I had heard about this book in the last year and thought it would be fascinating to hear the perspective of someone transitioning from female and male. What privileges would he realize that he inherited? In what ways was he restrained by masculine norms? How did he exist as a man with the lived experience of being a woman in the past in a world designed and controlled by men?
Amateur is a window into Thomas’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences about his life Before and After the Transition. The vehicle for exploring his transition and masculinity in general was an article that he was going to write about training for a charity boxing match. The readers get to go along for the ride and watch as he experiences the mostly masculine world of boxing and strives to figure out what it means to be a man.
Thomas is very forthright with his past and his family—supportive mother and siblings but an abusive stepfather. He describes how he was treated and related to as a woman, and then how things flipped during and after his transition when the world started seeing him as a man.
Suddenly he was no longer invisible or discounted. He mattered in the eyes of the world. He found that by opening his mouth and using his voice, he could silence rooms. People listened to what he said. They assumed a degree of competency on his part that women continually fight for and are rarely given.
He notes not only the differences between how he was treated before and how was treated after, but how he treated women before and after. By merely training for five months for a charity boxing match, his status was elevated in the eyes of other men. He was deemed an expert of sorts. He was listened to about boxing. Never mind that he barely knew how to throw a couple different types of punches. He saw this differential at the first gym he was training at. A female trainer there had to work twice as hard to prove herself. And still she was, not discounted really, but not taken as seriously as a guy who could walk into the gym without much boxing experience.
Or his sister who had boxed for years and had expertise much beyond his own. Thomas recounts an experience where he was out walking and talking with a group. A question about boxing came up. His sister, an expert, spoke up, but was ignored. Thomas talked over her. He was listened to. She wasn’t. Not even by him. It was as though he knew all about boxing. As though he had boxed for years.
Any woman can relate to this story. Talked over. Ignored. Your experience and expertise irrelevant. You are irrelevant.
Thomas didn’t realize what he did during this conversation about boxing until later. In fact, he didn’t really realize it. His girlfriend pointed it out to him later. Of course, he felt horrible. At some point he did eventually manage to bring it up with his sister and apologize. Which is great but kind of beside the point. I could feel for his sister, my own experiences projected on her and her feelings, accepting the apology but stoically resigned to this is just what men do.
To be a man, it seems, is to fundamentally degrade women. Interestingly, Thomas mentions that the phrase “be a man” is culturally contextualized. In Denmark, “be a man” means do not be a boy. It is linked to the admonition to be an adult. In the US, “be a man” means do not be a woman. Being a man is linked to a gendered hierarchy.
This hierarchy really is inherent in the American system. I find myself frustrated and angry when once again I find myself discounted, devalued, talked to disparagingly—in essence, I realize that I am being treated “as a woman” and I find it enraging because being treated like a woman means I am being treated as someone less than human, who can be discounted and shoved aside. A second-class citizen of sorts.
Another point in the book that I found illuminating s the talk about violence. Violence is a form of male bonding. The boxing gym in some ways is the epitome of maleness. You are setting out to physically overcome someone else. Blood, sweat, bruises, black eyes. But Thomas also recounts very tender moments, words of encouragement and physically caring for other men.
But violence, he points out, is central to being male. As a man, you cannot let yourself be dominated by someone else. Why do men fight? When they feel humiliated, shamed, not powerful.
Violence is approved towards those who are “legitimate targets”. Who are “legitimate targets”? Someone you are entitled to dominate, who has less power than you—in other words, a woman. And here we see the rationale for domestic violence. You cannot take out your anger on your boss. He is not a legitimate target. But your girlfriend, wife, daughter. You can take it out on them.
Thomas realized that he was now rewarded for what previously he was punished for doing. He could speak up. Stand up for his ideals. He could push back. He could take credit for things. He could play power games. All things he was punished for doing when he was a woman. To exist in the world as an individual is to do all of these things, but women are beaten down again and again for doing them. For men, it is expected, a birthright, and an accepted way of moving through the world.
Thomas has tried to be conscious of these differences, to remember how he was treated as a woman and not to perpetuate this treatment of women. But it is different. Fish forget the water they swim in. At first when you encounter something, a new way of being treated, you notice it because of its newness. But with time, it becomes the new norm.
He tries to remember and be conscious. He tries to combines bits of his former self that he doesn’t want to lose—the caring, emotions, asking for help, aligning with women. But it isn’t always easy or possible. When his mom was dying, it was his sister who cared for her. It was expected that another woman would. As a man, he was kept out of that world and lost out in the closeness and tenderness of caring for his mom.
He tries to monitor himself. He mentions watching at work who talks over whom and why. Out for a run, he notices a female runner ahead of him looking over her shoulder, clearly worried about these footsteps fast approaching from behind her. Where previously he experienced fear of other men when he was out alone as a woman, he realizes what his presence as a man means to this runner. In the future, when he encounters another female runner, he calls out that he is passing on the left. An attempt to allay fears of an unknown man approaching from behind.
In Amateur, Thomas seeks to find out what it means to be a man in a world with abusive fathers and toxic masculinity. Without growing up male, he seems to feel a bit bereft. But through observation and reflection, he is crafting masculinity that feels right for him. The book takes us on his journey and lets us share in his observations about what it means to be male and juxtaposed against that what it means be female in a male-dominated world. And ways men can be that can heal both themselves and women from toxic masculinity.