Welcome to Autostraddle’s 2021 Black History Month essay series. In their recent stirring multi-media anthology Black Futures, Black queer creators Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew ask, “What does it mean to be Black and alive?” And so, this Black History Month, Autostraddle is reaching past, and pushing forward, to explore realities beyond (the pain of) what we have inherited.
I don’t remember when I stopped calling myself genderfluid.
Looking at my digital footprint, especially around my early days of gender exploration, the word felt like such a home. At some point, I grew tired of constantly defining and explaining and settled in under the nonbinary umbrella as the word seemed to eclipse and encompass all things not man or woman. But I miss my watery home and the ways it makes me feel connected to my human ancestors, and more importantly the Atlantic. The way the label gives me the freedom to be solid and slippery and still — down to the molecules, me.
Both of my parents swam in big bellies on the Atlantic, the children of American parents born on European soil. Before that, it gets hairy — with orphans on both sides, the trauma of enslavement erasing any tribal or national identity, and the toll of addiction severing any knowledge of even the Irish county my ancestors immigrated from. For me, I’ve found great comfort in the deep and wide of the Atlantic, and the way the water connects me to kin, named or unknown.
I never quite know how to respond when someone asks where my family is from. I can typically tell by the tone and the face if they’re trying to place me in a racial taxonomy to figure out how to treat me, or if they’re searching for a line of kinship. I typically just say “Black Irish” and let all the double meanings and beings hang in the air.
I think I stopped defining my gender as fluid to make myself more palpable. I grew up as the fly in the buttermilk, the lone Black face in class pictures — chemically straightening my hair for most of my teenage years in an effort to take up less physical and social space. Coming out as a lesbian I felt a need to stay even more in line — when I fell in love with a boy, I kept him hidden not wanting to make any more waves in my community. When I first bound my chest and looked in the mirror and saw a body that looked like a home I hid behind booze and intentionally forgot this homecoming for many more years — thinking how difficult it already was to be Black, queer, and mentally ill, I couldn’t possibly add being trans to the list. Coming out as trans was hard enough, and while genderfluid was used more in the early days of my transition it seemed to fall to the wayside and nonbinary seemed a term that cis people could more readily understand. I recognize now that I stopped calling myself genderfluid to make cisgender people more comfortable. So often in my life, I’ve whittled down my truths to make them easier to swallow or understand. I understand who I am, and that’s all that matters.
I’m the last generation of trans people that didn’t’ have words for ourselves or our experience, but as early as I could remember I knew I wasn’t a girl or a boy. My dear and darling parents graciously let me wear boy clothes most of the time as a child. I would sometimes acquiesce to wearing a matching dress with my sister for photos or big church functions, but for the most part, I wore baggy soccer uniforms. The only trans people I saw were on Jerry Springer when I was at home sick — and lord knows that wasn’t the positive mirror I needed. The first trans masculine person I ever saw was Max on The L Word, witnessing the abuse he faced and the exile from his queer community scared me into the closet for another decade.
I came out as genderfluid when I moved to the desert. On Tiwa Pueblo land I found trans community and queer people of color for the first time in my life. I met people that used they/them pronouns, that changed their names. I learned that I could take control of my body with hormones or surgery, both or neither. I discovered that these terms, these in-betweens or refusals to be pinned down could mean different things to different people. I learned that there was no script for this life, this body, this gender. The freedom I felt reminded me of long afternoons floating on my back, weightless and present.
One of the things I love about being part of the queer and trans community is how often our language shifts and moves with the times. In the preface to Transgender Warriors, the wise and inimitable Leslie Feinberg says, “The words I use in this book may become outdated in a very short time because the transgender movement is still young and defining itself. But while the slogans lettered on the banners may change quickly, the struggle will rage on. Since I am writing this book as a contribution to the demand for transgender liberation, the language I’m using in this book is not aimed at defining but at defending the diverse communities that are coalescing.” While I sometimes get salty about trying to stay hip and with it, I also celebrate that the changing language and labels have always been a part of trans history and there is nothing wrong with us hunting for and choosing words like feel like home.
I roll my eyes at the idea that trans people or anyone that exists beyond or without the gender binary is new — or a trend. Embracing my watery genderfluid identity is embracing my Atlantic legacy and the ways my ancestors might have understood my existence.
Water plays a big part in many West African cosmologies, from what I can glean from diving into voodoo and Santeria and what they were able to hide and keep from Yoruba beliefs. I’ve always been enthralled by the orisha Olokun. I’m not initiated in any of these traditions but have drawn great strength from learning from these living archives what enslavement tried to erase — especially around gender and sexuality. Depending on where you stop along the coast of West Africa or dock along the diaspora, Olokun has a different gender — but what tracks across the different belief systems and geographies is Olokun’s link to water.
I like to think of Olokun taking care of all the ancestors we lost to the sea, by force or by choice. Sharks knew to follow slaver ships because there was always blood. In the Wake, Christina Sharpe interviewed a physics colleague Anne Gardluski to ask about the presence of these ancestors in the ocean — she says that 90% to 95% of organic material in the ocean gets recycled over and over again, “no one dies of old age in the ocean.” The Atlantic, like many Black scholars have already noted, is quite literally an ancestor.
I always wonder what words my ancestors had for someone like me, what my role would’ve been in society. Until we recover these, I’ll stick with what I have. Here, holy and wholly, genderfluid.
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