The moment the word entered my head, the panic started. Maybe I’d been right all along and I was never really a “girl.” But if that was the case, was I just another immature kid trying to insulate herself from reality with made-up words?
Not a day goes by where I’m not hearing about divisive QTPOC forcing allies to expand their vocabulary beyond a Webster’s dictionary. Yet, what dictionary is of any use to a Black queer femme with a lifetime of scars who’s trying to understand their pain? And how can others like me learn to walk in our truths if our own “allies” question and berate us when we try to figure out what they are?
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When I was a kid questioning my gender, I was never told that it was ok to ask why I was hurting; instead, I learned to make liberal use of Band-Aids and hope things would work themselves out. A couple months ago, the wounds ripped open again.
Everyone in my family knows that I’m not “a girly girl,” yet even as an adult, someone occasionally tries, unsuccessfully, to convert me. Most recently, it was my cousin. She wanted to fleek my face.
That day something, maybe exhaustion, made me sigh, “Fine.”
I spent the next 30 minutes in front of her vanity while she applied all kinds of things I couldn’t even begin to name, or explain, to my skin. When the big reveal came, my family members gathered around to gush, coo, and take pictures, marveling at the wonderful transformation.
But when I looked in the mirror, I just felt…empty. I couldn’t understand what they were so excited about. What I saw didn’t look, or feel, natural.
“I feel like a dude in drag,” I thought. Not in the sense of the happy and proud femmes who strut down runways or own ballroom floors, but in the sense of someone being coerced to fit a mold that makes them feel unsafe, unloved, and unseen.
I was just trying to be nice, but the experience dredged up a lot of uncomfortable memories from my childhood regarding my gender and expression.
Growing up, I knew three things: One, I was a girl. Two, I didn’t like it. And three, there was nothing I could do about either of them.
But how could I trust my feelings? As a Black femme, I already had the deck stacked against me. No matter what we feel, society tells us from the beginning it doesn’t matter. We face misogynoir that deems us unworthy of femininity and womanhood by default while simultaneously being objectified and fetishized, not to mention femmephobia that forces us to adhere to standards of presentation and then punishes us for it.
From childhood, we’re objects for the consumption of others, lacking agency or inherent value. All of that baggage muddies the waters when you realize you’re different and start trying to figure out why. Is it the internalized oppression talking, something else, or both?
But being different still felt right to me, and so I dressed and acted like a tomboy from the moment I had any control over what I wore. But there were always whispers and microaggressions: “Sydnee, why don’t you try on this dress I bought you? You’d look so pretty.” “Why don’t you wear your hair down, just once?”
When my body started to develop, it got worse. Men three times my age leered at me on the street, male family members told me that my thighs, in a pair of shorts, were obscene. I remember resisting suggestions to wear a bra – my breasts were still just buds in elementary school, and I was hoping if I ignored them they’d go away. But people noticed. When a female family member pointed them out with glee, I wanted to vomit. And I still remember what it felt like to rough house with a boy and have his hand creep up under my shirt and graze my chest.
Everywhere I went, someone was telling me that I was transforming into something better…something to exploit. I just wanted it all to go away.
I was tired of the looks, the inappropriate comments and touches, the fact that I had no control over how my body looked or how I dressed myself. I started to starve myself in middle school, hoping the curves and the menstrual bleeding would disappear. Eventually I learned to swallow the bitter pill and repress the discomfort.
That is, until I came across those “made-up, Social Justice Warrior words” on the Internet. And then the pieces started clicking into place.
Even if the terms aren’t perfect, they’ve given me the context I need to begin to make sense of who and what I am. Even amid all the panic and confusion, it’s a salve that calls out to me: You’re not crazy. You’re not alone. What you’re feeling is real. The policing continues, though, because even within queer spaces, we’re still not the ones deciding the narrative. Instead of worrying about if I’m queer, I worry about if I’m the right kind. It has to stop.
The truth is gender and sexuality are too complicated to neatly fit into boxes. Intersecting oppressions mean all of us – especially QTPOC – have colonialist garbage to wade through, and many of us don’t have the language to speak that truth or figure out how to weave our tattered fragments back together. The Internet helps us connect with people who have the same questions, but just because you know which questions to ask doesn’t mean you’ll instantly have the answers, especially when “allies” or even other queer people still dismiss you at every turn.
So it’s no wonder that we stumble or hesitate or get weary; it’s no wonder we switch and combine labels, or make up new ones altogether. But no matter how we arrive at the labels we embrace, our genders and expressions are real, and they don’t need any more of the world’s policing.
There’s power in labels because living authentically as a queer Black femme in this world is a process. There’s no road map, no destination in sight, so we have to take whatever road markers we can get.
Healing from a lifetime of abuse takes time and space. So-called allies need to learn that if they really care about queer liberation, they’ll not only “allow” that space for experimenting with language, they’ll encourage it.
They will support us in taking the room we need to — finally — breathe.
Sydnee is a queer Black writer and artist stranded in the mitten state who wants to fill the world with positive queer media. “Carefree Black girl sipping margaritas on the beach” is her number one goal in life. She occasionally hangs out on Twitter @SydMT
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