Living While Black, Queer and Sometimes Mistaken For Male

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (The Roots, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, large black man) recently posted on Facebook in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Strangely enough, his post on being seen as a menacing figure in his own luxurious apartment building made me examine my own experiences. Not in being a black male. But in sometimes being mistaken for one.

In the year since I’ve cut my hair, I’ve been pulled over twice for no reason AKA “randomly stopped.” This may not seem like a lot (especially for all those people in New York where stop and frisk is alive and well) but it’s been enough for me to change a few things about how I operate. I’ll ask my white girlfriend to drive if I notice a lot of cops are out. I try not to wear hats or hoodies at night for fear of looking too much like a black male and therefore, “too suspicious.” Of course I can’t say this is why I was pulled over. I can’t say that the officers in question thought I was male. But I can say this isn’t really something my queer white friends have ever complained to me about. When I talk about it, it’s not really an experience they relate to or a fear that they have every time they get into a car to leave somewhere late at night. They don’t know why it’s such a big deal for them to not do any of the stupid and obviously illegal things they tend to do if I’m the one behind the wheel.

I have nowhere near the stature of Questlove but I’m not a small woman. If I’m wearing a hoodie or some other sort of clothing that puts my gender up for discussion (more than it already usually is despite the watermelons strapped to my chest) I try to do things that won’t scare people. I walk a reasonable distance away and if I’m walking faster than they are, I make some sort of noise before reaching them so they won’t be surprised. Actual black males have some sort of safety net in their maleness because honestly, a black male of my size is most likely faster and stronger than a black woman of my size (for example: me). If my lack of maleness is revealed, my safety net disappears. I’m not afraid to say that when I’m alone late at night, I would rather they be afraid of me than angry at me. As a black male, I might threaten their safety but as a gender non-conforming black lesbian, I might threaten their ideals. Questlove:

Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.

I think a lot of males lack the awareness that Questlove so poignantly speaks about. Male privilege allows them to carry on with the knowledge that they’re one of the “good ones” that won’t attack women and so whatever hangups anyone else has is their problem to deal with. Why should men have to respect other people’s possible fear? And why should black men have to respect that AND someone else’s possible racism? Rather than being upset that this happens, maybe this will give more men of color the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of women, to come to terms with the fact that some of those women aren’t racist and crossing the street from them The Individual. They’re crossing the street to get away from Men because Men attack women, queers, and trans* people.

Hasn’t Trayvon taught us (again) that even men aren’t safe if they’re black? That they also invoke a sense of irrational anger just by their presence? Haven’t I been wrong this entire time? I mean, how silly am I that I thought by passing as a black male, I’d ruled out all threats. The sad truth is I have no identity to retreat to. Unless you’re a straight white cis male, you have a reason to be scared. I’m not saying that you should be, I’m just being honest about the fact that I constantly calculate the potential threats of situations. And if you think I don’t have good reason to, you’re wrong. Because when you’re black, it goes beyond never feeling truly safe. You don’t even have the right to protect yourself.

These fears and reactions have been ingrained in us from the moment we were born into a homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, etcist society that makes no qualms about letting us know we’re not safe and furthermore, not deserving of safety. I know it doesn’t feel great to watch the process of someone identifying you as a threat but I’m not the kind of person who’s going to get mad at someone trying to peaceably keep themselves out of harm’s way. Because if something happens, that’s exactly what everyone is going to ask. Why didn’t YOU do something? AKA why didn’t Trayvon just run home? AKA why was your skirt so short? How mad can I get when someone crosses the street or walks a little faster when they notice my presence when I know that if my girlfriend/sister/friend was walking home late at night by herself, I’d want her to do the same thing? Questlove:

Inside I cried. But if I cried at every insensitive act that goes on in the name of safety, I’d have to be committed to a psych ward. I’ve just taught myself throughout the years to just accept it and maybe even see it as funny. But it kept eating at me…It’s a bajillion thoughts, all of them self-depreciating voices slowly eating my soul away.

If feelings get hurt in the pursuit of safety, I’m ok with that. Sometimes our hurt feelings are incidentals. But Trayvon Martin should not have been collateral damage for one man’s pursuit of something he already had and something I’ll likely never feel: Safety.

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Brittani Nichols is a Los Angeles based comedy person. When she's not tweeting about white people or watching television, she's probably eating pizza. Actually, she's probably doing all three of those things concurrently and when she's not doing THAT, she's sleeping. Brittani also went to Yale and feels weird about mentioning it but wants you to know.

Brittani has written 301 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Thumb up 23

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    Thanks for writing this Brittani. This is the article I have been waiting for.

    With all the recent talk about what it means to be “a black male in America”, I’ve been questioning what the implications for MOC queer black women.

    It pains me to think that being a QWOC means being stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to gender identity and performance.

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    this was a really good and necessary thing to read and i want to send it to everyone i know so they can read it too. the whole thing made me think a lot but this made me think the most:

    “Hasn’t Trayvon taught us (again) that even men aren’t safe if they’re black? That they also invoke a sense of irrational anger just by their presence? Haven’t I been wrong this entire time? I mean, how silly am I that I thought by passing as a black male, I’d ruled out all threats. The sad truth is I have no identity to retreat to. Unless you’re a straight white cis male, you have a reason to be scared. I’m not saying that you should be, I’m just being honest about the fact that I constantly calculate the potential threats of situations. And if you think I don’t have good reason to, you’re wrong. Because when you’re black, it goes beyond never feeling truly safe. You don’t even have the right to protect yourself.”

    i’ll echo everyone else when i say thank you for writing this, brittani.

    • Thumb up 14

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      While I don’t think that a woman’s sense of (un)safety is necessarily rooted in racism, there is DEFINITELY something racist about a woman feeling more unsafe around me (a butch black lesbian) or my black male brother than they are around a white man when they’re walking down the street.

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      I am not sure, if this is entirely true. Yes, women fear men first and foremost because they are men. Also women are constantly advised by a set of “safety tips” to (a) always feel like a potential victim and (b) solely feel responsible to avoid violence aimed at them. But I still think, that – in addition – women also internalize to fear men of color more as they are disproportionately portrayed as vulgar and violent, as gang members, terrorists, war lords, drug dealers, drug addicts, …

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      Before this gets going, there’s no way to know what that lady was thinking. But I’m sure for Questlove it certainly FELT like it was racially motivated. Which is to agree that women disproportionately fear men of color vs. white men. I by no means aim to undermine that fact.

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        Sorry, yes, this is what I agree with. As a white Canadian, I can’t even pretend to understand the racial politics surrounding Black Americans, but I think your initial point that for many women, being male is enough to be intimidating. Race is a factor, I can’t deny that.

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    Very powerful piece! I’ll be posting links to this in the comment sections of blogs/websites for ages to come, I think. What the Trayvon Martin travesty means for masculine of center queers of color is an important perspective that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else so far.

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    Great write on a tough topic. Although they’ve sprung from tragedy, there have been a number of incredibly moving articles written lately on the matters of race, privilege, and violence that have really expanded my knowledge of the harshness of reality. As a sheltered young suburbanite unfamiliar with these kinds of heavy issues, I am grateful to writers like you for educating me, and saddened by the mournful truths you tell. Thanks for putting your voice out there.

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    I have a million thousand feels on this article. You touched on a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about since Trayvon. I’m a black woman, I live in Chicago, I get read as femme no matter how boyish I dress because my hair is long (which irritates me, but that’s a different story). I walk alot.. most of the harassment I get in public is from black men, but 99% of black men I see in public do not harass me. I know firsthand of how the Chicago police dept has damn near ruined the lives of several men of color; to me they’re scarier than any caricature of black men Fox News could ever concoct. After getting groped coming off the train I kind of stopped caring about anyone’s feelings, so I act pretty stand offish and honestly rude sometimes when I’m in my neighborhood. At the same time, I know this means different things for the black guy I refuse to make eye contact with than the white guy. The white guy will think there’s something wrong with me, but the black guy might feel there’s something wrong with him. And that’s honestly horrible. I’m not trying to get groped though.. or mugged, or harassed, or followed, so I treat all men like a threat. I guess I don’t really have anything to add to this discussion, just thoughts rattling around in my head. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective though.. gives me alot to think about.

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      Yeah. I am also a Chicagoan (white, though). I recently moved to a denser neighborhood with more people passing on the street in general, and there’s definitely been an uptick in dudes approaching me. Mostly not in a totally crappy way. I think it’s a pretty poor strategy on their part, but I’m not, like, automatically offended if some guy I don’t know hits on me in a way that can reasonably be taken as genuine and respectful. The balance that keeps me feeling sane and safe seems to be: try to stay open and assume nothing about a dude’s intentions at the outset, but be firm about my boundaries and shut things down pleasantly but directly if needed. (“No, I’m not going to tell you my name right now.” “No, I’m with someone. Thanks, though.”) Because I know it must suck to have people flinch as soon as it seems like you’re going to make contact.

      (On the other hand, I have no problem calmly but loudishly calling out dudes who order me to smile or make obscene comments as I walk by. They can go straight to hell.)

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        I mean, I’m not offended by getting approached by guys or hit on. I know that most of those guys are harmless; when I said harassed I meant harassed. Calling someone out loudly is something I’ve never felt safe enough to do. My arsenal consists of ignore, mean mug, pepper spray, run. I use to first two alot in hopes to avoid using the last two.

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          Oh yeah — I was absolutely not suggesting otherwise about your experience, or making suggestions at all; sorry if it came off that way. Just, y’know, thinking thoughts, mulling over the boundary between staying safe and feeling shut down by fear.

  6. Thumb up 11

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    In the past I have often gotten pull over for what I call “driving a bucket while black and being mistaken for a man” often times once they saw who I was I would be let go without them even checking my driver’s license. Recently I’ve been pulled over less but I also realizes I have changed my behavior ei I don’t drive in certain areas at night. I also try to make my presence known and seem unthreatening if I come across women when walking at night. Thank you for making me feel like I’m not alone in these experience.
    I think a lot of my friend who are not people of color don’t understand how truly unsafe I feel walking through the world. When I heard the results of the Trayvon case the first thing I felt was scared. I’m scared of what may happened to me walking down the street. I’m scared because someone might think I’m a black man and a threat, I’m scared because I’m a women, and I’m scared because I’m queer.

  7. Thumb up 4

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    Damn. Once again, AS hits home.

    QuestLove’s piece has been on my heart all week because its so painfully real and the precision of each instance burns. It is so overwhelming trying to deal with the emotional residue that comes with being XL and Black in America, especially as a queer.

    At 5’10″, athletic, and MOC, I got mistaken for male even with my long hair; especially behind my tinted windows… One of my fears/qualms I had before cutting my hair off was having it happen even more, and honestly it just might explain the odd glances I feel I’ve been getting over these last couple of weeks that weren’t happening as much before.

    Point: Thank you for articulating this.

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    I’m glad you wrote about this in a much more level headed way than I could have. I am not inherently MOC but I did get pulled over when “driving while black with a white girl in the car” and I was asked to step out of the car while the officer spoke to the girl I was with. The line of questioning was more or less what are you doing and I don’t think my rainbow bumpersticker helped. I now don’t drive much at night. My dad taught me when I was maybe 9 or 10 and started doing things in the world without complete parental supervision to always remember WHO I AM and WHERE I AM. The answers are Black and America, and while I am mostly harmless, those are the only facts that will ever matter so I have to be careful.

  9. Thumb up 1

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    This exactly.

    I thought that I was somehow protecting myself when at night I would wear loose clothing, or a hoodie or something. I’m a black woman thats basically in between, I can wear a dress one minute and some baggy shorts the next. So in order to not attract male attention, I would do that but I cant really do that anymore because I will fall into the category/target of a black male.

    You really showed the effects of this.

  10. Thumb up 4

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    This was such a great piece.

    Also: “Unless you’re a straight white cis male, you have a reason to be scared.” Such a spot-on and succinct way to state one of the truths of our society no one likes to talk about.

    Thank you for writing this and demonstrating yet another reason we all need to look out for each other.

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