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Dear cis Black women, transphobia will never serve us or the goal of Black liberation

Fope breaks down why they reject gender binaries, and how the identity of womanhood has historically been weaponised against Black women.

18 Jul 2020

Pain is no more a biological feature of womanhood than the love of the colour pink, but intergenerational trauma has always felt deeply familiar to me. How could I know pain so deeply when I had barely met it? How could my mother’s suffering, obvious to me as a child, make my teeth ache as if we are long forgotten friends? I remember asking myself, aged 10, is this what being a woman is? Always knowing pain? Always cracking your chest open and watching your organs burn in the sun for a world that does not want you to sit comfortably? The cage of girlhood always felt constricting, like a prison, and I didn’t know how to get out till I was 18 years old and realised that I was non-binary – a term I had learnt through online friends and a foray into queer politics during the summer of 2013. It blossomed into a never-ending and lifelong list of critical questions of my identity.

The language that I use to talk about my gender has long since evolved, but the ease with which I landed on “they/them” pronouns has never left. Being non-binary has never been about the halfway point between the islands of womanhood and manhood – it is a rejection of a binary and a categorisation I have never chosen. It is the understanding that gender is complex that has always felt freeing to me. In Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power, Lola Olufemi writes about this complexity in the chapter on transmisogyny, “every definition [of gender] does a disservice to the shifting, multiple and complex set of power relations that come to shape a person’s gender… for some, gender is an unshakeable truth and for others, it is always on the move.”

I don’t particularly care about proving the existence of non-binary and transgender people to those determined to exterminate us, but I see the power in waving back to my ancestors. We have known since 1923 that the Mudoko Dako from Uganda (also known as the Mukdo) existed “as persons of transformed gender…they took on women’s names…and they were formally wedded to men without offending Lango law.” We also know that the British Raj introduced the Indian Penal Code in 1860, which was later applied to African colonies from 1897-1902 and criminalised sexual activities “against the order of nature” which undoubtedly shaped the violent homophobia and transphobia present in our home nations and communities today. 

“Being non-binary has never been about the halfway point between the islands of womanhood and manhood.”

Historical amnesia is not accidental, but in fact a tool that keeps us in cyclical modes of being, constantly going back and forth over binaries that ultimately will never serve us. Recent conversations on Twitter about gender, Black womanhood and Black trans women have left me reeling and worried for our collective future; so I am speaking directly to cis Black women here when I say transphobia will and has never served us or the goal of Black liberation and freedom.

How can there be a “them” and “us” between Black cis women and Black trans women when the very forces that malign us are one and in the same? When we understand that the term “woman” has no singular, stable or essential definition but is, in Lola’s words, a “strategic coalition” under which we organise against the structural, colonial and anti-Black project, how can you insist on a womanhood for yourself and not others? How can you still use identifying markers and turn them against us?

When cis women deny the ways oppressive forces work in tandem to hyper-sexualise and dehumanise us, under the guise – the false promise – of “womanhood”, we need to ask who does this serve? Beyond leaving our sisters out in the cold while you fight over a barely lit flame that has failed to keep any of us warm. In the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere points out that “violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognise others are persons – not by those who are oppressed, exploited and unrecognised”. The moment cis Black women realise that the limited resources (material or otherwise) we are fighting for, is not the fault of trans women, is the moment we realise that the transformation of society we seek rests on asking ourselves: do we want power, or do we want freedom?

“How can there be a ‘them’ and ‘us’ between Black cis women and trans Black women when the very forces that malign us are one and in the same?”

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), or transphobes and transmisogynists as I simply like to call them, speak of the sanctity of “women-only spaces” – despite these very spaces being eroded and underfunded by a decade of austerity, with leading TERFs often sitting in the pockets of Conservative think tanks. Regardless, no way currently exists for cis women to “prove” themselves without reducing their own womanhood down to body parts, relying on crude, consistently refuted essentialisms (the width of your shoulders, hair on your arms and the size of your muscles) you would expect so-called feminists to reject. 

Despite this, they claim this kind of womanhood and revel in the ability to clock “masculine” features/identifiers, excluding whoever they see fit. I want them to ask themselves these questions: What women are you describing? And what women are you excluding? Think back to the countless famous cis Black women like Serena Williams who are chased with rumours of perversity because of a strong jawline or a husky singing voice. Often what we are seeing is just a modern reinterpretation of scientific racism, eugenics and phrenology. 

Biological and gender essentialism, the belief that “human nature”, an individual’s personality, or some specific quality (such as intelligence, creativity, homosexuality, masculinity, femininity, or a male propensity to aggression) is an innate and natural “essence” (rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture), harms all women — how can it not? When the bodies of Black women have been under the microscope for so long and to the detriment of our community, what does it serve you to do the same to trans people? I immediately think of Saartjie Baartman, born in 1789 and finally laid to rest in South Africa in 2002, whose body was displayed as entertainment for colonial Europeans and to the bolstering of racial science – the trauma of which is still felt today by the Black community.

“I am daring you to dream bigger than the punishing limits of gender and see how these limits sit comfortably in the mechanics of oppression”

If gender and the arbitrary, so-called biological distinctions that outline it don’t hold as much weight as we think they do, and we as Black people are supposedly redefining it in our own little ways – ways that exist beyond whiteness, beyond Western intervention and hangovers from colonialism – why are you still committed to restriction? Where is your imagination? Are you not exhausted of these limits you have willingly placed on yourself by yourself through your own agency? Why not invest an ounce of your energy you spend pitting yourselves against trans women into standing against the constant demonisation of trans women in the British press and the violence we all face.

When we critique structures with the aim of abolishing them, and creating them anew, I have little interest in tone or politeness. You are not meant to feel comfortable when we are discussing the material reality of all Black women and how the identity of womanhood has always historically been weaponised against us and by us in our very own communities, be it through our bodies, our hair or our lack of supposed “femininity”. In the same way I scoff at some short-sighted notions of feminism which don’t acknowledge the fact that our choices can never exist in a vacuum but rather in a system that functions on power, I scoff here; I am daring you to dream bigger than the punishing limits of gender and see how these limits sit comfortably in the mechanics of oppression.

You ask, if gender doesn’t matter why do trans people still transition? I see you still weren’t listening, finish the sentence: if gender doesn’t matter, why do we need to worry so much about binary definitions? You see abolition as destroying the only version of reality you can think of, whereas I know abolition is creation. You see dead ends, I see the beauty in nuance and complexity. All I ask, is that you see it too.