giving birth to language
By Ashleigh Shackelford
April 30, 2019
“You a nigga?,” says the man I’m about to fuck.
Sheer terror takes over my body as I realize where this conversation may lead. I quickly respond, “No, no, I’m just someone who doesn’t see themselves as a woman. I believe gender is complicated, that’s all.”
My heart is pounding. My stomach churns and I feel everything about to come up in my throat: Is he going to kill me? Maybe he’ll just kick me out of his apartment. What if he’s looking for someone with different genitals than mine and wanted me to say yes?
He tenses in confusion, “Oh okay, I got scared for a minute. Well, you look like a woman to me. I love big girls, you have everything I want.” My body unclenches, and I take a deep breath. My relief comes because I realize his ain’t-shit-ness and sexual desire overpowered this moment to interrogate deeper around what I shared. So of course, I immediately fuck this nigga to move on so we never have to talk about how my Black fat body is actually the deepest part of my dysphoria, and that his fear around who I was beyond what he desired was the same violence that erases me.
This was one of the moments I realized that being non-binary was not something I can openly share with just anyone. I shared my identity with him because actively practicing sharing my truth is for my survival. I’m Black, therefore I’ve struggled with gender my entire life. I spent all of my life being violated for being a Black fat girl, and having to hide my non-binary identity after finding a semblance of peace in the internal and external war I’m surviving is not something I’m able to do anymore.
The war to create gender expansive liberation is made of a million battles between yourself, the world, and your body. While there is power in the options and availability of inclusion and visibility for those of us who exist beyond the binary, there is still a debt to be paid for the humanity we seek. That debt is having to experience trauma on repeat until people find your identity normalized enough to believe you deserve to live.
Everyday, in a swift moment, I am erased from most spaces and conversations I enter.
“Ma’am, can you please lower your voice?” says the security guard who is surveilling Blackness in the lobby.
“Oh okay, you guys, she uses ‘they’ pronouns. Please respect that,” says the organizer of a safe space.
“We need to protect our trans sisters and trans brothers,” says a fellow protestor.
“But you don’t look trans,” says my cousin.
The danger in maintaining the gender binary is that it’s not just misgendering that happens to folks who identify outside of the binary, it’s the repetitive death of your existence. Every time I experience erasure, I die a little. And when you’re already seen as dead, as nonexistent, as make-believe, it’s an overkill that keeps you passively numb while you’re aggressively bleeding out. The world constantly requires me to over-explain what I am to make them feel comfortable and/or to maintain the daily routine of anti-Black violence. Being non-binary not only means inviting people into a narrative of trans humanity, but also requesting that they recalibrate the violence that they’ve been indoctrinated by. Non-binary people are birthing new language, shifting grammars, transcending anti-Black normativity, creating plurality from binaries, and cultivating life beyond the carcerality of the gender binary. That’s some powerful shit, and a lot of fucking labor.
Navigating projections and embodiments of the gender binary isn’t exclusive to cisgender people. This is an ongoing trauma for all communities, including trans ones. I’ve been interrogated in trans spaces as an imposter who is creating more violence for binary trans people. I’ve been misgendered as a trans woman and suddenly expected to perform certain traumas (which is also violent to trans women). I’ve been assumed to be an ally infiltrating trans spaces. And I’ve been told that I’m taking space from “real trans people.”
Realness. What is it? How many of us embody it? How can non-binary people, or anyone for that matter, be real if the rules change depending on time, place, gaze, trauma, and the beholder? How can anyone serve ‘realness’ if it’s based upon a system designed to fail everyone in it? And if ‘realness’ is required to survive but then the visual and performative becomes more valuable than your entire being. So when I say, I am trans yet I have no visual story behind where I started, and where I ended; and the assumptions around how I look and the genitals I have feel aligned to the beholders — I have failed transness.
When I told the aforementioned sexual partner that I was nonbinary, the moment I confirmed my genitals is where he no longer was interested in my truth telling. Saying I’m trans, and saying I’m nonbinary, only means something if we shift our thinking around the gender binary and what it means to exist beyond the violent narratives we’ve inherited. If white supremacist patriarchy creates new mutations of gender norms in which transness must be a mirrored, simplified, and performed experience in order to be valid, we have all failed. Tranness will always be the experience of an individualized navigation of gender that is a journey, destination, and none of the above.
Non-binary people reflect the cages anti-Blackness has created for Black people, and therefore everyone surviving within this system. It’s not easy to teach, learn, and die at the same time through every moment of misgendering or act of binarism (re: anti-Blackness). Gender normativity is not only an illusion, it’s a prison where the rules always change and the punishment is always death. There is no way to fulfill the prophecies of the gender binary because the prophecy is intentionally designed as fantasy and failure.
There are as many genders as there are people. Gender is not the absence of or presence of, but rather an affirmation within yourself. Your gender is ever evolving, mutating, transitioning, at war, at peace, but always at home because it lives within you. Acknowledging the vastness of gender is breaking chains from the violence of boxes, cages, limitations, and rigid definitions. Your gender will never fit into one word, because your being will always be the lexicon.
Get The Latest
Signup for the AFROPUNK newsletter