The body is a kind of negotiation. It twists, curls, and fists flesh to bone with ease, never looking to mend swollen spaces. Ever since childhood, mine has made a habit of forking between split roads, both sides now trying to catch their breath on stale terrain. The exhales become more strategic navigating the world as a Black trans femme, a reality at once visible and unnoticed. On behalf of a personal protest, I decided to draft new terms with the body I call home. Last summer—with the whole world in flames—I’d lead myself to the nearest mirror and undress the ashes draped along my skin, soon laying naked against a wave of window-light. Whenever recounting this ritual to my friends, the moment rarely left without entering a forest of bewildered growls and eye rolls. To them, I’ve merely failed at any attempt to sound edgy, now being an inconvenient time to measure the passing of days by how many nudes I can take in thirty minute intervals. Honestly, their response was—and still is—warranted. Both the COVID-19 Pandemic and the endless swirl of Black death on repeat makes all matters of the self-involved seem trivial and unproductive. Who am I to put myself on display? To push through years of eating disorders, dysphoria, gender discomfort, and deem this body good enough to document? Hence the metaphorical fork in the road: for I’ve carried centuries of generational trauma and strength funneled through a mother’s tongue, while also being unable to shake the history of dehumanization whenever stepping into my reflection. It wasn’t long before my obsession with nudes turned into a desire to remember a body caught in time, before it is unjustly taken.
If exhales lie in possibility, I’m tired of watching them suffocate. With 2019 and 2020 consecutively being the deadliest years for Black and Brown Trans women, 2021 already carries at least 23 trans-involved murders in the United States, not counting the many unnamed faces and brutalities uncovered by widespread media outlets. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Black trans women are disproportionately disposed to fatal violence, navigating the intersections of racism, transphobia, and socio-invisibility. In providing statistics that illustrate the labyrinth of challenges institutionally placed on Black trans, non-binary, and non-conforming bodies, HRC outlines the ways in which anti-trans stigma leads to an overall denial of opportunity—educational setbacks, employment discrimination, exclusion from social services, and barriers to gender-affirming legal identification. This results in the further subjugation of the Black trans community, triggering increased health risks such as heightened rates of sexual assault, homelessness, physical and mental health disparities, and higher likelihood of engagement in survival sex work.
Whenever thinking about my body’s relationship with Trans-queerness, I start falling down similar rabbit holes of dysphoria that many of my societal siblings know to be true. Still, for the majority of my early life, my gender discomfort was not part of my narrative. I did not have to sit down and talk myself out of my assigned sex, and into a preferred gender expression. For all intents and purposes, I was a little Black girlfacedboy, fully embracing a personalized non-binary identity where my genitals were a non-factor. This comfort waned, however, after graduating college on the heels of a worldwide pandemic. With no one around, I started to clearly notice how the genderless framework I built myself had its fair share of cracks. I realized how much I still policed the ways in which I perform in social spaces. I wouldn’t walk out the door without shaving the upper half of my body. I’d make sure any jeans or dresses covered the entirety of my legs, their rows of hair a threat to others. I’d tuck my bulge between my backside’s fold and pray that nothing slip on my nights-out. Frankly, I wanted to pass as a man’s wet dream of a cis-leaning femme, one catering to a male gaze that swiftly turns its back on non-binary transness. I began to wonder how the avenues of safety for Black trans women have become so closely tied to this notion of cis-respectability. This is where the anger kicked in. While I had thought of myself as an exception to the rules of binary policing, I quickly recognized just how deep the conditioning had affected me. In order to survive, we’re told to conform, even when we’re sheltering in place with no one around to watch.
The legacy of social and economic instability reverberated in new ways during the COVID-19 Pandemic. According to Columbia University, this modern-day public health crisis has deeply affected the trans and gender-nonconforming communities, heightening the overall “risk of exposure to the virus and its adverse outcomes, delays in access to gender-affirming care, and diminished social support, which is crucial to protecting against the effects of stigma and discrimination.” While the United States’s scientific, medical, and public assistance institutions have continuously failed those disenfranchised by race, gender, and socio-economic standing, COVID-19 shined a light on the very structural wounds that marginalized communities have seen clearly for decades. The political pitfalls of COVID-19 cannot overshadow the intensely personal hardships—such as mental health and wellness—brought about by social isolation. These regulated cruelties add up, and must be taken into account when considering that the average life expectancy of Black trans women is 35 years of age. We are living lives shorter than any other subset of the LGBTQIA+ community.
There is an epidemic of Black Trans death. America has become all too familiar with the destruction of Black lives, replayed over and over for public consumption. Without societal support, legal protections, and individual respect, Black trans women will continue to be erased from our present histories, scrubbed by a system making space solely for our death’s headline: albeit rare and fleeting. Often, I find myself envisioning a life long after expectancy. I rarely thought I’d breathe past a certain age. Beside the obvious roadblocks stacked against Black folk in this country—police brutality, unequal access to public health, an unfair representation in our legal system, the school-to-prison pipeline, the many micro-and-macro oppressions embedded in our path—I dimmed my hopes for the Black, queer girlfacedboy I recognized myself to be. In spite of fading away, I skimmed past sixteen, then eighteen, and now twenty three, the majority of me arguably still intact.
Last week, I told my therapist I didn’t want to live anymore if I’d just end up like my father. To be honest, I had agreed to never speak truth to this nightmare, in the same way you’re told not to say certain names three times fast while facing a cracked mirror. Ironically enough, it’s when peering into my reflection where this tidal omen rears its monstrous wave. Having been on neither hormone blockers as a teenager, nor gender affirming hormones as a young adult, I’m constantly reminded of an unwanted cis-future whenever looking at my father. This image frightens me, shoving me into pools of various gender anxieties and dysphoria. Still, these paternal gripes tend to work in opposition to my own maternal admirations. Once parsing through the potholes left by my father, I’m at once reminded of my mother’s opposing gifts. Since childhood, I had been deemed her carbon-copy. We share the same face, the same smile, the same trio of moles staked in the corner of our left eye, and the same everyday expressions that are oftentimes hardest to hide. As a result, I had taken pride in how much I look like my mother, not only for her beauty, but for the bridge built between her appearance and an affirmation of my gender identity. If I looked like my mother, then I looked like a woman. I passed.
We’re all passing in some way. Whether it be on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, socio-economics—or even relational dynamics between friends and loved ones—there is always an element of performance as society boxes us into the most convenient binary. Before long, I started to understand just how loaded this concept of passing can become. Regardless of what we pass as, there’s forever this notion of who, exactly, we’re passing for. Who constructed this need to perform in the first place? The answer is usually tucked in the oppressor’s back pocket. For Black folk, white passing is determined by white-supremacy. For trans folk, cis-respectability. For women and femmes, the ever-present patriarchy. I yearned to rethink not only for myself, but for my community at-large, how we see each other, and why—for so long—we have named ourselves using the master’s tongue. Even still, it is through this discomfort that marginalized folks have reimagined new realities, reclaiming language as a weapon to be used against ivory towers.
But, of course, things are never that simple. We’ve grown used to watching our present drown in past lament while dancing in future melody. Attempting to record time’s rivalry proves to be yet another difficulty, knowing it hard to write something on a continuum. This leads me here, typing words as wormholes in an effort to sift through my own timestamp. As I sit naked in front of an air conditioner losing its power, I watch my fingertips grow drunk off the summer solstice. I write circles around the longest day of the year, with thoughts lit by the slow burn of my own gender story. A larger narrative unfolds once the smoke clears, illuminating the path toward my iPhone’s hidden folder of about fifty nudes. My attention turns to one image in particular, where I kneel before a mirror settled gently against a bedroom wall. My eyes trace the coils of hair running past my thighs, trialing the groin before dispersing into pockets of unseen skin. With tits ready for battle, my nipples pierce through the camera’s flash and into the reflection before them. I unapologetically bask in the golden hour on full display, well aware that my existence was never to be apologized for. If anything, there is a great sense of gratitude, watching the surrounding shadows wrap themselves in equal parts power, pleasure, and Black Trans Presence.