by Edward Ndopu
I feel compelled to make it known that I do not move through the world as sometimes black, sometimes disabled, sometimes queer, sometimes femme, sometimes male and sometimes Afropolitan. I move through the world embodying all of those identities at the same time, all of the time. We often make the mistake of thinking that an intersectional identity means a set of compartmentalized lived experiences joined together. An intersectional identity is one lived experience layered with the complexity of sociopolitical and cultural context. To borrow the words of Eli Clare, “gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race…everything finally piling onto a single human body.”
When people asked me how I identified prior to my understanding of what it means to embody an intersectional identity, I gave them a rehearsed, succinct response because I didn’t want to overwhelm them with the complexity of my lived experience. I would say: I was born in Namibia, but brought up in South Africa, now living in Canada, and that I use a wheelchair because I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy at the age of two. I usually left it at that, hoping I satisfied at least some of their curiosity. Now, I make it known that my personal narrative cannot and should not be summarized because I am intentionally complex. I do not subscribe to normative ways of being and knowing. And I do not even want to try. I dwell in the grace of my differences. Born to a South African freedom fighter mother who fled the Apartheid regime to Namibia and went into self-imposed exile, I grew up knowing that everything is political, including my existence.
My existence necessitates a re-imagining of ontological and epistemological understandings of time and space. I identify as femme partially because masculinity has given me nothing in terms of validation and self-actualization. Being a femme man allows me to perform masculinity outside of its heteropatriarchal gaze. People who are invested in hegemonic conceptions of gender may label my gender expression ‘effeminate.’ My gender expression is femme, not effeminate. The latter is an adjective couched in a web of patriarchal, cis normative, trans misogynistic assumptions. The former is a self-identification grounded in the divine feminine. I very much claim my masculinity, it just happens to be a feminine manifestation of masculinity. Notwithstanding the sociopolitical imposition of an inaccessible world and cultural paradigm, disabled femmes of all genders teach able bodied ness new ways of being beautiful in the world. We firmly belief that there is no shame in seeking glamour, power and magnificence if you have been labeled undesirable, useless and inconsequential; there’s no shame because those things already abide within the spirit, they’re yours for the seeking.
As a disabled femme, I deal with pain, rejection and solitude in ways that compel the people around me to redefine courage and tenacity. I reconfigure sexiness and sweetness and passion in the name of ugliness, tragedy and the promise of survival. Forget being inspirational, disabled femmes want to be everything. We want to move through the world on our own terms, guided by a bright flame of fabulousness. As I see it, we should all be allowed to simultaneously enjoy and problematize the myriad of ways we show up in sociocultural spaces. We neither have to give up the fabulous, nor put up with its shit. There’s space for complex shades of grey in our experiences, because we have been accorded with the inalienable agency to exist and embody that existence in sexy, dynamic, conventional and counter-hegemonic ways. Indeed, I’m relentless in my pursuit of the limelight. But, I’m more obsessed with embodying light. Since leaving South Africa, I’ve grown more and more comfortable identifying as an Afropolitan. As Taiye Selasie put it, “what most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness is the refusal to oversimplify; the effort to understand what is ailing in Africa alongside the desire to honour what is wonderful [and] unique. Rather than essentializing the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the cultural complexity; to honor the intellectual and spiritual legacy; and to sustain our parents’ cultures.”
To negotiate my survival as a disabled queer femme Afropolitan, I break down what it means to survive into little pieces of grace, then take those little pieces of grace and reconstruct existence in a way that challenges the normative. Without difference, the universe would be less vulnerable, less revealing, less courageous.
Edward (Eddie) Ndopu is a black (dis) abled queer femme Afro-politan living in Ottawa, Ontario. Named by the Mail and Guardian Newspaper as one of their Top 200 Young South Africans, he is a social critic, anti-oppression practitioner, consultant, writer and scholar.