“They” and the Emotional Weight of Words

Language is the space in which we carve a place for ourselves, where we demand to be seen. A reflection point for culture, community, and family to acknowledge our existence on our terms. For decades, “butch” was the only identity and term available to those of us who identified as “masculine of center.” Like many others, I lived in that space. There was much about it that I loved: the community of brotherhood, the worship of femininity, the gentility of the old-school butches. Yet, like so many other words, butch failed to capture the full depth of my soul. Its White cultural origins and resulting denial of my Black body took its toll.

I went in search of myself. I took a detour on the road to law school and, instead, went to study gender at the London School of Economics. The lone student in my Gender Research program, I cobbled together stories, interviews, and research on how our gender identity and expression become language that makes us visible in the world. In the powerful piece from the disability justice movement, “Disease Is Not A Metaphor,” essayist and librarian Cyrée Jarelle Johnson argues that “there are not more important things to think about than words, because the things that you say are the substance of your thoughts, which become the things that you do and the biases you keep close to your chest.”

Over the past decade, young people of color have created an alternative conversation around identity that has since spilled into everyday lives. From social media to college campuses and community spaces, the emergence of terms like “boi” has challenged the language and imagination of people everywhere. Instead of he or she: “they.” And they are using multimedia platforms to push the boundaries of the understanding of masculinity and femininity. It’s hard work. The daily pushback against a world that is constantly trying to make you stay in a gendered box makes you resilient but incredibly tired. Doing it in a way that offers people the humanity they themselves sometimes deny to you requires grace.

Almost every day, whether at work or standing in line at the grocery store, we too often miss opportunities to meet someone where they are in their gender understanding and help them change the way they think about gender. Instead, we’ve made it perfectly normal to educate someone by “checking” them on their lack of understanding. This approach inadvertently creates a call-out culture that reinforces hypermasculine negativity. One of the most powerfully feminine things one can do is to create; it’s a courageous act. We should be encouraging people to create and build new ways of approaching language, not cultivating fear and shame around not knowing the right thing to say.

The way forward starts from a place of vulnerability and love. A daunting feat, yet, in my life and work, it has been profoundly moving.

It begins with relationships. Even in small interactions, we can create connections that allow us to challenge one another with a goal of greater understanding. At restaurants, I gently let folks know we don’t go by “ladies” and offer up “folks,” “peeps,” “homies,” and “fam” instead. When they inevitably apologize, I remind them that we are only just meeting. How would they know the language I choose to reflect myself? I have no expectation that they will know my preferred pronoun. The interaction makes it clear that they should not simply assume gender preferences and that asking is actually welcomed.

Pronouns can be the basis from which all of us learn to see and respect each other’s identity. “What pronoun do you prefer?” is always welcome. It shows respect, intention, and commitment to see me as I see myself.

The entire lexicon for how we understand gender is shifting. For many of us, it can be a weighty, disorienting experience. But for a handful of us, this is a moment of freedom. If each of us does our part to challenge old language that pushes us back into small gender boxes, all of us will be a bit more free. Eventually we will align language with the complexity and beauty of our bodies and our authentic selves.

 

Cole_Headshot_10.10

Cole wrote this article for Gender Justice, the Summer 2016 issue of YES! Magazine. Cole holds an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and has worked as a community facilitator, strategist, and consultant for the past 15 years. In 2010, Cole launched the Brown Boi Project, the first program in the country to bring Trans men, Queer men, straight men, and masculine-of-center women of color together to build a new vision of masculinity. They work to change the way communities of color talk about gender in the United States.

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On Queer Possibilities

It has been incredible to be joined with Tiq Milan as his partner, wife and co-conspirator. It is the greatest adventure I have ever embarked upon and I wouldn’t change a thing about all the heartbreak that came before, because if I had done one thing differently, I might not have met him.

I have often described myself in so many ways: dyke, gay girl, queer, homo. I love the search to name ourselves, and I applaud anytime we reclaim that process all too often afforded to people with systemic power. In my falling in love and marrying an incredible man, I have found that the way I name myself, the way that I know myself, now implicates my husband. It’s complicated.

I want to be careful in using the word transition, as a cisgender woman I want to be clear that my experience is not comparable to that of Trans* folks; my use of it is to describe the ways I have grown. There have been so many transitions in all of this. New home, new family, new friends, but it is the internal transitions that I find are the most transformative, in particular for me my gender and sexual orientation in response to my relationship with my Trans* partner, Tiq.

We exist in an ecosystem with each other where another person’s experience does not invalidate my own, but it does necessarily complicate it. As a first generation immigrant, an Afro Native mixed race women, I have been acutely aware of the power of naming. On the other end, I have often experienced the incredible disempowerment that comes when colonial constructions of race and identity erase the layers of my identity.

I am also descriptively light skinned, cisgender – these are experiences of privilege I have in the world and although I didn’t choose to name myself in these ways, they are integral to me challenging systems of oppression and to honoring the space being claimed by others. I am Black. Queer. Arawak. Femme. I politically identify in these ways. I find solace in Brandon Wint’s words ” Not queer like gay. Queer like escaping definition.” My queerness was exactly the durable and malleable fabric that brought me here to this love. My Blackness as well, despite differences in geographies and ethnicities; it was a deep connectivity that resonates across the diaspora, a commitment to resistance, in an era where #BlackLivesMatter, that bonded us to each other. I am so grateful to finally have this powerful Black revolutionary in my life, I am thrilled about the quickly manifesting potential of our combined energy, nurturing creativity both for ourselves, our kin and our community.

I have found a new fullness in my femmeness. So many partners were so threatened and unwilling to understand how powerful it could. While I helped them choose bow ties and blazers, I was critiqued for my pace in heels and the amount of makeup I wore. His embodiment of his masculinity makes more space for my femininity to be acknowledged as integral to my mental and emotional health. For the first time, my femininity feels essential and valuable. We have done away with any idea that we are required to be natural. We don’t want to look natural, we want to reflect ourselves as we determine. Tiq uses the term ‘Man of my own design’ to describe the ways in which his masculinity is intentional and thoughtfully constructed physically, emotionally and spiritually. I have often said that I am ‘Femme on Purpose,’ that my femmeness was not something I stumbled across or an unconscious brainwashing from corporate media. My femme-ness is executed with purpose; from my choice to wear a menacing smoky eye to deter street harassment to the tattoos to honor my Arawak roots.

I’m not going to lie, in my partnership with Tiq, being read as a straight/heterosexual couple there are things to miss. I miss the ease of being able to communicate to young gay or lesbian folks a sense of solidarity particularly in public spaces with a smile or a nod. I have an enduring sense of love and admiration for Black Lesbian & Queer women both historically (Audre Lorde tattoos on my forearm) as well as in my peer group (LA Femmes of Color Collective). Being in a monogamous relationship with a man means that I need to find other ways to deliberately express my love, support and solidarity with women & femmes. My orientation has changed but my value system is much the same.

But there has been so much to gain and so much to take with me. I am so grateful for a community of Queer women, Masculine Of Centre Folks, Trans* Folks and allies who have held on and a whole new extended family. And as Yumi Tomsha says, “I am layers not fractions.” I am the sum of all of my parts, of every girl I was before all reconciled in the woman I am today. With that in mind, I am thankful and welcoming of love when I find it and I know that this love, this Black love is something worth fighting for until my very last breath. It is the most delicious love that I have known. And I am so honoured after many close calls to have made my way to him. And now as we prepare to have our first child, I look forward to the exponential growth of that love.

A daughter of the diaspora, Arawak, West African, Indian and Dutch, hailing from Trinidad and living between Toronto & New York, Kim Katrin Milan is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, activist, speaker and educator. She is the co founder and the Executive Director of The People Project, 8 years in the making; a movement of queer and trans folks of color and our allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism and collaboration. This year she was recognized by 'The Root' the premier news, opinion and culture site for African-American influencers as a young. Black feminist to watch as well as one of Autostraddle's 100 LGBT Black Women to know sharing the list with Angela Davis, Marsha P. Johnson & Mia McKenzie. She has completed a residency both under D'bi Young and Buddies In Bad Times Theatre and has curated exhibitions, cabarets, events and performed at stages across Canada. She is currently producing and curating the Buddies In Bad Times Cabaret Insatiable Sisters. She also engages in community based healing initiatives including teaching Queer and Brown Girls Yoga, and hosting yearly healing retreats for femme identified Folks of Colour and Indigenous Folks.

A daughter of the diaspora, Arawak, West African, Indian and Dutch, hailing from Trinidad and living between Toronto & New York, Kim Katrin Milan is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, activist, speaker and educator. She is the co founder and the Executive Director of The People Project, 8 years in the making; a movement of queer and trans folks of color and our allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism and collaboration. This year she was recognized by ‘The Root’ the premier news, opinion and culture site for African-American influencers as a young. Black feminist to watch as well as one of Autostraddle’s 100 LGBT Black Women to know sharing the list with Angela Davis, Marsha P. Johnson & Mia McKenzie. She has completed a residency both under D’bi Young and Buddies In Bad Times Theatre and has curated exhibitions, cabarets, events and performed at stages across Canada. She is currently producing and curating the Buddies In Bad Times Cabaret Insatiable Sisters. She also engages in community based healing initiatives including teaching Queer and Brown Girls Yoga, and hosting yearly healing retreats for femme identified Folks of Colour and Indigenous Folks.

How I’ve Loved Him

Sometimes our bodies didn’t know what to do with each other
-this is how it started:
my hand reaching for yours;
your entire body flinching
because they saw us.
Torn between loving each other
and thinking that we could die.
Believe me,
my heart also stopped beating
until I felt your fingers
bending inward,
lacing through mine.
Sometimes your fingers feel like oxygen
entering every single one of my cells
all at once.

I said, “I don’t know how to do this
… but we can figure it out.”
The way we figured it out that first time I kissed your knuckles;
our bodies understood something
our minds had never felt permission to give in to.
The way our bodies found each other’s mouths.
I’ve lost count of the times you’ve breathed me in.
I swear, there must be pieces of me lodged inside your lungs.

You loved me
before I even had a language for how to love myself;
lost in my own misplaced accent marks;
my process of learning how to say my own name
without smearing my lipstick,
without losing the taste of you
from the tip of my tongue.
We learned ourselves as we learned each other.
Every time our bodies met
I never knew who would do what
or where
I only knew I would be safe there.

Our bodies had to learn how not to let go
-to keep the warmth of clenched palms
on the sidewalks
where they greeted us with fists.
How we turned a pile of sheets and pillows into a bed
that bed into the nest
that became our home
every place we went together
every sleeping bag
every church floor
every gym
every air mattress.
My home became the nape of your neck
The space behind your kneecap that that I curl myself into
Ribcages pressed so tightly,
I couldn’t tell which heartbeat was mine
Which one yours.

I haven’t always known what I was doing
Sometimes I still don’t
But I find the answer to every question
in that scent when our chests touch
the way your kisses feel against my shoulder blades
the ways we break the silence
at the same time
falling into each other
I could cry, or laugh, or gasp for breath
Instead, I cling to you
Knowing that through the jumble of motions
we’ll find each other;
Relearn the meaning of love
The meaning of being
here
still
alive
still
and absolutely
breathlessly
in love with you,
whether or not
they ever understand it.

Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez is a Doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Isabel conducts qualitative and ethnographic research on the identity struggles of undocumented youth in their transition to adulthood and of the impacts of legal status on mothering strategies. Isabel's research is rooted in their own experience as a formerly undocumented immigrant that fled Colombia seeking, and being denied, political asylum in the U.S. They are gender non-conforming, national recipient of the Freedom From Fear Award and currently serves on the national selection committee for the DREAM.US Undocumented Youth Scholarship Fund.

Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez is a Doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Isabel conducts qualitative and ethnographic research on the identity struggles of undocumented youth in their transition to adulthood and of the impacts of legal status on mothering strategies. Isabel’s research is rooted in their own experience as a formerly undocumented immigrant that fled Colombia seeking, and being denied, political asylum in the U.S. They are gender non-conforming, national recipient of the Freedom From Fear Award and currently serves on the national selection committee for the DREAM.US Undocumented Youth Scholarship Fund.

The Feminine Masculine

by Chavelita from da Block.

The concept of transcending masculinity and femininity is still confusing to me because, I’ll be honest, the binary of thinking and internalizing identities and expressions is still something I grapple with regularly.

But there has been a shift.

These expressions of femininity and masculinity operated in isolation in my head. I had clear distinctions of what was what and what I’d perform to be just that. These beliefs were embedded both on a conscious and subconscious level. Although I felt so radical, my ego boasting in “consciousness” it was all clogged with the same heteronormative bs that I was claiming to be against. The political arguments that I was part of included all these convoluted words that I hadn’t come across before heading to college. I was reciting what I’d learned as oppose to embodying the transformation that I sought.

Months prior to graduating, I met my partner. This transformed and challenged me in so many ways. It shook my foundation, rooted in deeply strict forms of being. I was with a woman. Who was gonna do what? And who was gonna play what role? It’s actually really amusing to think back about how incredibly confusing that was and, at times, can still be. The internalized ideas of performing masculinity and femininity were so deeply attached to the person who “looked” the most masculine. “Naturally,” I assumed she would play this role of mainstream masculinity rooted in her being this strong, desensitized provider of unconditional economic and emotional support. I expected all these things from her. In contrast, I was to embody the femininity that my mother had taught me; to be a lady. This meant that my appearance was to be graceful, that my demeanor gentle, my voice less coarse, be friendlier, a little sweeter, that I’d comb my hair, polish my nails, and shave my legs. In a sense, I’d been performing that version of femininity for a while. It made me happy to feel beautiful in the way my mother has felt beautiful, pretty, girly and feminine but there was more to me. I was blocking myself from being me without really knowing or understand what or why.

I really came to understand more of myself as both a masculine and feminine embodying person through my partner’s involvement with Brown Boi. Through her own deconstruction of masculinity, I began to reflect on my own understandings of my gender and performance. I began to disentangle the complexities of my very existence, understanding that I operated in multiplicity. The very fluidity that I’d rejected, yet simultaneously craved for, was coming into practice and fruition.  I learned what it meant to be honest with myself. Through that journey, I started to uncover my fears, the very ones that had stopped me from being my true self. These fears were really rooted societal expectations of my being. I realized that I also performed and possessed masculine energy and that, ultimately, that was okay.

In some ways I embodied a deeply traumatic form of masculinity that I had learned and inherited from my experiences dealing with power and trauma. I wanted to exude power and be powerful, not for reasons that established connections or positive transformation, but the kind of power that would keep me safe by distancing anything that could hurt me. I can see myself standing there, wearing a body hugging ensemble, hair flowing and larger than ever, lips stained red, embodying a type of feminine appearance, yet my demeanor was an aggressive form of masculinity in which my words were used to release power that left me intact and the other person belittled. In this sense, I presented femininity but emanated masculinity while simultaneously rejecting traditional notions of femininity, sweetness and gentleness, in order to prove that I was a powerful woman. I began to ask myself, “What was I really shielding myself from?” “How did this type of masculinity really protect me?”

As time went on, I began to uncover the shield of masculinity that I was hiding behind. This was all to protect myself from a type of pain and trauma that extends beyond me. As I learned and allowed to be my real and true self, I began to see the shields and superficial performance slowly melt away. I no longer had to operate as one or the other or perform both in their gender role extremities because I could really just be me as oppose to what I thought was expected of me. I relearned how to be both masculine and feminine in a positive way, one that is for the fulfillment of my self as oppose to the protection of self.

At the end of the day, it is difficult to be true to yourself when most places push you to be somebody else. I still have a difficult time just being. I’ve learned to say that it’s okay, that I have nothing to be afraid of. Although we know that there’s much of the world that expects you to be somebody else, there is also beautiful and nourishing communities that encourage and support finding our true selves and remain who we are even when we are in the places that expect us to be otherwise.


Chavelita from da Block is a 27 years-wise, depending on what mood and day, glam-fabulous or chilled out lipstick wearing kinda gal. Thinking about social justice, children, art, food, colors, glitter, make-up, equity, fashion, family, love, hair, music, community, the motherland, and hustling for that $$$ every day.

She’s a TRUE gemini. Double-dose of REALness. But she’s really a cry-baby softy.