Coming Out and (re)Claiming the Power to Name
In October of last year, I decided to come out to my mom. I had it planned out and everything. I would write a comprehensive document laying out the colonial origins of the gender and sexual identity that she clung fervently to, and how our claims to these identities were deeply troubled by our Blackness as a consequence of chattel slavery reducing us to fungible flesh. I would hand it to her, she would read it, and we would have an in-depth heart-to-heart where, hopefully, I would sufficiently answer any questions she’d have. After about a month, these plans were shattered when she sat me down in the living room and asked me a question that she had asked me numerous times before: “Are you gay?”
Rather than simply say “no” and laugh it off like I’d done in the past, I responded, while being flooded with a wave of emotions, including anxiety, that concentrated themselves into a general euphoria, “Yeah, but not the way you think.” I told her plainly that I was a lesbian trans woman. I was unprepared at this point, caught off guard, and without anything to help me gather my thoughts and cover my difficulty articulating things verbally. And it culminated in my mom telling me she felt “embarrassed” and that she was prepared to accept me being a gay man but found the idea that I would alter my body through surgery unacceptable (I hadn’t even mentioned surgery at this point). Were this me from October, I would’ve broken down on the spot—maybe even said some things that I would end up regretting. But I didn’t. The “high” that I was feeling did not fade, and because of this, I smiled. While I hadn’t properly realized this at the time, I now know that what mattered most to me was discovering myself and avoiding capture, and that this journey was not reducible to this moment of “coming out.” It was, instead, a process of “naming.”
While certainly not a new insight, it must be affirmed that the expectation of “coming out” in order to find validity in our identities is dangerous for Black LGBT/QTGNC folks, as the experience of “coming out” is highly dependent upon race and class and particularly so when Black. My own experience confirms this. However, I would like to offer up an alternative framework that goes beyond acknowledging the truth that “coming out” isn’t for everyone, and that Black folks should not feel obligated to do so. I would like to employ the power to name or more simply naming as a framework that not only encompasses coming out, but also transcends it, capturing an element of the queer experience that is specific to Black people.
In the beginning of the seminal work “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Hortense Spillers names common stereotypes-as-identities for Black women in the US. Throughout this work, Spillers employs a “grammar” that deconstructs the narratives that engender and act as self-justification for a hierarchy that presents Blackness as fungible and reduces Black bodies to flesh, which therefore unsettles and disrupts classification/categorization/genre, specifically gender. Slavery, Spillers argues, reduced Black slaves to a mass of captive flesh which could therefore serve as a “living laboratory” which allows white (nonblack) people to explore and cultivate what would solidify into the colonial gender formation we find ourselves under today.
Spillers unveils terminology representing a “symbolic order” that is loaded with “mythical prepossession” and uses the example of the Black Mother, or the idea of Black matriarchy in general, which
“[...]in a fatal misunderstanding, assigns a matriarchist value where it does not belong; actually misnames the power of the female regarding the enslaved community. Such naming is false because the female could not, in fact, claim her child, and false, once again, because ‘motherhood’ is not perceived in the prevailing social climate as a legitimate procedure of cultural inheritance.”
In other words, Black “Mother” is a contradiction. The fact that Black children took on the status of their biological mother, in contradistinction to Man, meant that Black mothers were actually thrust into the position of the Father, or at least, an echo of it. Black women's claim to womanhood are therefore placed into precarity. They are misnamed. And this misnaming serves as permission, in the eyes of the anti-Black and settler-colonial state, to deny any sort of protection to the Black community as “citizens” and instead to levy violence, surveillance, and brutal policing against us.
In the final paragraphs of “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Spillers claims that Black people wield the potential to overturn patriarchy through Black men saying “‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within” and Black women “claiming the monstrosity (of a female with the potential to ‘name’)”. While this text is extremely influential in Black Queer studies and is often read through a queer/trans lens, I do not read this as a call based on individual identity or performance, but rather a positionality that is, in no small part, material. In other words, the American grammar for Black women is situated within a “motherhood” that fundamentally misnames because of structures, institutions, and social formations that create and reproduce Black captivity. This is, therefore, a call for abolition, for revolution, for gender self-determination.
It is important that we acknowledge that, as stated before, while Spillers’ work is often read through a trans lens, the fact is that she was primarily speaking to a cis audience. Therefore, I offer up the question, What does it mean to embrace the potential/power to “name” for Black trans people? Or perhaps I am getting ahead of myself and must first ask what does it mean for Black trans people to be “misnamed?” I, like other Black trans people, am well acquainted with being misnamed. When my parents made plans to leave town, my mother would remind me of my responsibility as the “man of the house.”
I was destined, or “marked” to be misnamed in this way, ironically enough, by my given name, something that I have now disavowed. Spillers’ articulation of the power to name is, in my mind, a continuation of the particular importance placed upon one’s name within various African cultures. For example, in Ghana, the Akan language grants names “based on kinship, days of the week, circumstances of birth, flora and fauna, and occupation” . In Nigeria, the Yoruba naming system can communicate details about the birth of the child, the family’s social status, etc., and furthermore a newborn’s naming ceremony includes the contributions of parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc., and therefore a Yoruba child can have “as many as 5 or 6 names.”
In 2018, I took up two names. At first, they served as pseudonyms more than anything, to depersonalize my contributions as a radical for agitprop. However with the revaluation of my understanding of my own gender as trans, they became “formal” names. Last year, I took up two more names. This year, I took up yet another, totaling five. I had no idea that I was unconsciously tapping into something African, and I was doing so through rejecting my own misnaming. I had rejected the format handed down through European colonialism of the first (given) and last name. I had rejected my “birth name” in its entirety which forcibly tied me to my father to continue the farce of the “Black family” and reify the logics of property relations and transfer codified by the European nuclear family. And through this naming, I was able to release myself of certain shackles which had anchored me, and to take flight.
At this point I feel it necessary to emphasize that the path to (re)discovering the power to name for me was carved through understanding what it means for me to be not just gender variant, but a Black trans woman. While we are often tempted to retroactively grant the labels queer or trans to African gender variant individuals, they are not wholly applicable or appropriate in the sense that for these individuals, the particular World they occupied did not require such a configuration, and it was only with the destruction and supplanting of their World for another that their identities became reconfigured as “queer” or “trans.” Epistemic genocide is a brutal, totalizing form of violence. It does, however, make us uniquely situated to create a rupture that not only learns from our pre-colonial African past but also contextualizes it, to ask ourselves how we can generate an entirely new World that respects the autonomy of all. In other words, Blackness is not merely fungibility or social death, but it is also “an oppositional force or touchstone for looking at situations differently” that “find[s] ways to creatively resist oppression” . We will not recover pre-colonial African gender structures and formations in their entirety, nor should we really seek to. We should learn from and build upon them.
Therefore, this framework and project of “naming” that I am presenting does not merely have individual implications, but also requires a commitment to inspect one’s identity in terms of positionality and relation to structures that deny power, autonomy, and self-determination to those below and at the margins. Recall that names in certain African cultures can communicate one’s family status and occupation. What is the implication of this in terms of gendered labor divisions? If, for example, one is positioned as “woman” regardless of “biological sex” because of one’s role in the household and social reproductive labor, even if the latter is highly venerated such as spiritual leadership, how do we simultaneously respect the autonomy of Black trans women who reject those roles while respecting the autonomy of those who take them on? Recall that names can also be based on days of the week, flora and fauna, or even the time of day of one’s birth. In other words, they can communicate our relationship with nature and remind us that we are of nature. Names also can serve the role of warding off harmful spirits, enveloping us in spirituality.
To help orient naming as an extension of a liberatory politic, I employ the concept of self-care. No, not the mutilated and hollowed out conception borne from liberal-individualistic consumerism, but its true, original form, as summarized by Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” . Audre Lorde coined self-care while both battling cancer and committing herself to dismantling the structural and institutional barriers that failed to care for her as a Black woman. Just like the mutilated form of “self-care,” “coming out” manifests itself as an articulation of assimilationist tendencies, while, channeling self-care proper, “naming” demystifies structures that engender anti-Blackness and therefore misname Black gender-variant people in order to obscure relations of power.
In a discussion with Nsambu Za Suekama, they told me that “gender self determination [is] a process of mythic, material, and metabolic discovery at personal and collective levels.” I propose “naming” through this lens. Coming Out is often an articulation of mythic discovery—a formal declaration to, and against, the world that tells us we are something we are not—and thus Naming may incorporate it. We must, however, transcend this, and accompany it with a dedication to transforming the material—both in relation to ourselves and others but also to nature. We must also care for ourselves and one another in ways that the state and capitalism do not and simply can not. We must find that which allows us to properly live. Naming is therefore a project that incorporates sociogeny, ecogeny, and radical self-care.
Finally, I would like to resolutely state that Naming is not something for nonblacks to take up. The violent force of Euromodernity and its quest for epistemic hegemony has certainly affected colonized peoples around the world. However, Black people’s relationship to gender and the forms of its disruption are particular to us. It does not carry any analogy, no matter how much we try to force one. I would also like to unequivocally state that at the site of the aforementioned disruption of Black people’s relationship to gender lies transmisogynoir, its fulcrum. It, unfortunately, tends to be the case that there is a consensus among Black folks, even queer, trans, GNC, etc. that Black transfems must face being captured, policed, denied self-determination and a priori presumed to lack consent and agency. In one’s pursuit of Naming, one should never reproduce the misnaming of Black transfems. To do so betrays the whole framework altogether.
 For a more comprehensive analysis of this distinction, see: https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2021/05/10493153/reclaiming-self-care-audre-lorde-black-women-community-care