Twisted. Fully Queer.
From 9:00am to 3:30pm I was one small black girl among many brown faces. Taiwanese kids. Filipinos. Kids whose parents came from India. My family lived in the suburb of Silicon Valley suburbs, and if you were an affluent brown tech parent, you wanted to send your children to my elementary school. Because my mom taught a class of third graders down the hall, I was privileged enough to attend at drastically reduced tuition rate. I was six and it was our little secret.
My skin tone didn’t stand out. But my hair did. It was very dark like theirs. But it didn’t move like theirs. Mine was stiff. Tugged into clumsy sections, pulled more, then plaited. The ends of my braids were weighed down by clear and burgundy bobbles. So my hair could “hang” like theirs. They slammed the back of my neck if I ran.
New school. Mine was the only brown face in rows one — three. I think an Indian boy sat in row four. He and I were surrounded by pale peach. Muted shades of beige. If it was hot out, their cheeks turned a violent pink when we came inside from recess. I don’t know about him, but the lack of melanin didn’t much disturb me at age eight. I was much too busy growing increasingly alarmed by the difficulties my hair continued to impose upon me.
I asked my mother to straighten my hair with a chemical relaxer. She did. And it burned.
Age twelve. I was still a young black girl. Still one of only two or three kids in my entire grade who (misguidedly) skipped applying sunscreen on field trip bus rides to the water park.
“Gabby!” My classmates twisted their backs and called out to me from three rows of seats ahead. “Who do you like?” Maybe expressions of glee. Probably just mischief.
I was sitting closest to the window. My cheek smushed against the cool glass.
“Um,” I hesitated. Were all fourteen rows of children ears’ perked, waiting for my reply?
I’m not going to tell them. I’m not going to tell anyone. Because I’m not sure I like the answer.
I’m fourteen. My hair is in box braids. Kind of like Janet in Poetic Justice, only not really like that at all. My smile isn’t cute like hers and my braids aren’t neat. They don’t fall delicately against the curve of my waist. This is 2002 and box braids aren’t anywhere near back in style yet in my oatmeal suburb. But I’m 5’9’’ and long and gangly, so they ask me to play forward on my eighth grade basketball team and this is the only style my mother can do that keeps my hair controlled. When it’s braided with synthetic extensions, my hair can withstand daily sweat baths without reverting to an undefined bird’s nest. Which translates to one very important thing: no nightmarish hair wash sessions.
I’m towards the end of the voting line for the junior high school Hall of Fame. Heads turn and word filters down to where I’m standing that I’m on the ballot.
I run my finger down the page, waiting to hit the line that says my name next to the thing that I’m best at.
Vote for Gabrielle Hooks — Tallest Girl
Tallest Girl. Forget seeing my aptitude for success. Or being noticed for my cute smile. We’re talking real potential here to be immortalized in black ink as being the most well-liked of the three unfortunate souls whose torso or legs were so out of proportion, stretched to such a grotesque degree, that we were being called out for it. Put on trial.
I received the most votes.
Seventeen. I’d dropped the basketballs, volleyballs and spiked sprinting shoes. I’d picked up a studded belt, an endless supply of the blackest eyeliner and the bass. I was in punk band. And hey — I’d managed to grow some bangs. Every morning, I’d turn the flat iron’s dial to 350 degrees and clamp it down. Tight. One pass of heat over my bangs. Two passes. I’d proudly sweep them over my right eye in the most dramatic fashion ever.
My best friend was white. While my bangs needed to be manipulated just so, she could do an absent minded sweep over her left eye in sixth period and achieve the perfectly tousled look I was always going for. Or tilt her head back — just a bit — and blow her baby bird feathers away from her own eyes.
But still, they called us twins. Twins with a white girl. The fact that someone thought me similar enough to her to draw that kind of comparison made me (very secretly) swell with pride.
The photographers. The kids that were fumbling into a more queer identity. I hung with them. I cut class (once). Was flirted with by a girl (once). And then I graduated.
In Oakland, California, the queer scene is strong. I was 25, floating lazily in a sea of brown faces. Only this time, there were no secrets. And no one except for the well-meaning liberal-identified white people at my favorite South Berkeley karaoke bar asked to touch my hair.
It was there, after (happily) singing Heart of Glass for the eighteenth time that month to a room full of the Bay’s most politically and socially aware young adults around, a woman named Kareema snapped her fingers and woke me up. I mean, fully woke me up.
I wasn’t straight. Not gay. But queer. A queer woman of color.
I changed my hair again. Parted it into big, chunky pieces. Grabbed sections as I pleased. Twisted them loosely. Let the edges get messy, real fuzzy. For the first time in 26 years, the rain fell on my hair and I did not run for cover.