I thought my transness would betray my Blackness. I was wrong.
Blackness and transness are not opposing forces and they never have been.
If I were to introduce myself to anyone today, I would introduce myself as Loni. I would introduce myself as a non-binary afro-boricua whose gender pronouns are exclusively they, them, and theirs. I would introduce myself as someone who is unafraid to correct anyone who refers to me by my given name, or as “she” or “her”.
I would introduce myself so confidently, that it would be assumed that I have been Loni all of my life. No one would assume that I identified as a cisgender woman up until just a few months ago or that the person I am now is still on their journey of self-discovery and still determining for themself what it means to transition. No one would suspect that my transition has been riddled with dysphoria, suicidal ideation, and anxiety ever since I expressed my desire to only be referred to as they, them, and theirs.
When I began my transition, requiring peers and professors to refer to me using all forms of the gender neutral, singular pronoun “they”, I was motivated by the belief that this would remedy the dysphoria and anguish in one swoop. I soon realized this was misguided and naive.
While the pronoun change did alleviate a significant amount of the dysphoria I had felt, it also left me with much more time to focus on the ways my name, my clothing, my makeup, my breasts, my curves, and my hair made me feel. I had time to sit with the fact that, regardless of whether or not “she” is the pronoun I prefer, “she” is how I would, for the foreseeable future, be perceived.
If I choose to wear a dress and to apply a full face of makeup, I am going to be referred to as “she”, “miss”, and “young lady” for the entirety of that day. Even when I wear my chest binder and choose a button down and khakis, I am simply read as a butch woman. And so, while I am uncomfortable doing so, I continue to present as feminine.
In addition to leaving me feeling despondent and depleted, wrestling with my gender expression has left me feeling selfish, given the historically exclusionary politics of femininity. To quote feminist academic Maria Lugones’ The Coloniality of Gender, “…only white bourgeois women have consistently counted as women so described in the West…Colonized females got the inferior status of gendering as women, without any of the privileges accompanying that status for white bourgeois women”.
Black women have the unique experience of being subjected to both misogynistic and anti-Black violence, but are never positioned equally amongst non-Black women or Black non-women. Black women experience all of the pain their counterparts do and yet are somehow regarded as second-class.
This history and its legacy leave me feeling that my anger about the world ascribing femininity to my body without my consent borders on betrayal to Black women. How can I claim to support Black women when there are times I resent the fact that I am perceived as one? Can I do both? The more steps I take to be comfortable in the body my spirit occupies, the more it feels like my transness and my Blackness stand in opposition to one another.
In June, I informally changed my name to Loni. My given name is a variation of Jelani, a Swahili word meaning mighty or powerful. Though the name is commonly given to both boys and girls, my parents felt it necessary to change the spelling to make my given name “more feminine.” Having others continually refer to me as my given name only reaffirmed my realization that chest binders and pronouns were not enough for the cisnormative society to read me how I wanted to be read.
For the first few weeks, “Loni” felt good. I felt closer to who I wanted to be and to who I felt that I was. Then, I stumbled across an article about Black girls with “Black ass names.” Just a few months ago, I shared a similar article to my social media pages. Seeing the article, I felt guilty. I again felt that I betrayed Black women. I had traded in the label of “Black girl with a Black ass name” for “Loni”, for someone I wasn’t even sure would ever be able to exist in the daylight.
I began to question whether or not my efforts were to combat dysphoria or to make myself more palatable. Loni wasn’t Swahili. Most white folx can pronounce Loni with no problem. I have a better chance of finding Loni on one of those silly souvenir keychains than I ever did with my given name. I had been encouraging Black girls with names like my given one to always correct white folx when they mess up and to never change them, but here I am changing mine to something new and wincing whenever I hear the old one.
A few weeks later came the dysphoria induced hair cut in my bedroom with a pair of clearance safety scissor from Target. I cut four inches off of my bright red, curly hair. As I swept up the hair and dumped it into the garbage can in the corner of my room, I could not help but smile. I felt confident that Loni could exist freely and in the daylight, even if it was just for these two months before I saw my family again.
In the shower that evening, as I finger combed through my hair, I felt the shame that had always followed me throughout my transition return once again. I felt as though I had betrayed Black women somehow.
This time was different though. I had already established that I felt better with shorter hair. I had already established that I wanted to feel more comfortable in my body and my pronouns. My name change and my hair cut all brought me closer to achieving that. I had already established that I am not necessarily no longer a Black woman and that gender is way more complicated for me than I initially thought.
Despite this, I could not help but wonder if somehow I had chipped away at my Blackness to make room for my transness. I wondered if my politics had changed at all, if there was any point during which I chose complacency over solidarity and if I had allowed Black women slip through the cracks. The question of whether or not I can remain loyal to my communities while exploring a new one resurfaced and, for a while, I could not shake it.
Looking back, I realize much of my animosity came out of my fear of change and of the loyalty I felt to Black women because of how isolating it is to be both Black and a woman.
I was fearful of lying at an old intersection in a new way. I learned my role in the world as a Black cisgender woman. I did not know what it meant and still do not really understand what it means to be a Black non-binary feminine person.
I am still fearful of the unknown. What has made the unknown even scarier is that I now feel somewhat isolated from Black women. While I still navigate the world in very similar ways to most Black women, my experiences are changing as I grow into my transness.
I am used to feeling isolated within the Black community, but I was experiencing this isolation as a bi, Black, cisgender woman. It is much different as a bi, Black, non-binary person. The episodes of dysphoria and intrusive thoughts would like me to believe that my decision to pursue a transition can only be regarded as betrayal. I know that this is not the truth and that the Black women I’ve found solace standing in solidarity with do not view me as a traitor.
I no longer feel that exploring both my gender and the way I experience sexual and romantic attraction is betrayal to the Black community, especially not to Black women.
Black women, specifically, have offered me so much love and support in this journey. I almost laugh that I thought for even one minute that this community would abandon me, that I forgot how much Black queer and trans women have contributed to my life and my work, even before I even identified as queer or trans.
Blackness and transness are not opposing forces and they never have been. My transness and my Blackness provide me with such a unique lense to apply to social justice work. While I may not necessarily identity as a Black woman, at least not all the time, I can still love and support Black women. I can still be and still am pro-Black in my praxis.
Indigo, who uses both they, them and he, him gender pronouns, is a Black Puerto Rican lesbian essayist and recovering community organizer. While pursuing their undergraduate degree, Indigo served as the inaugural president of their campus’ Queer and Trans People of Color Coalition, organizing educational program on social, economic, and political issues impacting primarily Black and Latinx queer and/or trans persons. Currently, Indigo is pursuing a juris doctorate degree at CUNY School of Law.