In 2017 — March 16, 2017 to be exact — P. Carl became a man.
Prior to that, the Boston-based writer and dramaturg who was named Theater Person of the Year at the 2015 National Theater Conference spent 50 years living and building a career as a woman while knowing he didn’t identify as one. As he explains in his new book, Becoming A Man: The Story of a Transition, “an inner self can learn to walk parallel with a constructed self and know and not know it simultaneously.”
In this way, his debut memoir isn’t just the story of his transition but also an origin story.
Changing his name and gender changed his life by allowing him to feel at home both in his mind and in his body for the first time. “When I verbally ‘sexed’ myself male to my therapist and allowed the word ‘man’ to reverberate through my body,” Carl explains in the book, “it was the first time I sensed what having a body might feel like.”
Becoming A Man, part intimate personal narrative and part cultural criticism, is about avowing the man he always was — a guy’s guy who loves Westerns and hiking and is a bit of a sneakerhead. He also shares some of the most intimate moments of his life, including his struggles with depression, being misdiagnosed as bipolar for 20 years, fighting with his wife as they navigate their marriage alongside his transition, the difficulties of caring for his conservative father as he battles cancer and even texts from his therapist. Alongside these recollections of his journey to himself are ruminations about what it means to become and to be a white man today.
After all, in 2017, the U.S. was going through its own transition. White supremacists ascended to the White House buoyed by a campaign of hatred toward racial minorities and the LGBTQ community. Months later, the #MeToo movement would empower women everywhere to out some of the most powerful (and mostly) white men in the world — CEOs, political candidates, entertainment industry executives — for their previously unchecked abusive behavior. Undergoing a gender transition in the Trump era forced Carl to confront the privilege and baggage of white masculinity and his complicated relationship to it.
Which is exactly what Becoming A Man captures, as it examines masculinity as both a layer of personal identity and a cultural artifact. (In addition to Carl’s theatrical credentials, he has a PhD in comparative studies in discourse and society.) “I experience myself as a man, not as a construct,” Carl writes in the book. “But how I construct that man knowing what I know as a woman is my work now.”
Recently, I got a chance to talk to Carl about the book, his transition and his new life as a white man in Trump’s America.
The structure of your book is heavily influenced by the timing of your transition. The day you became a man was less than two months after Trump’s inauguration and only months before the #MeToo movement would spark a global reckoning. How did that cultural context inform your journey and your book?
The whole idea of becoming a man was so complicated for me because I felt like politically I was failing in some way. I think the idea that I’d finally be recognized at this moment in time — just the discomfort of entering that world and being in any way associated with a person like Brett Kavanaugh or Donald Trump was complicated and horrifying and made the joy of finally being myself not something you could take in without all the complexity.
In the book you write, “One truth about a gender transition is that more people are concerned about the spouse than the person going through the transition.” What is it like to have others de-center you from your own story? Is that part of the reason you decided to write a memoir?
In the book, I talk about my doctor who works with queer, primarily trans clients and her telling me “be prepared to lose everything” and me not really having any idea what she was talking about and then realizing that trans is so incredibly misunderstood. The biggest part of the misunderstanding is to think that I was sitting around one day and thought, “Oh, I think I’ll become a man today and risk my 20-year relationship and risk my job and risk all of my friendships,” as if you’re planning something rather than surviving something.
I wrote the book in part because of the way people behaved when my wife was diagnosed with cancer — and obviously, cancer and being trans aren’t the same — but the way people responded, with care and concern and love, is what I’d anticipated when I transitioned. Instead, [I] was stunned at how badly people responded, people that I’d never expected to respond that way. I wrote the book in part around that question of “what part of this is choice and what part of this is being?” and the way in which transitioning is, at least for me, so not something you plan, it’s something you live through.
You do something that many consider taboo — you use your dead name. Why was that important to you?
Well, for me, because I transitioned at 50, it’s different from transitioning at eight or even 20. People have to make all their own choices, but for me to try to erase Polly, my dead name, was also to be not understanding in a way, or not accepting in a way, that that person had been a part of me for a long time; it was a person that had been in a relationship with my wife. For me, it was really important to come to terms with what I was trying to escape and what I needed to accept as part of my history. All trans people deal with how much can you move forward and how much you take with you from where you’ve been. For me, that name and that person had had a whole life and career, and I couldn’t just make her disappear.
You write of a desire “to be in a perpetual present tense.” Can you explain what that means and if you feel like you’ve achieved it?
In part, it’s related to your previous question. The perpetual present tense is in a way not to be looking back at what I was and also not to be knowing what’s ahead. Part of living in perpetual present tense is that there’s just so much grief about what’s been lost and what you’ve missed out on. The desire to do that is a survival technique and also a way of allowing yourself some of the pleasures of being in your body for the first time and letting yourself feel that in moments that are your own and that you try to uncomplicate in that present moment.
In a chapter titled “White Masculinity,” you write about your first cross-country road trip with your wife post-transition. While passing through the country you’re amazed to see how welcoming a certain slice of America — the straight white middle-aged population — is to you simply because you’re a white man wearing a baseball cap and a certain type of sneaker. Was that the first time you realized your newfound privilege as a white man?
No, I’d felt it before. The weirdness of that trip was to be a heterosexual white male for the first time. In all the years that my wife and I traveled previously, we traveled as a queer couple and that has implications. You’re used to being in your queer bubble, and then you’re in the middle of Ohio somewhere and you realize people are looking at you like, “Did you just hold hands?” So it was strange to be suddenly yucking it up with other middle-class straight couples in Middle America.
In the book you write, “Toxic masculinity is part of the baggage that comes with my reflection.” What other kinds of baggage come with being a man — in particular a white man — today and how have you learned to deal with it?
I mean, God, there’s so much baggage. Every time you step out the door you represent something and what you represent — at least what I’ve learned I represent because I know so many men who aren’t trans so they can’t see sort of both sides of things — is an obliviousness that most people who have lived in any other identity category has never experienced. White masculinity believes itself whole because it’s always felt whole. The crisis of white masculinity now and why so many white men are mad about identity politics is because they’re expected for the first time to see themselves in some way as other than whole and as they are and as the origin point of all life and story. As I walk out my door, in some ways, I represent that obliviousness.
I talk about it in the book, walking in the park with my dog and being the only man and realizing that a woman is afraid of me. I represent violence — the potential for physical violence, and the potential for sexual violence. All of the things that are the core of Trump’s version of making America great again, which of course is Trump’s version of making America as toxic as humanly possible. You become affiliated with that version of America. If you know I’m trans, you don’t necessarily think that; but most of the time when I’m walking around, people don’t know that, so you have to accept that you’re being seen that way. And for me, it really influences how I behave.
When I was living as a woman I might’ve gotten mad in a situation where now I’m like, “No, I’m not going to be the angry white guy” — just things like that. I had to really think hard about what people now see when I’m talking, standing or walking my dog.
Can you explain how watching Westerns helped you get to know your father and other men better?
I love Westerns even though I know they’re bad in some ways. The thing about Westerns that’s so great historically is that there’s clarity — you know there’s good and there’s evil and you pretty much know who you’re rooting for. That clarity is something we all long for, even though we know Westerns are false in that way and nobody has done more harm to our notion of American masculinity than John Wayne. But what I learned in watching Westerns with my dad is how much he desired that kind of power, knowing and clarity, but as a poor kid who grew up in Centralia, Illinois, could never find it. So watching it was a way for him to affirm some part of himself that he could never actuate.
Toward the end of the book you write, “The conversation around transgender lives is youthful, tragic and still in such early stages of discovery.” What do you hope your memoir will add to that conversation?
My hope with the memoir is very particular. I know I’m of a generation that’s very different than a lot of young people who are discovering, experiencing and embracing their gender — whether it be trans, nonbinary or however people are defining it — and what I really wanted to do with the book was bring honesty to what I think of as the human condition. We’re all leading these parallel lives, we’re all doubling in a certain way, and I wanted the book to have resonances for people who were both trans and not trans as a way of bringing a basic humanity to trans lives.
For example, I read this incredibly benign post in The Washington Post the other day about just using people’s proper pronouns and the vitriol in the comments, the pathologizing of trans people, the evil that emerged in this little 700-word ‘hey, it’d be nice if you respect people’s pronouns and here’s why’ [piece]…
I know when the book comes out, many people will pathologize me and believe me to be less than human. I tried very much, though, to write a story that was human and that I hoped many people could relate to — again, trans and not trans people alike.