I was always told what it means to be a man, but being a man never sat comfortably with me. First because of my queerness; the way I love doesn’t mould itself to any concept of masculinity I could lay claim to. Next, my actions, my make-up and mincing, my limp wrist and elastic voice. And finally, my race, my skin, my heritage.
Recently, I took part in a training exercise with Gendered Intelligence, the largest registered charity for trans people in the UK. In it, participants were asked to describe their trans journeys from childhood to the present day. As I stared at my blank page and my capped pen, it occurred to me what a tangled mess that journey is. It’s made up of different terrains. To walk through my gender is to swim through my race; to understand what I am is to make sense of where I’ve been.
I cannot be non-binary without being queer and brown. They are parts of a matrix, they influence and inform each other. And while I’m grateful for an exercise that allowed me to babble about who and where I was, ten minutes is not enough to shape those thoughts into something useful. Even now, as I take the effort to think and digest, to pick apart the knots of my history and reshape them into a narrative that makes sense, I am almost at a loss. But that’s okay, I think I’ll always be at a loss with gender, and right now the act of speaking matters more than being understood.
I was born in Jordan as a Sudani citizen and raised in England from the time I was nine months old. My mother is a Palestinian-Jordanian woman and my father a Sudani man. My birth certificate is in Arabic, a language I can only read with hours of work and access to Google, and my childhood took place on the border between cultures. I was raised with tea and mint leaves, fish, chips and ful medames.
By eleven it was fairly clear to me that I would never marry a girl. By twelve I hated myself for it. Bombarded as we are with representations of queer hating Arabs and Africans it seemed my only course for salvation was to assimilate into the world of white tolerance. I shied away from my parents and the heritage they represented, only to find myself still different, still brown, still carrying the weight of history in my skin.
But I was still a boy; effeminate, insecure, but still a boy. At that point in my life I had yet to question my gender in any meaningful way, as I had yet to question my race and what it meant. But it is not an accident that as I delved into one, questions surfaced about the other.
At Uni I learnt to worry at the roots of my identity. Having a middle class safety net allowed me to explore those questions in an institution designed for people like me, at least within the confines of my race and until my parent’s income took a hit during my dad’s battle with cancer. But more, attending Uni was my first introduction into a queer world that existed away from the internet. There were actually people like me, queer and trans black and brown people that lived and breathed and formed communities.
Gender is not only how the world understands you (or, for many trans people, how it does not) but how you interact with and understand the world. For that reason, every trans journey is a personal one. I cannot sit here and say that my journey is typical for any group, only that I can use it to highlight how gender, race and sexuality feed off each other.
What I can say is that gender is a cultural construct, that much is no secret. How you locate your gender or even what genders there are varies with time and place. And the context we find ourselves in now is important, especially for black trans people and other trans people of colour. When Shaadi Devereaux, a black trans woman and writer, highlights how black women are only ever seen to imitate petite and white “true beauty,” she points out that any confrontation with gender is also a confrontation with whiteness. Settlers in the Americas attempted to wipe out indigenous Two-Spirit identities. 19th century Orientalism painted the image of effeminate men and exotic women haunting the Orient for the Western mind. Academic Hazel V. Carby writes about the cult of true womanhood in the American South, an ideology of gender which stressed domesticity and barred black women slaves access to femininity. Today, black women and men are hypermasculinised, East Asian men and women are hyperfeminised, muslim women are denied respectable womanhood, and whatever non-white race or gender you are, you are hypersexualised. In every case, when the context is here, now, in this country, in this language, gender is gatekept by whiteness.
So, in my experience, manhood has always been out of reach. The discovery of my queerness caused a rift between myself and any version of masculinity I could claim. I could not be a man by the standards of my parents, despite the long history of queer sexuality before the arrival of western colonialism, and neither could I be one by the standards of the country I grew up in, where the only wholesome masculinity is white. The men who looked like those in my family were always the terrorists or the thieves, the abusers and patriarchs. They were always, somehow, corrupt.
And besides, I was both African and Arab. I was British but I was foreign. I was not wholly anything. Doesn’t it make sense, for someone who lives straddling those identities, to turn that questioning gaze inwards? When older white people stare at me, wondering where I’m from and how I got here, how far of a leap is it to turn to myself and ask where I belong? Not in Jordan, Palestine or Sudan, but neither completely in the Britain which has assured me of my otherness. Not in the masculinity of my father, silent and reticent, or even in the subtle strength of my mother’s femininity. And never, of course, as the white British man or woman I should aspire to be. I am just as much adrift in gender’s seas as I am in the ones surrounding continents.
I have always said that gender never really made sense to me, but then again, how could it? Nothing about my identity ever has done. But it was nice to feel pretty; it felt good to do my nails. I allowed myself a break from the expectations of masculinity and I liked it. So my thoughts began to shift, I started to reassemble my identity from the bottom up. And I’m still in the process, still working to pick away the detritus of life from the person I want to be, but I’m getting there.