AIN'T I A WOMAN
THIS IS A PIECE I WROTE A FEW YEARS AGO LOCATING MY TRANS IDENTITY IN RELATIONSHIP TO MY BLACK WOMANHOOD. SOMEONE IN THE VH1 CHATROOM WANTED TO HEAR MY THOUGHTS ABOUT BEING A TRANS WOMAN OF COLOR. HERE ARE SOME OF THEM.
AIN'T I A WOMAN
"Ain't I a woman.' This is a phrase that's been popping up in my head a lot lately. It's a phrase we all know, of course, from the famous Sojourner Truth speech of the same title. This is a phrase that evokes for me the historic devaluation of black womanhood in America. Ms. Truth said in 1851 at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio:
That man over there says that women need to be helped
into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have
the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into
carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best
place! And ain't I a woman?
She continues on:
I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold
off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's
grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
It's a phrase that one of my favorite writers bell hooks appropriates for the title of her
first book, "Ain't I a woman: Black Women and Feminism". In this book she talked about
how black women were shut out of the first wave of the feminist movement. She located this
shut out again within a history of devaluation of black womanhood within a white racist
Ain't I a woman? Ain't I a woman? This phrase has almost haunted me lately. Certainly as
a transgender woman that is the question isn't it. Am I a woman? But ain't I a woman?
In a gender binary world
trans women can't be women. But one of the important lessons of feminism is that that category
of woman is not a biological imperative. Feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler opens
her famous book "Gender Trouble"
with the well known Simone De Beauvoir quote "One is not born a woman but
rather becomes one." Butler adds that within De Beauvoir's analysis, the one who becomes a
woman is not necessarily female. She adds,"...it follows that woman itself is a term
in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end."
Ain't I a woman.
I site this Butler moment not to be pretentious or academic. But I feel this process of
becoming in my life. I've always felt in my heart that I'm a girl and now a woman. For
years my feelings were more of identification than experience. I remember being in a women's
studies class in college feeling so connected to the issues that were being discussed. I
was very androgynous at the time. Most of the other women in the class perceived me as a
very, very effeminate gay man. As much as I identified as a woman, at the time the
other women in
the class just saw me as a man with the potential to oppress. I recall referring to one of the
women in class as honey and everyone getting on me about that.
LIving for 10 years as a woman in the world, I feel as if the womanhood I've always felt inside
has finally been actualized outwardly. Yet so many still would disavow that womanhood because
of my transgender status. Obviously I know I can occupy multiple spaces. I can be trans
and a woman, but I'm also a black woman. There's a pain that that history engenders that is
very real in the lives of black women right here and now in America. It's a pain that's
similar to the sentiments that compelled Sojourner Truth to ask, "Ain't I a woman" over 150
years ago. It's something that black women in America know if we look around at images
and mindsets that devalue us. But we know it more because we feel it in looks and looks away
and the tones in people's voices, in fashion magazines and other media representations.
I can't help but recall a moment I saw on The Tyra Banks show.
She did a show on how racial perceptions affected attracted. There was one moment when she
asked all the men on stage to stand beside the woman they fantasized about sexually. There
were women of multiple races onstage. No one
stood beside the black woman. She then asked who would you want to marry and take home to
your family. Only another black man chose the black woman onstage in this instance. Though I've experienced a lot
of men who fantasize about me sexually there was something about this moment
that felt real to me that I somehow identified with. I was kind of shocked that no one
chose the black woman on one level but on another I wasn't at all. Even as I've been sexually
objectified by men I've simultaneously been devalued by them. We know these two things can co-exist.
But racial objectification takes on a really interesting dimension in the body of a trans
woman, particularly in the case of a black trans woman. In America it's common knowledge
that historically in the white supremacist imagination there has been a fascination with
the black male penis. The fact that black men's penis's were often cut off pickled and sold
after they were lynched is a testiment to that.
That history is alive and well in new forms today. The black male penis has taken on mythic
proportions in America. It remains an object of fear and fascination. But what happens in this
cultural context when a black woman is in possession of that mythic penis? Does it have the
same mythic dimensions once it is "feminized"? I recall being at a party that catered to trans women and the men who desire us. There was a guy
I considered attractive who I saw talking to all these asian girls throughout the night. I
smiled at him a few times and nothing. Later in the evening one of these girls I knew
introduced us. I jokingly said, "Hi you're cute but you clearly don't find me attracitve."
He said, "No I find you very attractive but you're intimidating." I was fascinated. I
had been told that I was intimidating before. So I wanted to know what about me he found
intimidating. "He said well you have a perfect body, you're stunning and you're probably
bigger than me."
I was shocked and Rupauled (as the gurls would say) that he would even go there, that he would make these assumptions about my body. He was white.
I still find it startling. I mention this story to highlight the complex realities
of the black transsexual body and identity historically and how that history informs how we are
seen and experienced today. Would he find a nontrans black woman as intimidating, His
racist conceptions of the black male penis were clearly displaced onto me. This racism was
also clearly based on his own insecurities about himself as most prejudice is born out of
Finding myself beautiful in a
culture where white female standards of beauty are still the norm, I continue to find
challenging. I've been told I'm beautiful for years and haven't really believed in my heart
that I am. I have issues of my features being "feminine enough" to meet the standards of
my own harsh
critical eye as well as the perceptions of others. For years walking down the street and
not passing meaning not being perceived as a nontrans woman , for example, meant for me in my
mind that I'm not "pretty enough." As I've evolved and grown I've
realized that passing and pretty have nothing to do with each other. But the many times I've
contemplated facial feminization surgery (FFS), I'm saddened to confess but part of
my desires to look more "beautiful", more feminine were to look more white. I'm starting to cry
as I write this. It's hard to admit even to myself this intense level of self hatred centered
around my race. And luckily I can't afford FFS. I'm in a place now where I feel beautiful
as a black woman. It's something I continue to struggle with.
But the kind of devaluation of black womanhood that would make me not embrace my own beauty is
the legacy that has caused the black female body to be the site of so much exploitation. That
history mingled with the history of the exploitative myth of the black male penis are the
histories that are marked and transgressed by the reality of my body. Even with this complex
conversion, I still assert, Ain't I a woman.
In the context of a materialist feminist discourse, we know bodies matter. But we also know
that our bodies are not our destiny. We are more than our bodies. It's this very spiritual
concept that got my slave ancestors through the horrors of that experience, knowing that we
are more than our bodies, finding a space to transcend this material we're living in. But as
a liberatory stance it's important for black people to reclaim our bodies, historically sold
raped, lynched, generally devalued as not beautiful and savage even. But as we reclaim
our bodies it's important not to buy into the racialized mythology about them. My transsexual
body often sought only as a site of sexual conquest and objectification is an interesting
potential site for the subversion of that racist history. So many of the issues that plague
African American culture today are rooted in my assessment in an uncritical relationship by
both many black men and women to Patriachy or institutionalized sexism. This system is
inherently heterosexist, homophobic and, of course, transphobic.
It is my contention that the embracing of the black transsexual woman as a woman in black
culture is an important first step to dismantling the prominence of patriachy in black thinking
which ultimately oppresses all of us. Black men trying to live up to a racist concept of
thugged out masculinity is literally killing them. It's actually my belief that embracing
transgender identities as a whole in this country and finally dismantling the gender binary
system benefits all of us. Dr. Jamie Koufman, the noted laryngeal surgeon said something
during a panel discussion for “The Advocate” magazine that I was recently a part of that I found so
profound. She said, "We are all transgender. None of us fits the gender binary model."
The gender revolution I often imagine and talk about is really about us liberating ourselves
from the oppression of expectations based on this gender model that none of us really fits anyway.
Ain't I a woman? Black America, my brothers and sisters. I love you and claim you. Do you love
and claim me as the black woman I am? My trans identity doesn't make me any less black.
Acknowlegding me and my complex identity is an opportunity for us to reconnect to that dream
of liberation that doesn't exclude but is about all oppressed people joining together to have
a united voice, united in love and the possibility of deliverance. Ain't I a woman.