Hey. Not sure if you remember me, I quietly walked past you the other evening holding my girlfriend’s hand as we walked to a restaurant. I was the be-speckled Black one with the fade. Gold chain. Wrist watch. Black muscle tank and shorts. White sneakers. You were sitting on a brown circular bench facing Columbia Road in front of the Line Hotel—you know, the one always in DCist or City Paper for violating some hiring policy or another. I dared a brief look your way—it’s always a risk for someone in my body to make eye contact with a man on the street. Peripheral glances to assess danger is all safety will allow. You were in a white tank. Had a hat, I think. Fingers pinching a recently lit cigarette. You smoked quietly until we walked by.
I’m reaching out because of what you did in that moment. A moment when our lives shared such close proximity we could touch. You raised your voice loud enough to fill the ears of anyone on the block, even though mine were the ones whose attention you hoped to devour. Booming and irritated, you called me a bald-headed muthafucker. Powerful. I know I didn’t stop to tell you this then.
At the time I kept walking. Eyes ahead and face immobile as if sense and expression were lost to me. When a safe distance away, I muttered to my girlfriend, “Every time I leave the house I’m reminded I hate people.” Please don’t be offended by this; for some reason I don’t feel safe when men shout at me. Especially when my closest exit route is traffic. It’s better I go numb, swallow my tongue and glaze over my eyes. Play dead so the beast doesn’t eat me.
Now, I do want to take a moment to note a fade with skin isn’t technically bald. Jo, my new barber at LadyClipper, hooked me up with a nice edge-up and a clean line. A line that wouldn’t have been so visibly crisp if I was, ya know, bald.
Still, I have to tell you I appreciate you. You are the first man to ever harass me on the street with language that didn’t misgender me. Muthafucker, you said. Yes! Any gender can be a muthafucker. Fuck, any species can. Muthafucker. MUTHAFUCKER. You don’t even know.
Listen, I was assigned female at birth. I know this language can be confusing. It was new to me once, too. It’s simple enough once you hear an example. Take my birth for instance. It was the 5th of July. The world should’ve already welcomed me but my mother didn’t want to miss the fireworks by giving birth. The important thing here is that on my first day, my actual first day, I was late. Late, ruddy pink, with a cord wrapped around my neck, and speckled in shit, according to Bald Man (our nickname for my dad). I imagine after my mother pushed me from her womb the healthcare providers at Howard University Hospital Center checked out my crotch. They saw a baby’s vulva and designated me a female. Designated me a girl. A would-be woman. For most of my life I lived that designation as truth. I didn’t know there were other options. I didn’t question the gender binary. I mean, I didn’t know the term “gender binary” until a few years ago. On top of that, family and community raised me in transphobia. Hatred so commonplace it was comedy. I laughed at jokes I’d punch myself for now—actually, I’m only violent in my dreams. It’s more likely I’d glower, then write a passionate, angry essay about the joke after the fact.
Healing is slow. Fast. Slow again.
Gender expansiveness, the possibilities beyond woman and man. Possibilities that don’t center woman and man. Identity we haven’t named. It all seemed inaccessible, incomprehensible. Distant because the terms aren’t mainstream yet, siloed into niches of compassion and precision. Distant because I wasn’t ready. Wasn’t allowed to be ready. Too many violences pinning down my arms, weighing my body in a competition of trauma, emergencies burying the bloom of self-discovery with mere survival. As I began to clear myself of this debris, I lived the word healing instead of rolling my eyes. I needed teachers, survivors of an expedition of body and power. I scrolled their articles. Clicked play on their vlogs. Elders, youth, and peers. I existed in community with them. I made myself vulnerable to what I did not yet know. Opened myself to the possibility that I did not yet know me. What is the word for new understanding? For the knowledge that the knife of assimilation at a Black queer’s throat has many teeth?
Bald Man’s voice asks, “Are you a dyke, now?” A question brought on by a tie tucked into the sweater on top of my collared shirt.
Bald Man’s voice says, “That’s disgusting.” A grimace aimed at a person assigned female wearing clothing assigned male.
Radical queer space spread its arms to hug me tight. Welcoming me in my weird. My sad. My lonely. I dove in. Quickly. Easily. In part to fuck with minimal microaggressions, let’s be real. I was single and thotty. Grief rid me of inhibitions no matter how much anxiety tried to reinforce them. The ass was phenomenal. The kinship was, too. In safer space I witnessed confessions of discomforts I experienced. Learned names for a feeling, an experience, myself. Dysphoria. Misgender. Nonbinary. Genderqueer. I granted myself permission to perform different gender expressions, whether I knew I liked them or not. I gave myself permission to not know, to kinda know, to just play and figure shit out. I learn what feels good by wearing it on my skin, stuffing it in my harness, painting it on my eyes.
Bald Man’s voice says, “I don’t care… my only job is to love you.” An apology leaping from his throat as he held me, crying, his impending death giving him the fearlessness to be hurt. A Black man, hurt. Expressing hurt with tenderness, with love. With tears and fears. Fear of spreading cancer. Fear of death.
He showed me how to be myself without even knowing. When he died, I shattered.
I grew numb at first, all grief.
Grief is slow. Fast. Slow again.
Grief is intermingled with my gender, as all aspects of my identity are. I am a griever always. I’ve just learned to make room for other ways of being, too. I am a griever, and. Learned to ground myself. Root in my own truth. For me, life is not worth living if I’m not trying. At the very least, trying, to be my most authentic self. To change. To transform. To risk. To enjoy.
When Black woman no longer became an assignment I could complete, I embraced the exploration of myself. Of my body. Of what felt good, what didn’t. What words, what clothes, what backpack, what shoes, what makeup, what glitter, what jewelry, what hair, what smells, what tastes, what sounds, what curves, what kiss, what dildo, what packer, what vibrator, what flogger, what food, what plants, what books, what pens, what paper, what people, what community, what aligned with me? What expressed my desire? What showed me myself?
So far, I settle for they/them pronouns because I haven’t experienced a word that reflects me better, yet. Honorific is Mx. The gender marker on my ID is X.
Still, in spite of all of my hard work, the nature of my curves, the softness of my face, and the breadth of my breasts lead street harassers to misgender me. I try to recall the times when I, too, didn’t know. Didn’t know the options. Didn’t know any better. I can’t quite reach for it, though. Because when I didn’t know, I never prowled sidewalks with growls and sharp teeth. Never shouted, hey young lady, smile at a stranger. Ms. thang. Ms. thick. She fine. Never gathered my pack to bark “look at her breasts.” Her breasts.
But you. The one wearing the white shirt seated on the brown circular bench facing Columbia Road, while smoking a cigarette. You were different. You used gender-neutral language. You called me a bald-headed muthafucker. Muthafucker. Thank you.
Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.