Being a Black Nonbinary Person Is Difficult. But It’s Shown Me the Radical Power of Defining Your Own Existence.

A 1970 photo of Marsha P. Johnson handing out flyers in support of Gay Students at NYU, courtesy of the New York Public Library's "1969: The Year of Gay Liberation" exhibit.
The author draws inspiration from trans icon Marsha P. Johnson, pictured here in 1970 handing out flyers in support of Gay Students at NYU, who blazed her own gender identity trail. Courtesy of the New York Public Library’s “1969: The Year of Gay Liberation” exhibit. Diana Davies/NYPL/Reuters

This piece is part of the Radical Issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I can remember the first time I sat down in a chair at the nail salon. I was 16, getting ready for my high school grad-night, and a few of my friends decided that we should “pamper” ourselves before the big evening. I can recall the nail technician coming over to me with a slight giggle in her voice, asking me what color I wanted my nails. I asked her what was so funny, and she responded, “We just don’t get that many men in our salon.” I was perplexed in the moment because while I may have presented like a man to the world, I have never felt like one.

I have always known that I am different. Being that the majority of my family are men, toxic masculinity and patriarchy undergirded most of the interactions I had with each of them. We were expected to do what “boys” did: Play sports, talk about women, and consume large amounts of beer. Though I didn’t enjoy any of these things, it was irrelevant: They were what black men in my family were expected to do.

Not being good at “being a man” in these ways rewarded me with a set of problems—ones that often left me questioning why pain and aggression was something so normalized in my black family experience. My difference meant that I was often asked if I “wanted to be a girl.” This left me to wonder why my gender presentation was the only thing that determined my worth.

The problems only grew with my love for pop culture. I obsessed over Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, and I longed to take dance classes to move like them. But that, of course, was something that “men” didn’t do. We didn’t dance or sing. We didn’t show emotion. Being a black man became synonymous in my mind with being locked in a cage. There, I spent most of my days dreaming and singing, through my divas’ songs, about the time when I could be free to express myself fully.

Later, I began unpacking the term “manhood” and figuring out why the term felt so much like a performance. I realized that I actually did have authentic masculine traits and mannerisms—masculinity was a part of me. But only a part. I never wanted it to be the way I defined my identity, and not fully meeting my family’s expectations resulted in a great deal of self-hatred.

Working through that would mean finding space to explore what sort of gender expression truly felt right for me. It would mean unlearning everything that I was taught to believe to be true about the way I performed in the world—unlearning the things that I was taught to hate about myself.

Through much self-examination and therapy, I came upon the word “nonbinary” as a tool to help me to find my place in gender and to fight back against the expectations that were placed on me as a black male. I began to see this word and its definition as a way to not only understand my experience in the world, but for me to reclaim my identity. As the years progressed, I have come to understand why my existence as a black, queer, nonbinary person is not only powerful, but radical. By owning both my masculinity and my femininity, I have been able to redefine what freedom looks like beyond certain limiting gender norms within black culture.

The realization that every day I was expected to be someone I honestly never wanted to be led me to wonder if this pressure could be something that most binary people feel, struggling day-to-day to live up to an expectation imposed from the outside. Fighting back, I decided that the most powerful and radical thing that I, or any of us, can do is to challenge the binary by living outside of its confounds—and to spend less time being worried about what others think about my gender performance. We should draw on the legacy of folks like trans pioneer Marsha P. Johnson, who when asked about her gender said to “pay it no mind.”

So much of our worth as people in this world is based on performance—performances validated, ultimately, by those with structural and systemic power. Defining your own existence, as I have done, is a rejection of the call to perform. The moment that I decided I was no longer following any script but my own, that is when I reclaimed my personal power.

Now, I move about my life as a black nonbinary person more freely. And freedom, as James Baldwin reminds us, is “not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” I hope others will join me in taking the first step toward freedom by making a radical claim over their own lives and identity.

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