By Latonya Pennington
Until recently, gender identity and expression made me feel like a mannequin that has to be dressed up and put into poses. It started when my mother would make me wear this pink, puffy dress when visiting my dad while he worked and lived overseas. The dress just didn’t feel like me. Even after only wearing it for a few hours, it felt confining and uncomfortable–like a costume.
My inability to deal with this discomfort would eventually turn into femmephobia as I became bombarded with narrow views of Black womanhood. When I decided to cut my hair short, I was told, “Girls should have long hair” and would be called a “tomboy” and an “it.” To make matters worse, it seemed as though Black media was pressuring me to be something I wasn’t at the same time.
On screen, I didn’t see anybody like me. I saw skinny Black women like Beyonce and Rihanna dressed in sexy outfits and tossing their long, flowing locs as they danced and sang about sex and relationships. I was a thick-bodied, t-shirt wearing, awkward Black girl who also happened to be suffering from depression. I felt so out of place that I began to hate myself and other Black women whom I couldn’t seem to be able to become like, though everyone else seemed to expect me to.
After college, I came out to myself as gay after years of suppressing my attraction to women, but I still felt at odds with my gender because I had yet to acknowledge my femmephobia, a term I learned about when Black feminist scholar bell hooks was criticized for her critique of Beyonce’s short film Lemonade. After realizing exactly what the term was and how it applied to me, I understood I needed to find the source of my resentment for the feminine and deal with it.
Frustrated by the lack of acknowledgment for my experiences, I had been blaming the Black feminine and sexually provocative women I couldn’t connect with. To my naive, femmephobic mind, women like Beyonce were the problem because they oversaturated the music industry, television, and every other piece of media I didn’t find myself in. Disillusioned, I turned away from both Black media and my sisters for years until I discovered independent Black artists, like queer rapper Angel Haze and gender-bending singer Janelle Monae. While Haze validated my angst and depression, Monae validated my gender expression. It is due to underground artists continuing to create and tell their truths that I now know there is more than one way to be a Black woman and more than one way to be feminine. There were feminine things I embodied and enjoyed that I hadn’t even considered, such as my baby face and soft, casual clothes that weren’t dresses or skirts, and it took me time to be able to appreciate the femininity of them in a new way.
By exposing myself to a fuller array of gender and self-expression, I was able to redefine femininity on my own terms and confront my femmephobia. I felt part of me identifying with gender bending and gender queer Black girls and part of me identifying with feminine cisgender Black girls. For a while, I was torn between them; since society is still getting used to the idea of non-binary and transgender identities, it took time for me to find the words that fit. I ended up doing an internet search with variations of terms like “part non-binary, part woman” until I found the right ones.
I eventually stumbled across the term “demi-girl” and believed it described me well. By putting it together with the words “non-binary” and “femme,” I could sum up my identity as a non-binary, femme demi-girl. I also like the pronouns “she” and “they”.
As I start to embrace this gender identity, I think of some of the things that make it up. Soft, casual clothes. Short and cute hair. My favorite color, purple. My sensitive, passionate heart. Not only do I embrace these things, I keep them close in ways I hadn’t kept them before.
Femmephobia and the gender binary caused me to hate myself and others until I asked myself why. It’s important that other queer and cis-het people of color alike do the same so we can stop policing each other and denying our truths. To deny transgender women their womanhood like Chimamanda Adichie infamously did recently, or anyone their femininity like bell hooks is violence. Gender identity and expression are infinite, and we shouldn’t have to compromise any part of who we are because someone else hasn’t done the work to understand them.
Latonya Pennington is a freelance writer based in the southern United States. They have written about entertainment and pop culture and its intersections with race, gender, and queerness for sites such as The Mary Sue, Superselected magazine, and Black Girl Dangerous.