of those who need such a primer — much as she once did — and she wants to give them the fortification she yearned for. She depicts her subjects with warmth and respect, and strains to include as much as she can about the social, emotional, medical and psychological dimensions of transitioning. The result is frantically overstuffed but earnest, diligent and defiantly optimistic.

For a year Stein followed her four subjects — Parker, Lucas, Nadia and Ben — all patients at a Florida clinic world-famous for gender affirmation surgery, specifically chest masculinization. They are all young, affluent enough to afford the expensive surgery (the clinic doesn’t accept insurance) but a varied group in other ways. Parker is unabashed in his craving for male privilege. (“Yeah, I want to be a white American male property owner. Really, it’s a dream.”) Lucas has “huge problems with the idea of passing” as a man. Nadia wants top surgery but still identifies as a woman. Ben wants to be out as transgender and for people to know he was assigned female at birth. All report a sense of calm and joy after surgery, but some are uncomfortable with their sudden elevation in status when they present as men. People suddenly “remember my name,” Lucas reports.

“A younger generation of transgender men are prying open many of our assumptions about what it means to be men and women,” Stein writes. Old scripts are being discarded, including those about transitioning itself. Some of her subjects explain their desire to transition as a result of having been born in the “wrong body,” either because it feels accurate or out of necessity — “in order for patients to gain access to surgery and hormones,” Stein writes, “they must still use the language of suffering, pathology and cure.” Others express more expansive notions of gender, a desire to bend and break the binary.

Nor is there one script for life after testosterone and top surgery. Stein cites one study of the workplace experiences of transgender men in which two-thirds reported that they were perceived as more competent and were given more recognition, including higher salaries. These benefits are largely limited to white transgender men, she points out. “Choosing to become a black male isn’t exactly a wise career move right now,” one black transgender man, a minister, tells her, describing a post-transition surge in harassment. “If it wasn’t absolutely imperative, who the hell would make this choice?”

To be sure, any individual gains occur in the context of the great precariousness of transgender lives. More than 40 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide, compared to 5 percent of the general population. Following the election of Donald Trump, Obama-era protections for transgender students were rescinded, and several states have attempted to pass religious exemption laws “effectively allowing discrimination against LGBT people in relation to adoption, as well as to accessing health care and social services,” Stein writes.

Stein’s project was motivated by a desire to learn “how, collectively, transmasculine people are challenging popular understandings of gender.” As it happens, what she also ended up exploring — and what gives this book its real heat — is more personal; it’s the challenge posed to her own cherished beliefs.

Stein came of age in lesbian feminist spaces in 1980s San Francisco, a cozy gynocentric universe where the San Francisco Bay Area Women’s Pages could helpfully direct you to a female attorney, carpenter or dog groomer. “There were moments of goofiness, to be sure, but there was also a dreamy sense of possibility,” she recalls. “It was a world comprising women of all races, classes and sexual preferences, who were dedicated to the radical proposition that women were better than men: kinder, less violent, more empathetic.”

That someone would want to be a man was inconceivable to her.

In researching “Unbound,” she had to confront additional preconceptions. “I had to admit that I, too, found myself unnerved at times by the sight of handsome women transforming themselves into dudes with stubby beards, thick necks and deep voices, people who were passing out of the zone of my own attractions,” she writes. “Of course, I realize that it’s not about me — it’s about them. Still, at times it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss.”

This is a chilling claim, but Stein repeatedly allows herself to be impolitic and wincingly frank, almost using herself as a foil for the limitations of second-wave feminism. “My generation believed that gender is imposed on us by advertising, scientific experts, parents, teachers and other influences,” she writes. “We thought we could undo gender’s hold on our lives.”

Today, New York City recognizes 31 genders. Facebook includes 56 gender options. Stein notes ruefully that she is playing catch up. A scholar of gender and sexuality for 30 years, these days she attends conferences on gender identity only, she says, to feel like a dinosaur.

Throughout the book, however, Stein is full of admiration for the transgender men she meets — especially as they challenge her. And toward the end of her investigation, a new note creeps in, one of wonder. If she were part of this generation, she asks, “what gender would I choose, and once I’d chosen one, would I feel that I had got it right?” This stirring — of curiosity, of the possibility of self-definition — reminds me of the poet Patricia Lockwood’s conception of a third identity. It’s not male, it’s not female, it’s protagonist.

Publication Notes:

“Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity”

By Arlene Stein

339 pages. Pantheon. $27.95.