It was January 2020, and in the past five months, I’d done nearly everything in my power to put my assigned gender behind me. I had come out as trans to my loved ones; I was getting divorced; I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, which was once called a trans utopia on the Gender Reveal podcast (yes, I was listening to the podcasts as well). What I wasn’t, however, was out to my roommates, three cis men I’d met on Craigslist who all assumed I was a cis man like them.
I lived in the basement of a hulking wooden house owned by a wealthy couple who had moved back to Europe to take care of their elderly parents. My bedroom was an icy concrete box with a mattress on the floor. Every 45 minutes, an industrial dehumidifier would turn on and make a sound like a chainsaw halving a Buick. If a fire took over the house, I would have to crawl out a window too small to meet fire code. My roommates assured me I would be able to fit.
The roommates were generous men: They shared the beer in the fridge; they baked cookies at two in the morning; they held meetings to discuss the dust piling up in the house; they expressed their hurt confusion after friendships decayed. They were just the type of men I should have been able to come out to. But I was still trying to climb out of decades of quicksand-y shame. I had no close trans friends and had no idea yet how to be trans. What I knew was how to pretend to be a cis man. So I maintained this façade to avoid holding a difficult conversation with my roommates — I followed the path of the greatest emotional dissonance.
When my roommates were at work, I stayed in the basement trying on tights and blouses and dresses and skirts I’d bought online to prevent anyone from seeing me buy them. I practiced applying makeup from supermarket brands that were never the right shade for my pale skin. In my room, I focused on two things: finding my style and completing my novel. Dressed in black tights and a breezy forest-green skirt, I would sit at my desk revising The Atmospherians, my first novel, a satire about two best friends who start a cult to reform problematic men.
In a novel, there is nowhere for the subconscious to hide. And mine offered me a way work through decades of complicated feelings about people assuming I was a cis male. I was angry for lying to myself, and others, for so long. I was angry at the people who’d told me I wasn’t actually trans, that I was making it up — I feared they knew me better than I knew myself. And the easiest way to temper this anger was to direct it onto the men in my book. Every new draft failed to humanize the men who joined the cult. A teacher I trusted insisted I couldn’t reduce all the cult members to punchlines. This comment upset me — because it was right.
One evening, I emerged from the basement to find my timber framer roommate packing food into a cooler. He made a point of telling me he was happy to be missing work the following day. Where was he going? To a men’s retreat for the weekend, he told me. Ten minutes later, he’d emailed and texted me details for the next Men’s Open Circle meeting in Portland. I wasn’t the first of the roommates to receive an invitation to Men’s Open Circle — he’d been pressing the other two for months now — but I don’t doubt something about me appeared vulnerable that evening, in need of answers. My roommate wanted to help the only way he knew how: by inviting me to the very same group that helped him.
Since I committed to a writing career, a lot of my life has been spent doing things for the story. When I should be in the moment, I imagine how I will capture it later. I’m far from the first writer to feel this way. And in an era of social media, writers aren’t alone in catapulting themselves into futures sharing the moment. Where many writers differ, though, is that they believe themselves to be objective observers. Joan Didion, for instance, claimed her best skill as a reporter was going unnoticed. Inspired by Didion in Haight-Ashbury, I accepted my roommate’s invitation to Men’s Open Circle, looking forward to silently taking notes while seated beside him. Everyone would assume I was gaining so much from the meeting. They would take me for a diligent man eager to correct his emotions.
The Mankind Project, or MKP, is a “Global Brotherhood of Autonomous Nonprofit/Charitable Organizations.” According to my roommate, MKP helped men reclaim the rituals that have been stripped from modern life. These ideas are loosely based on Robert Bly’s early 1990s book Iron John: A Book About Men, which claims that boys couldn’t fully evolve into men without completing the ancient rituals once expected of them. Bly takes the name of his book from a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale about a boy who matures into adulthood thanks to the aid of a red-haired woodsman named Iron John. Iron John served as a guide for men who have lost touch with their warrior selves in an increasingly feminist age (the ’80s and ’90s), and Bly even led meetings in the woods where men could recapture their primal selves through drumming and chanting and, according to a 1992 New York Times article, gripe about their fallen status as men. What those rituals entail, in 2020, remains fairly mysterious to people who aren’t members of MKP. In 2018, the Times reported that the group’s weekend retreats, which are called the New Warrior Adventure Training and can set men back nearly $700, include cold showers, blindfoldings, and optional nudity to promote body positivity.
An hour before the Men’s Open Circle meeting, my roommate texted to tell me he couldn’t come. My impulse was to cancel. I’m a naturally shy person and hated the idea of introducing myself without the aid of my roommate’s institutional knowledge. But he insisted I go. If I went, he reasoned, I could tell the other two roommates how great the meetings were. Naturally shy, yes, but even more naturally susceptible to a guilt trip.
I arrived at the stone Episcopal church where the meeting was held feeling prematurely superior to the men who would be there. They gathered in a dimly lit rec room the color of Brut aftershave and were circled up in folding chairs. They had the nervous energy of the perpetually repressed. I believed I didn’t belong in the room, both for the obvious reason (I was trans) and the conceited reason — as an evolved millennial, I already knew how to get in touch with my feelings. But because I didn’t belong in the room made me the most important person there: I could see this place for what it was.
The group leader, who I’ll call Dave, was a 60-something white man wearing a button-down tucked in jeans. He outlined how tonight’s meeting would go. Repeatedly, he used the word men when a simple we or us or you would have worked. “A lot of people say men are always talking, that men never listen to anyone,” Dave said, when introducing our first activity. “But my question for you men is: Does anyone ever listen to men?” Tonight, men would practice hearing other men talk. We split into groups of three. Dave set a timer. One man in each group would talk for five minutes. Afterward, the other men would respond for three minutes. Then the next man would talk.
Here’s the thing: I very much belonged in the room. Five months earlier, I changed just about everything in my life, and though I spoke to a therapist over the phone every two weeks, she wasn’t the right person for me. I was suicidal and lonely and regretting every decision I’d ever made in my life. I was on a waitlist for a trans-inclusive support group, but my name didn’t appear to be moving up on it. These men were my best shot at community.
In my small group, I talked about my divorce and my regrets. In a larger group, I talked about the same subjects. And finally, when all the men came together to share, I volunteered first to tell my story — part of my story, that is. Looking back, perhaps I should have had reservations in a room full of cis men. Men’s groups like MKP have been criticized for placing men in counseling roles with little training. Though MKP insists it is not an adequate substitute for professional help, sessions are rife with expert-sounding advice. Nothing in the room could’ve been mistaken for a 4Chan thread — at least not in Portland in 2020 — but most speakers went unchallenged for their portrayals of women. MKP professes to push men to evolve in ways that serve men, women, and children; however, these groups are still run by men, men with all their baggage and acculturation and gazes. Just because a man is in touch with his emotions does not mean the way he acts on his emotions are appropriate. Anger, after all, is an emotion, as is rage, as is resentment, and all three drive so much of the violence perpetrated by men across the world. Articulation does not guarantee evolution — especially without an effective strategy to push men to reconsider the role their feelings have played in committing harms against others. MKP’s strategy, however, is mostly to let the men speak and vent and gripe and confess and learn to sit with their feelings.
My sharing was met with support and solidarity. The other men had been through similar experiences, and their stories layered Band-Aids over the gaping emotional wound I was eager to heal. I was told I was young. I was learning. Better to get these mistakes out of my system now. As the men consoled me, I felt an urge to come out to them, to let them know there were other reasons why I moved to Portland — trans utopia, remember? There was so much they needed to know that I would never say. If I told them the truth, would they still see themselves in my story? Like a good MKP man, I decided to sit with these feelings.
Here’s the obvious lesson that wasn’t so obvious to me: I was not above these men. I was not more evolved because I had read Judith Butler. I was just as hungry for their support as they were for mine. The advice they offered was flawed and reductive, but it was what I needed to hear: I would be okay, I was learning, I was still alive. If this sounds like an empathy essay, one of those pieces about putting our differences behind us, it isn’t. I didn’t like the men. I didn’t like how they talked about women. And I never learned what they thought about trans people. I didn’t see them or connect with them. But on a January evening, I needed them, far more than they needed me, and I’m grateful they were willing to listen.
At the end of the meeting, Dave collected five-dollar bills from the men. The men who only had twenties accepted Venmo payments from the men who didn’t have cash. One man asked me if I planned to return to Men’s Open Circle next week. “Maybe,” I told him. The next week, I moved home to New Jersey.