Neither Black Man Nor Black Woman: Living On The Outside

By Guest Contributor Toi S., cross-posted from The Scavenger

I have been grappling with the intersection of gender identity and race lately. I feel as if the concept of gender is entrenched in the black community–if not the pillar of it.

Roles have been defined for black women and black men and the socialization of black women vs. black men is intriguing. As I’ve come out as genderqueer I have found it difficult to imagine disassociating myself from black womanhood.

So much is tied to a black woman’s identity. The struggle of a black woman–the burden on her back–the solidarity in calling each other “my sister” is something I have come to own and appreciate, slowly but surely.

I feel that in taking on the trans identity and calling myself genderqueer that I am betraying my sisters in some way. I also feel that I am rejecting the women’s spaces which I felt so comfortable in for years and years. I am becoming an outsider to the community of women of color that I fought so hard in the past to understand and be a part of and protect through my academic writing.

As I was accepting the fact that I am genderqueer … that I am masculine of center, that I may not have been socialized as your typical female and had always seen myself as androgynous or leaning more toward the masculine spectrum–I began to panic.

Well…that means I’m a black man! Ohhh great! Not only do I face oppression on so many other levels, but now I’ve got this new added burden of being perceived as a black man, should I choose to transition or present myself as male? I’ve been presenting myself as male for years now without really calling it that.

Now I would have to routinely see white women clutch their purses and turn up their noses, and white men feel threatened/disgusted by my very existence. I did not, do not…want to be a black man.

But, unfortunately, I don’t have much choice in the matter. And I’ll explain what I mean.

I am not a woman. I have the body of the woman but anyone who knows me or gets to know me will quickly find out that…well, I’m not. I was not exactly socialized as a girl as a kid. My mother was this strong alpha-female who never said anything about people wanting to hold me back for being a black woman.

She climbed the rungs of the police department slowly, steadily. In short, my mother was a warrior who did not let her femaleness identify her. She didn’t revel in femininity; she didn’t talk about feminist politics. In fact, she wasn’t especially feminine except when she went undercover some nights.

I always saw myself as a boy. By the time I was around six or seven and it was socially unacceptable to do “boy things” I started keeping this to myself. I let people call me “she” and “her”–but it never really fit.

Everyone assumed I was a tomboy. My stepfather and mother tried their hardest to make me dress like a little girl. I was actually punished by my stepfather for whistling among other things (which he thought was what boys do), and I wasn’t allowed to wear certain “boyish” outfits.

They tried really hard…but, all that happened was that I repressed this and felt really disconnected from girls. I never really felt like a girl. I mean, they told me I was a gir,l and I tried to accept it. I tried to do the things that girls do, but I always felt like I was in drag when I wore dresses and out of place when I tried to be more “feminine”.

I just did the “girly” thing to fit in, but in my senior year I chucked all that to the side and started wearing my flannel and plaid and corduroy and boy shoes. I have always felt more comfortable–read: more ‘me’–in men’s clothing. It took me a while to realize that this was not just me trying to “genderf*ck” (once I learned this terminology) but that I, in fact, was genderqueer.

I let people tell me that I was a lesbian. I never really owned that label though; it just didn’t fit though I found solidarity with female-bodied people whose preference in partners were women. It took me a decade to realize that something was up with the fact that I thought women were ridiculous for not dating me because I’m “not a man” (chuckling to myself.)

Let me try to explain that further: In my head I was a man. Men accepted me as this mixture of male/female in the banking/financial industry that I worked in for six years. I grew into not wanting to wear the women’s dress code relatively quickly, since I felt like I was in drag and they accepted this and thought of me as one of the “boys.”

In my head I was male. So when these straight women would flirt with me and then say “But I don’t date girls,” in my head this didn’t compute. I mean, did they see what I was wearing? I wasn’t a girl! I was a strapping, handsome, young boi. And if they’d only date me, they’d figure this out. Well, they weren’t buying it. I had no penis and as far as they were concerned I was no man. Sigh.

In my lesbian relationships I didn’t take on a butch role. Read: I am not a butch or a stud or an AG. I really don’t embody any of that particular type of masculinity. I am just a boi. I am devoid of femininity, except for my facial features, long eyelashes and tiny hands. And probably the vestiges of socialization. (Voice pitch changes around older men or when trying to be “polite”, eyes downcast at times, and other subconscious ways that inform how I interact with certain men.) Which one could argue has nothing to do with being feminine, but in my eyes it’s part of an expected role. Or should I say, an expectation thrust upon us, the female-bodied and those who choose to identify as women/womyn.

I guess, by the way I dress, people don’t expect me to be a high femme.

I’m not exactly oozing with femininity while wearing ties, vests, men’s dress shirts, men’s hats, and men’s shoes. And when men hit on me I honestly wonder what their deal is.

Anyways, sometimes people make assumptions about me being female. This is understandable. I mean, my face is feminine. Thinking way back, I started to wear more masculine clothes because a) I didn’t like male attention b) it felt more like me and c) it balanced out my feminine face–thereby making me feel more like “me.”

So back to assumptions. As I was coming out as genderqueer I wondered, well, should I take hormones? Should I get chest surgery? I didn’t want to, but it seemed the only way that people would accept me for how I felt.

Even though I don’t feel like an FTM (female-to-male). Let me explain: I don’t really trust this whole gender binary thing, and I feel that if I own the label FTM that I am somehow owning this whole twisted social construct that is the gender binary.

In doing that I would be saying well I am that M and not that F. I wholeheartedly accept what inkling of femininity I have coursing through this body. While I’m indifferent to my female parts I do not reject or resent them, though I do sometimes feel guilty for binding them and stuffing objects in men’s boxer briefs to mask them, add to or enhance them (i.e. packing). But I only feel guilty for a second. Then I feel empowered because I am being authentic. I am being ‘me’.

Power. This was an issue for me because well, I’m an anti-oppression workshop facilitator, and this is at the core of all of my activism. Not to mention that I’m a feminist and womanist. Was I really buying into this whole power from masculinity and being male thing? This really tortured me for a long time.

Was I subconsciously considering men to be worth more than women? Deep down did I hate being female because of society’s view on females and the oppression faced by females? Well…this takes me back to talking about the solidarity present between women of color. This also takes me back to all my friends that are women healers, curanderas, homeopaths, naturopaths, herbalists, shamans etc., who have tapped into their feminine power and use it daily to heal.

I don’t hate that. I love that! And this is what has really, really made me sad. I don’t want to leave those women’s healing circles, drumming circles, and so on. I don’t want to be an outsider. I was watching the film Still Black (a film about black transmen), and I cried when one of the men said he visited women’s spaces for a year–kind of as a goodbye. Yes, unexpected tears came down my face. I am so tied to these women’s spaces. I never wanted (or want) to give up the power inherent in being a woman.

And–sigh–I don’t want to be a black man. Either way I will struggle. Either way in this American society, there is only lip service to power for a black man or a black woman.

And skating the ice between the two genders seems like it will get me in trouble in some spaces as well. The trans men want to know why I still have breasts, why I don’t take hormones, why am I so *gulp* feminine looking. Why do I still identify with women of color, healing women?

The feminists want to know why I pack, why I bind, why I consider myself (or is it, let myself be considered) masculine of center. The men want to know why I even hang out with the women when I am so obviously one of them (male). Why I don’t buy into (some) of their hypermasculinity. Why I don’t like talking nonsense about women and flaunting privilege.

I am an outsider to them, too, because I can identify with women’s plight intuitively and in a way that they can’t. I know why their girlfriends, wives, sisters are feeling what they are feeling. But this goes both ways because I have always understood men’s thinking patterns (no matter how irrational it may seem to women at times) and while women have appreciated that I can do this it has really put me on the outskirts when I myself do not possess the same ways of communicating and thought patterns and “socializing tendencies” of a woman. I just can’t go there. I don’t get it, if you will. And it’s not about me trying to be a man. It’s just how I am and how I think, act.

I am not completely any of them. I am not LGBT, I am not a woman, I am not a man. I flirted with the idea of being bigendered but then there goes that whole gender binary again. Agendered? Meh. Andro? But I’m masculine of center. I see myself on the interior as a boi.

Basically there is no label for who I am…except Toi. And maybe I feel guilty for being this unlabeled entity that moves through these circles with my fluidity.

Now, let me explain: I feel guilty because they all want me to take up allegiance to them; I am their ally, but I am not exactly completely “them.” In short, I belong to all and none at the same time.

So I will continue to support women’s spaces, hang out with men/trans men, and the queers and genderqueers who understand me the most, even knowing that I might be mistaken as one of “them.” I will purge this guilt in my heart.

I will try my best to explain to every single person that asks and is confused. I will try to keep an open heart and be full of compassion when clearly people think that I am an anomaly, a freak, a weirdo, not one of “them” any longer.

This is all I can offer: Dialogue. Compassion. Authenticity.

Toi is an ordinary superhero who is a transmasculine and gender non-conforming writer, spoken-word artist, healer, health advocate, food justice activist, anti-oppression organizer, Q/POC community builder and a civil rights activist.Toi blogs about the intersections of race and gender and QPOC/POC organizing and movement building at philosophactivist.blogspot.com and can be emailed at: gqstreetpoet@gmail.com for their latest creative, academic or journalistic pieces.

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  • http://www.afro-genderqueer.com/ Toi Scott

    At first I didn’t really know how to approach this comment…I am sad that you haven’t experienced that type of sisterhood. I would say, just think about a women’s writing workshop or some other place where women come together to talk and heal…imagine having access to that sisterhood…and then the angst you’d feel when you are no longer considered “a sister”. Imagine the door that you once easily glided through and the solace you obtained, slamming shut and you now being isolated and an outsider. For more information on one of the women’s groups I am very much still a part of…you can check out Alma De Mujer Center for Social Change…it was created by a group of older indigenous/native american/ women of color who wanted to preserve native traditions and empower young women. 
    http://almademujer.us/content/alma-de-mujer-background
    there is also the WOW cafe in NY: http://www.wowcafe.org/getinvolved/ and there are sooo many others. I’d encourage you to at least check them out. It can be life changing, liberating.

  • http://www.afro-genderqueer.com/ Toi Scott

    At first I didn’t really know how to approach this comment…I am sad that you haven’t experienced that type of sisterhood. I would say, just think about a women’s writing workshop or some other place where women come together to talk and heal…imagine having access to that sisterhood…and then the angst you’d feel when you are no longer considered “a sister”. Imagine the door that you once easily glided through and the solace you obtained, slamming shut and you now being isolated and an outsider. For more information on one of the women’s groups I am very much still a part of…you can check out Alma De Mujer Center for Social Change…it was created by a group of older indigenous/native american/ women of color who wanted to preserve native traditions and empower young women. 
    http://almademujer.us/content/alma-de-mujer-background
    there is also the WOW cafe in NY: http://www.wowcafe.org/getinvolved/ and there are sooo many others. I’d encourage you to at least check them out. It can be life changing, liberating.

  • TeakLipstickFiend

    Just…thank you!

  • F>E>M>R>E>V>

    way to be open hearted and awesome. you’re great and brave. have a great day

  • PGV
  • PGV

    I don’t think you should feel guilty for being unlabeled. Also you have said you don’t believe in the gender binary and you know, there are many more people out there that think like you and they identify of many different ways if at all, for example: as trans*, genderqueer, queer,  gender creative, of fluid gender, “I am what I am and I don’t care about your labels”, … You know that for many people LGTBQIA the Q goes for question and queer and that the T isn’t for transgender exactly but for the wider trans* so even if they are haters in the movement I would hope you could feel safe an understood within it. I can’t understand what you are going through because I’m not black (I’m a white Spanish person) but imho you shouldn’t renounce to feel connected with the group of woman healers and the rest if you and then have been okay with it until now. 

    I leave you with a webcomic of a transman that might interest you and that goes through soem of the same stuff that you do althought you might not agree with the way he resolves it.

  • Jay

    Thank you for sharing your experience. When I came out as a trans man, I quickly realized that gender is so much more complex than even I had suspected, and how much it intersects with every other aspect of identity.

    If I may offer you one small piece of advice: be wary of “answering everyone’s questions”. This may seem like a good idea at first, but can rapidly become emotionally exhausting if you’re not careful to maintain your boundaries of privacy, and turn you into an always-open science exhibit instead of a human. It’s your choice to explain yourself to people, but remember you don’t owe it to them. This is a trap I have fallen into myself, and hopefully not something you will experience, but just giving you a heads up!

  • Jay

    Thank you for sharing your experience. When I came out as a trans man, I quickly realized that gender is so much more complex than even I had suspected, and how much it intersects with every other aspect of identity.

    If I may offer you one small piece of advice: be wary of “answering everyone’s questions”. This may seem like a good idea at first, but can rapidly become emotionally exhausting if you’re not careful to maintain your boundaries of privacy, and turn you into an always-open science exhibit instead of a human. It’s your choice to explain yourself to people, but remember you don’t owe it to them. This is a trap I have fallen into myself, and hopefully not something you will experience, but just giving you a heads up!

  • Anonymous

    As long as you continue to express yourself so openly and honestly you will find the acceptance you seek.  I’m ignorant of a lot of the terms you speak of here (“genderqueer” being one of them) so I read this with a little bit of confusion (and a pen to google certain words when I’m home later), but as soon as you started talking about being true to yourself, being authentic, that resonated.  And by telling your story, it makes people, at least me, want to be better informed about these issues.

  • Anonymous

    As long as you continue to express yourself so openly and honestly you will find the acceptance you seek.  I’m ignorant of a lot of the terms you speak of here (“genderqueer” being one of them) so I read this with a little bit of confusion (and a pen to google certain words when I’m home later), but as soon as you started talking about being true to yourself, being authentic, that resonated.  And by telling your story, it makes people, at least me, want to be better informed about these issues.