Published on April 23rd, 2012 | by Wild Gender
Ain’t I a Man? I Mean, I AM a Man. Toi’s Take On Glenn Ligon: America
“I AM A MAN” black bold letters contrasted against a white background assert, a recreation of a sign used at a strike during the Civil Rights Era hangs dauntingly in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. In 1968 hundreds of Memphis sanitation workers carried this very sign after two workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Protesting deplorable conditions and negligence, workers organized to demand recognition of their union, better safety standards and a decent wage. The sign perhaps meant to them that they’d like to be acknowledged as men, no different because of the color of their skin. Men who deserved equal rights, equal treatment.
I’d seen the sign a few times when doing online searches. And I glanced at it a few times during the guided tour at the exhibit, but as I continued to look at talented Glenn Ligon’s other works it began to register in a whole new way–especially when I saw his stenciled print called “Passing.” (unfortunately I could not find this print anywhere online. Probably because it did not speak to others or did not seem relevant to those who have actually posted or written about his work- read: white folks).
As I looked at the queer black men and women surrounding me, having their own private revelations, I allowed myself to have one of my own.
This work had a completely different meaning for me than these black men and women whose presence I’d found so much solace in at the beginning of our journey into Ligon together. I was giddy (yes, giddy) at the large number of queer, brown folks who had come to BlaqOut’s reception and guided tour. For those first moments I felt so connected to them- connected by the opaque color of our skin and our overall “Black/Brown experience.” (Experience of oppression from white people).
I reveled in how I hadn’t been in a room with so many black and brown queer folks enjoying art–ever. Though Oakland was the first place I’d been in multiple predominantly brown spaces inclusive of queer folks, it was still not “our” space. But sometimes we made it ours…or it became ours by default.
Maybe the larger (meaning white) LGBT community has slowly overtaken my consciousness, making me believe that these spaces should be separate, just like it is for them…
It makes me think of a black history month article I recently wrote. I told the “powers that be” that straight African Americans and queer African Americans don’t necessarily have separate black history events and that I’d need to write about the “straight” events, too. I mean, they were 98% of the events and just because straight folks were there, didn’t mean queer folks weren’t going to show up.
I don’t think my point was fully processed by them, but I got the go ahead and the article was published. Although all my explanations about the queer black community, the lack of segregation around black history events, and my brief commentary on segregation in the LGBT community and the need for white allies to come out and support those black history events (and POC organizations, even financially) were, to my surprise, mysteriously missing when I opened the paper that day.
My article had been butchered. Cut in half and now was only a shadow of its former self. Now it was only a listing of Black history events. An ad covered the whole bottom half of the same page. I tried not to see this as a racist act. I tried to push this off on economics, capitalism. After all, they needed to pay the bills…right? Sigh. What a wake up call for me. I wish I could hit the snooze button.
The people I’d interviewed were as shocked as I was, especially being that I read to them what I was putting in the article. The powers that be said it was a space issue. I think that’s partially true. Space…and politics.
I AM A MAN
I’ve written my experiences of being a brown, transmasculine/ masculine of center person. (Female-bodied). You can see my article on that here. It can be a frustrating experience.
In Dallas, I’ve had the sobering experience of being “read” as female 80% of the time. In Oakland (depending on what neighborhood) I probably was read as female 50% of the time- which tapered off when I started seeking out queer spaces.
I was spoiled in NYC, being read as male 75% of the time, genderqueer in queer spaces in Brooklyn, or at the many queer symposiums and conferences.
But Dallas, I’m adjusting. Unfortunately I’m getting used to the Lesbian/Gay dichotomy. “No” bisexuals, “no” transgender folks. I’m getting used to being seen as lesbian, and just black, not brown. You see, there’s only room for lesbian and gay here. Only room for Black and white. Male and female. I can’t be upset about that here–I don’t pass. I don’t fit what it means to be a man here.
That’s just the way it is. I can’t come down here with my fancy gender analysis and queer theory inherited from a liberal arts college and NYC. I can’t just come down here with my leftist, semi-anarchist, brown activism and queer manifestos that have rubbed off from Oakland and expect to be taken seriously. No, not here in the South. They say I belong “up north“, over in the east, or back out west with all that. Or Austin, the liberal bastion (and in my opinion, mirage) of our third coast.
As I sat looking at “Passing” repeated multiple times in jet black on a lily white background until the paint stuck in the stencil, blurring the word and making the canvas black like the lettering, I realized, to my chagrin, that here, I’ll never pass. I’ll always be black “against a sharp white background” and though I’m partially using Zora Neale Hurston’s quote about race, I mean race and gender.
In some cities–some states, maybe even 80% of this country–I will never, ever pass. To society “at large” I am not a man. My features are “too feminine”. My eyelashes too long. My voice pitch is too high. My ass is too round- ethnically round and ever-so-there. Even though I am not necessarily feminine, people’s expectations are for me to be.
Most will place me where they want to place me. Give me female pronouns, talk to me about “female” or “womanly” things, and I will dip back into my past socialization as a female and unwittingly comply with their erroneous expectations for me. I know that most won’t understand pronoun preferences and that it’s almost ridiculous to expect all folks to see me as I see myself.
It’s humorous that with people of color I am less agitated and more forgiving about this. Is that insulting? I say insulting because I don’t expect people of color to know the difference between a gender non-conforming/genderqueer person and a lesbian or gay person. Not unless you are a transitioning transman, which I’m not.
So, I can’t be taken seriously, right? I must not want to be if I am not on T (testosterone) or taking the proper steps to become a man. If I wanted to be treated like one, if I wanted to be taken seriously as one, I’d take the proper steps like so many others.
Then maybe I could be “stealth” and never have to deal with those issues again (outside of my mind, that is). But, I guarantee that the preoccupation with passing does not go away. I’m sure it’s always there in the back of your mind. No matter how long you’ve “passed” for.
A fear that somehow you’ll be found out. Your packer (prosthetic penis) might shift at a weird angle or fall out in the bathroom as you relieve yourself. You may skip “T” for too long or want to go off T and your voice pitch might change slightly. Maybe you won’t bind your chest as well one day.
Even when you get all the surgeries there’s always that ONE person who will go out of their way and insist on reading you as the sex you were born with, despite your many efforts. Despite the thousands of dollars you spent on testosterone, gender reassignment surgery, counseling, a new wardrobe, a move to a new city/state/country.
Unless you find a bubble, maybe a queer bubble. Even then this does not guarantee 100% acceptance of how you identify. Indeed, it might even be worse because the LGB community can be downright hostile to transfolks. That’s right. There’s no true alliance there. No allegiance. We’re not all one under the queer rainbow despite what the acronym feigns with such short distance between the L-G-B and the T.
Many lesbians think transmen “want” to be men, hell, they think this about butches/studs/AGs. They don’t accept transwomen either, because they “used” to be men. Lots and lots of transmisogyny and transphobia. We’re never accepted for who we really are- our body parts that we were born with dictate everything.
Many straight people are the same. No solace there either.
And don’t you DARE be out of the box. No “new” labels allowed. You’re complicating things. Now you’re just a snooty, overeducated/degreed hyperaware hipster. Who, by the way, is confused. If you can’t pick a box and stick with it you will be relegated to the “confused” box because you don’t know who you are. Period. Exclamation point!
As a matter of fact, don’t know anything about anyone else’s culture. Don’t identify as a different gender. Don’t identify as more than one race or ethnicity. Just don’t. There’s no room for that. (Unless you’re white with intentions on appropriating or exoticizing).I know all this from firsthand experience. There’s no room in the margins, silly. Have you not read Anzaldúa or any black feminist or brown lesbian writings? Intersections should be erased so we (and by we I mean they) can see the bigger picture- assimilate. Pass!
So no, I will not be read male, or multiracial. Everything I do will astound the masses because I live in the space between society’s categories… and boxes. No label truly fits me.
And you should check yours. Does yours truly fit? Or are you just passing?