Written By Ebony Donnelly
As reluctant as I am to admit it, being the real nigga I am as it were, I care a great deal about what other niggas think. In fact, any Black masc person across the endless spectrum of genders who denies worrying about or studdin “the next nigga”—that great, Black leitmotif found in many rap songs—is a liar if I ever seen one. Because the entire premise of masculinity, insomuchas it is an advent of cis-hetero capitalist patriarchy, is to impress upon others its very existence—begging the question: what is masculinity if not authenticated by all others, of any gender, including those for whom masculinity has the institutional and corporeal power to reject or dominate? Was masculinity in pre-colonial societies or within African, Indigenous contexts, like that of Ifa in Yoruba culture, even a thing? And if so, was it thought of as a naturally gendered phenomenon arising out of some assumed, inherent humanity but not in a biologically essentialist way? Was it always juxtaposed to a divine feminine other but not in a way where the gender binary is masked as pseudo-spirituality? Even so, they wouldn’t use the language of the oppressors to describe contemporary, Western conceptions of masculinity but perhaps call it something else in some other tongue, another sweeter name.
Either way, I’m not grappling with these epistemologies when I walk out the door of my apartment, instead I’m wholly consumed by what kind of encounter my trans, non-normative, fat, Black body will brace itself to have. This mental exercise in what it means to “be a man” or to be masculine will be paused by my own notions of what it means to be a free, out, proud Black trans man and how it compares to my own inherited notions of visibility as I’m called a faggot from a disembodied voice a few yards away. I care about what other niggas see. “Niggas” as in the third person plural pronoun often used gender neutrally but this time, specifically a catchall for a masc person such as the Black cis men who my mother rountinely dismissed as coming “a dime a dozen;” niggas for whom she would do anything, suffering their misogynoir and internalizing her own just to keep them near; niggas whose love her concept of womanhood depended upon at times, but whose eventual absence freed her from the constraints of cishood that said she required a concept “to be” in the first place. Now, it’s me treating the dimes like rare, collectible quarter dollars that the value of my personhood and my clockability is entirely staked on. Nervous that the Underworks compression shirt barely binding still-here, stubborn breasts that almost sag to my belly button might betray me at any moment, sometimes I won’t leave the house for days to relieve my back of the pressure 8 to 10 hours of binder wear can cause and relieve me of enduring the next nigga’s crisis of masculinity, looming over his head and mine as we pass one another. In a Brooklyn neighborhood that is quickly being gentrified, sometimes I’m unsure if it’s my skin color or perceived gender that garners stares as my presumably Black cis male neighbor of 4 years ice grills me before grinning like a Cheshire cat and waving to the newly minted white presumably cisgender couple with swift automation. In this instance, it is not clear if either of us are visible, nor to whom.
Too often, it is the allure of white cishood that ensnares white and non-Black masc folks and also Black cis men, where for the latter, being seen by dominant white society as a man promises proximity to wealth, status, and power under patriarchy and for the former, being seen as a man is so often marked by fatphobic, inherited white supremacist notions of what a “real man” looks like. But in a conversation on visibility, where does this leave Black transmasculine, Black trans men and Black transmasc gender non-conforming/non-binary folks who originate from vibrant and distinct Black, queer and trans subcultures, Black families and home environments that are already different from what white society deems as normative? Some Black transmen feel they are overlooked in terms of community support, attention, and care even while local, regional, and national organizations like Black Trans Media, Black Trans Advocacy Coalition, The Marsha P. Johnson Institute, Black Trans Fund, Black Trans Travel Fund, For the Gworls, Brave Space Alliance and several other Black trans-led political and organizing homes and safer spaces of refuge exist, many of them spearheaded and created by Black trans women on behalf of all Black trans people. As we continue to agitate systems of race- and gender-based discrimination and strategize resistance to violence against our communities at the legislative and interpersonal level, most notably and egregiously against Black trans women, femmes, and Black transfeminine non binary/gnc folx, there remain significant questions around the specific experiences of harm and degradation suffered by Black trans men and transmasculine people. Even as an increasing presence of white transmasculine and non-binary actors make their big screen debuts in mainstream film and television, Black queer and trans people continue to be the progenitors of the culture that media and tech companies profit from (see: Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective), despite there being little to no Black trans C-suite level executives represented at any of these major firms. However, it would be all too easy to accept a racist, multi-billion dollar film and television industry that is traditionally exclusionary, exploitative, and inequitable to somehow be opened up to transmasculine entertainers simply by virtue of their masculinity. I personally find it hard to grieve the presence of Black trans men in the fictive, fantasy land of Hollywood when the deaths of Black trans and non binary people are a material, historical, and incessant reality.
It is not my intention to eschew the conversation of visibility as minute, but I instead aim to validate the desire of Black transmasculine folks to be seen as deeper, more critical, and possibly more expansive than what the same old beholders of beauty promise. What good is Black trans visibility if the mirror we measure being seen by is just a replica of the same white or light skinned, thin, able-bodied trope? What could visibility offer to fat, Black, poor, disabled, houseless, formerly or currently incarcerated Black trans men and transmasculine folks? What does visibility offer Ky Peterson, a Black trans man wrongfully imprisoned in rural Georgia for 9 years for defending himself while being sexually assaulted? While he is free as of 2020, what does he imagine for his own visibility in the world? What did it mean for him and Ashley Diamond—who, as of writing this, is being detained in a men’s facility for traveling across state lines to receive hormone replacement therapy which makes VICE articles focusing on a “tipping point” for trans actors seem less timely and more vapid than ever—to sue the respective state corrections departments that refused them life-affirming hormones and medications in violation of their civil, human, and constitutional rights? What about Black transmasculine folks who exist inside transmasculine bodies but don’t have the time, resources, capacity, or energy to name their irreverence, disdain, or indifference to the gender binary as they struggle to eke out survival, livelihood, pleasure, joy, and imagination under the dimming light of AmeriKKKa? What of Sakia Gunn, a Black masc presenting 15-year-old who was murdered in 2003 for thwarting the advances of cis men threatened by an “othered” masculinity in their eyes? Or Mel Groves, a 25-year-old Black trans man killed in Mississippi last year? Or Sheila Lumumumba in Kenya, who in April 2022 was killed by cis men who took issue with their identity and presentation as non-binary and masculine?
As transphobia remains en vogue in the media as evidenced by the latest examples of Black cishet male celebs from Dave Chapelle to Kendrick Lamar vying for career revivals and the greener, more lucrative grasses of transphobic content made with Mr. Charlie (white audiences) in mind, white onlookers, the ultimate beholders of beauty, status, fake normative cishood, it is paramount that we are visible to one another as Black trans people. Further, we must ask ourselves what is the value of a beholder who is not outsourced from the dominant mainstream white community?
When the deaths and disenfranchisement of Black trans women and femmes becomes virtue signaling for a radical politic rather than a declared state of emergency, I believe it is my duty as a Black transman to interrupt the false narrative and dichotomy that my Black trans sisters and siblings are “more” visible or that there is some undue attention and care that they receive juxtaposed to my own. Rather, I see an opening for a unique and critical opportunity for Black transmasculine folks, particularly cis and trans men to begin to address/source solutions to a long, storied history of patriarchy that we’ve inherited from white supremacy that currently iterates itself in the form of Black trans and cis femmes being treated without dignity or having their lives be squarely situated in a dialectic of death rather than vigorous support, uplift, and patronization of their creative, professional and personal endeavors. To end our oppression, not improve my own place within it for visibility’s sake, or to be an experience understood by those who need an explanation of our humanity. As I struggle with my own entrenched toxic masculinity and learned patriarchy, I know what scholar Marquis Bey calls a “Black transfeminist mode of thought” can offer me. When I doubt if I am visible enough, it can have me remember Black trans men ancestors like activist Jim McHarris, computer programmer and father of 1 Marcelle Cook-Daniels, activist and organizer Alexander “Bear” Goodrum, and youth activist and musician Blake Brockington and open up my yearning to unearth more of their narratives: visibility as a form of ancestor veneration. It can offer me a framework for masculinity that is not toxic or normative which is also available to anyone of any gender, if they so choose.
Moreover, the imperatives for Black transmasculine people are how do we repudiate basic notions of cishood and sometimey media representations or tokenism? Where do we fit in the community that already sees us? What do we need, desire, dream, and imagine for ourselves? Who do we want to be in the world to be committed to full-scale liberation of all Black people? How do we honor the interests of Black transmasculine folks and have access to high-quality, supportive networks of care while joining Black trans women and femmes in providing that care to our own communities? When we build a Black trans revolutionary politic that sees Black trans women and femmes lauded and venerated, we will all be seen by those whose caring gazes we want to see.
I’ve always known I was a whole nigga; I didn’t need to medically or socially transition to discover that. But as I begin to see more of my Black trans kin in my own community, in the world, in the arts, in music, the forerunners of Black culture, I need look no further for the visibility I long for in my neighbor—a cis nigga who would not know his own self from a hole in the wall but to myself, a whole nigga doing it for himself.
I’ve assembled a chorus of voices of Black trans masculine kin–Devin-Norelle, Texas Isaiah, & Tiq Milan–to sing this great gospel of transformation alongside me. Here they raise their Ebenezer.
On the source of self-regard, what do you make of mainstream visibility and representation offered in place of substantive care? What lies to be seen in your imagination (‘cause it may not be on a television screen, it may be not a magazine cover) as it concerns the invisibility and needs of trans masculine people?
DN: I think the word that I’m using for it right now, I mean, the word that we are always using right, is survival. But when I think about these things, it’s like, if I’m in collaboration with a corporation, I’m just thinking about the next bills I gotta pay. You know, my excitement has gone out the window, I think, especially because I’m fighting my own landlord right now. I can’t think about the excitement. I literally have to think about where my next paycheck is gonna come from so I can continue fighting my slumlord landlord. I’m gonna speak to myself personally before I speak to the community as a whole, or perhaps I am speaking for the folks here. Um, something that I’ve noticed a lot, even over the past few years of having already medically transitioned is that it is actually not as easy as I thought it would be to find community. I think a lot of racism is built into that, but I can go into that later. Within the black trans community, I think we kind of find one another, but the access is still not there. I think that’s because everyone is, or so many people are too busy trying to survive than to be as connected as they want to be. Another thing that I’m noticing is a lack of access to hormones as of recently, probably because of the pandemic.
TI: What I would like is for more access to housing, medical, healthcare, employment, and access to financial resources in order for trans-masculine people to be able to take care of themselves. And so I think it becomes very difficult to talk about how that can be tethered to media and advertising because I don’t necessarily want trans-masculine people or actually black trans people to be immersed in media in the ways in which they are right now because I don’t think that it serves the larger community at hand. I think this question can be difficult because it’s sort of asking like, you know, what is the need as it pertains to “visibility”, right. which, you know, to me doesn’t serve the kind of wellness that people deserve. It sells aesthetics. It sells performance. I feel like if we were in a different world, if this world was shaped differently, perhaps I would be able to arrive at this question a lot more differently, but I just am very much concerned about the well-being of trans-masculine people and how they are able to shape themselves in a different way than what they are being told to do as far as their relationship(s) to their genders (or lack of) What can that infrastructure look like? What is the standard for a better masculinity? What is liberation within that? I think that those are the questions that I would want transmasculine people to have access to.
TM: Corporate visibility is not allyship at all because the conversation would extend beyond February and June. So like, what does that labor, what does that emotional work, what does that presence look like outside of these months? Because I don’t want a cup with a rainbow on it. At all! I don’t really care for that. What I do want is, you know, for people to have access to money to pay their rent and to feed themselves. Right. And to have a good time, you know, to experience leisure; where people aren’t worrying about how they’re gonna get their next coin and through which avenues they have to go down. Those avenues could be very dangerous as we know. All that money that they’re investing in these horrible aesthetics, they could put that into communities, into people’s pockets, directly into all of these fundraisers that people have to do; that people have to promote every single day, every week, which is so exhausting to have to ask for money–all of the judgment and shame that comes with it, you know.
DN: And I think a lot of the erasure of trans masculine people is not because of the idea that transmasculine people want to live a stealth life. That’s not true. I think a lot of it actually comes from the medical industry; and of course misogyny, you know, not towards trans-masc people, but towards transfeminine people, like effemphobia: why would you want to become a woman? Like, let’s essentially shame you in front of the entire world. And I think that really stems obviously from society. I think a lot of that stems from the medical industry. I think about the few people that I know here in New York City alone. It was maybe one or two people that died of cancer because they had breast cancer or ovarian cancer. And when their doctors found out they were trans, they kind of didn’t even tell these people that they had cancer. A lot of the harm that is caused is, again, a lack of education. Visibility is such a two-sided jagged stone and it’s hard to be excited about it. I’m not really excited about it anymore. I’m a history major and I’m thinking about the potential this country has to go. If we were to become Nazi Germany all over again, trans people are gonna be the first people targeted and we already are, but like literally we’ll be in internment camps or whatever form of internment camps that the U.S. decides to come up with. I just can’t get excited about visibility anymore because everything that is out there about us is false–misinformation. It’s completely dehumanizing us. I really feel gross sometimes now. Honestly, a lot of the issues I think that transmasculine people have other than the community and being able to keep up with community is really all mostly medical–whether it be access to surgeries or hormones.
TI: I was misdiagnosed very recently with ovarian cancer, which was on my heart for two and a half weeks. I didn’t really disclose it to anybody and then later on I found out that they made a mistake. I was also finding myself within a time where a lot of people were telling me they are being diagnosed with major illnesses and may have to deal with chemo and all of these things. When I was misdiagnosed people were talking about abortion and reproductive health issues and removing demographics of people from the conversation. What I found when I was going to multiple doctors was that everybody is very, very exhausted. We’re still in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. How does that exhaustion play a part in a misdiagnosis? As well as the lack of research when it comes to certain individuals and demographics. The reason why ovarian cancer is misdiagnosed is because a lot of the symptoms are similar to yeast infections and UTIs. I held the experience with a lot of grace ‘cause your body’s gonna do what it’s going to do.
TM: Okay. So two things. I think one of the urgencies when it comes to trans men and healthcare, which also, I think lends itself to a conversation about culture is that I think that there needs to be more competent access to reproductive healthcare for trans men. So whether that is trans men who are choosing to birth children, who are choosing to freeze their eggs, who are trying to figure out if they wanna have hysterectomies or not (if they are still getting their cycle). These are very important conversations that relate to our humanity and us being able to live in our gendered bodies. But culturally, what then also has to happen is that the medical-industrial complex…the conversation that they start having around gender has to stop. The body parts around the gender identity, right. Which I think is a larger and more complicated conversation. But what I’m seeing happening is that trans men are not getting competent care around these areas. What does that look like to really take care of your reproductive system, particularly when guys are considering becoming fathers, by letting their body do what their body does? And that is everybody’s prerogative to do that. So I think that that’s something to think about. And then also, I just think, you know, particularly, I’m a 42-year-old man, a 42-year-old trans man. I’ve been on T now for 15 years, and there’s still not a lot of information about what long-term testosterone use do to the body, particularly as you’re reaching the age of your forties and your fifties; when you’ve been on T since your twenties and thirties. I wish that there was more research into what the effects of long-term testosterone use are on the body of trans men. I think that that’s really important. And then just people opening up their ideas of who a man is and how a man can be in the world. So you have trans men who are not on testosterone, but they still need competent and compassionate care around their bodies. There has to be a reframing of how healthcare providers are trained and how they are introduced to the dynamics that there is a variety to the gendered experience of being a human being.
What, if anything, can visibility and representation do beyond aesthetics?
TM: When we’re talking about media representation beyond aesthetics, it’s about ensuring that there are black trans people behind the camera who are telling the stories, right? We wanna be in front of the cameras. Yes. We wanna be able to be, to have our narrative told, to have our art seen, but we also wanna be in charge of that art and in charge of that narrative. So it’s just as important that black trans folks are behind the camera telling these stories. Because when we tell the stories, we could capture the nuance, we could capture the little bits, the little bits of us that other people can’t. We could capture kind of the soul of us in ways that non-trans folks can’t. So I think that’s important when it comes to media. What does that look like for them to create those opportunities? And also to start understanding we’re shifting the conversation about what kind of narratives are important. If we were talking about media as in Hollywood and fictional narratives and things like that, what kind of stories do people want to hear now? People don’t wanna hear these stories of just the white man, the hero, and the white woman, the same story over and over again. I think people are really getting bored with it. So the time is now for people who are in these decision-making positions to start to wrap their heads around and start to accept that the stories of black trans people, the stories of the people on the margins are stories that people are craving. People are craving to see a different type of story of humanity. The time is now for us to do that. And it’s also really important to make sure that black trans folks are behind the scenes and are telling the stories and are in these leadership positions to make sure that these things happen in a way that’s really clear and really beautiful and really layered like the people that we are.
TI: Growing up in East New York and being surrounded by a lot of beauty and also devastation– a lot of people not making it past the ages of like 18 or 21– images have always catered to my memories in a way that allowed me to grieve. And there was a certain point right before I decided to initiate into who I am, into who I’m meant to be, that I had many people pass away and I didn’t have any images of them. It made it more difficult to process their lives, what they did, and what they meant to me and other people. That was a turning point for me in choosing to sort of pivot in another direction in how I wanted to create imagery of Black trans people; especially since this was around the time of what the media called “ The Trans Tipping Point” (Laverne Cox on the cover of Time). If anything, that cover image was massively impactful to me because, in my mind, I was like this is such a beautiful thing. But, also, what can the media do for Black Trans people outside of aesthetics and performativity. I think a lot of the images that are being made today, especially within the editorial and commercial industry, I believe, are important of course, but I also want to make images of Black trans people, Black trans women, and Black trans-masculine people that serve their everyday needs. In the next 50 years, I want folks to have an archive of images that display how they needed to be held during those moments. Images of people in their homes, in parks, on the beach, with their lovers, with their best friends, with themselves, throughout different moments of grief and joy and uncertainty. We deserve to process and look back on those times and to be in a space to cultivate what a future can possibly look like. I think it’s very important for me to speak about images of Black trans people as a whole because that is the community I’m serving. I think that, yes, a trans-masculine chapter within my archive is important and does exist; but the way that I look at it, the entire embodiment of the community is important to the archive. However, the purpose behind the chapter of transmasculine people within my archive is not to create a utopia, per se, but to create a dream state where there is no pressure to conform or to be adjacent to toxic traits of masculinity for the purpose of being loved or for the purpose of gaining control or power.
What do you make of negative visibility? That which people conjure up in their minds about trans people before enacting various casual and interpersonal violence(s).
DN: It is kind of whatever these ideas are that are conjured up in people’s heads. But so much of this has been planted there by the rhetoric of our country through politicians. The people that are supposed to be representing us, are against us and illegalizing our very existence with the numerous amounts of anti-trans bills across the Midwest and the South. It started with the sports bills. Then it becomes their own version of the “don’t say gay bill.” People are watching this, you know, and they internalize these things. If they’d already had these negative ideas about us now it’s multiplied a hundredfold. We are still living, sadly, in Trump country, in an America where Trump made it okay to discriminate out loud. And so people are internalizing these messages now and externalizing them out loud to people that are supposed to be their friends, their coworkers, their classmates, their neighbors, and their family. That’s negative visibility. For me, I’m not trying to get attacked walking down a street because of some false idea someone put in their head because y’all don’t wanna learn basic biology or advanced biology. A prime example of this–because I think our allies are taking a misstep–is Kendrick Lamar’s new song. That’s negative visibility. His intentions were good. It just really missed the mark. I try to reimagine that song if he had sung the song with the appropriate pronouns, honorifics, et cetera.
And the fact that that could have been positive visibility and that could have been a message of here’s my uncle and here’s my cousin. And they’re trans. I really thought some really negative things about them. And I sat down and talked to each of them and I learned, and now here I am teaching you. That could have been such a positive song. Allies need to step up to the plate. We are tired!
TI: I think “Auntie Diaries” is a prime example of how cis men get to be mediocre and praised for it. I’m from the streets. I know people like Kendrick, I know people like family members and folks who aren’t in community with trans people who are very ignorant, right? This was a great opportunity to approach it in a respectful way without having to dead name and misgender individuals who are still here (maybe). I don’t know whether or not it’s a true story. It’s such a shame to see people who are cis and straight praise this because it leaves me confused. There are so many conversations around how white people shouldn’t assume, shouldn’t speak to us, or speak about us in a very particular way. But we justify people doing that to their own folks. I don’t know the bar. I don’t even think that the bar even exists anymore because I think that it fell close to Earth’s core so the bar is no longer here. It’s past hell. And I think it’s just a disservice to art if anything. I know that some trans people relate to that song. They felt very seen by that. And, you know, that’s cool for them. I’m not interested in the amount of violence that’s gonna produce. Especially when you talk about the school shooting that happened in Texas. And how the mayor basically said that the shooter was trans. There are over 200 anti-trans legislation being put towards in court. All of this contributes to the violence, especially toward black trans women. So, no, I don’t have the capacity to give space to somebody who is still working through something when you should just know better, you have enough resources, enough information. You could have maybe had your uncle on the track. He taught you how to write. He inspired you to rap. You know what I’m saying? There are so many different ways that could be approached. I’m not surprised, though. I think that is very hard for cis people to admit how black trans people influence them.
TM: I listened to the song once and the only reason I listened is that a magazine reached out to me and was like, do you wanna write a piece about this thing? Am I supposed to be over the moon about this? That’s what I’m trying to think as a trans person. I guess you get an E for effort, but there’s just so much more that you still ain’t got it. I’m glad you’re like, I accept you as a human being. I’m still kinda f*** up your pronouns, but we’re not even having the right conversation here. And it feels like crumbs. I don’t know how I’m supposed to speak back to this. But then at the same time, I do try to afford people some grace when it comes to understanding trans people. I think about my own personal story. My family’s great. They get me. They love me. My very, very black family. We are those black people, right. We hood. We’re just Buffalo, New York Negroes. My family loves me, but it took time. It really took time for people to get it. And at one point, there was a time when my sisters would say my little sister is a man. Now they don’t do that anymore, but there was a time. So I think there is a grace to give people, but what happens in these spaces is that people just take this and say, well I don’t have to do more work. And it’s like, that’s not it, this is still not recognizing or mindful of my humanity. These are still not the things that can keep me safe. This is not the thing that makes me feel like I’m a part of your community. But I think that oftentimes when it comes to people really doing the work to really understand the beauty and the brilliance of black trans existence, to understand us as black people, without feeling like in some way that takes away something from them, it’s really, really hard. There’s just always work to be done, always conversations that we have to be having. And that could be a really good thing. You know what I’m saying? It could be a really good thing for black folks to be able to have these kinds of conversations. So I think the media isn’t necessarily doing its part to create these kinds of opportunities, but then also is it the media’s job to do that? Whose job is it?
How have you, in your life, found a way to make feminist masculinity thrive towards creative loving models of selfhood?
TI: I often think that some trans-masculine people walk into those holes, in those pockets [of toxic masculinity], because that’s what they’ve been taught. And two, I often think about the external pressure of what it means to be masculine or what it means to be desired as a masculine person. I think that needs to be interrogated on both ends from within ourselves and the people who claim to love us. Some of the images I’ve made, even within the past year or so, definitely speak to that. And also, wanting to expand and assert that trans masculinity can be in support of black feminist practices and that trans masculinity is actually [one of many] root(s) of a black feminist practice. I’m gonna personalize it because I know that everybody relates to their childhoods differently than I may. I think so many of my private and also public conversations with trans-masculine people it’s something that I feel in the making of who I am now. I started at childhood. And I was told to remove myself from that experience when in actuality, I honor the way that I was brought into the world because the purpose was evolution. That was the purpose of my being and my existence. So I don’t discount who I was in my childhood or who I was in my teenage years. So many of the cultural and musical influences like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Queen Pen, Eve, and Xscape. So many of my inspirations were, and are, black women. As somebody who grew up in East New York – Black women occupied many different spectrums of sexuality and gender and were so fluid with who they were and weren’t confined to physical aesthetics as in what garments may or may not have represented for them. So much of that, I still carry with me, and a lot of my shaping, a lot of how I held myself as a young girl, the things that I was taught, a lot of that was to never make space for myself and to put other people ahead of me, to be at service to everybody else but myself. Those experiences don’t leave your body. It’s an ongoing practice to understand that just because I am transforming every single day, that the patriarchy and misogyny I experienced impacted me in many ways and caused so much violence to me. But also it’s something that I could perpetuate because we as people perpetuate a lot of things that have been harmful for/to us. When I think about myself as a transmasculine person, as sometimes a man [laugh], you know, because language definitely fails to describe my spirit and my personhood on an everyday basis. I think of the lessons, and the intellectualism and presence that black women have had on my life; and how much that was instilled in me and how much that still teaches me many lessons at the end of the day. That shapes my masculinity or whatever my gender is for today. Or not. Because I’m not shaping these things for the love and care of other men. That is what a lot of cis men are taught when they grow up. A lot of their shaping has to do with the affirmation of other men. And for me, I don’t feel more powerful if I have more money in my bank account. I don’t feel more powerful if a man loves me or not. I think that there’s something really beautiful to understanding how transformative trans masculinity can be within conversations about masculinity, gender, and otherwise. My root is black girlhood and that’s so special to me. And although it’s not something that I am connected to now in my life, that is just something that I don’t feel like I will ever leave behind. It would be disingenuous to my ancestors and my entire existence now for me to just simply forget that.
TM: What makes masculinity really toxic is that men are so worried about being men for other men. I think what healthy masculinity looks like is when we start to say, what does it mean for me to be a man in this world for the women and feminine people in my life? That’s the question. And when we start to answer that question and start to work from that, I think our masculinity blooms in a way that is more healthy, that is more organic, and more expansive for people of different genders. I think it’s a way in which we can kind of try to keep ourselves from toxic kinds of behaviors and ways of thinking.
Towards our own healing, how can we be more visible to ourselves, and each other?
DN: That might be the most intense question. I’m like, I could answer all these other questions for days, but geez, how are we invisible to ourselves? It does go back to, how difficult it is to find community. I don’t think that’s just because of survival. I’m thinking about my childhood now. I’m thinking about the fact that my mom wouldn’t let me leave the house if she knew I was going to go do something gay. I couldn’t physically find people like me. And If I physically can’t get out of the house, then I get on a computer, and all the parental settings are on. I’m completely isolated. So I can’t build a community. I wonder if kids still have that issue. I’m assuming they do. I’m assuming that perhaps their parents forbid them from hanging out with the one person they probably know at school; like, don’t hang out with that kid. That kid is such and such, et cetera. As an adult, I don’t know if I would know half the things that I needed to know about trans care, surgeries, hormones, and recovery without Facebook groups. If Facebook didn’t exist, I would be kinda assed out, especially because things are so underground. The only trans person I knew between when I did come out, oh God, I might have been 16 or 17 or 18. The first person I came out to was actually Laith and we were maybe 18 or 19. The next trans person I saw was five years later. Before I actively went looking for Facebook groups and knew I was trans, I wasn’t out to anyone yet. And he was visiting my partner at the time. And she was like, you should meet this person. He’s trans. I guess she like figured out whatever I remember. But I remember him saying to me, we were talking about testosterone and I was like, oh, you know, where did you get that? Um, he’s like, uh, you know, just basically by word of mouth, cuz I’m thinking I wanted to start, but he’s now the only person that could ask to get testosterone and he lives in Georgia. So what am I gonna do? I text him like, oh, do you have testosterone? Can you send it in a USPS package? A lot of this was word of mouth back in the day.
And like, unless you knew someone that knew someone, you probably were not going to find, I would say more so not outside of New York City, someone that could help you, someone that can guide you in mentorship. I think it is so incredibly important amongst all trans people because if you’re swinging this by yourself, you could end up taking too much hormones. You could end up going to a doctor that botches up your body or kills you ‘cause he doesn’t know what, or she doesn’t know what they’re doing.
TM: I think one of the easiest and most scalable ways that we can do that is by sharing our stories on our social media platforms. That’s a really easy way to create more visibility for ourselves. I think it’s important for folks to create pockets of grassroots communities in order to be seen amongst each other. But I also think that sometimes there are so many black trans people who are not in major cities or some in the middle who are in the suburbs, even in rural areas who don’t even have access to do that. So if people have online access, I think people can curate really niche online communities. So people at least have that place to go to find other people who are having some of the same issues or who can share resources, and knowledge and start to co-create community. It’s hard to do, but I think it’s an important thing to do as a way to create some visibility among ourselves. It’s really just being intentional in using all the resources at hand ‘cause we’re out here. I remember when I first came out 15 years ago, I didn’t know there were other black trans men until I found a Yahoo group called “Urban Trans Men.” It was 400 black trans men in this group. And that was the first time where I really felt that I could actually be possible in the world because we existed. When we don’t see that reflection, you know, you can become the monster in people’s imagination and you can start to become that monster to yourself.
TI: In regards to healing, the work serves its purpose because it’s connected to my personhood and my interpersonal connections, which I find that’s where the work needs to happen outside of maybe what we produce. When I think about what we need, as it pertains to healing for ourselves, I just think about how I can be more present in learning how intricate violence can be for black people, for black trans people, you know? I think that’s incredibly important for me as a person because I have my own experiences. It helps me understand how widespread violence can be on a micro and macro level. And the understanding and the openness towards that helps me relate to people a lot more differently, you know, and not thinking about things in a black and white way; especially as it relates to how people live in their own bodies / they are perceived, and the kind of assumptions that we make about people. I never wanna be somebody that thinks that I know everything because I think that the really beautiful thing about like black transness, in general, is that there’s just so much space, it’s so capacious, that I’m always learning something new about how I and others can exist. That has provided a lot of healing for me personally because I get to listen to people. I get to remain open and understand that so much of this is deep and complicated and that there is so much more to learn.
When I think about what I want my archive to reflect: it’s the abundance and vastness of a community that holds so many different lived experiences including friends and family whom I’ve been able to find love with. . So when I think about what I want my archive to look like, or what I want even my community to look like, I don’t just want trans-masculine people to be around me because I have so many different people around me. I have trans women, I have non-binary folks that are expansive folks, you know, disabled folks, like a lot of people in my circle who I find love with. I don’t limit what that love can look like as it pertains to relatability. That to me has been really healing within production, within work, and within survival. Black trans people have always taken care of each other. When I think about mutual aid, who’s donated, who spreads the word – it’s really always been us who have been able to carry ourselves. And it’s a shame that we have to do that, but I think that it’s a testament to the kind of love we are able to embody. We need a lot more external support. So, I understand why people walk towards corporations or why people invest in corporate visibility. I do, too! And that’s no shade, I’m gonna admit that. There are some things that I will consent to. And, there are some things that I will not do. When those checks are cut, that’s not only going to my well-being, but it’s also going to these fundraisers. It’s always going to my family who are in need. There is a lot to risk and being aligned to these business relationships can cause a lot of violence: it happens in pre-production and within these conversations of people reaching out to you. They want you to be a part of the team, but they’re not doing any internal work. And so you gotta endure all of this to present a campaign or a project to the public. Everybody from the outside looking in doesn’t get to witness all that occurs behind closed doors.