How Afrofeminism Guided Me to My Identity as a Black Nonbinary Person

“Feminism” and “womanhood” mean different things to different folks. With The F-Word, our essay series running throughout Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting different perspectives—the good, the bad, and the complicated—of what those concepts mean to people.

I'm a nonbinary person in my early forties, but until just about a decade ago, I was relatively clueless about the concept of genderqueerness. I was raised and socialized as a cishet girl amid Namibia's independence struggle, which was marked by global communist and pan-Africanist ideas. The importance of solidarity, camaraderie, and unity in reaching political independence largely shaped my identity around my Blackness—with gender and identity not a main point of consideration.

Later in life, I became more aware of how my early education had ignored the existence of queerness in favor of the focus on Blackness. The little about queerness I knew touched only on the "LGB" part of the rainbow acronym, and I had little to no awareness of other sexualities and identities, including trans and gender-diverse people. Ultimately, I came to find my identity as a Black nonbinary person through exploring Afrofeminism—which, per scholars Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande, is feminism that contextualizes the "histories of colonialism, racial formation, and gender hierarchy of the various European nation-states in which Black women live."

For so long, though, gaps in knowledge and education were gatekeeping me from my identity: I didn't feel like a girl, but I understood that was how I was perceived, and I had no reference point to fight it and authentically express myself. During high school, people referred to me as a "tomboy," which, despite not being a self-imposed identifier, was a term I was more comfortable with than "girl."

I often had the feeling that people experienced me instead of seeing me. Books helped me avoid and escape human contact, transporting me away from a world where I did not always feel accepted. In my teens, the loud music of clubbing joined books as a substitute for stressful human interaction. I was able to dance to the music with no uncomfortable conversations penetrating through the sound. I felt like myself without having to explain it to anyone.

But, shortly after high school, I got pregnant, and hospital staff and family members alike were increasingly referring to me as a woman. My tomboy status was revoked, and without my consent, I was pushed into the new gendered category of "mother." Reluctantly, I learned to accept my forced status of cis womanhood, even when it did not accurately reflect my true identity. I did not yet have the tools or language to argue against the foisted notion that childbearing is exclusive to cis women or girls.

I did not yet have the tools or language to argue against the foisted notion that childbearing is exclusive to cis women or girls.

Without the right words to articulate myself and no community from which to gain understanding, I often felt misunderstood in ways I could not even explain. My first real insights into queer oppression, rights, and liberation came when I started organizing with younger socialists, whom I felt were more inclusive of various identities than people of my generation. I soon began to learn basics about gender diversity and rights, which I incorporated into my organizing work. Even still, I remained largely ignorant about how patriarchy operates as a total system of oppression.

This started to change when I met South African singer-songwriter and Afrofeminist Simphiwe Dana at Namibia's 2011 Jazz Festival. Dana uses her music as a tool of activism in the tradition of many Black revolutionary female singers before her. I quickly became inspired by the way African feminists like her fearlessly address topics like safety for women and queer people, sex, and bodily autonomy. It made me want to understand the movement better, as I, too, was concerned about many of the things feminists advocated for.

Through reading books by queer and intersectional feminists, I grew more aware of the interconnectedness of the systemic oppression of various groups. So, to me, feminism provided a vehicle for women and queer people to help advance our societies toward equality and freedom for all.

At this point, much of my feminist understanding of transness was still based almost solely on theory rather than personal experience with people who are trans or a grasp of my own genderqueerness. This shifted in 2019 when I met a community of trans people at a refugee safe house while in Kenya. Under violently repressive conditions, members of this community lived in their truth as trans people. Hearing them describe their experiences with gender dysphoria, depression, and social anxiety helped me make more sense of my own. Even though our lives were vastly different and I had not experienced the harshnesses they faced as individuals or a community, it was as if a lightbulb had been switched on for me. It was a deep inner knowing that this is the space I belonged to. I had finally met the people who showed me through living authentically that there was nothing wrong with interpreting gender in a way that makes sense to me.

Though labels can never hold all parts of me, "nonbinary" reflects my sense of being a living negation of what the gender binary assigns me to be. I am a gender outlaw.

The experience led me to question my gender identity and ultimately cultivate a self-awareness of my own genderqueerness. As I grew more accustomed to being openly queer, I first described myself as a gender-nonconforming woman. Then, during the first year of the pandemic in 2020, likely supported by lessened need to interact with many people, I stepped more confidently into the identification of "nonbinary," which felt more authentic to me. Though labels can never hold all parts of me, "nonbinary" reflects my sense of being a living negation of what the gender binary assigns me to be. I am a gender outlaw.

As I've learned more about the breadth of genderqueerness, I've felt more distant from feminism. Feminism opened a door that guided me to trans visibility and a more complete understanding of my genderqueerness. When I first subscribed to feminism "as a woman," I felt welcomed. But today, as a nonbinary person, in feminist spaces, I often experience the trans erasure that kept me from knowing myself in the first place. Now that I have a fuller grasp of my gender identity, I believe feminism can function as an uninviting space for people under the queer and trans umbrella. It may not always be intentional, but it is evident in many things, such as the language around reproductive health matters, the outsize celebration of cis women during Women's History Month, and the lack of tangible solidarity to trans people that I experience.

This is not true of all feminist spaces, as there are inclusive radical feminists and feminist organizations—like Black Women Radicals, the Association of Women's Rights in Development, and Trans and Queer Fund, to name just a few whose practice of feminism is cognizant of the interconnectedness of all our struggles. I know I have not exhausted all there is to learn from feminism, but I also know that I can no longer call myself a feminist, even as I continue working alongside feminists towards transformative change.

When I first started along my feminist journey, I trusted in the movement's ability to carry African women and queer people forwards towards liberation. I still believe that that is the role it can and often does take on. With immense gratitude, I honor Afrofeminism for all it has given me as I continue to fully embrace my queerness amid a new and more authentic chapter of my life.

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