Being both Non-Binary and a Black Woman.
Updated: Mar 19, 2022
Living with multiple identities that challenge the norms of a cis-gender straight heteronormative society can present a labyrinth of emotional and behavioural conflicts. Our guest writer Zee Monteiro reflects on the influences of race, gender and spirituality on their journey to a deeper sense of self.
I identify as non-binary, but I
will always be a Black woman.
by Zee Monteiro
It's been a year and a month since I have been on low dose HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy). Six months into my journey when the changes became more apparent, I noticed a worry, a concern in my body. Don’t get me wrong, I was enjoying the lowering of my voice and the muscle growth - but I was worried that I was losing something. Yet I couldn’t really place my emotions with the language to work out what that something actually was.
Around the same time, a friend sent over a link to the Black Trans Foundation as they opened up therapy services for Black trans and non-binary individuals. This came perfectly timed, as I was needing to hash out the feelings I was experiencing, and knew that I wanted to do it with a Black Trans therapist who could support me in understanding my emotions holistically - on a personal, spiritual and professional level. A couple of sessions in, during one of our conversations around how my family raised me and the ideas of gender, Blackness, and spirituality, I mentioned something along the lines of “I am non-binary, but I am a Black woman, it's a spirit I cannot and do not want to lose.” My therapist, a Black trans man, nodded. I took a deep breath and realized that this was that something that I was afraid of losing - the spirituality that I received through my Black female body and the womanhood I was brought up in.
''Womanhood has always been denied to Black women, therefore they had to carve their own space.''
I was raised as a Black woman, and my family is filled with Black women who are open, loud and very much present. I remember, as a child, the Sunday morning ritual of being sat between the legs of Black women whilst they braided my hair. Even though I hated it and could never sit still, it was at the same time my most sacred place. I remember being welcomed within the warm hands of Black women. As they held my small face between their hands and looked at me with joy as I grew year by year, I felt their pride through the warmth of their hands. By holding my face, they would let me know that I was safe with them, and that I could see myself in them.
There is no other group of people or race that could make me feel as safe as a Black woman would. The older I got the more I understood why, and a lot of it changed around the time that I myself became ‘a young Black woman.’ During puberty I dealt with being adultified by non-white and white women. Men, both Black, white and all in between hypersexualized me and I was a subject of misogynoir. Simultaneously, I felt that I didn’t fully understand what I had been thrown into, and my brain did not grasp the full scope of growing up - but still I pretended as best as I could. I did understand that my experiences were different from women and that I only felt safe in spaces with Black women, yet the way I expressed myself even within Black spaces was not quite ‘the right way.’ I had assumed this was because I was brought up in specifically white spaces during my adolescent years, but in hindsight this conflict around expression was in fact often because of feelings rooted in gender.
''Living in this Black female body and having been subjected to racism, misogynoir, sexism and homophobia, I have performed and conformed my way into femininity and the heteronormative ideas of gender as a means of survival, to fit in and belong. This meant code switching not only in white hetero places, but also Black hetero spaces.''
The reason why I use women, Black women and the notion of womanhood as separate is because they are. Womanhood has always been denied to Black women, therefore they had to carve their own space. You do not have to go as far back as colonialism to see this. In fact you don’t need to look back at all - it is a very current, very visceral reality. Even very recently, shocking videos have surfaced from the Ukrainian borders of Black women and children being denied access on buses attempting to flee a live war zone. While Ukrainian soldiers made sure women and children had access to safety first, Black women and children were left behind. Amidst war and the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, the dehumanization of Black bodies still very much exists.
Before I continue, I need to state that when speaking on the self-identification of non-binary, I am referring to the unlearning of European societal standards on gender that has been internalized, and I also believe that there is a difference between race and spirituality in relation to this. There is a lot of debate and theories on what gender is, from theories stating that gender is created through interactions and performances, to other theories that dive into gender as feelings. On theories written on gender, I must constantly be aware that I live within the intersectionality of multiple identities and most theories are written through a white Eurocentric lens, where often spirituality and ancestral memories are yet to be included. On one hand, yes, gender is external and focused on performance and on the other hand gender is a feeling. Both can be true, and even more theories can exist.
''The marginalization and traumas that I have faced and still feel to this day, through the bodies of other Black women, is felt in my body. I feel what they feel, I stand where they stand, I laugh and cry with them. Yet some of them deny me my queerness, some deny me my gender-fluidity. Even though their erasure of my identity hurts me, Black womanhood is my spiritual and cultural safe haven.''
Living in this Black female body and having been subjected to racism, misogynoir, sexism and homophobia, I have performed and conformed my way into femininity and the heteronormative ideas of gender as a means of survival, to fit in and belong. This meant code switching not only in white hetero places, but also Black hetero spaces. I am not alone in this dynamic or the discussion about it. Popular TikTok creators @oujibug and @annikaizora have mentioned that identifying as non-binary and a Black Woman is indeed possible as they are not mutually exclusive identities - a sentiment I feel aligns and resonates with my own feelings. There is an assumption that I must choose the binary and because I cannot fully align with my Black female body and its energy, I must therefore hate my current body. I do not. I am merely adapting it to align with the multitude of energies I feel. Black trans author, poet and educator J Mase III articulates it well: ''I was not born in the wrong body, I was born in a society that refused to see the capacity of this body.''
I identify as non-binary, but I will always be Black woman, as my experiences that I have are that of Black women. I was raised to be a Black woman and I cannot separate myself from these experiences. The marginalization and traumas that I have faced and still feel to this day, through the bodies of other Black women, is felt in my body. I feel what they feel, I stand where they stand, I laugh and cry with them. Yet some of them deny me my queerness, some deny me my gender-fluidity. Even though their erasure of my identity hurts me, Black womanhood is my spiritual and cultural safe haven. It's not all of me, but a very crucial part of how I make sense of my being and move through the world.
''With the multiple energies I have, as I came to explore and understand my identity, I knew I needed to live within and respect the energies I had been given.''
Again, it isn’t all of me. See, even when they held my small face in their hands as a child and made sure I saw myself in them, I wonder, looking back, if they were able to see all of me? They themselves had the experiences of being a Black woman and I understood the struggles that I was about to face, without yet fully yet understanding the full scope of them. I was raised with the understanding of the Eve Gene, the start of civilization through the African female body. The Ankh, creating a unity amongst Black women and tying their spiritual roots of the female body and femininity to Africa. Yet in understanding and co-existing in these spaces, my masculinity felt as powerful, it was an energy that was separate. Not one that overpowers the other but to co-exist with it, similar to the functions of our muscles and bones. Where bones shape and help us stand straight, whilst muscles, which are attached to our bones, help us walk, smile and run. One cannot function without the other, they must work in unity to move.
''Psychological, emotional and psychosocial warfare has, and still is being waged amongst Black bodies and specifically Black women. I cannot conform to this reality - as it will not save me, nor do I want it.''
The masculinity I speak about here should be seen as separate to the ideas of masculinity that society puts on Black women. This type of masculinity is described through the White supremacy lens and set towards the hatred of Black women. The energy I speak about exceeds the patriarchy, as energy itself is older than it. Our bodies hold onto energies that are older than we might be aware of, epigenetic research has shown that intergenetics and ancestral memories have more of an impact on our bodies than we realize. With the multiple energies I have, as I came to explore and understand my identity, I knew I needed to live within and respect the energies I had been given.
The article The splendor of Gender non-conformity in Africa states: Shaman Malidoma Somé of the Dagaaba Tribe of Ghana says that that gender to the tribe is not dependent upon sexual anatomy.“It is purely energetic. In that context, one who is physically male can vibrate female energy, and vice versa. That is where the real gender is.” Often in villages it was not your sex that determined your role, but your skills, your energy and ultimately what you were able to contribute to the village that determined who you were.
''Each part has a role to play in my existence in this body. One cannot exist without the other, just like the sun cannot live without the moon.''
Psychological, emotional and psychosocial warfare has, and still is being waged amongst Black bodies and specifically Black women. I cannot conform to this reality - as it will not save me, nor do I want it. I cannot let the western societal norms, which have also been taken over by many Black individuals, tell me how to move within my own body. Especially the norms which deem women as lesser than, are centered around anti-blackness, or where there is hatred towards LGBTQ+ individuals. My spiritual and emotional experiences with Black womanhood and with my gender nonconformity fuels one another. Each part has a role to play in my existence in this body. One cannot exist without the other, just like the sun cannot live without the moon.
Butler J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (Abingdon: Routledge)
Langer S.J (2018) Theorizing Transgender Identity for Clinical Practice: A new model for understanding gender. (JKP)
Wolynn M (2017) It didn’t start with you. (Penguin Books)
Photography by Ayahtah Ayahtah
About Zee Monteiro:
Zee (they/she) is a writer and poet. Both in their writing and poems they challenge the reader to reflect and engage on topics relating to Blackness, Spirituality, Transness & Female Masculinity.
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