How my past as a black woman informs my black male feminist perspective today

Although I am not new to masculinity, I am new to being a black man.

I am new to the experience of male privilege and its consequence of authority, as well as the disprivilege of race that marks my black male body as innately suspect. It is the delicate balance between power and criminal that has allowed me to see the machinations of misogyny in an entirely different light. Whereas black cisgender men have generally approached feminist discourse through the academic texts and writings of black women, for me, it is my lived experience as a black female that has shaped the ways in which I embrace and practice black feminism.

Prior to physical transition, I wasn’t naive to the ways in which certain forms of black masculinity contribute to the oppression of women. I grew up in a family of single black women who loved, really loved, black men even though it was their husbands, boyfriends and sometimes brothers who were the perpetrators of emotional and physical abuse.

I watched my mother, my beautiful mother, struggle with the demons of mental illness and drug use. Her sickness, it seemed, gave the men in the neighborhood free range to take advantage of her financially and sexually. Though I’ve never met him to form an opinion, my aunt still declares it was my absent father who literally drove my mother to madness.

I was witness to the sadness my grandmother felt as all three of her sons followed in their father’s alcoholic footsteps. She still smiled through all of the pain but I saw the sadness when my uncle, her child, routinely threatened her in the same ways as did the abusive husband she left years before.

I learned to resent black men.

As I grew and my body changed, so did my interactions with males that I encountered. I suffered the threat of sexual violence as my female body consistently invited unsolicited advances from (black) men despite my masculine presentation.

I became more aware of the ads, music, and propaganda that told me that I was ugly, unattractive, and good enough only as a sexual object for black men. Even though intro courses to race and women’s studies in college began to offer me the critical tools to somewhat reject these images, I still felt shame as it was impossible to escape the reality that sexist images of black women suffocated me.

When I began to date women, I repeatedly encountered the aggressive homophobe who thought their magical black dicks could turn me “straight.” In some instances, I would rebuff their advances with jokes though I was well aware of the possibility of danger in doing so.

I learned to fear black men.

Although my relationship with black men and masculinity was fraught, I still desired to be one; I knew that gender transition would be a necessary part of my life’s journey.

For some transmen, their female past conjures up memories of pain and humiliation, and rightfully so. These feelings are not absent from my journey but I’ve come to embrace my past as a beneficial asset to my practice of a progressive black masculinity.

Primarily, I am very careful with my interactions with women in order to not be perceived as a physical threat. I am always thoughtful of my newfound “bulk” due to hormones and the ways in which my masculine body moves and occupies space. While walking on the streets, I maintain my distance from women. I avoid eye contact unless we are engaging in mutual conversation and even then, I do not stare. The memory of harassment as a woman doesn’t allow me to.

In professional situations, I am always aware of my male privilege. I do not hog the intellectual space and make it a point to deeply value the input of my female collaborators. My goal is not to be the dominant voice of reason but to attempt to exist as an equal colleague. Furthermore, in my work I find it very important to centralize the experiences of women to supplement the work that they are doing for themselves.

Although I identify as a heterosexual male, in my relationship with my partner I strive to avoid replicating the harmful gendered dynamics that are traditionally associated with heterosexuality. I make it a point to share my feelings and evaluate my shortcomings. I am not perfect and sometimes I slip but the emphasis I’ve placed on expressing my feelings has provided a deviation from conventional notions of black masculinity. This gesture does not negate my manhood; rather it permits me to love and perform gender in a much healthier way.

Additionally, I do not use my manhood as an excuse to cheat, to view my partner as another sexual conquest, or to marginalize her feelings.

In my brief experience of living as a black male, I’ve learned that it is difficult to challenge misogyny in male dominated spaces. I have found myself in a number of uncomfortable situations with men who openly insult and humiliate women and I feel silenced. Not because of the fear of being outed as trans but I fear being perceived as a failed version of black masculinity–a fear that I believe imprisons all black men–adding to the reproduction of a violent patriarchal society.

I am not a perfect man. I am not immune to the assumptions that are expected of me and sometimes, I act them out. However, my transition journey has allowed me to begin the process of forgiving my absent father, my alcoholic uncle, and the cat-calling homophobe on the corner.

Because black feminism allows me to love myself, I have learned to love black men.

 

Beyond the Victim Paradigm for Black Transwomen

The past year has seen a plethora of articles, blog entries and studies highlighting the social disparities faced by black transgender people. From introducing readers to our experiences of employment discrimination, restricted access to medical care, and encounters with police and civilian violence, the recent inquiries into black trans life have begun to provide important visibility to a community that is often overlooked.

In particular, it is the tortured lives and untimely deaths of black transwomen, as evidenced in the upcoming trial of CeCe McDonald and the homicides of Brandy Martell and Paige Clay, that have added to the recent surge of independent articles investigating black transgender subjectivity.

Undoubtedly, this newfound attention to the plight of black trans folks by primarily cisgender allies is timely and necessary. It has, however, created a narrow representation of black identity that doesn’t recognize transwomen beyond the transphobia/victim paradigm.

A primary way in which the victim paradigm is enforced, is through the use of language that negatively frames their experiences. The lives of the women profiled are written about using descriptors such as “burden,” “victimized,” or in statements that boldly declare “nobody cares,” ultimately implying that black transwomen have little to no agency or cultural efficacy.

In an article for The Root titled No Justice for CeCe, Kelle Terrell exhibits this trend by writing

“black transgender people like CeCe McDonald will continue to look over their shoulders, scared as hell, knowing that when danger lurks, if they have the audacity to fight back and not allow themselves to be killed, there’s a good chance that they are the ones who will be punished. The message is crystal clear: Transgender people have very little value in this world, dead or alive.”

The assumption made by Terrell that black transwomen are confined to living a life of perpetual fear based on expectations of violence and inevitable death, is a troubling gesture that paints a grim picture of black trans subjects as being fearful of our own identity. This rhetorical move negates the agency of pleasure and personal acceptance that is involved in living openly and freely as a black transgender individual, despite the societal consequences of doing so.

The victimization of black transwomen is also produced by associating violence as the main impetus for their inclusion in the public discussions of LGBT visibility. Though violence and death are, in fact, a harsh reality for my sisters, in order to present a more complex image of black transwomen, it’s important that we also seek out and produce affirming stories of survival to demonstrate the multiple ways in which they actively resist the limitations of the “murder narrative.”

At the same time, we cannot continue to marginalize or completely erase the voices of black transwomen from the discourse of their lives by relying on non-trans “gender experts” or white trans subjects to articulate the nuances of blackness. Including and actively listening to the voices of black transwomen, reflects their vital role in the social construction of their own identity, further destabilizing notions of a silenced victimhood.

Indeed, there exists real threats against black transgender people as we experience intersecting levels of discrimination on a daily basis. For black transwomen, though they embody an identity that deems them second-class citizens like cisgender women of color, they are not merely victims. But if we do not introduce alternative black trans narratives, how will we know?