I've been processing a lot about my identity as a transmasculine, genderqueer person after attending the phenomenal First Annual Black Transmen Advocacy Conference in Dallas, TX. Here are some of my musings after such a transformational conference that has touched me in ways that no gender studies class or symposium ever could. My life has truly been changed forever, and I don't say that lightly.
The conference almost brought me to tears multiple times because it was so healing. I received all the affirmation I have never gotten because no one knew how to give it to me- not even myself. I heard all those things I needed to hear from people like me. It wasn't psychobabble or intellectual conversations around gender identity by stuffy academics,etc. I heard from folks who live this experience and who are at the margins and intersections. Speaking real talk. REAL TALK.
I received validation for everything I’ve ever suspected about why it’s so incredibly hard to be black and trans. For instance: that transitions aren't a complete solution for everyone. They help brothers go "stealth" which can be a huge weight off with so much violence and homophobia within our community- but what about the mind? The spirit? Being trans isn’t just about your body despite what psychologists and doctors say. They have no idea. NO idea. For them, everything is solved with subtractions and additions of parts and a lifelong dose of hormones. To them...this is what makes you a man or woman. There is no room for emotional, mental and spiritual preparation and transformation.
During the conference I realized that I’ve been so afraid to be who I am – transmasculine– because of a number of things: my own perceptions of what it means to be a man (read: black man), the scarcity of positive black male role models in my life and the life of others close to me, my issues with reconciling my inherent masculinity and my radical feminist ideals, others' perceptions of what it means if I claim my masculinity (fellow feminists, girlfriends/partners, etc.), and lastly and most importantly, people not “letting” me be male.
Let me explain. By "let", I mean people's interactions with me. Because of the way I look (female...and sometimes androgynous) people interact with me as such and expect me to interact as a female. There's not a lot I can do about this besides change my physical characteristics in order for others to see me the way I see me. Say what? People want me to cut off parts of my chest, take hormones that they have no idea in the future how they will affect me, go prematurely bald- all so that others can see me as male when I already see me as male?!
In short: Yes.
So when other's tell me to just be me and keep doing me, I just want you all to realize how dismissive this statement can be to me and other transfolks. Because, others' perceptions and the way they interact with us do affect us and how we move about in this world. Trust me. I know that people shouldn't be able to“let” me do anything. But, the reality is that I can't control interpersonal interactions without changing myself physically. Though this doesn't dictate who I can or can't be and what I do and don't do- others' perceptions and interactions can be limiting. This just being is honestly a recurring lesson and theme in my life as I unearth layer after layer of my complex identity as a brown, transmasculine and genderqueer, vegetarian, artist who practices spirituality other than Christianity.
So many marginalized identities in this little vessel!
A hard lesson for gender non-conforming folks is that people want to police you and your gender- especially within the LGBT community. Somebody pointed out during the Black Transmen Advocacy Conference that the LGB community is the worst for outing transfolks and saying trans people aren’t “real” men or women for differing reasons. Our own queer brothers and sisters invisibilize and marginalize us. Many people are always so concerned with if you are trans enough. Masculine or Feminine enough. As if their opinion is the deciding factor as to whether you are male or female. As if you "passing" (see previous post) to them is the societal litmus test for your legitimacy. But these ideas didn't fall from the sky. It comes from what some have labeled a "heteronormative" society (where heterosexual lifestyles are privileged) where there are specific gender roles and behaviors to be adhered to. Sometimes queer folks find themselves subconsciously mimicking or emulating these roles, other times they consciously mimic or emulate these roles. A concern is if there are expectations for the performance of certain gender roles crafted by a "majority" and forced upon the whole of society.
We can’t keep letting people hand us who we are and what our experiences are. Though this has been the formula, we’ve got to break free from that equation. (And by we- I mean black and brown transmen/women...the narrative is usually one of white transmen/women who invariably invisibilize us on top of that which already occurs on behalf of the larger LGB community).
We have to define ourselves. We have to create what we want to be- who we are. We can't keep taking our cues from social constructions on masculinity and maleness. They are damaging and exclusive. Honestly, when I looked around and saw what available models I had for masculinity- it arrested my development as a transmasculine person. I wish I would have known then that it was up to me to create a new masculinity. To become who I wanted to be. To not just reject society's roles, but make new ones and challenge them in substantial ways. I wish I would have known then that I could create my own gender.
In terms of coming into my own masculinity all that need be said is that at the end of the day it's not about who's buying my masculinity because honestly, I was never selling it. People can deal with my gender expression however they see put and it's really not my obligation to explain why I am the way I am...or even who I am. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a person go up to a cisgender person (or a person whose gender and sex match up) and ask them why they are the man or woman they are ...or why they “became” that?
New Conversations on Black and Brown Masculinity
We need to begin new conversations on masculinity; black and brown masculinity, specifically. We need to have dialogue about what it means to each of us to inhabit "masculinity and maleness". We need to talk about where our cues and concepts for masculinity come from. We need to acknowledge that there is no one type of masculinity. It comes in a myriad of forms.
We also need to own that no one can show you how to become a man but that men can certainly be shown how to go about respecting a woman which should be inherent to being a man. A “real” man. Masculinity and femininity should not be antagonistic to one another. They should always complement each other like in the earliest of our human history. Like the Moon complements the Sun. Like Mother Earth complements Father Sky. Why are some black and brown men so invested in gender roles and power plays assimilated from the white patriarchy?
Yes, power is the issue. It is so divisive. It is important for communities of color to know that we have been operating under the white man's forced patriarchy in which men believe that because of their strength, intellect and limited/ lack of emotional expression that they are better, stronger- superior.
I honestly believe the patriarchy has its roots (besides in biology and survival of the fittest) in the psychoses of a bunch of men who were treated badly by their mothers or female relatives and as retaliation (subconscious or unconscious- but retaliation none the less) women were forced to submit to them. The worst misogynists' have horrible relationships with the women in their family. Check out the psychology behind it. Perhaps if they could heal those wounds...we could go about healing the bonds between men and women. Black men and women. Brown men and women.
Transmen can often perpetuate misogyny because of their dislike and/or hatred for the femininity within them and their past as female- a gender that is obviously wrong for them. A gender that they have been pigeon-holed into being. In rejecting this in and for themselves and in overcompensating by taking on stereotypical expressions of maleness and masculinity transmen can sometimes develop a deep disdain for females and femininity. Not ALL transmen...some. This should not be used to overgeneralize or farther discriminate against transmen. I want to be adamant about that.
I don't like to compare marginalization because this can be harmful and dismissive but I believe that a point can be made by talking about internalized racism and the sexism that can be seen in transmen. Something similar is at play. Black folks sometimes hate themselves and hate other black folks when they've internalized a hatred for blackness from society. Sometimes when transmen internalize a hatred for femininity and whatever it means to them to be female, sexism manifests. Much of the phobias we witness are about an insecurity with our own identity or an ignorance and intolerance of different identities.
This discourse on masculinity was happening in the black trans community and I was so refreshed. So relieved. Because in the white trans community, I felt like people were cool with being just trans for trans sake. Trans folks felt like being trans in and of itself was transgressive. To expand on this I do not mean taking on transgender for the sake of taking on being transgender- I mean thinking that being trans is such a radical identity in and of itself and that just having analysis on being trans is enough. There's no need to connect the experience with larger, shared social issues with other communities- or even with the trans community with, say, trans people of color. The trans experience is being over-intellectualized and people are being so distanced from actual socioeconomic experiences. Gender theory allows for too much sterile observation and hypotheses. Gender is being talked to death but there is no application of ideas that come up during discourse.
Also, the white trans experience has trumped trans people of color's experience. This is another factor that arrests development for some trans people of color. We go online and do research on transfolks and only get the white trans experience, which isn't ours- so there's no way that we could be trans, right? Also there are other issues in being out and trans which seems to be what white transmen push for. As they become visible as trans, there may be backlash...but they are still a white man with privilege. As soon as we transition to be black men, our lives get much more difficult- especially if we are trans organizers. There is a lot of pressure to stay "stealth" and invisible within communities of color, because who really wants the added marginalization and discrimination? It is hard enough to be a black man. Now you've got to worry about being accepted within your community, church, schools and jobs? Many say- No, thank you. And you know ...some white transmen call us cowards for that. Cowards. Because they have no idea the experience of intersecting identities of being a person of color and queer among other identities.
But a positive that comes from multiple layers of marginalization within black and brown queer communities is that there is more mobilization in our communities in terms of organizing for social justice. We have organizations like the Audre Lorde Project, Allgo, the Trans People of Color Coalition, the National Black Justice Coalition, and many, many more groups committed to addressing injustice due to racism, classism, sexism, ableism,etc.
Black Transmen Inc is committed to so many different community efforts. Their motto alone: One is not a man he becomes one. Be the change you want to see in the world, speaks volumes about their commitment to their ideas on masculinity and maleness and their commitment to the larger community.
At the Black Transmen Conference we talked about uplifting and setting an example for other brothers, trans and otherwise. Some talked about being the "evolution" of men or at least being a bridge between men and women because of our past experience as women and our current status as men. We talked about eradicating misogyny and being empowered by our past as female and not being hindered by it or feeling like we had to reject it. We talked about spirituality. The conversation was so much richer than any other conversation with transmen that I've ever had and so full of hope and the promise for change. We were asked to create change and not settle for the definitions set before us.
I sit astounded at this whole idea that we are creating this new masculinity- one in which we don't perpetuate gender norms. One where we topple notions and conditioning of the white patriarchy. One where we bridge the divide between men and women and heal the wounds of women and men of color in our communities. How refreshing. How inspiring. Who else will join in creating this new, old reality... because truly- all we're doing is going back to the feet of our foremothers and forefathers.