My gender is going to the corner store in oversized black thermal with jean booty shorts revealing a landscape of thick black thighs, my long slender hands punctuated with royal purple polish, & my lips a severe black matte & being called baby. Or sweetie. The next day, my gender is grungy sweatpants & tall white t-shirt with backward fitted cap, nails still royal, lips now bare & being called bro. Or buddy. My gender is delicate as the season & unforgiving as the weather. My gender is cackled at by beautiful Black girls getting off crowded bus at the end of the school day. My gender is cornered in the club’s bathroom by gay men hoping my big polished hands hold other secrets as beautifully. My gender is being followed home at night by a manic holler of a man & wielding the bass in my voice as fully loaded weapon ready to strike. My gender tank made of sugarcane & saltwater. My gender is boyish wonder & womanly strength. My gender is more than my body will ever tell itself.
An unfortunately fatal & intangible concept, gender is a divisively difficult site for identity to interact. Some quickly accessible conversations around gender lean toward in/equality, rights, & the differences between “men & women”. However, from our casual language (Hey Guys /Ladies & Gentleman) to our discussions of birth (Is it a boy or a girl?) reproduces gender in a definitive spectrum. Thanks to the prevalence of internet scholarship & the new accessibility to technology, we have a host of new words to give language for gender. A simple google search for gender identity will provide a dictionary worth nuanced descriptors & traits that influences someones’ gender. The beauty of this is that folks are creative & claiming names for themselves & their bodies. In attempts to not erase, I would position that gender non-conformity is one of the most flexible umbrella terms that encompass folks like myself.
Artist: Nick Cave
I choose the term gender non-conformity as an especially interesting & particular word. Gender, as it intersects with race provides a large context for how this concept is structured. The Black body was brought to the nation as property, inhuman, identified in weight. Our sexualized & gendered bodies were crafted & documented from the pedestal of white captor. Our bodies were branded & bred. Black women’s bodies were made mule of scientific discovery & labor force alike. Black men’s bodies where castrated from their minds & soul. But even these distinctions of men & women were biological determinations, we were sorted like animals in a taxonomy.
This gender construct was forced upon us. White people used their own bodies as basis for humanity — white men using their junk as the arbiter of power. The Black woman body was made Mammy, or Enraged, or Seductive. The Black Man’s body was Insatiable, Simple, or Breakable. The earliest vernacular for Black people’s body in this country was written by white fear. Black people’s notions of masculine & feminine roles consistently puzzle the white lawmaker, neighbor, TV viewer, etc.
If you haven’t thought about it, gender is basically a performance. It is how you wear your body in the world, how you cover or reveal it, how you speak through it. The Black body is, in many ways, always capable of being non-conforming. We see that despite respectability politics & moments of progress, no matter how Black people present, our Blackness provides the willfully ignorant a location to enact violence. But this issue of gender is reproduced among Black people, a remnant of surviving the plantation, the prison yard, & ourselves. Too often gender (& its play cousin sexuality) serve as a tool for dissent or diversion in Black liberation & popular culture.
You know those memes of a Black boy, painted for the gods, like face full beat, highlighter on point, eyebrows snatched— with the caption: what would you do if your son looked like this? The comments without fail will offer from Black Men (& many Black women) how boys in make up are “emasculating” & “a threat to Black Manhood” or “a symptom of the Black family being broken”. These myths Black folks attempt to make, for me, have always revealed a fear. A fear that there is no future for the Black genderqueer. I’ve even seen many Black gay men argue their humanity by stating how they are “still a man” & should be afforded whatever privilege that comes with that.
So where does that leave the (Black) folks who find themselves presently & actively on the outside of the restrictive gender binary? For Black trans family, we’ve witnessed & mourned the epidemic of violence that has been sweeping our nation for years. See how trans/misogyny erases Black Trans women from mainstream conversations on Black liberation. See how Black Trans men are ignored from the brutal assault on Black boys & men. Healthcare, dating, bathrooms, housing can all be compromised by the slights swing of hate.
For gender-non conforming or a gender or genderqueer folk, the experience is infinitely more individual. In the world, our gender is a shifting of light, an optical illusion. The issue is most people want to be more comfortable than they allow us to be. Constant conversations choosing between asserting the authentic self & staying silent for survival. We each decide daily to combat how we are read in the world or disregard the gaze completely. Each of our bodies provides a limited kind of safety.
Until recently gender non-conformity was only represented as white. Outside of the occasional drag queen, the only folks allowed to rupture gender were straight white men “expressing” themselves or white women trying to get ahead. Thankfully, we have rappers, writers, actors, activists & more able to live their complete selves. Our families, culture, language is so flexible & resilient despite centuries of oppression. For a people who were never afforded the safeties of gender, we need to more ardently push back on the parameters. We need to see the needs of ALL Black people as urgent, we need to dislocate the ways limited privilege positions us against each other. We need to see each other as whole & living. We need to imagine ourselves more free.