Browse Tag: gender

Love and Afrofeminism: Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing

This post is part of my guest blog series called Love and Afrofeminism for BITCH magazine.

One night my friends and I went salsa dancing at a straight club. It doesn’t get any more gendered than that. My girl had been asking me to go dancing with her for months. I had finally acquiesced, and was really looking forward to it. But the minute we got to the club, my confidence made for the door, leaving me stranded, feeling weird and freakish. I became very aware of myself as a woman in men’s clothing, not short, not tall, black girl, poor girl, what are you doing here?

In my mind, I knew it was silly. I’m a great dancer. But something about that hall filled with really straight-looking people triggered my discomfort in a major way. I felt my girl pull my hand as she began leading the way, her straight friends following closely behind us, taking off their coats as they glided through the busy dance floor in that way some women do when they know they have eyes on them. I felt awkward shuffling along behind them, straining to keep my shoulders back and my face blank to feign disinterest, a cover for how insecure I felt in my ill-fitting clothing (at least compared to what everyone else was wearing). We hung our coats, and began looking for our friends. A song came on that everyone seemed to like, and I dug it. I was beginning to relax and settle into myself as we approached our friend’s table. I figured I’d dance with my girl and soon forget about where we were. She always had that effect on me, so our dance was something to look forward to.

silhouettes of people salsa dancing

But before I knew it, I felt her drop my hand. I turned to my left, and saw that a slick haired older Latino guy had taken her other hand and pulled her unto the dance floor for the current number. She’d innocently obliged, 1-2-stepping away and swaying her hips to let her know that she was down, and twirling away from me as I stood there feeling more awkward than ever, abandoned, and embarrassed. My eyes darted around in search of familiarity, a safe harbor to crawl into. But I realized that our party had dispersed into the night and I was the only one not dancing. All three ladies had found male partners, so what did that mean for me? I wasn’t nearly comfortable going up to any of the straight women to ask for a dance and face high school humiliation. I wasn’t pretty enough to fare as competition, nor was I macho enough to warrant any other kind of attention. So they completely ignored me (but for the few that blatantly stared in pity or disdain).

Eventually, I found the friends we’d intended to meet. Relieved, I grabbed a beer, and found my station in the corner, where I planned to remain for the rest of the night. Eventually, my girl came back to me, sweat beads all along her forehead from at least three rounds of salsa, and the familiar glow of being around her people that I recognized. She was smiling when she approached me, but my face held stern. She gestured to me to dance with her and I abruptly refused, taking another sip from my beer so that she couldn’t read me. Yet, even I couldn’t understand the way I felt at that point.

It wasn’t jealousy. My girl and I were in love and I didn’t have any insecurities about her dancing with straight men. It wasn’t even that Slick had gotten the first dance—I wasn’t that kind of macho. No, it was something more. And it took me several hours, long after we’d left the club and were safely in bed, to articulate, even to myself.

I had felt unsafe in that space. The night had represented every micro aggression I’d ever experienced from straight people: cab drivers that kicked me out in the middle of the night because they wouldn’t tolerate “that” at the back of their cabs, store managers who kept insisting I’d find better clothing in the women’s section, every gay boy that looked me up and down with disdain because I wasn’t conforming to their inherited fucked up view on what a woman should look like or wear to be “fabulous,” straight women who blatantly ignored me because I didn’t fit in the coop, and femme girls that ranted on and on about masculine privilege, but hardly ever acknowledged that their pretty privilege made their worlds so much bigger than mine. That my girl could mindlessly shimmy onto a dance floor even as a gay woman and enjoy the simple pleasure of a dance, go out with her straight friends to bars and not be stared at or called names, etc., while everything about the landscape, from the “Ladies free before 11PM” sign to the man-woman dance partner pairings made me so angry all of a sudden. And, I didn’t know how to handle it.

All the memories I’d retained of my life as a straight girl, or even as a heteronormative queer femme (as I explored my gender shortly after coming out) came rushing back to me. I remember when people smiled brightly at me when I walked into restaurants—”How can I help you, miss?”—and I would smile back, knowing that I could get whatever I wanted simply because I was pretty. I remember being able to play up the damsel in distress card whenever I arrived late at the airport, scuttling along in heels and designer hand luggage, and the two or three guards would help me cut the line to make my flight, with an upgrade just because. I’d given all that up for the sake of being authentically me. I didn’t regret it, or take it back. But becoming so aware of my lack of privilege, now, in those spaces, made me upset that it didn’t occur to anyone else to be more considerate of how I felt.

What I’d like to share with you isn’t about who has more privilege or who can pass, etc. I’m not interested in setting up an hierarchy of oppression. Life is fucked for a lot of us in more ways than we can calibrate, so instead, I’d like to share something else with you all, a few tips about how to be more supportive of people like me.

As a gender non-conforming (most of the time) boi who is dating a femme-identified woman, I have my responsibilities to her that I take seriously. I don’t tolerate stupid misogynist jokes at her expense, I don’t belittle her in front of anyone to validate my masculinity, when people assume that we stick to gendered roles in our household, I let her respond / answer honestly. I treat her with respect, always—as we should each other, regardless of how we identify—and I celebrate how powerful, and how protected I feel in spite of how scary the world can be sometimes, and I ask that she does the same. What we discovered that night is that there is more that she could do to make sure I feel seen, respected, and advocated for in gendered spaces.

So, here are a few tips we’ve discussed as a couple that I’d like to share with you, in case it resonates, and most especially, if you ever go salsa dancing:

1) Recognize you have “pretty privilege”: As a cisgender, female-bodied person, you are able to move in and out of spaces because of your perceived heteronormativity—i.e., you are “a girl who still looks like a girl” to regular folk, you have passing privilege, and not everyone’s gender presentation grants them that much ease of access to straight spaces. So please don’t talk badly about those “queers who only hang out with queers” especially as a femme woman. It hurts. I have so many kinds of friends, that know and trust me. But I can’t be dumped in the middle of blond highlight, Aldo stilettos Boston without warning. It’s ME they’ll stare and jeer at, not you.

2) Check the temperature of a space to ensure safety of your gender non-conforming friends: Similarly, as you can move in and out of spaces, check the pulse of a room before you invite your partner to enter it. If you are both invited to a straight friend’s gathering, give them warning. If you are frolicking downtown and just want to choose a bar to go to, it may be good for you to walk in and assess the environment, rather than go through the humiliation of entering a place and then having to leave because people are assholes / staring / your partner is not comfortable.

3) Please do NOT use emasculation as a way to put me down, make fun of me, or belittle me. I can’t tell you how much it infuriates me to hear femmes go, “Oh I can be a butch / stud / insertwhatevermasculinelabelhere, all I need to do is put on some baggy jeans and wear a hat.” My identity isn’t reduced to what I wear. I would never trivialize who you are by reducing your femininity down to some lipstick and earrings. This is not to say that I donít appreciate people who play with fashion / gender expression—I do. So I’m specifically referring to situations in which it’s used to belittle / emasculate someone / put them down by suggesting that their gender / how they feel about themselves is a cheap performance, and doesn’t go any deeper. As I’m sure you can imagine, for gender non-conforming / transgender people who choose not to / don’t have the funds to be able to transition (via surgery / hormone therapy), this is extremely hurtful.

4) Don’t use boilerplate rhetoric about sexism against me. If I don’t mistreat you or put you down, please don’t automatically pathologize me as such. I’ve always advocated for women; I’m a staunch feminist. Let’s not inherit stereotypes about masculinity from straight people and naturally assume that I’m a misogynist asshole simply because I present more masculine. Innocent until proven guilty, okay? Then I definitely want you to call me out on it. In fact, please do. The last thing I want is to turn into the kind of person whose masculinity can only be affirmed by putting down other women.

These suggestions have obviously been very personalized to fit my own relationship. My partner identifies as femme, and I’m more masculine presenting; the dynamic between us in public spaces may be slightly different (or even perceived as such) based on gender roles and societal expectations. However, even if this doesn’t apply to you—you’re a straight, cis couple, two butches dating each other, two femmes, multiple partners, etc.—I do think keeping this in mind as a way to be more considerate and caring of gender non-conforming people can’t hurt.

Have you had similar experiences? How did you handle it? What other suggestions/tips would you add for supporting people who don’t conform to society’s dogmatic gender norms when out in public (and other typically gendered) spaces?

Oh, and for the record, my partner and I have been practicing our Latin dancing (I’ve gotten so much better), and we are determined to learn how to dance like this. Who’s with us?

Previously: Gender Roles and First Date, Who Pays?, Introducing a New Series on Love and Afrofeminism!

Image: onlinsalsa via Flickr

The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women: Progress and Pitfalls for LGBT Rights

Given the recent news about Liberia’s president fence-sitting on the issue of current anti-gay Liberia law, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address gender bias within an African context.

(I maintain that “traditional” gender roles haven’t been adequately explored as the root cause of many intersecting societal problems, e.g. sexism and homophobia,  and that Africans — straight or gay — should work together towards their elimination if we stand for true progress. Here’s my explanation.)

My search for information on successful models for promoting gender equity in Africa led me to an article about The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women, the first comprehensive legal framework for women’s rights in Africa, and an international governing tool that seeks to “improve on the status of African women by bringing about gender equality and eliminating discrimination.”

From the UN Women West Africa’s blog:

The Protocol is the first human rights instrument to call on state parties to legislate against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and other harmful practices and also provides for the right to health and reproductive rights. The Protocol is also the first human rights instrument to explicitly provide for the right to a medical abortion when the pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the continuation of pregnancy endangers the health or life of the mother. It also provides for the right to property and inheritance, equal rights in marriage and divorce, and the rights of elderly and disabled women.

In the above summary, I noted almost instantly that there weren’t any explicit protections / provisions made to advocate for sexual minorities (i.e. LGBTQI Africans), which is unfortunate if true (Note: still waiting for comment from UN Women, and will update once I hear back) because the protocol seems to be working; to date, 32 out of 54 African states have taken steps in accordance with the provisions and have implemented strategies to combat the mistreatment of women.

For example, per the protocol, several countries including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania, have legally prohibited the practice of Female Genital Cutting, and  Zambia’s newly established Division of Gender in Development now reviews existing laws that discriminate against women.

In fact, the pace at which many African countries have embraced the opportunity to improve the conditions of women in their countries has been encouraging enough that UN Women and Equality Now (on behalf of pan-African organization SOAWR, Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition) have launched a new initiative to train lawyers across Africa on the protocol’s application using this manual.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if African lawyers were also trained in legal advocacy for non-heteronormative women who are mistreated or denied basic rights for not conforming to dogmatic gender roles? I think there is a case for this, as well as using this framework to hold governments in Africa accountable should they choose to promote or sanction the criminalization of LGBT African people.

For one, a clear stance against using culture as an excuse for the mistreatment of women is already included in this protocol. In fact, President Sirleaf of Liberia arguably earned her presidency on a platform that challenged tradition; her work advocating for the rights of women has even earned her a Nobel Peace prize. (Ironic, that this same position is what is keeping her from walking the talk when it comes to providing protections for LGBT Liberians.)

But, more importantly, as a media activist primarily concerned with movement building among African women, I believe that a push to include protections for sexual minorities within the protocol would provide a way for African women’s organizations (including those which are focused on LGBTQI issues) to work together, rather than in separate caucuses.

I foresee some resistance to this of course. In my experience, many African women (even those doing human rights work), much like Liberia President Sirleaf, still view discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation as separate from women’s issues, often paralleling them when they should be discussing them as intrinsically connected. But the same “traditional” gender roles that keep women trapped in abusive relationships (even at the expense of their lives) are the same ones that cause men to view corrective rape of lesbians as a justifiable lesson in womanhood.

So, before we — as African women – can begin making demands of our leaders, perhaps we need to have more conversations among ourselves. Luckily, we don’t need a charter to do this.

“My sisters, my daughters, my friends – find your voice.” — President Sirleaf

PSA For Transgender Awareness Week: Transgender Doesn’t (Always) Equal Transitioning

About a month ago, I wrote a write on my tumblr account in response to numerous inquiries from people right after I disclosed that I was gradually accepting a shift in my gender identity (i.e. feeling way more masculine than I do feminine) about when I would be transitioning. Na wa oh.

So here it is for those of you who didn’t get to read my Rant — Transgender Doesn’t Always Equal Transitioning:

I don’t even feel like I have to explain myself further than this. If I do, I’m talking to you, and I leave you to google, wikipedia, investigate, get some god damn perspective on class privilege.

Not everyone has the means to transition — that includes dollars, family support, community etc. And even beyond means, not every transgender person wants to medically transition.

No one’s trans* identity should be called into question simply because the path laid before them has been dominated and dictated by white trans male coddling media.

Just like not all people of color, lesbians, muslims, immigrants, women etc look the same, not all transgender people look the same.

And just so I’m clear, not every transgender person looks like Chaz Bono.

If one more person asks me ‘when’ I plan to transition, or asks me how I can affirm my gender without having transitioned, or suggests that I’m confused simply because I don’t go by ‘he’ pronouns all the time (as if femininity hasn’t always been badass enough to hold and birth masculinity in the first place), I will explode / burst into flames.

How’s that for hormonal.

I was obviously feeling quite angry and frustrated when I wrote that post. It lasted only a while, and have since then been replaced by a nagging obsession to answer the question: what would transitioning look like for me — a queer Nigerian (who still has fantasies of moving back home permanently)? I promise to attempt to address this more fully in a blog post very soon.

To be continued…

An Immigrant’s Halloween: Blackface, Ghetto Parties, and Disney Princesses

Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make. But before I tell you my secret, you have to promise not to laugh at me. Okay? Alright, good. Here it goes:

I’m thirty years old and I’ve never once dressed up for Halloween.

There, I said it. Is that a big deal? Apparently, it is. I had someone go “Aww, you must have had a rough childhood!” and pout at me the other day. I felt so immigrant, in the way I’m sure many immigrants would understand. Kinda like the way you mispronounced words until someone finally corrected you, and you wondered how long you’d been mispronouncing them and why no one had ever said anything. Poor African. Funny accent. How unfortunate. Don’t laugh. Let her keep talking… and no Halloween? Oy. But I digress.

I’m from a place in the world (Nigeria) where black magic isn’t just found in the movies; stories of husbands attempting to poison their wives in order to sacrifice them to some Babalawo that promised riches in return aren’t told around a campfire; they’re relayed with the seriousness of a child kidnapping (which happened often for similar reasons) and a firm warning for everyone to keep praying for protection because you never know what spells, juju, or whatever else someone may be chanting about you.

Where I come from, Halloween only happened in the classrooms of white/foreign-run primary schools in which little white girls in swinging ponytails dressed up as sparkling fairies, bright-colored caterpillars, wealthy blond princesses, and an occasional culturally appropriated icon — Nefertiti, Cleopatra, a Geisha. Their mothers would sometimes bronze their faces with brown makeup — bought specially for the occasion? —  to make the costume appear more “authentic”. I remember wishing that I could be Nefertiti, or Cleopatra… they were beautiful African goddess, but usually portrayed as light-skinned (which both the cute mixed heritage boys and dark-skinned Nigerian boys at my primary school seemed to like).

I was one of the darkest skinned girls in my classroom, and though I had really long hair, I knew that I would never be able to get it to fall (or sway) like the swinging ponytail leads that dominated our school plays. I also knew that my parents would never have spent money on shiny gold material and Egyptian arm bracelets for a holiday they believed was just about “white people celebrating witchcraft”, so I looked forward to attending school in the United States, where I could fully immerse myself in Halloween, just like in the movies; I’d actually get to see, touch, and carve a real pumpkin, trick or treat without worrying about being kidnapped and sold for parts to juju people, and finally wear a witch costume — complete with a tall hat, green face, and yellow teeth — without teachers accusing me of selling my soul to the devil. I had such simple aspirations.

But during my first semester of prep school in the US, the costumes I saw were less childhood coloring book and a little more… R-Rated. My first Halloween weekend was freezing cold. Okay, it was just 60 degrees, but it felt like the Himalayas to me back then. So, there I was wrapped unfashionably and unfestively in heavy fleece layers of brown and black that resembled a moving laundry heap, while my classmates pranced around in adult-sized furry onesies and hormonal teenager garb. I remember the long line that stretched like a Noah’s arc procession of adult fairytale creatures from the the student assembly hall into the common grounds outside.

I recall the familiarity of the swinging blond ponytails — it seemed they ruled playgrounds even tens of thousands of miles away from my home across the Atlantic. I remember noting, however, that the innocence of their white privilege had re-branded itself post-puberty as intentionally provocative personas — naughty school girls, beauty queens, and virgin cheerleaders. The “pretty girls” of the world who once flit around small classrooms in bright pink Disney princess frocks, now strut down hallways in crimson lipstick and black fingernails, wearing ultra short booty shorts, pleated mini skirts that exposed un-aged butt cheeks, and baby Ts that said things like “Cherry Pop” and “Eat me, I’m Sweet”. Needless to say, to an African immigrant who was still trying to make sense of her surroundings, I was pretty sure that my parents would have placed Halloween on their Things That Will Destroy Us with Shame list, right at the top with drugs, prostitution, and MTV’s Spring Break.

So I searched to find space for myself on the flip-side of risque; the kids who fell outside the “cool” crowd — the politically inclined, the art geeks, the emo goths — all seemed to embrace Halloween as an excuse to make bold statements (usually against the dominant vanilla school culture) about who they were. I could have been down with this idea, but the only costume themes I surmised warranted presenting oneself as alien and/or depressed: dead presidents, political revolutionaries, witty takes on vegetables and/or fruit, and apathetic versions of “just myself since I’m always weird and scary anyway”. In college, however, costumes did more than make statements, they pushed buttons, and at times, caused so much controversy, the dean needed to send an email to quell the uprising of a student protest.

For instance, in my freshman year of college, a group of white (and queer) kids thought it would be funny to throw a “ghetto” party for Halloween, for which people were required to dress up as pimps, hos, drug dealers, and crackheads. Even “gangstuh” rap music was promised (by a white hipster DJ no less — Boston, don’t you dare act surprised).

That same weekend, a white friend of mine turned heads when he dressed up as Bob Marley, in full on brown body paint. I looked up the meaning of “blackface” after being the only person of color at the party in which he debuted the outfit, and having to smile as white people kept stealing glances at me for a reaction. But that experience doesn’t even compare to the party I attended the following day (80s themed) that included a room full of tall white guys wearing black Afro with pick combs in them, an even more R-Rated version of the swinging ponytails (now barenaked playboy bunnies), and an obnoxious prick that kept following me around all evening, demanding to know what I was supposed to be and drunkenly proclaiming that his Afro was bigger than mine. That experience wasn’t awkward — it was downright infuriating.

So, I vowed to wash my hands of the political farce that had become Halloween, and avoid the entire fiasco like the plague each year, because quite frankly, I had plenty of opportunities to remain angry at the stupid shit that ignorant white people said to me throughout the year — whether about my accent, my blackness, my African-ness, etc.  Too much of the other 364 days of the year contained insensitive, xenophobic, culturally appropriating, and downright racist incidents; I deserved at least one day off.

Incidentally, whenever I did entertain the idea of venturing out on Halloween weekend, I would fantasize about being reverse-offensive, culturally subversive, and extremely political — the angry fucking black woman that showed up with a blond wig and all white body paint talking in a valley girl accent, chewing gum with my mouth open, and humping the bar stool for attention (cause that’s how offensive it becomes when Halloween costumes insult entire cultures). One year, I actually thought of a black T-shirt for myself that said, “All the Bob Marley Costumes Were Taken by White People.” But plotting my reverse-offensiveness tactics for Halloween weekend didn’t make dealing with it any easier — it just kept making me angry. And who wants to spend a weekend that is supposed to be fun, angry? I don’t know what’s gotten into me this year (oh right, I just turned thirty), but I find myself yearning for the experiences I almost had in my youth.

For the first time in my life, for Halloween, I want to dress up, go trick or treating, and pose with a wicked pumpkin. I want to buy a sword and defend my woman’s honor like the dashing prince I always pretended to be when I was a kid and my siblings were asleep; I’d beg my girl to dress up as Xena Warrior princess so she can continually reject my grandiose displays of machismo, but make out with me in the car train when no one is looking.

I want to be Elphaba from Wicked, and represent the experience of every black girl that was called ugly by their white school teachers, who felt green with envy over the fact that they weren’t pretty white princesses with glittered wings and minions, yet who discovered their inner magic, their inner will to defy gravity and lead uprisings that made the world better, and less vanilla. And goddamnit, I want to be Storm. Yes, Storm. I know ti’s cliche — a black girl wanting to be Storm, but I don’t care. Storm was the one African superhero I had as a child. I woke up every Saturday to watch her kick ass in the X-men cartoon series. I still pretend Angela Basset played her (and that Halle Berry didn’t completely destroy my favorite afrofeminist heroine with her weak ass performance — ugh, I can’t even talk about it). I should be able to want to be a black female character on Halloween without worrying that I’m being ‘typical’, because goddamnit, Storm kicks ass!

But now what? After thirty years of getting no practice being creative for Halloween, I am stumped for ideas for a costume. Moreover, I’m no longer limited to the middle class earnings of my parents, but to the emptiness of my do-gooder wallet; purchasing a costume isn’t an option. And even if it were, there’s no way I could pull off a costume a la carte e.g. the latest, Nathalie Portman’s Black Swan, the classic Marilyn Monroe, or sexy swinging ponytail school girl. And yes, yes, I know Disney finally gave us poor little black girls a princess (and a racially ambiguous frog, I mean prince), but I’m not twelve anymore so I’m not sure that’s going to work for me.

Am I the only person of color and/or immigrant in this predicament? I’m still doing some research, but in the meantime, I’d really like to know: What costume choices are available to people of color on Halloween (besides Barack and Michelle Obama)?

[box type=”shadow”]Is race still a hot button issue during Halloween? Or is everyone just being way too sensitive? I’d love to hear what you think. Meanwhile, I am thinking about compiling a list of Top 10 Halloween Costume Ideas for POC, so please comment with your suggestions, both for the post, and for me, ‘cause this immigrant African girl is on a mission to get some candy this year.


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