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Gender Nonconformity and Dating in New York City

queer love imageIn spite of the many configurations of queer dating in this vibrant and complex city, a series of recent encounters have given me pause, pushing me to ponder over hetero-normativity and queerness — specifically, what kinds of relationship and sexual expectations are often placed on masculine black bodies. What does it mean to be a genderqueer or Trans masculine black person in queer dating scenarios and which gender roles do we feel most comfortable with? What’s typically expected of us in these areas and how does this fit with our actual feelings and desires? And finally, how do we negotiate desire, privilege, love and safety in relationships with other Trans or Cis identified people?

First let’s name some terms.

These are words that, in my experience, a number of queer folks, specifically queers of color, use to express their masculinity and/or disassociation from the gender binary — boi, aggressive/AG, butch, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, trans, trans man, boifemme (for more on this read Z’s “I’m Neither Butch Nor A Top”), soft AG and butch queen. I pulled more from the Transjustice myspace page: gender variant, gender deviant, butch lesbian, drag queen, bi-gendered, two spirit, drag king, femme queen, non-gendered, cross dresser, gender-bender…you get the idea. There are probably as many words and identities within this as there are people.

Trans masc — on — Trans masc action:

A good friend of mine, a black Trans masculine person that we’ll refer to as X, and I were chatting recently. We’ll also use the pronoun “them” because X (like me in some respects) doesn’t identify with masculine or feminine pronouns. Well, X is drawn to all kinds of people, regardless of gender and expression. X often uses the term pansexual to explain their sexual orientation. Well, X was complaining about how hard it is to approach (i.e. ask out) other black trans masc people. In clubs, parties, gay pride-like events or other queer social spaces, approaching these types of folks usually resulted in a mix of reactions, often bad: from mild rebuffs to open hostility.

“I just don’t understand why I get treated like a freak when all I’m trying to say is ‘I think you’re hot?’”

I don’t fully understand either. What is it about trans “masc-on-masc” action that is so destabilizing for some?

Case in point, this is what greeted me one post-work evening when I opened up my facebook account:

“I’m a trans man and I like gurls! Two trans guys together really freaks me out! Anyone ever heard of anything ridiculous like this??”

I looked at the black face next to the post, sucked my teeth in disgust and quickly un-friended.

It’s 2012 and I live in New York City where, mercifully, queerness takes on many forms. Relationships involving folks whose identities and ways of being disrupt the gender binary in many inspiring ways, are also quite common. Yet, in my experience, seeing two black trans or genderqueer masc people walking down the street holding hands, or hanging out in the parks kissing and canoodling, is quite a rarity. So much so that when I do see such a sight, I do something I hate to do or hate being done to me — I gawk. But the one difference between my type of gawking and that of the many random cis people who stare, and often jeer, at trans people in public spaces, is in my case I want to applaud; I want to give that couple all the support and affirmation that their attraction and love deserves.

AG on AG action:

First off, I’m no AG. Trans guy, trans masculine person, genderqueer, gender fluid — these are all words that fit me, some more so than others. The black folks I know who identify as such say that AG or aggressive is “this generation’s answer to the term ‘butch.’”

I remember years ago attending a benefit concert at a super packed medium-sized club. It was mostly dark, save for the blue-green-yellow spot lights illuminating the stage and the band occupying it. The band was working hard that night. Their half naked beautiful black bodies were covered in sweat as they jumped, gyrated, and jammed to their own music, getting the mostly people of color crowd worked up! My friend, let’s call her Y, and I were lost in the moment, feeling one with the crowd, with the music, and with everything happening around us. It’s one of my favorite memories of Y and me. The moment was very short-lived though, because not long after that Y caught sight of someone.

“My ex,” she said, jutting her chin at a stocky masculine black person standing not too far from where we were, sporting a fit-it cocked to the side of their head, baggy colorful shorts down to their shins, a crisp looking polo shirt. They were in some ways dressed similarly to Y.

“Which ex?” I jokingly asked, as I liked to tease Y about her “way with the queers.” She didn’t respond with her usual sly smile, rather she muttered a name and said nothing more. The sadness on her face was quickly evident.

Ah. I remembered this ex.

This was the one AG-identified person she had fallen for, yet the uniqueness of their relationship — they both being AG — and the fact that, at the time, no one else around them understood or supported them, was too much to handle. So, soulful connection or not, they called it splits. Today, Y is quite satisfied with what she has going on in the dating department, but sometimes I wonder. If that relationship had been given the space, nurturing and support it needed to thrive, where would Y be? Also, are things much different today? Can black AGs date each other, express affection freely and publicly, without fear of reprisal or being ostracized from fellow black queers or gays or SGLs or…[insert your term of choice here]?

Butch — on — Femme  or  Femme — on — Butch action:

What if you’re a trans, genderqueer or gender nonconforming person who passes as one of the two conventional gender categories mainstream society foolishly insists on maintaining (male/female, woman/man)? What happens when a trans or genderqueer person passes as a black man (in world where black men are hyper-masculinzed) and ends up in dating relationships with cis-identified women? In Trans Queers: A Transfags Sex Journal, (a blog devoted to dialogue on the sexual politics, desires, and practices of trans masculine folks of color) one of the bloggers bemoans the fact that he’s automatically and constantly perceived as Dominant/Butch/Top in queer dating relationships, simply because he sometimes passes as a black man. I remember, back in the early days of my gender transition, shying away from relationships with cis women or men because of this fear. In dating situations, I felt freest with other trans or genderqueer folk, people who had a more versatile approach to their sexuality, as opposed to folks who identified strictly as “top” or “bottom”. In some ways, this is still true, but now in my 30s I’m realizing that I’m a balancer of sorts, i.e. I can respond to a relationship dynamic in a yin-yang sense…as long as there’s a shared understanding that dynamics are not static. A recent acquaintance, an incredibly artistic black Trinidadian cis gay man, used the term “lobo” to describe this way of relating. I’m not fully sure of the origins or history behind this word, but my understanding is that it describes someone whose sexuality changes according to the type of partnership they find themselves in. It’s probably a lot more complicated than that, but fluidity is the key here.

Unfortunately, hetero-normativity may still have a stronghold on us queers or LGBT folks. Oftentimes we may want to replicate rigid masculine – feminine gender roles. I know from personal experience it’s a tough habit to kick. If you and yours have made a conscious choice to relate to one another on solely masc-fem or butch-femme terms, then that’s beautiful because you’ve thought this out, come to understand your own authentic desires and made a decision together.  However, what about us genderqueers or trans folk of color who are more fluid and can’t be pinned down as one or the other? What about us black gender nonconforming folks who like a variety of genders, expressions and relationship/sexual dynamics? Do we always have the freedom to express that gender and sexual fluidity that feels so natural in our intimate partnerships?