The Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership. By Jamara Wakefield May 17th marked the start of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition, featuring typically young and lesser-known artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art […]
Black Girl Interrupted: My Body, the World, and Nonbinary Me
Recently at Afropunk Atlanta, there were gendered lines posted at the entrance. An event that has a 12-foot banner with bold letters declaring “NO TRANSPHOBIA” had gendered lines.
My body told me not to say anything, not to buck back at such a violent system of indoctrinating patrons into a pro-Black space because of course, my body also reads as “black girl.”
The world told me not to clapback because who else is going to care about gendered lines — it’s just everyday antiblackness and white supremacist gender constructs enacting violence exactly how they’re intended to.
But nonbinary me told my body and the world that I can’t keep feeling guilted into not presenting with a gender deviance that would allow for my visibility, or even acknowledge my exclusion. Nonbinary me reminded all parts of me — how I’m read, how I perform and how I feel — that I am valid and that the gender binary is violence.
I walked in the men’s line because it was shorter and because I don’t need to pretend that I am a black girl just because someone feels comfortable positioning my identity as such. I was greeted with hostility from security, which continued to refer to me as a “lady” and “ma’am” and attempted to coax me back to the women’s line. I explained that this was violent, and that I am not a “lady,” I’m nonbinary and I don’t need to wait in a different line to come into an event that should include and protect my body and identity. With the support of my friends, who were also gender-expansive in their identities, and the extensive dragging and yelling I had to do with security — I was finally allowed in.
Among the specifics of the circumstance that sat on my heart, the assumption that my identity was a lie for the sake of cutting the line or creating drama just to do it only reaffirmed how hard it is to feel authentic in who I am. But what hurt the most was the silence from the crowd, the folks waiting patiently in line, the bystanders on the sidewalk that just gawked at my black femme anger, my nonbinary erasure and my ongoing pain of having to out myself everywhere I go.
If not just for fear of protesting the binary or fighting security, the assumption that gender should only be protected if there is a deviance to be interrogated is complicated. This is a complicated place to be with my gender as a Black Girl Interrupted. In navigating my gender as a Black fat femme, who is often read as a Black girl, who is often denied trans-ness yet not offered humanity or space to name my gender, means never feeling validated or real.
When we relegate the validity of trans-ness to certain trauma, we are acknowledging that our identities can only exist within the realms of hierarchical oppression. Often when others read trans folks, they’re reading us by whether we’ve been traumatized by gender in specific ways enough (i.e. being able to tell that you’ve transitioned, “born in the wrong body”, hypervisible forms of transphobia, etc.) or if they feel traumatized by our gender that it shifts their own identity.
Trans is read as a journey from A to B; there is no space in between A and B, or even an option C, D or E. The white supremacist cisgender lens only allows for the world to read trans folks’ validity if they know you’ve transitioned/seek to transition, based on your genitals, or if they can read your body as an enigma to gender (i.e. breasts and a mustache, flat chest but soft jawline, etc.). Gender deviance is also measured in violence, in which gender that conflicts with the reader’s gender, sexuality or desire results in the most heinous gender violence.
In this, being read as cis-passing is because my gender deviance as a high femme DFAB (designated female at birth) nonbinary black femme is read as low. This, to me, is complicated. Because the privilege that comes with my personal navigation is at the expense of erasure of my identity, and of femininity on DFAB bodies as work, as conjuring, as power, as struggle and as threat.
When I identified as a black fat girl, I had to create my femininity from nothingness because it was never granted to me. My fatness denied me girlhood/womanhood and the innocence, desirability and protection was never offered to my body. My blackness othered me, denying me humanity, gender conformity, sexual agency and autonomy. My girlhood was spent defending my body, my safety and fighting off prey of all genders who sought to silence and dehumanize me.
My childhood and adolescence didn’t allow for me to perform or pursue gender safety or conformity in the ways that are assumed in my presentation and body. This doesn’t deny any privilege I have in how I’ve navigated gender over anyone else, but rather offers a different lens on how much labor my black fat femme body has committed to in my gender journey.
Nonbinary bodies, especially femme and nonbinary identified DFAB (designated female at birth) bodies, should not be erased within the larger narratives of the world just because the assumption that we have privilege in passing within cisgender presentation and navigation, or because we are offered more safety than others. That assumption would also rely upon our bodies performing gender appropriately depending on who’s reading us, and also requires that we ignore that passing is relative.
Although the privilege of being read as “camouflaged” — that of a black cis girl in an antiblack misogynistic world, it still doesn’t account for how I and others like me already fail gender and are harmed by gender in different ways. As a black fat femme, I’ve failed white gender my entire life in being referred to as an “it” and a “thing” because my fatness denied my girlhood, because my blackness reaffirmed my otherness and my ability to be consumed by boy/male counterparts.
I feel guilty writing this. Probably because I’ve always felt that talking about my erasure and experiences meant that I was taking up space from other trans folks and reminding my cisgender counterparts that we are not the same. But my truth isn’t to silence other trans folks’ navigation and realities, but to expand upon how nonbinary femme DFAB black bodies are often read as not real and erased. The mindfuck of proving to the world you’re not a girl and proving to yourself that your nonbinary gender is valid and not a performance is exhausting. It’s living at war with your yourself, your body and the world every day.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, nonbinary Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at BlackFatFemme.com.