When you are forced to take a break no matter how uncomfortable or even painful it can sometimes be (the pause, the silence, the isolation) it always allows for deep reflection to spring forth. During my recent hiatus I came to an important realization.
My whole life, since infancy, my gender identity was questioned. People would constantly ask my parents, sisters and myself, “Is that/Are you a boy or girl...” I knew from a very young age from the feedback of the outer world that something about me was different. I did not fit in. Inside I felt the same. My desires and attractions oddly did not align with the heteronormative values I was being taught from home nor from my social and cultural upbringing.
I was constantly teased as a kid that I “walk like a girl” and have a “fat ass,” which was often linked to as a “girl’s booty” - another statement I received repeatedly - and you “sound like a girl,” due to my unusually high pitch voice that remained with me pass puberty. My effeminate qualities and mannerisms seemed to outweigh the masculine. Most all of my friends were girls and I grew up with two older sisters so I hung around all of their girlfriends, which further encouraged my effeminate expression. I always felt threatened and unsafe around hyper-masculine men since I faced so much harassment and bullying from men. And don’t get me wrong, girls did it too - just not nearly as much as men. It was bizarre to me at the moment why I could not get myself to be programmed in the way I was being taught to act as a “man”.
Growing up, I was raised in a matriarch despite the fact that it was supposed to be a patriarch. My mom was the leader of our household. She always had the final say and my dad, although he tried to take over sometimes, could never dominate my mother. He would eventually give in… and literally say, “I give in!” My mom would brag, “I am ‘Femme Bété’” translated from French as ‘Bété Woman’ - her tribal affiliation. My mom is from Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and would proudly tell us the story of how the women of her tribe freed their husbands from captivity during times of colonization by the French. "The Bètè women’s strength and resilience is known throughout our country,” she’d tell us, and I believed it. I watched my mom tackle a middle aged women to the floor who try to physically attack her. My mom pinned her to the floor with full dominance. Bètè women indeed were not ones to be messed with.
It wasn't until this week I finally looked up what my mom bragged about all these year. Not only was she correct but one of the most well know leaders of the Ivroiran liberation movment, taught in the history books of Côte d'Ivoire, was a female named Marie Koré of the same tribal affliation as my mother! See below. (translate articles from French to English).
My mom was not unique, however. When her parents came to live with us for about three years, the fierceness my grandmother (grandma Nahounou) displayed was even stronger than my mother. Calm, stoic, and poised, my grandmother had a confidence about her that radiated pride. All my mother’s siblings would adopt the same behavior. Not to mention that the women on my dad’s side were equally of strength. My paternal grandmother (grandma Fran) was what they referred to back then as a “tom boy” playing sports with the men in her neighborhood on the weekend at a time (early 1900’s) where that was very taboo for women. She passed that same grit down to her daughter (my aunt) who passed it down to her's (my cousin). I grew up revering the strength of women from women in my family.
I felt the connection of female power was intrinsic to my own nature and with effortless ease I mimicked the qualities of my mother. I found myself with a strong desire to emulate the female form. My mother owned an African clothing boutique where I spent many afternoons helping her, always wanting to wear the dresses with my mom’s confidence. My mother was a beautician and sold cosmetics via Mary Kay. She’d bring me to the meets ups with the other ladies at their houses and conventions where I enjoyed helping her set up her make-up display table dreaming of having my mom’s perfect skin and painting her beauty on my face. My mom was my first dance teacher. She taught my sisters and I traditional West African dances in the living room. I learned from a female body the power and sensuality within feminine expression - something I loved performing so much.
Binded to my core the impulse of feminine expression, I was frequently treading a very thin line between het cis gender expression and queer expression. There was frequent difficulty in navigating the toxic masculine spaces outside my mother’s presence. I hide a part of who I was inside desperately to not face greater ridicule from that which inevitably had already seeped through. It wasn’t until I turned 17 (senior in high school) that my gender as a cis man would last be questioned.
It was the week of homecoming and there was a theme for each day of the week. One of the themes was “Go Hard Day” where basically everyone would display gender role reversal through “cross dressing” as they called it. This was my one and only chance where I could get away with dressing up as a woman in public with it still being socially acceptable. Finally! I decided to wear my sisters’ clothes, mom’s wig, make-up (which I did in the school bathroom right after getting off the school bus) and high heels, all of which I totally stole and snuck out without my family recognizing — I was concealed in a green trench coat and changed my shoes and wig that I had stuffed in my backpack at the bus stop. The moment I revealed myself on the school bus, no one recognized me. In fact, I had to tell my friend who I sat next to on the bus that it was me. She was appalled and didn’t speak to me the rest of the day.
In fact, that was pretty much the reaction I received from all my peers that day. Disgusted facial expressions, chuckles, sneers, jeers and derogatory gestures bombarded me...even from the faculty!! A staff member passed by and said “that ain’t even right; you can’t even tell...disgusting” and when I went to raise my hand in my chemistry class the teacher said’ “is that Cedric’s (my middle name) cousin? Let me know when he’s back...” and the whole class laughed at me and he refused to call on me when I raised my hand the rest of class. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. And here I thought somehow wasn’t that the whole point...to make yourself look like the opposite gender you were born with? I thought I was going to be praised for my committed effort - I looked damn good - but apparently you were not supposed to try “too hard.” Instead I was criticized for looking too much like a girl. Now I look back and I see it basically gave permission for everyone in school to poke fun at trans, queer and gender non conforming cultures and people. It was appalling.
A friend of mine (the one I sat next to on the bus) completely offended, immediately reported what I had done to her parents who then reported to the elders, who are church leaders of the Jehovah’s Witness religion of which I was raised in. They reported what I had done and I was immediately disciplined and chastised by my family. I was reproved by the elders in the congregation for my gross sinful misconduct as well. I was on watch for a month by my parents and religious leaders. They beat the scriptures into me so that I would recognize the level of immorality I had committed and fully repent from my sin. They showed me scriptures in the Bible where it spoke against “cross dressing” and how God would not approve of a man dressing like a woman. My father even pushed me down to the floor returning home from one of the discipline meetings I had to go to, literally to “beat the effeminate” out of me screaming and yelling at me “Why can’t you just walk like a man!”
I was so traumatized. I never wanted to dress like a woman again.
Five years later from that incident I came out to my family that I was gay. I was immediately disowned. I was estranged from them for years. We now have somewhat of a relationship again and although they still hope one day that I will “convert” to heteronormativity, I accept them for who they are and love them still.
Coming to the level of acceptance I now have for myself today in owning my truth and not allowing myself to be victimized by oppressive religious dogma nor hostile treatment from family and community, I am proud of myself for coming this far. And although I have come to the full understanding and openness with my sexual orientation, I still have further to go...
I realized this trauma of gender identity has still not been settled within me.
It has reoccurred in my career. “You need to dance like a man,” - accompanied along with chest puffed and pelvis tucked under - was a common statement (and posture) made to me throughout my career ever since I began my formal dance training at age 15 till today; practically a motif of heteronormative commentary on male gender performance. Directors, teachers, choreographers would all chime into the same notion beating her away from within me.
But what does it mean to “dance like a man?” I would constantly question myself. Never quite made sense to me but I just conformed. All I wanted to do was just dance.
Last year, in taking a stand for gender equality, I finally took a stand for my own fluid gender identity with my dance partner, Kristine Bendul, in becoming the Nation’s First couple ever in history to compete in the Professional division of DanceSport Ballroom Competition as Gender-Neutral. It was the first time in my entire professional dance career (15 years) that I finally was able to perform the fullness of my gender expression in both male and female, feminine and masculine combined as one. It felt like a second “coming out” in a sense where I publicly said, “this is me!” Together they were sensational. Even though my partner and I didn’t win, I felt like a champion inside.
Unpacking the trauma of effeminophobia I faced and realizing the gender identity that has been within me since early childhood, coming to this recent moment of personal triumph in my career and life I am finally ready to own up to the gender identity I always was but was so afraid to accept. Today, I celebrate in sharing with the world that I identify as:
And my gender pronouns from this day forth shall be:
The Future Is Fluid
Queer Is Here
Love Is Love
A friend of mine said to me something that I wholly resonate with and that is my hope for society: “Ideally, we shall transcend the need to place ourselves into a label.”