After the third time I masturbated that night, I cried. Having skipped a grade, I was a 13-year old freshman, and this coupled with my “late” puberty left me experiencing my body much differently than I thought I was supposed to. Though I’d tried again and again, I still had yet to ejaculate, and I convinced myself that this was just the latest proof that I would never be the man everyone else seemed to want me to be.
Around the same time, I remember watching a Dateline-type TV special about intersex children with my mother. One of the subjects told of how they were born with both “male” and “female” genitalia, and at the behest of a doctor their parents took the devastating step to remove their penis immediately after their birth. Until adulthood, they never knew their own history, they only knew that something was wrong. They only knew they weren’t a woman. And being placed in that role had negative consequences for the rest of their life.
I never looked at my body the same afterwards. In my anxious mind, the perineal raphe ridge along the base of my penis was proof my parents constructed my body for me too, not knowing the line is the natural result of a fetal developmental. Only knowing I wasn’t a man. Or, at least, wasn’t what a man was supposed to be.
Trauma isn’t only worth acknowledging when we are strong enough to overcome it.
“Men don’t wear their clothes that tight,” my father said to no one in particular as we drove past a fellow student on the way to my high school. Said to me, no one, in particular. The boy was queer, I knew this, and I knew he wasn’t man enough, just like me. Queer, just like me. Men don’t dress like girls. Men don’t cry. Men are emotionally abusive, and emotionally asphyxiated to the point of suffocation. Men don’t back down from a fight. And men definitely don’t want to have sex with other men.
So, I overcompensated to the detriment of myself and everyone around me. It was not enough to proclaim I wasn’t queer, I also had to be sure to talk down those who were. It was not enough to have relationships with women, but to try and claim ownership over them and their bodies. They were conquests in a crusade I had been drafted into by everyone around me. And all the time I crumbled on the inside. I was no one, with no place.
When I tell this story as someone who now identifies as queer, non-binary and assigned male at birth, I tell of the abuses I both experienced and enacted due to efforts to force me into some violent conception of masculinity, most people respond with their condolences, their heart reacts and their “I’m so glad you made it throughs.” I wonder, though, what it would mean to consider that the cisgender heterosexual Black men who harm the rest of us are only the ones who didn’t make it through. I wonder if that would help to consider my own violence, too, and how to better deconstruct it. I wonder if it would encourage the people who would rather give me pity to at least give consideration of their violence, too.
Trauma isn’t only worth acknowledging when we are strong enough to overcome it, and there are no Black children who haven’t experienced gendered trauma. In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Hortense Spillers, Black feminist scholar and literary critic, argues that there has always been a “dehumanizing, ungendering, and defacing project of African persons” since colonization. My father knows that project all too well, even if he doesn’t know he knows. My father knows, because his high school teacher told him, that being fully human, being fully man, is something afforded only to white people. And I believe that finding a way out of the violent quest for manhood is only as possible as our acknowledgment of its futility.
My father wanted me to be the man he couldn’t be—be in control like he never was—without understanding that there was never supposed to be any control for any of us. There is no safety for any of us, just different types of dangers. Different types of death. Death by a thousand criminalizations of failed performances of masculinity (which Black women are deemed to embody, too), or death by a thousand criminal performers of masculinity, the murderers of queer non-men in our communities. As a queer boy, mine was a different type of death than my father’s, but a death nonetheless.
There are no Black children who haven’t experienced gendered trauma.
In hindsight, my anxieties around my penis and puberty weren’t about what my body was or was not capable of, or how it came to be. They were about how being placed in a role I could not fulfill would have negative consequences for the rest of my life. They were about how I could never be what my father said a man should be, for the same reasons he couldn’t be either. I could only try harder, hurt more people, hurt myself. He only tried harder, hurt more people and hurt himself for too much of my life.
My anxieties were about not knowing that there is an alternative to what some say is “manhood” and “masculinity.” And I fear that in our valid efforts to rightfully call Black men and boys out on their shit, we often reduce them to their shit, assigning them a masculinity they have never achieved and can never achieve, erasing those very same alternatives.
I know better now, I think. Or, I am still learning better. I am still learning about consent. I am still learning about grace. I am still learning about my history of being dehumanized, ungendered and defaced as an African person. We’ve never known our own history, we only knew that something was wrong.
In this #MeToo age of reckoning with the violence of masculinity, I need to also reckon with the fact that I’ve harmed more people trying to be a man than ever being one. I need to understand that when Black folks are only given options that will never work for us, we can only always try harder, we can only always overcompensate. I need to do this because, in recognizing its futility, perhaps then can we find conceptions of gender that are more useful to all of us. As writer and scholar Shondrea Thornton envisions, perhaps then we can move beyond “me too” towards “and never again.”
Hari Ziyad is an artist, writer and the Editor-in-Chief of the digital publication, RaceBaitR. They are also the managing editor of Black Youth Project, an assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry, and staff writer for AFROPUNK.