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Becoming a black man in America

Self-portrait of the author on the fourth anniversary of their first testosterone shot, January 3, 2018.

The year was 2013. My discomfort with my assigned sex had reached a peak, and I began posting on my personal blog and Facebook page that I was considering transitioning to male. Through a lot of reading, conversations, and contemplation, I came to understand that my gender was non-binary, but my subconscious sex was male. So I pondered adopting a more (conventionally) masculine gender expression, in the hopes that I would eventually be read as male rather than female when out and about in public.

Being seen as a man on the street has its advantages, and is normally and rightfully considered to be a privilege. However, I wasn’t just becoming any man on the street; I was becoming a black man. My exploration of gender identity coincided with the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, which helped me begin to see through the lie of respectability politics I’d grown up with.

Raised as a girl by an interracial (black/white) couple, I wasn’t given “the talk” about how black folks are profiled and targeted. I wasn’t taught to regard the police with suspicion. I didn’t understand the continuing, deadly impact of systemic racism. My worldview was distorted by the fact that most of my friends and lovers were white.

I foolishly considered myself to be color-blind, and figured the black folks who got themselves into trouble simply didn’t work hard enough. Class was the issue, I thought, not race. I prided myself on being a black woman who, for a number of years, earned more money than my white husband, and trumpeted that fact as an unmistakable sign of progress in overcoming racial disparities.

All that began to unravel when I read more and more reports of unarmed black men and boys being shot and killed. I could now see myself in their place. I openly questioned whether transitioning to male would be putting a target on my back. Though of course black women (and non-binary people) are also profiled and targeted for violence, I worried that being perceived as a black man would, literally, shorten my expected lifespan.

A white male friend commenting on my blog opined that as I was short (though at 5' 4", average for a US-American woman), slightly built, and middle-aged, I would not be seen as a threat. This was meant to be reassuring, but my height, age, and musculature really should not be determining factors in how dangerous I am perceived to be. Nor should my medium skin tone, which, along with my facial features and hair texture, has made it not always obvious that I’m black. It’s clear to most that I’m not white, however. Having brown skin in the USA is a liability independent of one’s actual ethnic background.

Another, non-black friend suggested that black men are basically ignored on the street. She mentioned that a black man was surprised when she approached him asking for directions. Being ignored on the street sounded good to me, especially as I’m particularly useless at giving directions. And though I didn’t have a history of being catcalled like many women have had to endure, I did often feel that people were staring whenever I went bra-free and wore the low-cut shirts that I preferred for my own comfort. (I still miss wearing them.)

Would I really be ignored on the street, though? Or actively avoided? For the first years of my transition this was a moot point, as I was read as a woman more often than not. I became weary of correcting “Ma’am” and “Miss”, especially as I didn’t really want to be called “Sir” either, but I didn’t have the energy or desire to educate every stranger on gender-neutral language.

After three and a half years or so, I was finally able to grow enough of a beard that I stopped shaving my face clean. With the beard and the male pattern baldness, I never hear anyone address me as “Ma’am” or “Miss” anymore. I still have to wear more layers and concealing clothing than I would prefer, as I refuse to wear a binder and don’t wish to have top surgery, but it’s an acceptable compromise for now.

So for all intents and purposes, I am now seen as a black man in America, with all that entails. Will I be arrested if I linger too long at a coffee shop, waiting for a friend? Will I be shot dead in a relative’s backyard while holding a cell phone? Considering the daily anxiety and dysphoria I already have to deal with as a trans person — a community subject to disproportionate amounts of mockery, discrimination, violence, and suicide attempts and ideation — it’s no wonder that I prefer to spend most of my time alone in my apartment.

Whenever I bring up gender and race issues, I try to emphasize that trans women of color face the most discrimination of all. Being transmasculine does not exempt me from the need to speak out in allyship for my black and brown trans sisters.

But having male privilege does not mean that I’m exempt from targeted profiling, violence, and harassment. This harassment can occur whether or not I’m perceived as transgender. Even seemingly harmless “trolling” can take a psychological toll.

Being a black man in America should not have to mean a greatly increased likelihood of arrest, imprisonment, or violent death. Not in the 21st century. Not in any century. Not one of us did anything to deserve this treatment.

We need to address anti-black racism on a daily basis, and those conversations need to be led by black people. Talking about race is not racist; ignoring race is what perpetuates racism. Don’t go quoting Martin Luther King Jr., a radical who has been relentlessly whitewashed, to shame black folks. The content of my character is irrelevant when people see, and react to, my brown male body on the street.

Never forget that this country was founded by and for the benefit of cisgender white male landowners. White privilege is enshrined in the very foundations of our nation, so dismantling white supremacy is bound to make a lot of white people very uncomfortable. Deal with it.