Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Mac Scotty McGregor of Positive Masculinity Is Helping To Change Our World
Leadership is leading and guiding in a way that inspires others to grow and flourish, bringing out the best in them. Leadership comes with great responsibility to be vulnerable, accountable, and flexible while showing gratitude.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mac Scotty McGregor.
Mac Scotty McGregor is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Positive Masculinity, a nonprofit that works to dismantle toxic masculinity cultural norms and create a healthier positive masculinity model for all people. He is the current Co-President of The Washington State Council for PFLAG.
An activist and sought-after public speaker, his primary focus is creating a world where people can feel free to be true to themselves. As a bringer of Unity through Community Empowerment, Mac advocates for equality and equity. In 2017, he became the first transgender person in Washington state to appear on a ballot when he ran for Seattle City Council. In addition, he served as Co-Chair of Seattle’s LGBTQ Commission.
Known as The Gender Sensei, Mac hosts the Rainier Avenue Radio talk show, “You Can Make A Difference,” and serves as the current Co-Chair for the City of Seattle’s Renters Commission.
Fascinating fact, he is an inductee in the Martial Arts Hall of Fame; before transition, Mac was the highest-ranking female martial artist in the world cumulatively and competed on the U.S. karate team until he was 39 years old.
His book, “Positive Masculinity Now,” explores how self-awareness and conscious choices can transform the idea of what it is to be masculine. It goes into print in March 2022.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
What brought me to this career path is the journey and the trajectory of my life. I was born in the South and into the first test of life. You know when they look at a baby, and they put a letter on a piece of paper that follows you for the rest of your life? That’s what I call the Magic Letter. I got an “F” on that first test because at first glance, I was born female. But, at four years old, I knew that the world saw me as female and that didn’t fit me. I was very masculine, and I had already started changing my name to a masculine name when playing with other kids.
My mom was 16 when she had me, so my grandparents helped raise me. They were terrific. My grandfather and I watched a couple of TV shows together every week, and “Gunsmoke,” the old Western, was one of them. I just loved the guy who played Sheriff Matt Dillon, and I wore a little Sheriff’s badge and little six-shooters, cowboy boots and a hat. I told all the kids my name was Matt Dillon. My grandparents thought it was adorable when kids knocked on the door and asked if Matt Dillon could come out and play.
I didn’t have a name to call what I felt inside because the word “transgender” wasn’t even invented yet. I hadn’t been exposed to anybody in the LGBTQ community at that point, to my knowledge. At school, I would go to the boys’ line and my teacher would take me by the hand and put me back in the girls’ line. And then I would wait a few minutes and go back in the boys’ line. She’d come back, and we’d do this dance over and over. But the amazing thing is that I never internalized it or thought that something “wrong” with me, and I am so grateful for that. I thought my teacher just didn’t get it. But from a young age I knew I was masculine, and I had to figure out how to navigate that, growing up in the South and going to a Southern Baptist school. It was quite challenging, but it began my journey of examining gender and exploring what the world teaches us about gender and gender roles.
As a pre-teen, I watched a television show with my grandmother, and it was a Primetime Special about Marlene Dietrich. If you know anything about LGBTQ history, she’s an icon in the community. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time because I was just a kid.
Marlene Dietrich fascinated me. She was this beautiful, sometimes in a ballroom gown, the leading lady with her hair just perfect. She’d come out and sing a song and then, a few minutes later, appear in a man’s military uniform with a long cigarette. She totally changed the game. She got away with playing with gender in a way I’d never seen, and I couldn’t get her off my mind. It made me feel like I wasn’t so stuck in the gender roles that society made and that there was room to move within them. But it took me a long time to get to a place to fully understand what was going on and figure out how to express it.
I began constantly studying this thing called “gender”- the expectations around gender and gender roles, and the messaging we’re fed about what it is to be a woman or a man. I’ve spent my entire life studying this and becoming the Gender Sensei — it’s a title a friend gave me because of my many years in the martial arts.
I started martial arts at the age of six and was competing all over the U.S. until I was 17; that’s when I began traveling the world after winning the United States Open fighting title. Travelling allowed me to see a bigger world, and it exposed me to more people and to people in the LGBTQ community. It started this “Wow!” education, realizing that everything around gender and sexuality is not as rigid as it is in the Southern Bible Belt.
I chose to ride the opportunities I was given and competed at a world-class level for as long as I could because I knew what a rare privilege it was. It gave me the chance to travel, meet amazing people, and have unique experiences.
I also began teaching martial arts at the age of 17 and I’ve taught ever since. This is literally my 50th year as a martial artist.
I happened to have exceptional genetics as an athlete, and I was able to compete until I retired from the competition at 39. At that time, I was the oldest person on the U.S. Karate Team, male or female. The 18-year-olds on the team called me the grandparent of the U.S. Karate Team, but I won two medals in the world championships at 39. It’s not like 39 is old but it is for an athlete. So, I decided that was a good time to retire while I was still on top and doing well.
As an educator, I dive in and study things deeply before I teach them. I’m constantly trying to grow and learn, which has helped me along on my journey. So, after competing, it was just natural to be in a place where I could medically transition. I waited until I retired from competition to transition because they would not have allowed me to compete as a transgender fighter. They didn’t understand it, and they’re still trying to figure out stuff around gender and athletes, especially in contact sports.
I continued coaching and teaching, which allowed me to explore transitioning; this was yet another part of my education and journey. Right away people in the community said, “We need someone with your teaching experience to help educate people about this journey because there’s a real lack of understanding about being transgender.” So then I began using my teaching skills to educate people about LGBTQ issues and the journey of transitioning. That gave me another deep dive into this whole gender adventure.
I’ve now experienced walking and living in the world from three sides of gender. I walked the first 42 years of my life with people viewing me as female, and even though I knew who I was, I had to deal with the things women do, especially being at the top of my field. Things like, “You’re really good for a girl,” and the crazy things that women deal with their entire lives. If someone’s good at something, you should say, “You’re really great at that.” You don’t need to say “…for a girl” or “…for a short kid” because those are underhanded compliments.
When going through transition, there’s this middle period when changes happen, and people don’t know what gender category to put you in. You don’t come out looking like I do now in just a week. People don’t know what to call you, and it was an interesting experience because I love studying how people react in situations. It’s fascinating how uncomfortable it makes people when they don’t know what category to put you in.
Now I’m on the other side where I easily pass as male, and that’s mainly due to good genetics; so much of how well you’re going to pass is a roll of the genetic dice. I just got lucky in that area, and I know it’s a thing of privilege, because I’ve seen the difference in how you’re treated on my side vs. the other. It’s such a unique way to walk through the world, aware of and watching people’s reactions. It’s given me a lot of compassion for people, and it’s been an excellent education.
Before I medically transitioned, I questioned whether I wanted to transition into a group of people, meaning men, who have caused so much damage and hurt many people.
I heard my grandfather’s voice in the back of my head. I called him Papa, and he was just this wonderful mentor to me. I was his little buddy who went everywhere with him as a kid. He could tell a story like nobody’s business. We would solve world problems when we would go on fishing trips together; we’d be in the boat and talk about life, and one of the things he taught me was that the best way to make changes is from within.
He said, “If you don’t like what’s happening in your group, the best way to make a change is from within it. It’s tough to change something inside a group when you’re outside of it.”
So, it was my Papa’s voice that told me, “It’s okay, we need more good guys like you to help make a change.” After that, I went forward with transitioning. I’m a teacher at heart, and I knew it was my destiny to teach and help others. Likewise, I learn from them as I continue along on my own journey.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When I got this idea, I had what I call a download from the universe. Some people would call it a vision, but I see a movie in my head when I get these downloads. I saw many masculine people, from the ranch guy to the business CEO who never gets his hands dirty — all types of masculine people in a room together. They were of different ethnicities and backgrounds, working together to dismantle traditional, toxic masculinity and creating a healthier model for all people.
I saw the community and the healing happening. It was a safe space for all these different types of masculine people to be open and share their experiences about how traditional toxic masculinity has hurt men and masculine people. It’s rarely discussed, yet crucial for us to realize that this thinking has confined men to believe they must be a certain way. They can’t talk about their emotions, feelings, or fears, and they must always be tough and strong, holding up this manly image, which is exhausting.
I kept seeing the movie in my head, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. After thinking about it for three or four days, I called Drew, one of my close friends. He and I had worked together on many projects. When I ran for office, he was my campaign manager; he and I were together on the PFLAG Washington State Council. We did a lot of activist work together and always had a ball doing it. He was just a great guy.
I was familiar with Drew’s background and knew that he would understand the importance of this work because he’d also had real experiences with toxic masculinity. He was like a Kinsey Scale Six gay guy. He grew up in a rural place and was picked on because he wasn’t the ordinary redneck boy in town. He was often given a tough time by a very toxic father. Even though Drew became a state track champion, his dad told him he would never come to watch him run a track meet because it wasn’t a tough enough sport. He wanted him to play football and hit people. It was that kind of toxic stuff. And he kept calling him names, saying he was a wuss because he wouldn’t do the “man” sport.
I told him about this download, and after I sharing it with him asked, “Are you in? Would you like to work with me and create this vision?” And he said, “Hell yes, let’s do it!”
We applied with the state and formed our nonprofit. We began the work by putting a group together to meet once a week. We started making lesson plans, and because we’d both been public speakers and we’d run activist things, we knew what to do. We wrote a whole notebook’s worth of ideas and plans. We started the group three years ago, and it blossomed. We had some fantastic experiences in this monthly group with the guys, opening up and sharing, because once Drew and I shared our experiences with toxic masculinity, it created a safe place for others to open up and share, too.
Drew was a cancer patient, and he’d had cancer for about eight years. Cancer had moved to his throat, and he had surgery. I went with him to his post-op appointment. The surgeon came in, crying because she really liked him, and told us she couldn’t get it all because it had spread. If she did more, he wouldn’t have been able to swallow, which would have impeded his ability to do almost anything.
He went through chemo, but my buddy passed away at 47 years old a year ago.
I managed my grief while carrying on and growing our nonprofit while also helping the guys in the group grieve the loss of Drew. The experience taught me how to grieve in public and its importance. I was trying to talk to these guys about sharing, opening up, and being authentic from the heart. I had to walk through mourning with them while trying to show a positive way forward, knowing that Drew would want us to carry on and that he’d be with us through the whole thing. He didn’t want any other kid to deal with what he dealt with growing up. I knew that.
We’d started writing a book together before he passed, and I promised him I would finish it. I’m almost done, and I’m dedicating the book to my friend, Drew.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When starting out, one of the funniest mistakes I made was thinking that I could market to guys that don’t want to have emotional intelligence and expecting that they would jump at the opportunity to grow. “Let’s be emotionally intelligent.” “Don’t you wanna embrace vulnerability?” Sure.
Sometimes I think I am naive, thinking everybody wants that kind of inner growth. My friend says to me, “You’re unicorn looking for unicorns!” So, I’ve had to develop better and more creative ways to market to the average guy, not just the Deepak Chopra’s of the world; it’s great to have some of those kinds of guys, but I don’t want to just preach to the choir, and I want to reach outside of that group. I can laugh about it now, but there’s a bit of frustration. I’ve always been a person with a growth mindset, and I think it’s a martial arts thing. You constantly train in martial arts, and you’re continuously learning and bettering yourself. This was instilled in me from a very young age, and so it’s just who I am. But I can’t expect everybody to be the same way, and I’ve had to learn to be creative in ways to draw guys in because once they get in the room, I know that they’ll have a great time and start to grasp the importance of the work. But it’s getting them in the room that’s the challenge.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
We are helping many masculine people realize how the unhealthy modeling and messaging around masculinity has negatively affected so many people, and we’re showing them how to be more compassionate and better at understanding others.
We host events about how men can better support women in the workplace, and we teach masculine people that it doesn’t take away from you as a guy to support women.
We put together a panel of women to do this, and I brought in Super Julie Braun, the Founder & CEO of Super Purposes. She was fantastic at giving the guys some easy and practical advice and answering questions from the audience. I wanted the people to feel comfortable asking questions, even if they were a little weird and awkward, and SJ was fabulous with these people. She makes everybody feel welcome, and as a teacher, I know that people learn better when you’re warm and welcoming. They take in more information because they don’t put up their armor. I love collaborating with SJ and Super Purposes because they are also doing great things in the world by helping a lot of marginalized people find meaningful work and careers.
We’re also working to make a societal impact on marginalized people by hosting events where we have men of color talk to us white guys about how to support them better. So we’re taking action to change the game by using whatever privilege we have to help make things better for others. But first and foremost, we must get people to realize their privilege to make the system better for everybody, and when everybody in the community does well, we all live better lives. Everybody benefits.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I got permission from these two people because one of the rules we have in our group is that we won’t share someone else’s story without their consent. After all, we want people to feel safe to share in the room.
We have a father and son that come to the group, and the father is an interesting and intellectual man. I would say he’s a man’s-man; he hunts, fishes, and is a rugged outdoorsy kind. His son is in his early twenties and was raised in that environment. One evening we were discussing toxic masculinity, breaking down some examples, and the son looked at his dad and said, “You know, you used to say that to me and my brother, Dad.” There was this big moment, and his dad apologized. He said he was sorry about it, but he didn’t know better at the time. It was said to him growing up, too, those things like “toughen up” and “man-up boy.” It’s like you’re not supposed to be human, right?
After that I had the son, Jacob, on my radio show, and he shared that being in our group has totally changed his relationship with his father. He said that before then, they never used to talk about anything real and never used to check-in and ask, “How’s your heart doing today?” “How are you feeling about things?” He said, “We never ever had those kinds of conversations, but we do now, and we’re more comfortable hugging each other and saying we love each other.”
He shared that although his brother hasn’t yet attended the group, he has also been affected.
“My dad and I have changed the way we interact with him. My relationships with both my brother and my father have grown tremendously. We’re so much closer now.”
He said it’s even trickled out into his work relationships and his friendships, and now he finds opportunities to check in with coworkers and ask honest questions, like “How’s your heart?” Not just, “Hey, how are you?” “Oh, fine.” But “How are you really doing?” It’s changed his life. The beauty of watching a father and son relationship grow like that warms my heart and makes the work so worth it.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are so many things, but as a teacher, I would start with education because our education system does not teach essential life skills, like communication and dealing with other people. It doesn’t matter what job or how much money you have; we will all go through hardships. But if they taught people how to communicate, it would fundamentally change relationships and create a different world.
One idea is addressing the root causes of male violence by teaching emotional intelligence in school. Men perpetrate close to 97% of all violent acts worldwide, and part of that is caused by the whole idea of stuffing down emotion until it becomes like a volcano, which inevitably will blow up at some point. So, understanding different ways to communicate when you’re frustrated, hurt or angry instead of normalizing violence as the way to communicate would make a huge difference.
Another is offering workshops in prisons about dismantling traditional masculinity and creating emotional intelligence, because the statistics about formerly incarcerated people who end up back in jail are challenging to look at. The system’s not doing enough to rehabilitate inmates. Teaching emotional intelligence could improve the situation and make a massive difference because we have so many men in our prison system.
We also need to change how our government systems support the messaging that allows men to continually get away with toxic, traditional masculine and patriarchal behavior.
The problem is that men in leadership have gotten away with harmful behavior throughout history, and it’s caused extensive damage to many. For example, our military needs to acknowledge the number of enlisted women who are sexually assaulted while serving. It’s often covered up because the guy who does it is in a powerful position. Recently, some steps have been taken to call people out on their bad behavior, but we still can’t tolerate it because negative messaging from our leadership trickles down to all of us.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is leading and guiding in a way that inspires others to grow and flourish, bringing out the best in them. Leadership comes with great responsibility to be vulnerable, accountable, and flexible while showing gratitude.
As someone who’s been teaching for most of my life, I’ve learned it’s essential to give people room after providing information and sharing knowledge.
One time, I worked for a nonprofit with someone who was very unsure of themself because they’d never done that type of work before. This person kept questioning their ability. I gave them a project to work on and told them to run with it; they could come to me if they needed anything and asked what I could do to support them.
They ended up organizing a very successful event, and their self-confidence grew exponentially. They were like a different person by the time it was over. I was so grateful for their excellent work and encouraged them to do more of it. It’s an example of what happens when you give someone room to run with their own creativity.
It is so important to make mistakes, and I just wrote in the book about it.
When I was in my twenties, I had a manager for my speaking engagements named Jayne Lybrand. She’s a charismatic, excellent speaker and a brilliant and tough businesswoman. She had a tagline she used all the time that I’ve never forgotten: “Failure is a dress rehearsal for success.” It stuck with me because we treat failure like something to hide and be ashamed of. But the only way we learn is by making mistakes. The biggest thing is getting up and doing it again, striving to do it better, and not giving up. If we treated those minor failures along the way like steppingstones to success, I think we’d have a very different world. Our kids also would feel less pressure, be more creative, and be more willing to try new things.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
First, I wish someone had told me when I first started that some people won’t understand why I want to do the work I’m doing, but that’s okay. Some people are going to think, “Well, that’s ridiculous.” “Why do you wanna do that?” Or “That’s too big of a thing to tackle.” There are always those naysayers, and what I’ve learned in life is that you can’t focus on those voices. So, I say, “That’s why you’re not called to do this work”, and then I move on.
The second but biggest thing I’ve learned is that unlearning is the hardest part of the work.
All the conditioning we’ve been fed since day one and all the messaging around what it is to be a man is so much harder to unlearn than it is to learn a new definition of gender. Like an onion, we have layers and layers of this messaging that need to be peeled back, reexamined, and asked, what is worth keeping and what is no longer serving us?
I’ve worked with people who’ve struggled with this unlearning, and I think it’s difficult because people they love and whose opinions they value fed them some of this messaging. They think it’s disloyal to whomever it was that taught them this way- their coach, their grandfather, their dad. But even as wonderful as my grandfather was, I don’t want to carry forward the old-fashioned and traditional things he did.
We’re all complicated individuals, and the person that taught you this gender messaging isn’t a bad person; they come from a different era and a different set of circumstances. They weren’t exposed to this kind of teaching and conversation, so we must consider that as well.
The third one is that embracing vulnerability and authenticity scares the hell out of many people. In the book, I share that I used to be this way because it scared me. As a World Champion fighter, I would’ve told you that I’d rather step in the ring to fight with the toughest person in the world than to sit in a room and talk about vulnerable stuff. So, I understand that, but now I know the difference it makes in your life when you can walk in and build relationships in authenticity. It’s worth getting through the discomfort to learn to embrace it.
The fourth thing is that deep down, most guys long to be heard in a safe space. I’ve found that guys who never talk about their feelings want to, and they want a safe space to be heard. They long for comradery and relationships with people they can share what’s going on inside. But most of them have never experienced that safe space or felt like they had permission to do so. It’s just amazing when you see the flood gates open. Often in our group, when a new guy comes, it takes a few times to feel comfortable and experience how other people in the group are treated when they open up. They observe, and then at some point, you watch them open up more and more as they come back. It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m convinced it makes you feel lighter.
I had a woman share with me that when her husband’s father died, her husband couldn’t cry about it. A year later, she heard a noise in the back of the house. It was him in the bedroom, and he was having a moment about his dad’s death, on the one-year anniversary of his passing. He was finally crying, but he had held all that in for a whole year. So often, guys believe they are supposed to be the ones that hold it all together and to be the strong ones. They never had that safe place to grieve or to feel. It’s a beautiful thing to watch this happen, and the more I do the work, the more I see that people really want that opportunity. It’s scary, but they want it.
The last one is most men have a lot of pain pushed way down inside. We wonder why so many act out in violent or destructive ways. This pain also comes out in our health. Learning to deal with feelings is essential, both for the health of our society and the health of individuals.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would like to create a safe space where all the masculine folks in the world could be freed from the confines of societal conditioning; a place where they can express their pain, grief, and fears, and experience how much lighter it feels when they can express their real feelings. Then, I’d like to provide them with education around emotional intelligence. I believe it would decrease the amount of violence and bring peace to our world.
Years ago, I had an amazing experience as a professor. I taught at a college in Florida, where I’m from, and the University of Miami hosted an event for higher educators to spend four days with the Dalai Lama. Well, I jumped at that. What an experience! He taught us how to create world peace through each individual creating their own inner peace, and that’s what I’m doing in my work.
Brené Brown says we think we’re intellectual beings that also have emotions, but it’s the other way around. We’re emotional beings with the ability to think. We treat intellect as the most important thing and emotion like the unwanted stepchild. We must learn that to have fulfilling lives, world peace, and real success, we will have to deal with our emotions. There’s no way around it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them.”
-Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”
Viktor Frankl was a concentration camp survivor and a psychiatrist, and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is one of the bestselling books of all time. This quote coincides perfectly with my work because many people let their conditioning determine who they are and how they live, but he’s saying no; we decide for ourselves whether we give in. We can reexamine our conditioning and stand up to what doesn’t work and doesn’t serve us.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I came up with two, and I’m going to mention both.
The first is Don Miguel Ruiz, who wrote the book “The Four Agreements.” I personally practice his incredible philosophy for life, and we’ve worked through the Four Agreements in our Positive Masculinity group. I love how he explains his philosophy and makes it simple enough for everybody to understand.
The second person is Brené Brown because of her authenticity. She’s so real when she openly talks about herself and shares her own struggles with vulnerability. She doesn’t act like she’s perfect and has it all together, and I admire that about her. I would love to pick her brain about how to get more men open and willing to do the kind of deep inner work we’re doing in our group.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn: Mac Scotty (The Gender Sensei) McGregor
Facebook: Positive Masculinity
Photo Credit: Nate Gowdy Photography
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.