Cascio: You talk about privilege: white, male, passing. What other privilege do you think about? Do you think about class, education, money, contacts, other forms of security and access?
Cooper: I think about the stuff in the “Man Club” that I write about in that chapter of the book: the way people listen to you, in a way folks never really listened to me before, especially other men. Nowadays of course, unless I’m reminded in some specific way, or talking about it in reference to this book, I don’t really think about it. Which is a privilege in itself. It’s weird even telling you, because you know: if you’re white or white looking, or sound like you’re of a certain class, generally if you’re a dude, and you ask for something forcefully, people respond, and that’s a very different experience from being female. I mean I see how people are with my wife sometimes: if we’re at a party or something, how the energy gets directed at me, like, “What do you do?” That sort of thing comes at me, but less so at her. And she’s not a mousy, easily-ignored person.
Cascio: I compared you to a book earlier, to your book, but of course people aren’t books: people look at us and judge us, but we also look back. One thing I noticed in transition was when I lost the ability to do the chin raise of recognition to other butches; they didn’t see me that way, anymore: I’d crossed over. Now, years later, I am adapted to a different kind of gaze, and adjusting to the power of male privilege.
Having been seen in the world as both female and male, and in whatever degrees of gender conformity you’ve been in, at various points in your life, whether your friends crammed you into a dress one day or whatever… what differences have you noticed in the power of your gaze?
Cooper: I was never a typical woman, obviously, so I probably wasn’t having a typical female experience. Even though it did feel like I was breaking the rules—not dressing the right way, hair too short—when I was gender nonconforming.
It’s amazing how quickly we forget what it was like before transition. I know how fortunate I am not to have to think about this all the time. My wife goes through the world with respect and power but even with someone like that it’s amazing to see how things break down by gender, just by default, by habit.
I think about it a lot in terms of raising girls. They’re just barely at the age where men are starting to look at them, and it’s really disconcerting the way dudes think they can gawk at a thirteen-year-old, tall, pretty, skinny girl who’s just like a guileless unicorn prancing down the street. It makes me feel protective and fearful about sending girls out into the world, because shit happens. Did you see Louis CK’s recent stand-up show on HBO? He was saying how amazing it is that we as humans procreate at all because how do women ever actually say, “Sure, I’ll let a complete stranger pick me up in his car and take me out alone somewhere, no one knows where I am, and sure I’ll have sex with him”—even though men are to blame for like 99 percent of all horrible things that have ever happened to women. It’s so funny and true—and really hard not to think about that kind of stuff when you’re raising two girls in this world.
Cascio: This is a question we like to ask all of the men we interview on The Good Men Project. “What was the last time that you cried?”
Cooper: Like [mimes sobbing]? Hmm. It’s not like I don’t cry sometimes, because I do. Oh, I remember the last time: I read a magazine story recently, a “where is he now” piece about that guy in Connecticut, Petit. Those two men broke into his house—I think they saw his daughter at a store and followed her home—and they broke in later while he was asleep, raped and killed his wife, anally raped and killed his ten year old daughter, then they burned the house down. He got out because they only beat him and tied him up downstairs, but he managed to get out and run to a neighbor, but before that, he was listening to all this happening, and they’d holler down to him, like, “Almost over; it won’t be long now.”
I followed the story closely shortly after it happened, and I guess I just totally blocked out those details because when I read them again, I just started crying. I think our brains must protect us because some things are just too awful to carry with you.
So I was definitely crying. Did it spill over? No, but it was intense. I starting thinking to myself, that’s really fucked up when you’re wishing these evil people would’ve just shot your daughters dead instead of doing all that they did before killing them. That is just a dark, dark place.
Cascio: Is it more difficult to cry since testosterone?
Cooper: Unequivocally, yeah. I used to tear up at commercials about sad starving babies and puppies, and that doesn’t happen anymore. From an evolutionary standpoint, the things that testosterone does… I can’t say across the board, but in my experience it makes me not give as much of a shit about what other people think all the time. I don’t know, was the tsar thinking, “Ooh, if I take this territory is Prussia gonna be mad at me?” Not so much of that going on. There’s probably a reason.
Cascio: What if your wife were tsar?
Cooper: She would worry about what other people were going through, the innocent people. She’s just like that. I think I would care, too, but not as much. But I’m not as good of a person.
Cascio: Are men not as good as women?
Cooper: No, just me. [Grins.]
Oh, that reminds me of a time I cried, but I wasn’t on testosterone. My second novel is about the pogroms in Russia, (and Charles Lindbergh and Eminem). I did a lot of research on the pogroms and that era. It’s my family’s history more than the Holocaust, though we were affected by that, too, on the other side. Anyway, I toured in Germany with the book. It’s amazing: people actually read books there and care about them. Readings are an hour long, and people pay for tickets, hearing it in German and in English—there was usually a German actor reading it in German with me.
There’s a pogrom scene I wrote, set in Kishinev, in 1903. I had read the passage a thousand times, but this time I was reading in Berlin at Literaturhaus, and it hit me so hard, describing the violence. I started tearing up, choking up and it was hard to get through the passage. To write about it, I had to dissect it so methodically, and suddenly there in the middle of the reading, it finally slayed me. Then during the German part of the reading of the same passage, this woman in the audience grew so upset, she started hysterically crying and ran out: I thought she was going to throw up, it was so intense. I guess I had to disconnect to do the research, look at all these photographs, in order to invoke a scene that hadn’t been written, at least by me.
Cascio: How do you define being a good man, and distinct from that, being good at being a man? How important have these two different things been to you over time?
Cooper: The definition changes daily for me. Any time I sit around thinking I’m a good anything—writer, man, dad, husband, fill in the blank—any time I start thinking that, I think that’s probably not the best place to be. Why am I even thinking that. If you think you’re this amazing parent, you probably aren’t, because it’s challenging all of the time. I‘m questioning what I’m doing all of the time. If I wasn’t I don’t think I’d be doing a very good job. I said it in the book, what I feel it means to be a good man. (A chapter of Real Man Adventures is titled, “A Brief Interview I Did for Esquire’s ‘How to Be a Man’ Issue, from Which My Answers Were Excluded in Favor of Insights from Guys Like Tom Cruise.”) I think that things like honesty and responsibility and all those words are, well, I don’t know what they mean until they’re put into action. That’s why I say it changes day to day, because it comes down to the decisions you make. Lately, the times I’ve been faced with two choices about how to act: I know one is going to feel better and be easier but is wrong, and the other is harder but the right thing to do… Well, the times I have learned to do the latter, those are the times I’ve been a better man. It’s a lifelong journey. It’s not like we just became men. That’s the fallacy, that you have “the surgery” and come out of the hospital in a wheelchair and you’re a man. Even if you’re born XY, you’re not born a man: you have to become a man, too. It’s a constant process that needs evaluating all the time. You make mistakes and adjust.
Cascio: Have you noticed an evolution of masculinity in the history you studied for the pogrom scene?
Cooper: I don’t know about that, but I have this weird nostalgia for how masculinity was expressed like a hundred years ago: the aesthetics of it. The worst parts of America weren’t in full bloom yet, you weren’t going and getting 72 oz steaks that if you could finish in thirty minutes you get another one free, golf shirts with your company logo on them—that whole culture. I just have this nostalgia for masculinity being more subtle, less threatened, less six foot six and 300 pounds. And I don’t say that without some experience. In Vietnam, Cambodia, even if you just go to Miami among Cuban folk, there are guys my size and it’s totally normal to maybe be a little quieter and just not take up so much goddamn space and be that American guy with his legs spread open on the subway and his whole body spilling over into the adjacent seat on the plane.
But it’s nostalgia for wearing the same suit for a month, and changing my underwear maybe once a week. My wife and I co-wrote an episode of a TV show set at the end of the Civil War, and on set it felt like—oh shit, not to be Hollywood, but—the magic of the movies. It actually felt like being in another era, and I kind of wish I could’ve just lived on the set.
Part of it’s size, but it’s also consumerism and capitalism and how we’re told we should take and take and consume so much. Sometimes I walk into the store and I just want a roll of toilet paper or a box of cereal, and the choices are so vast it makes me really depressed. There’s no reason we can’t just have two yogurts to choose from. It’s bred into us this choice. “I deserve it!”
Cascio: What do you hope for the world your children will inherit, and what are you doing today to make that a reality?
Cooper: You catch me on a down day when things seem overwhelming, like you know how Jason Collins [the NBA player] just came out and the guy at ESPN [Chris Broussard] is spouting all this insane stuff about it being an abomination. I don’t see how this guy isn’t fired on the spot. On days like that when I’ve spent too much time reading the news, and let me tell you it’s not good news, then I feel like an asshole for not doing any tangible good in the world. As an artist, a creative person, you’re kind of an asshole by definition. I mean, I’m sitting in my room, writing my little stories, which aren’t feeding anybody, or stopping children from being abused, or really making the world a better place in a physical way. It’s just this tiny corner I’m operating in, and on my worst days I feel like it’s insurmountable. On good days, I’m raising two kind, aware kids who aren’t staring into their phones 24/7. My wife and I get the privilege of sending them into the world and seeing what they do, but when I don’t love what the world looks like sometimes, I suppose it fluctuates.
Image courtesy of the author