October marks Black History Month in the UK, as it is celebrated during the month of February in the US. This month is not just important – it is an essential reminder that as Black people we have had our story hidden or told through a white lens.
There’s a real hunger for the affirmation we get when we unearth Black stories, and for the inspiration we get when we celebrate the stories of those who came before us. As much as this is true, it can be a bittersweet moment for Black queer people.
There’s plenty of information going around. Some of it is useful and affirming, and some of it reads as an obligatory post to mark the occasion. When Black pain at the hands of racist violence takes centre stage, or quick resources on how to be a better ally, with little nuance or consideration on who it is written for, or who will really be benefited or negatively impacted by it, it’s understandable that we’re left with a bitter aftertaste. It is with this backdrop that I write this love letter to Black Queerness. Sharing a personal reflection, in hopes it will find the one(s) who might relate to it.
My name is João, I’m Black and I’m non-binary. I say non-binary because that’s the best descriptor I know within the constraints of western language and its understanding of gender. I do not know what nomenclature my queer Black ancestors used for the way I embody gender, or even if a name was needed for it, as there might not have been a guiding binary to begin with.
I grew up in Portugal during the 90s and 00s, in a biracial household – an Angolan Portuguese household to be precise – where conversations about queerness or Blackness were little and far apart, aside from some ill-informed comments here and there. My extended family practices Evangelical Christianism faithfully and my education was, unsurprisingly, white. I recall plenty of white-washed history lessons, with no lack of emphasis put on Portuguese colonialism as an illustration of benevolent and courageous imperialism. It was taught, and is taught, as something to be proud of, with a heavy focus on the benefits of multiculturalism, with no mentions of the atrocities committed behind this rose-coloured version of genocide.
I volunteer all of this information because it is important context. My upbringing and education have informed the way I experience Black transness. It cemented a lot of insecurities and it solidified a notion of being the odd-one out as something that just is, like an inescapable fact. I’ve come to realise this is not true, but in order to find my way and grow within myself, there’s a lifetime commitment to unlearn and unveil how those early lessons were internalised and what a disservice they were.
Black queerness is still looked at as an oxymoron in many ways; something that is contradictory by nature. I strongly deny this notion. There was a time where I would entertain questions like “Are you Black or Queer first?” I don’t anymore. This type of questioning implies that the two are separate, that I’m only allowed to exist in Black spaces at the cost of dialling down my queerness and that anything LGBT+ related is white by nature, and to experience it or belong I have to denounce or resent a part of who I am.
It sounds simple enough, but it was a hard place to arrive at. This happens because our history as Black queer people was interrupted by colonisation, with the global enforcement of the restrictive cis-heteronormative western understanding of gender and sexuality, as something that is often assumed to be universal and that existed as it is from the inception of time. Sometimes, when people only share part of our identities with us, it’s easy for them to think of us as a Black person with a rainbow slapped on it, or a queer person with a coat of Black or Brown on top. You see, our existence is not a simple additive formula, formed by the summed parts of the racism Black cishet people face and the queer-phobia white LGBT+ people experience. Blue and red makes Purple. While blue and red are part of it, Purple is still a whole different colour, and so are our experiences as Black queer people.
Sometimes, when people only share part of our identities with us, it’s easy for them to think of us as a Black person with a rainbow slapped on it, or a queer person with a coat of Black or Brown on top
We are not taught about the rich tapestry of queerness and gender non-conformity in pre-colonial Africa. Examples like Nzinga Mbande in 17th century Angola – a person who we would now say was assigned female at birth – who was a ruler that organised their court so they weren’t called a Queen, but a King to their people. Nzinga Mbande dressed as a man and had multiple husbands who dressed in women’s clothing and were known as the King’s wives. In Nigeria, the Bori tribe of the pre-Islamic Hausa people consisted of men called yan daudu – “men who are like women”. They were encouraged to express themselves, had sex with men and lived with women until they took a husband. There are also plenty of examples of worship of ancestral spirits and deities who possess androgynous and intersexual characteristics.
We are instead taught about how progressive western countries are in relation to LGBT+ rights and people, in comparison to Black and African cultures which are just looked at as inherently more homophobic and transphobic, with no discussion on how most of the queer-phobia codified into law is the result of colonial legacy.
At the same time, some interpretations of the Bible and religion can become a vehicle to instil hate and shame on anyone that steers away from rigid expectations of what a man or a woman should be and act like, reinforcing the same stereotypes used to justify the colonisation and the enslavement of people who did not fit the categories created to uphold white superiority. All of this pushes us into “shoulding” ourselves; “I should feel like this”, “I should be like this”.
This paints a stark reality, but like a flower birthed between blocks of cement, Black Queerness always adapts and it is ever expanding and growing. Our history was interrupted but not stopped. Even when mainstream representation of Black Trans and Queer lives was non-existent, based in ridicule, or reduced to daunting statistics, we have historically built community and found the beauty in what can be such a foul world.
I’m often asked what is it that I need the world to understand of me, usually accompanied by the underlying assumption that I have it all figured out and whatever words I string together will represent the entirety of the communities I’m a part of. As if there’s a finish line of enlightenment I’m supposed to reach, where my knowledge of self is absolute and static, never to change again. You see, when we’re constantly pulled into spaces where we have to fit a narrative to justify our existence or to have access to much needed care, we’re left with little space to explore the nuances of our own identities.
Relentless attacks on trans existence create an unhelpful pressure on trans people to present as fully uniformed and unified in our experiences in order to be validated. This sadly pushes us into the same essentialism we try to fight against, having to sell the same palatable version of our lives in order to be listened to.
Like a flower birthed between blocks of cement, Black Queerness always adapts and it is ever expanding and growing
This is not to undermine trans people who identify with seemingly traditional expressions of masculinity or femininity and who have a clear path to their journey. They have played, and play, a huge role in trans liberation and their experiences are extremely valid and warrant my full respect. The problem arises when one specific narrative is upheld as the Trans experience – the universal experience – forcing people to fit into a story that might not be their own. Again, this happens because we’re constantly placed into a position wherein we have to justify our existence through a cis-normative lens; to cisgender people, to transphobes, to gender services and medically gatekeeping specialists, to hostile media, and so on.
Coupled with mainstream representation that mostly focus on trans people who are white, thin, able-bodied, binary as the role-models, when passing as cisgender is revered as the ultimate goal, this narrative will naturally impact Black people, people of colour and those with other marginalised identities the most – those who do not fit these categories neatly. In the end, this stops us from truly radically reimagining gender beyond traditional notions of masculinity or femininity, beyond a binary, and liberation for all gets lost in the process.
For young Black trans and queer people, I see you and celebrate you as you are, for all you went through to get here, and for all that you’ll become – however that journey looks like for you and whether you have a clear goal or not. I hope you are kind to yourself and you know that you do not have to have everything figured out, and not fitting neatly into labels does not take any validity away from who you are. There’s beauty in exploration and you deserve to find your way at your own pace, to radically re-imagine yourself along the way, free of the visions and perceptions the world might want to box you into.
I hope you celebrate all the little steps that bring you closer to feeling at home in your own body, mind and soul. Whether that is getting that outfit you were too anxious to try out, or experimenting different names and pronouns, reaching out when you need support or seeking out spaces that affirm you, and daring to question systems and structures that don’t feel quite right at the moment, even if it’s just an internal conversation or acknowledgement.
From traditions we know little about, to the ones who led and are leading uprisings, to the ones creating art, to the ones standing up and taking up space, to the ones who choose love and kindness despite not being shown any of it, to the ones who dare to question how these metrics aren’t made for us – we’re all connected through time and space, beyond bloodlines.
There’s no amount of cement that can stop these flowers from growing, as we’re part of something bigger that knows no bounds. Our history was interrupted but not stopped, and you’re the living breathing proof of it, a testimony to how we’ve always been here, and we’ll continue to be.
It can get hard, it can be lonely, but just know that there’s a loving community waiting to embrace you with loving arms, just as you are.
João (They/Them) is Trans People of Colour Youth Engagement Officer at Mermaids