Sissy Sonics

By David B. Green Jr.

Illustration by Maria Bobrova

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Living an LGBTQIA2+ Life

In this piece, I contend that sissy sonics is a unique style of Black music that speaks to the beauty, power, and fierceness of Black queer and trans folx — especially those who identify as femme or effeminate or femme-effeminate. Furthermore, sissy sonics contends that we are love, light, and enough. Period. What follows is a reading of sissy sonics for our black queer souls.

You Make Me Feel

I am a child of the 1990s and I grew up listening to Black music. As an expressive art form, Black music spoke to our soul, reflected our social conditions within an anti-Black racist world, and allowed us to vibe to the beauty of our culture. However, the music of this era did not always welcome the queer, and notably the sissy. Homophobia, misogynoir, and transphobia undergirded the lyrics and videos of the most pronounced music genre of the era: hip-hop. I found, however, refuge in Black women artists like Monica, Brandy, Whitney, Mariah, Toni Braxton, X-SCAPE, SWV, and TLC — my favorite. Although, none these artists are queer, their femininity and black feminist sensibility validated me. Secretly, they made me feel “like a natural woman” and did so in the very ways that Aretha Franklin, as Joshua Gamson notes in The Fabulous Sylvester, helped Sylvester “feel like a natural woman” with his disco hit that shares its name with Franklin’s acclaimed, “You Make Me Feel.”

My inner-sissy manifested powerfully, though, when I discovered Ru Paul’s hit, “Super Model (You Better Work)” sometime in the late 1990s — years after its 1992 release.


As a young inner-city Black sissy, I could never imagine the impact that Ru Paul would have on American culture and music. I was just happy that someone urged me to just be me. As I continue to study Black queer music, though, the necessity of this genre cannot be ignored, devalued, understated, nor dismissed.

As an expression of Black queer music, sissy sonics is political. Black queer artists address the pain and violence that conditions our lives while sissy sonics highlights the inherent beauty, value and cultural richness of being effeminate and femme in our everyday lives. Sissy sonics helps to resist reducing the sissy to a joke, a symbol of entertainment, and a drag that can be worn for temporary leisure. As Marlon Ross notes in Sissy Insurgencies, the sissy has long engaged in political resistance through Black music and art. Through music, Ross helps understand that we Black sissies feel, too. We have emotions, too. We desire to live our lives, too. Violence should not be how our story begins nor ends. Oppression should not be how our story ends. We matter. Our stories matter. Our politics matter. And we must live to tell stories to our children, the black and brown queer youth who must navigate a world built against their survival.

Take for example, Billy Porter’s song, “Children” (1). Porter, a Black gay actor, entertainer, movie producer, author, and activist begins the song by invoking –on the one hand — the specter of the sissy and its negative history — while, on the other hand, super-imposing over that history a beautiful, gorgeous, jaw-dropping embodiment of the Black queer femme: the mother sissy, “whose been there done that.” Porter opens with:

See I know times are hard
Yeah, I mean it from the heart
You’re not losing the fight
Love will make it alright ’cause I’ve
Been there, done that, worn that dress
So you know mama knows it best

Despite the progress made over the years with respect to social equality in the U.S., for Black queer folx, times remain especially hard. By “wearing that dress,” Porter sings of his own history of defying the gendered logics of Black boyhood and masculinity. Porter’s sartorial defiance represents an act of resistance that, in turn, results both in newfound freedom and a political knowledge where “mamma knows it best.”

Furthermore, Porter evokes the vitality of “house mothers.” House mothers created spaces in their homes for Black and brown queer and trans youth who were otherwise rejected by their families and thus kicked out of homes for being gay. Within these spaces house mothers modeled how to love and care for one another just as much as they engaged in Eric Pritchard calls “black queer literacies.” Such literacies are crucial black and brown queer children surviving the streets without compromising their dignity nor their hustle-joys! Indeed, house mothers were teachers who kept it real about what it means to be black, brown, queer, and trans as they instructed their children to be nobody’s victim. House mothers, in all the glory and sissydom, taught their kids how to live fierce lives — Porter’s “Children” embodies this spirit, history, and sissy truth-speaking.

Now Sissy That Walk

Walking the streets — to school or anywhere — as a Black queer person, and especially for a sissy, has always been dangerous. For many, I walked “like a girl” — with a “twist” in my hip and my back “super arched.” I was an easy target for violence. When people didn’t yell “boy get that arch out your back” I was escaping being jumped by neighborhood boys. I was clearly a sissy and as hard as I tried the arch went nowhere. I even tried to walk slowly, hoping that no one would notice the swish. However, this slowing only led to a sultry swish, which further enraged folks.

Nevertheless, this brief seance circles me back to Ru Paul and the power of his song, “Sissy that Walk.” “Sissy that Walk” quite literally invokes the sissy in ways that “Super Model” — despite the glamour, fierce make-up and beat faces that populate the video — does not.

In “Sissy That Walk,” Mamma Ru sings: “I’m a femme queen/ mother of the house of no shame.” The beat is an ode to the disco era of the 1970s and 1980s, while the rhetoric, the very language, — — though spare in its use — powerfully underwrites the Black sissy mamma figure as an empowering source of knowledge. The sissy provocatively speaks back to naysayers as she/ he/ they announce their worth, independence, and unbridled sexiness. The point of “Sissy That Walk?” To not only live, but to soar — or as Ru Paul sings: “Fly, fly, fly, fly.”

Femme queens are beautiful. We have the power to fly and we no longer have the energy to take anyone’s mess. And black queer femmes have had to navigate some deep mess.

Throughout U.S. popular culture — notably film, tv, literature, and music — the Black sissy has had to endure violence; has had to endure Black male entertainers shaming us, even as many of them — from the likes of Flip Wilson and Eddie Murphy to Tyler Perry — mis-appropriate Black femininity writ large. Even as they don dresses and wigs to entertain, they reproduce imagines of Black women, trans folx, and effeminate queer men steeped in misogynoir and both homo- and transphobia. They tether their hatred for Black women and Black queer folx to desperate redemptions comedies aimed at reclaiming their own ideas of manhood torn asunder by colonialism.

Against these enduring comedic strategies live the power of sissy sonics. Ru Paul’s work paved the ground so that artists like Billy Porter, Lis Nas X, and Toddrick Hall could walk these musical grounds today. Toddrick Hall holds particular importance here given his own discography which includes songs and video like: “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels,” and “Quarantine Queen,” off their current album Femuline. Throughout Hall’s music, sissy sonics speaks to the health and importance of queer folks, queer femmes, and youth — especially young ‘boys.” “Nails, Hair, Hips, and Heels” sees value in using material objects — such as clothing and boots traditionally reserved in US culture for girls and women — to embody radical expression of being unapologetically femme or effeminate.

I Am Her

Without Black and brown trans women, however, there would be no sissy sonics, nor will there be a Ru Paul, Billy Porter, or Toddrick Hall (and the many artists I have not named here). This is why I close this piece by reflecting on Shea Diamond and her song, “I Am Her.” She sings:

There’s an outcast in everybody’s life
And I am her (I am her)
There’s a dark cloud in everybody’s sunlight
And I am her (I am her)
There’s a shadow in everybody’s front door
And I am her (I am her)
Oh no, I am her

Shea Diamond is a Black trans woman, formerly incarcerated, and tells all of us, in the US and the world over, that her life is valid. That her story matters. And that she is not done. And, as the quoted chorus above illuminates: she claims herself for herself despite the ways that the world works to shame and dehumanize her: “I am her.”

Furthermore, her past was not easy — she’s been an outcast, she’s made mistakes, but she should not be discounted in this life by anyone. In spite of her past, she is worthy of all that life has to offer her. As she sings in, “American Pie,”

Just want my piece of the American pie
Got your slice, where is mine
Lick my fingers on this thing called life
Just a piece of the American pie
Break the chains of old beliefs
I’m the flame that you can’t unsee

We do not lift up Black trans women enough. The only time we hear about Black and brown trans women is when the media reports on their deaths. However, Black and brown trans women, like Langston Hughes, sing America, too. They inform and define sissy sonics, too. While society wants Black and Brown trans women to exist on the outer-edges of society, they refuse to submit to these demands.

As Shea Diamond reminds us throughout all of her music, sissy sonics is about being a sissy and so much more.

When I listen to Black queer artists, named here and elsewhere, I’m looking for ways that I can be my authentic self — in ways that I can love myself. I’m also looking for ways where Black queer folx are telling our stories and insisting that our lives don’t always have to be painful. Yes, we must reflect on this pain. But we must harness this pain for something greater. We deserve joy, too. And we have the right to sing and celebrate this joy!

Being a sissy is beautiful and listening to sissy sonics, for me, is life-saving, liberating, and joyous. Now, walk, werk, serve, and slay!

(1) I’d like to thank my CSULA student Mechelle Johnson for introducing me, and students in my LGBTQ Cultural Production course, to this beautiful song!

Dr. David B. Green Jr. is an assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). IG: @DiversityDocta



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