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Gendering Ungender: Notes on Nonbinary Blackness

When we define transness first, always, and only through death, we not only erase the many ways that nonbinary people do die, but we also remove trans people—particularly Black trans women—from life entirely.

To preface this essay, I want to be clear that this is intended to be an intracommunal conversation between all of us who are Black and identify as trans, specficially on the behalf / in defense of nonbinary people. I have no control over who reads this, but I believe this to be a necessary intervention in the conversation on trans identity, who it is supposedly reserved for, and the harm nonbinary people are subjected to at the hand of “binary” trans people.

I have been open about my gender identity, or lack thereof, for many years now. I didn’t always understand my genderlessness as trans, particularly because, like many others, I had internalized the idea that a trans identity could only ever be “achieved” by moving from one gender to the other. So for a long time, instead of trans, I referred to myself as “non-cis.” This understanding of gender, however, while popular, is colonial and shallow; in many ways, it is also very cissexist. The idea that one moves from “one” gender to “the other” insinuates that there are only two genders, as opposed to there being an infinite number of ways for people to refer to their gender(lessness). As such, I realized that I was navigating my own gender journey in a way that reproduced the very logics that create transphobia and trans-antagonism in the first place. Yet, in just about every trans space I have been in—most often populated by trans women and trans men—nonbinary people are regarded as people removed from a trans experience; so often engaged as gay men and women who just want to be included in trans spaces. This is not to say that “binary” trans people wield the sociopolitical power to necessarily create structures and spaces that affirm all of our experiences, but is to say that one doesn’t need to have power to not reassert cissexist, anti-Black logics to produce this type of violence. A common theme in each space is that “nonbinary people aren’t trans because [they] don’t die enough.”

Last year, I penned an essay naming very directly one major reason for why cis people refuse to recongize nonbinary people as trans. I wrote:

In the past few years, violence against Black trans women has become hypervisiblized. In response, many people have seemingly taken on the mantle of performative advocacy and activism to prove their commitment to trans liberation. However, because it is but a performance, trans women are forced to experience heightened scrutiny, visiblized rising death tolls, and being made into a spectacle. And while their plight becomes more visible, cis-lings find more ways to invisiblize nonbinary trans people. When you exist in a fat and Black body, that violence only becomes worse. So people grow comfortable with being transphobic towards nonbinary people because the violence transgressed against our bodies has not yet been directly translated to death—thus they cannot yet build social, political, and/or economic capital off of our lives.

What I also have come to realize is that this is the exact reason many “binary” trans people don’t recognize nonbinary people as trans too. So many people have internalized the idea that transness is defined first, always, and only by accumulated death. In doing this, we not only erase the many ways that nonbinary people do die, but we also remove trans people—particularly Black trans women—from life entirely. 

RECOMMENDED: Affirming Trans People Means Caring For AMAB-Nonbinary Folks Too

In a recent essay, Hunter Shackelford wrote, “Transness being limited to death means that we never actually honor any trans person in their wholeness, experience, and affirmation. To assume that we must die to take space, to speak, to be validated, or to be valued means that we are not only being dishonest about antiblack violence but that we are affirming that death is the medium that makes us deserving of truth-telling, compassion, and life.” Nonbinary people are also kicked out of our homes for daring to name ourselves as trans; nonbinary people are also murdered for embodying a gender performance that is illegible to cis people; nonbinary people experience a particular type of social Death for intentionally removing ourselves from even the slightest possibility at an attempt to situate ourselves in binary gender.

Still, transness is about more than the D/death and trauma we endure, and I have no interest in defining it narrowly in that way. In other words, by forcing a binary onto transness, we recapitulate or reify the very same violent sentiments of the cisheteronormative and anti-Black structures that we are actively trying to resist.

Here is the reality: the gender binary, and the reason I place “binary” in quotations when talking about trans people, was created only for cisgender people. Cisness defines the gender binary, and as such, trans women and trans men, too, exist outside of the binary. This does not mean that we have to or should collapse the various ways we all experience violence; on the contrary, this means that we have to acknowledge that we all do experience violence—even if in a myriad of ways—so that we can honestly assess the harms we each endure. But as we have been forced to take on new identities that do innately position us outside of gender itself, it is both lazy and dishonest to assert that nonbinary people don’t experience gender violence at all. 

Gender, just like health and Desire/ability, is a system forged with the purpose of creating and maintaining a class of subjects designed to be inferior to another. The role of “either” gender is achieved through a continued performance. These roles—and these performances—are implied, but also explicitly named, characteristics and duties one must fulfill to be “man” or “woman.” They are not inherent to us, meaning we are not born as “boys” or as “girls.” In basic sociological terms, we are taught immediately after birth through social institutions like family, media, and school what role we must fulfill if we are to hold on to the gender we are assigned at birth. When we start breaking the rules of those assigned roles, and thus falling outside of gender’s hold, we become “sissies” or “tomboys”—depending on which role you were assigned to fulfill from birth. As Judith Butler states in her book Gender Trouble, our behaviors that are gendered are not innate to us. We learn them, and then we learn to perform them. And this performance is policed and maintained by cisheteronormativity, or the idea that everyone already is—and therefore all things must be seen as—cisgender and heterosexual. In other words, cisheteronormativity is the “law and order” of gender in that it is what determines who is departing from their assigned role and must therefore be punished because of it.

To this point, and to return to Butler, it is not our gender that defines our performance, but rather our performance that is always already defining Gender. In her essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Butler refers to gender as an illusion and an “object of belief,” expanding further by noting that “gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.” What “performed” means in this sense is not that one is standing on a stage or pretending to do something for the sake of being lauded, but rather that one is creating the thing by which their life and beinghood is defined through myriad acts and repetitions. So what is gender? It is only what we make it, but what we make it is defined by, in simple terms, the World around us. Hortense Spillers knew this, too, about the Black, in particular, when she wrote “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” In that essay, as we covered earlier in the book, Spillers provides an analysis for what it means for Black subjects to always be “ungendered.” This means that gender is lost to the Black—which more directly means that gender reads differently for our bodies and our Being. Ungendered as monstrosity—it is to suggest that we are removed from gender, that we are misaligned with a normative, “coherent” gender, making us Beasts from birth.

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This must be complicated even further when talking about fatness and gender. Fat Black trans people are forced to move to and through gender in a way that makes most evident to me that gender itself is something worth interrogating more closely. In so many ways, fatness functions as a gender of its own. Fatness fails, and therefore disrupts, the foundation on which gender is built. This is why the request is made of fat trans people to lose weight before they can be affirmed in their gender, or why little fat Black boys are often misread as girls, or why fat Black women are often denied access to womanhood in a way that operates differently than the typical ungendering of Black subjects at large. But gender is birthed from violence, and therefore fatness operating as its own gender is not liberatory so much as it is forced. Fat people are situated in this extension of what is already a prison because fat bodies deviate from—or rather are already positioned outside of—the designated or assigned “look” of gender. This is to say that the attempt to broaden the normate template only further harms unDesirable people and reifies the very real violences of gender itself.

This is to say that gender is not so cut and dry that we can easily situate people only in or only outside of gender, and it was designed that way intentionally. Black people were never meant to fit comfortably inside of gender, and therefore the violence that “binary” trans people wield at nonbinary trans people only harms them, too. The binary is not ours; it never was and it will never be. We all must begin to ask: What about nonbinary trans masc people who medically transitioned? Or trans women, especially darkskin / fat trans women, who have not medically transitioned? Where are they situated in this? Is the trans masc nonbinary person not trans either? Is transness only medically transitioning? If so, is the trans woman who hasn’t transitioned not trans? if she’s engaged every day as a man, is that then not trans-antagonism and transmisogynoir? What do we make of the nonbinary people who have been gendered in the wake of their deaths for the sake of making them political pawns for our movements?

Gender is violent and it is violence. As that is the case, even terms like “trans” and “nonbinary” will never go far enough to accurately name who we are and what we embody. Still, we don’t have to recreate for others the same violences inflicted onto our flesh to affirm our genders. We can simply make the commitment to understanding transness as expansive, gender as violent, violence as dynamic and multifaceted, and honor that the way forward for us all is to destroy the very thing that creates this complicated reality: the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cishetero-patriarchy.

Note: A portion of this essay has been excerpted from the writer’s upcoming book, Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, to arrive in August 2021. Belly of the Beast is now available for pre-order

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Da’Shaun Harrison is a nonbinary abolitionist and organizer in Atlanta, GA. They write and speak publicly on race, sexuality, gender, class, religion, disabilities, fatness, and the intersection at which they all meet. Harrison is the author of the forthcoming book, “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness,” which is expected to be published in July 2021. Their portfolio and other work can be found on their site: dashaunharrison.com.

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