Sunday mornings are for men only at the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village, and I’m pretty sure that you know what that means. So I’m nervous in my red swim trunks on this hot August morning because I’m used to passing but, unlike the eyes-averse gym locker rooms I’ve grown accustomed to, I’m also relatively certain that for most dudes who go to a guys-only bathhouse on a Sunday morning, dicks are kind of the whole point.
I’m here because, for me, a straight, bearded, tattooed trans man with a different sort of anatomy, a bathhouse feels thrilling, dangerous even. Everything about me is self-made, hard-won: this hairy stomach, these chest muscles, this carefully trimmed beard—all of it a mosaic that makes my reflection strange but not dissonant, all of it my ticket into this grimy, foul-smelling, sexed-up space.
It’s one thing to risk my body with needles and scalpels and the threat of cancer. It’s quite another to be exposed to a mob of dudes in a dank, dungeon-like basement of steam rooms and a sad-looking pool to really test the way my old life overlays a reality in which the very fact of my body is a crude translation. I’m here because if you ask me what makes a man, I can give you an answer years in the making or the annotated version, neither of which has much to do with what’s in my pants.
(Photo: Thomas Page McBee)
Or at least, that’s what I tell myself.
Besides, the Russian and Turkish Baths is a throwback, a real New York institution. It’s owned by two different men who alternate weeks and run the place like acrimonious parents forced to share custody. Today, I know from Yelp, is “Boris’s day,” and the hairy chested Russian caricature locks my phone and wallet in a safe deposit box and points ominously toward the gruff, utilitarian locker rooms.
I’ve dreaded and been drawn to the cruise-y, burly bastion of traditional Greek-style “male bonding” that is a bathhouse throughout my transition, feared its animal potential to cast me as outsider, its potential violence, its nasty, non-negotiable nudity. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger’s controversial 1969 Men in Groups suggested that male bonding was both innate and aggressive. Essentialist for sure—and a gay bathhouse in many ways is probably not the male bonding he intended to describe, but what could be more homosocial and primal, more of a testing ground, than this?
It’s 10 a.m. and I’m one of the only guys in a bathing suit, feeling self-conscious but less self-conscious than if I were naked. The locker rooms are a silent, filthy dickbonanza—a cornucopia of penises I try not to notice but find startling. Several men look at me, then away, then back again. I know how to be a beast among equals, so I look straight ahead, never down, never making eye contact. They get the message and fall away.
The truth is, I'm scared. Later this afternoon I’m going to central Pennsylvania to see my mom, who is small and scarecrow-like in the hospital, slurry on the phone, terrifying. I’m scared of the murmurs of her specialists, the beeping machines, the ghostly quiet of her empty house. I’m not, I won’t be, frightened of these strapping dudes and their hawk eyes. I feel like I’m coming out of my skin and, if I’m being honest—really honest—I want, more than anything, for someone to start a fight with me as I at least have a shot at winning.
If I’m more honest—the most honest—I want, more than anything, to feel safe, seen, held.
Downstairs, in the aromatherapy steam room a guy with a tiny ass looks up at me and gestures toward his crotch with a bored, transactional wave of his hand and so I shake my head and follow a fat Russian with prison tattoos on his face into the Redwood Room instead. A bearded guy who looks like me with an extra five inches and 10 years cruises me hard on the way and I nearly laugh imagining the kind of clone sex his look implies.
Maybe it’s the wavy rushes of heat forcing me to relax, but at some point I realize that I'm in friendly territory. Here, offers are extended but then waived at my disinterest, eyes are on mine and not my trunks. No one has reason to believe I’m less of a man for wearing them. So why, I wonder, did I?
In the Redwood Room, the steam clears to reveal a cadre of sweaty Russians who eye me briefly and then turn back toward each other to continue their animated, impenetrable conversation in an accented English that, surprisingly, makes me feel tangential and fraternal. The four men, all about my age, are brazenly naked and their exposure feels tender, beautiful even. I close my eyes and eventually everyone lapses into a companionable silence, meditative and sweaty.
We’re all going to die, I think without warning. These men are all rough sacks of skin and I am no different, one of billions. I’ve not cried yet about my mom and I feel a shudder run through me in our collectively animal presence, my body sprouting sweat that runs in rivulets down my chest, my back, my scars. I’m so slick with them that I barely notice the tears in my mouth, their wet slide down my face a contained peace. No one attempts to engage me and I am grateful. Instead, the men give me my space, exiting the room one by one, and I wipe myself clean as a small Hassidic man comes in to the empty room and sits his naked body an inch or so from mine. I shift, move slightly away, and he hops up and exits as quickly as he arrived. I guess I’m not the only one passing, I think later, when I see him and the bearded man talking near the cold pool, their heads pressed close together.
“Open pores,” Boris says gruffly, gesturing to my face in a last-ditch attempt to get me to buy a monthly pass, and I agree, but only pay for this one. “Clear,” he intones, and presses his hand to his chest. “Ready for the weekend.” I nod. I get it. I’m a new man. I am.
The American Man is a semi-regular series that features gonzo reporting from barbershops, boxing gyms, frat houses, and other bastions of masculinity in an effort to define what makes a modern man.