Our world has made gender into a cage
I am not exhausted with gender as a concept, but as tyranny and carcerality.
I am tired of thinking about and talking about and writing about gender. In fact, sometimes, I wish gender didn’t exist at all. This is an unpopular and unexpected thing for me to say, given the work I do and my background in Gender Studies. Still, it’s true. I don’t want to have to spend another moment of my life thinking about gender, especially my own, but the reality is that I don’t really have a choice because most, if not all, things in our world are informed by gender.
People ask me what my gender is and my brain caves in on itself searching for an answer. In public, and when I write, I have always called myself “woman” (sometimes, “womxn”) because it feels familiar and easy. It’s more comfortable and less confusing for everyone else, but not necessarily for me. A more true answer to the question of my gender would be, “I don’t want one.”
“Woman” at once feels like a betrayal and an unwilling truth. It feels like both an impossibility and an inescapable inevitability. In this body, I will always be read as a woman. With this Black skin, I will always be excluded from womanhood. This anxiety-ridden brain of mine tells me that I am a failure in both regards, but my truest, free-est self informs me that meager words will never be enough to embody who I am.
More than ever now, I find myself considering the ungendering of Black girls and women—an experience which so often baffled, infuriated, and depressed me in my younger years before I understood what was behind it, when everyone around me recognized and punished my queerness before I ever knew it was there. But even now, with understanding and language at my side, this ungendering frustrates and disheartens. Perhaps even more so.
Hortense Spillers, in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” writes about this ungendering within the context of chattel slavery and how it served to help exclude Black people, but especially Black women, from the gender and kinship structures deemed worthy of protection by white supremacist ideals and institutions. This exclusion and marginalization has continued, she argues, and it reveals itself in things like the Moynihan Report and the stereotype of the Welfare Queen.
About the systematic and opportunistic gendered violence against Black women on the plantation, Spillers writes that the “materialized scene of unprotected female flesh—of female flesh ‘ungendered’—offers a praxis and a theory, a text for living and for dying, and a method for reading both through their diverse mediations.”
When we consider gender and race, we must acknowledge that “woman” becomes understood as a category of both, even though we do not always name it. This means that those of us assigned, assumed, or affirmed as Black women are continually barred from a coherent gender identity. This, among many other things, is why I am tired.
I am not exhausted with gender as a concept, but as tyranny and carcerality. Anarchy and abolition from the confines of enforced gender are what I crave. For myself, for every gender expansive, subversive, and transcendent being who feels arrested by gender and imposed gender structures.
I crave freedom for everyone who feels more punished and diminished by accepted ideals of gender than they feel protected or empowered. For everyone who feels the unending pressure and strain of needlessly gendered objects, behaviors, and spaces exploited by a capitalist system that preys on manufactured insecurities, digging into every part of our psyches and constantly shaping everything around us. For everyone exhausted by how even the gendering of language and pathology can promote violence against certain gendered bodies.
When I am read as “woman”—and simultaneously excluded from womanhood by virtue of my Blackness—a multitude of beliefs are projected onto me at once, all informed by anti-Blackness and colonialist thought. In a single moment, out of my control and without my consent, an entire history of gendered societal expectations and permissions become written onto my form. In a single moment, entire mythologies are told and accepted as true.
I call myself “woman” only because it describes how I am treated and how I experience the world. Because gender—assigned, assumed, or affirmed—informs our lives as much, and often in the same ways, as race does.
In the end, I don’t really know where any of this leaves me. Every day, I mourn the loss of a reality where gender is allowed to just be, a reality where we are free from the clutches of the colonialist thought and policing attached to gender as our society (mis)understands it. Instead, we are here, where gender so often feels like a prison—used to marginalize, criminalize, and pathologize.
But gender is really a messy thing. It’s nebulous and imprecise, even as white supremacy and its agents try to restrict and create borders around it. Gender is malleable, breathing and working. We ultimately cannot stifle it. I wish this was the accepted truth. Then, we could all be a little more free.