“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.

 

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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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It Is Time to Combat Anti-Black Racism in Mainstream HIV Service Work

by Erica Woodland

I came into the social justice movement by way of harm reduction and work in the fields of HIV prevention and the prison industrial complex. After college, I returned home to Baltimore (one of the few remaining Chocolate cities) and began volunteering at Power Inside, an organization that works with women impacted by violence, the prison system, and HIV. I was guided to this work because of its explicit focus on healing for black women, poor women, lesbian, queer and trans women. Direct service work rooted in the core understanding that “risk” for HIV and incarceration are deeply tied to poverty, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

Mainstream HIV work continues to deny the ways that these systems of oppression are set up to feed black bodies into the HIV and prison industries. With coded language such as “racial disparities” and “disproportionate minority confinement”, we are allowed to distance ourselves from the real legacy of genocide and slavery that are the basis of this country and the so-called health care system. Baltimore continues to have one of the highest rates of HIV in the country and in 2010 was ranked number 3 for the rate of people living with HIV*. Having privilege and access to even a few basic resources in this city may mean the difference between going to college or jail; and most definitely influences how much you are affected by HIV and AIDS.

I only later learned how close to home HIV was to me and my family. Silence, stigma, and isolation surely contributed to this. Growing up, my mother had a very dear friend named Russell. At an early age he was one of a few consistent, nurturing and beautiful men in my life. What I remember most is his deep devotion to my mother and her children, the emotional and likely financial support he offered her, and visits to his house, which was reminiscent of Studio 54 – black and red velvet, mirrors, all gold everything and dim lighting. He would take my brother and I on outings probably to give my mother a much needed break. Recently I found a photo of him at my mother’s baby shower a testament to their long-term friendship.

In my early 20s, my mother and I were having a rare conversation about homophobia amongst black folks. She shared that Russell was gay and that after a long period of time of losing touch with him, she found out that he had passed away. His family did not inform her or likely any of his other friends but only told her that he had “cancer”. She knew that he had died from AIDS and regretted not being able to see him before he died or attend his funeral. As with most grief-laden topics, my mother only mentioned this to me once and we never spoke of it again.

Since then I have worked with many HIV positive people – primarily black folks who are also poor and LGBTQ. I have had dear friends get diagnosed and struggle to navigate accessing healthcare and healing resources while maintaining a sense of dignity. I have worked in social justice movements that rarely mention HIV or AIDS as an issue that impacts people of color and I have engaged in HIV prevention work that is disconnected from national and global movements for racial and gender justice.

This series is my attempt at bridging this gap. To honor and celebrate our black poz ancestors, as well as black people living with HIV who have pushed me to think about these intersections in my own work; to use my privilege and access to support movements for justice that will lead to substantive change and healing for black people most directly impacted by HIV. This series builds on the work of other black people transforming the field of HIV and the movements for gender and racial justice who know that until we bring intersectionality into this work we will never be free.

*Most recent data available: http://www.jhsph.edu/research/affiliated-programs/AIDS-linked-to-the-intravenous-experience/_documents/New_HIV_Rankings_for_Maryland.pdf

Erica is a healer, activist, trainer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in communities most impacted by the prison industrial complex and HIV/AIDS. She is a founding member of Power Inside, a harm reduction organization in Baltimore city that serves women who are survivors of gender-based violence, incarceration and abuse. She has done extensive work with youth, people of color and the LGBTQ community providing direct services and advocacy rooted in social justice and self-determination. She believes that using harm reduction strategies and community organizing will lead to healthy and powerful families and communities. Erica also works with HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County and the Downtown Youth Clinic providing clinical supervision and consultation for a new project focused on expanding sexual health services for young queer men and trans people of color.

Erica is a healer, activist, trainer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in communities most impacted by the prison industrial complex and HIV/AIDS. She is a founding member of Power Inside, a harm reduction organization in Baltimore city that serves women who are survivors of gender-based violence, incarceration and abuse. She has done extensive work with youth, people of color and the LGBTQ community providing direct services and advocacy rooted in social justice and self-determination. She believes that using harm reduction strategies and community organizing will lead to healthy and powerful families and communities. Erica also works with HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County and the Downtown Youth Clinic providing clinical supervision and consultation for a new project focused on expanding sexual health services for young queer men and trans people of color.

Masculinity, My Son, and I

After several minutes of looking through my son’s passport paperwork, the clerk felt it important to mention that I was listed as the “father” on my son’s birth certificate. I quickly pointed out that father/parent was my only option. It was the only box I could check off and there was no distinction between the two options. “I am his parent,” I said firmly.

She knew that his mother was already listed on the birth certificate, so in her mind, I could only be his father. She looked deeply into my eyes with such a lack of caring. I couldn’t look back at her. I found myself catapulted into a sea of emotion that I drowned in that day. There are not enough words to explain that moment in time.

As a parent who is queer, brown, and a masculine of center ladyboi, the complexity is real. My need for validation is necessary, and often at the cost of my truth. I negotiate what is real for others when they see me, at the cost of my spirit. And I answer all the questions, at the cost of my dignity.

This is survival for me. This is survival for so many queer parents that are redefining masculinity, for those queer parents that are propelled by the masculine power and beauty of wearing your baby closest to your heart in the face of ignorance, for those of us who will model what love looks like, feels like, and sounds like to our children in the face of contention.

I dig deep. I dig so deep that I find myself moving through an out of body experience that reminds me to return to my tribe. I return to the masculinity that centers and grounds me and makes me feel proud.

When I look in the mirror, I can understand what I see but I don’t look too long; I fear that the internalized pressure of  the gendered box I live in may cloud what I see, and it does. I begin to imagine the hair on my face disappearing, fueled by my desire to validated as a parent to this beautiful son of mine. By looking away from my reflection, I can return to the masculinity that resonates in my breath as I sing to my son. I return to my lead role in the dance we shared together. I return to the moments where I share my full self with him.

More importantly, I remember that these are the moments that will surround my son for the rest of his life. When I look into his eyes, I see love that grounds me in my truth, my spirit, and my dignity. I see love. I see love that is worth surviving for. Our stories must be shared. They must live beyond me and the mail clerk. They must evolve as we embrace masculine of center identified parents. Our survival depends on it.

Bio: Patty Barahona is a ladyboi who lives in West Oakland. An educator, creative thinker, and passionate trainer who works in the non-profit, youth development field. She is a the proud parent of a 2 year old names Myles.

Bio:
Patty Barahona is a ladyboi who lives in West Oakland. An educator, creative thinker, and passionate trainer who works in the non-profit, youth development field. She is a the proud parent of a 2 year old named Myles.