how prince taught me the importance of accepting not knowing everything about gender

April 21, 2017
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“I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” – Prince, “I Would Die 4 U”

During his life, I wasn’t the biggest Prince fan. I grew up under a very religious Hindu mother and Muslim father, and the music I was exposed to was limited due to their conservative restrictions. To this day, my lack of knowledge around many of the Black cultural markers of my early life still causes me to stand out among my peers. I used to resent this for a variety of reasons, but more recently I have begun to re-frame this reality as an opportunity to fall in love with my youth all over again, spending many a weekend rediscovering the TV shows, movies, and music that shaped my generation.

One of these rediscoveries was the symbol himself. Growing up, I knew who Prince was and plenty of his songs–who in America with ears could live over the last few decades and not?–but as a child, I never had an opportunity to fully explore his artistry in depth. Still, I was able to gather that he was a ridiculously talented pop star who bent gender as easily as he did genres. On top of the fact that my parents weren’t interested in encouraging me to do the same–or maybe because of it–part of the reason I never really got into Prince was that I feared what my love for his ability to achieve such a feat might mean for the budding queerness in me.

On this day last year, at the age of 57, Prince passed away after being found unconscious in an elevator of his Paisley Park property. Now firm in my queerness, I had been spending the past few years belatedly getting to know him, and suddenly it seemed that with this great tragedy the opportunity was being taken away from me once again. But maybe the opportunity to “know” him never existed to begin with.

Prince was an enigma. Defying traditional expectations of masculinity always with a beautiful woman on his arm, the artist represented a type of inexplicable queerness that I have come to identify with more and more as I grew older. As a non-binary person assigned male at birth, whose attractions to people and genders have changed and are always changing, I’d found that there was little more space for me in mainstream “born this way” gay spaces and conversations than there was in the strictly heterosexist environments like my childhood home.

For a world eager to place everything, including people, into neatly defined black and white boxes, my reality doesn’t always sit well with others. “Non-binary” isn’t real, they say, and most of the partners I’ve been with have been ostensibly male, so me trying to claim anything other than gay maleness is just trying to stir up trouble. But perhaps the trouble is already there. Maybe it’s in the way most of the world acts like only two out of scores of scientifically recognized genders are real (but also fuck scientific legitimization of a person’s reality). Maybe it’s in the way that most of us, even or especially those of us who are queer, refuse to acknowledge our own participation in reinforcing these binaries, and the violence this causes.

Prince, too, was familiar with this trouble. In the song “Controversy”, he sings: “I just can’t believe all the things people say/Controversy/Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?/Controversy.” He was an exemplification of the “neither/nor” predicament I was beginning to recognize myself to be in–complicated and beautiful and violent and messy at the same time. For every move he made to smash the construct of gender, he made a homophobic comment or chauvenistic act to reaffirm it.

And perhaps that’s what gender is, a messy, messy thing we’re all trying to work through, some of us struggling a little more than others. Maybe we–especially Black folks who never do gender well enough for the world anyway–all just need a little more space to work through these struggles.

After Prince’s passing, a conversation erupted in queer spaces around whether or not Prince or other cisgender heterosexual Black men are given too much credit for the queer way they might move through gender outside of strict masculine ideals. Some argued that these #CareFreeBlackBoys are simply appropriating from those of us who bear the brunt of anti-queer violence to their own benefit.

But I would like to think that queerness is a verb, and anyone can queer the world. I would like to think the world needs to be queered, by as many as are brave enough to do it. I would like to think there is power in the truth that even me, fucking men and all, can be just as anti-queer–has been just as misogynistic–as a “cishet” man like Prince. I would like to think that “cishet” Black people can be much more than cishet, and that if we’re truly intentional about our queerness we’d be less willing to designate that label onto people we don’t know.

I don’t understand what that would look like yet, but I would like to think that maybe understanding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The way we’ve been taught to understand one another hasn’t worked well for those of us across and outside the gender spectrum. But Prince inspired me to try something different.

Banner photo via GrooveVolt

*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.