As a Black, non-binary, male-presenting queer person, my existence is often unfamiliar and confusing to others. Many people don’t really understand that gender can be much more complicated than just what men and women “look like” — much less how Blackness affects all of this.
Consequently, folks commonly just decide for themselves what my race and gender mean together — without asking me in an appropriate manner.
As a result, much of my time is consumed with reasserting my right to exist as I am.
This right is consistently challenged by friends, foes and strangers alike in many different ways — oftentimes without that person even being aware of what they are doing to me.
I constantly receive the message that there is only one valid way to act out gender and Blackness and that way is different than mine. My mannerisms, presentation and the language I use to describe myself must align with how others are able to easily comprehend or I will be corrected, sometimes violently.
Hearing these messages so often, it’s hard not to come close to believing that I am doing something wrong simply by living my life. They function as attacks on my way of owning myself, ultimately, though frequently only subtly so.
The effects of constant exposure to these microaggressions over an extended period of time has serious implications. Many times they work to gaslight me into believing I don’t actually deserve to exist as I am.
If just being myself isn’t enough, why am I me? What purpose does being me serve? Why should I get to define myself?
The reality that I can be no other way doesn’t end the consistent effort to force me to be something I am not. And the emotional and physical exhaustion of constantly having to repeatedly affirm myself, in so many different ways, over and over again, to so many people, sometimes makes it seem easier to just give up.
In considering these damaging effects, I came up with this list of specific inalienable freedoms that should be universally recognized as not being up for debate.
These ten non-negotiable principles are just as much a guide for others who interact with folks like me as they are for myself and other Black, non-binary folks to live by:
1. I Have the Right to Challenge Assumptions About Me
Being non-binary and male-presenting, folks who don’t know me often assume I’m a man. This is not the root of the problem — I understand that so many of us are conditioned into thinking men look a certain way.
What is a problem is when my correction of who I really am is dismissed, ignored or outright rejected.
Add to the mix the assumptions made about my Blackness and queerness, and together they don’t only just take away my prerogative to self-determine, but can also lead to dangerous situations where my livelihood might be threatened by preconceived notions rooted in anti-Black, anti-queer bigotry.
Prejudice is human, but it is not inescapable — nor is my right, need, and determination to challenge prejudice.
2. I Have the Right to Grow Into Different Genders and Sexualities or To Change My Mind about My Gender and Sexuality
My gender and sexuality are journeys, and the further along I go, the more I understand about them.
Sometimes those understandings change drastically. Sometimes they change in a short period of time. Sometimes I find myself back where I was before.
That is fine. This is my body. My gender. My sexuality.
If my gender and sexuality were simple and unchanging, sure it would be easier for others to digest, but it also wouldn’t be what it is. Digestibility does not trump reality.
3. I Have the Right to Be Black, Queer and Non-Binary At the Same Time, All the Time
I am whole. I am always whole.
My Blackness informs my queerness and gender. My queerness informs my gender and Blackness. My gender informs them both.
The various parts of me might show up when I want them to and how I want them to (though sometimes I have little control over that), but they are always there.
I will not let white folks claim my gender and sexuality. I will not let cisgender heterosexual men claim my Blackness.
I do not have to put one part of myself aside for any other.
4. I Have the Right to Be Uncomfortable, Voice My Discomfort, and Leave Uncomfortable Spaces
Racist, queerantagonistic, sexist people and spaces harm me. That harm is real. I do not have to ignore it.
I do not have to stay silent about it. I do not have to remain in those environments or in those relationships if I can get out.
My speaking out or removing myself may be discomforting for people who aren’t used to anyone challenging or breaking ties with racist, queerantagonistic, sexist people or spaces, but that discomfort does not take precedence over mine.
5. I Have the Right to Make Mistakes
I have committed myself to fighting various systems of oppression, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes fall into them.
It doesn’t mean I haven’t internalized anti-Blackness, queerantagonism, or gender misconceptions, and it definitely doesn’t mean I haven’t participated in systems of oppression that don’t directly marginalize me.
I am human. I fuck up just like everyone else. That should never be used as an excuse to continue fucking up, though.
Just like I have the right to make mistakes, it is imperative that I grow and learn from those mistakes.
6. I Have the Right to Not Know Everything about Race and Gender
I do not need to be a spokesperson for all Black, queer, non-binary people. Race, gender and sexuality have many different facets, and not all of them have to be my area of expertise.
I do not need to have a Ph.D. in race or gender studies to explore my race and gender. I don’t need to know everything. No one knows everything about race and gender.
I’m not a race and gender encyclopedia. I don’t have to educate everyone who asks about my journey, especially at moments when I don’t even know where I am.
I don’t have to give my energy and time upon demand to represent my demographic without compensation.
7. I Have the Right to Be Sexual or Not Whenever I Decide To Be
Exploring my sexuality publicly does not mean the public gets to explore it personally. I choose whom I decide to lay with and love (though that may be a political decision).
I can choose not to invest sexual or romantic energy into people who belong to communities oppressive of me.
If I choose not to, no matter what happened leading up to that point, my “no” to any sexual experience is always legitimate. If I was not able to properly consent, a “yes” is always illegitimate. None of that changes because of race, gender, or sexuality.
I do not have to participate in the fetishization of me. My Blackness, queerness or gender is not an exotic item up for order.
8. I Have the Right to My Body and How It Is Presented
I can present as male and still be non-binary. How I feel comfortably in my body does not indicate how I feel in the gender my body might look like to you.
I can wear however much or little clothing designed for any gender and still be non-binary. I can look as femme as I want and I still deserve to be treated with respect.
I can sag, wear hoodies, or look as much like a nigga from the middle of Cleveland as I want and still deserve to be treated with respect.
My gender presentation does not mean I want to play any particular gendered role within a sexual or romantic relationship.
9. I Have a Right to the Full Range of Human Emotions
I do not have to be tragically oppressed. I should not feel guilty for my joy. I deserve positive experiences, people and love.
I am allowed to love. Making mistakes as a Black queer in love does not mean love is a mistake for Black queers.
But I am still human. Oppression is difficult. Multiple oppressions, even more so.
My negative emotions are also legitimate. My emotional struggles do not mean I have failed. I should not feel guilty for my sadness.
I am allowed to take time to care for myself.
10. I Have the Right to Envision and Demand a World That Is Not Oppressive
I do not have to be content within racist, sexist, queerantagonistic spaces. I have the right escape however I can.
I have the right to surround myself with people who will keep harm to a minimum. I do not have to spend all of my time forcing myself to the white supremacist table that has no meal for me.
I do not have to accept that the way things are is “just the way it is.”
I will not limit my imagination to a world not made for me. If it does me harm, I have the right to critique it, even if it is “a step in the right direction.”
Even if it is an ally. I can commit to revolution even if I don’t (yet) know how to get there.
I welcome anyone challenging me to be a better human being. I always welcome new knowledge about my race, gender and sexuality.
This should in no way be read as a rejection of all questions or challenges.
But some questions and challenges are simply well camouflaged attacks. It is important that Black, non-binary folks feel comfortable refusing to engage with those attacks, and it is important that those who claim to love us know to refuse to wield them.
Hari Ziyad is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a Brooklyn-based storyteller. They are the Editor in Chief of RaceBaitR, a space dedicated to imagining and working toward a world outside of the white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalistic gaze, and their work has been featured on Gawker, The Guardian, Out, Ebony, Mic, Colorlines, Paste Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire, and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can find them (mostly) ignoring racists on Twitter @RaceBaitR and Facebook.