Gender Variance: An African Tradition

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[Image description: Purple and blue feathery plumes hang down above a pair of Afrikan hands reaching up over a deep purple background. Across the graphic we see the words: ‘Gender Variance: An African Tradition- Black August Kritical Kickback Series – August 1st 5pm MST’]

notes from the Anarkata Freedom School, Black August Kritical Kickback Series, session 3

  • Introduced ourselves, popped in the call
  • Overview of the structure of the Kickback 

“The Anarkata Kickbacks are a chill, conversation based learning space. There should be no transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, ableism, misogynoir, colorism, classism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism or any other harmful behavior in the virtual space. Likewise, our conversational norms prioritize the voices of the most marginal among us in the virtual space. That means that we pass the mic to our marginalized fam when they have something to say and refrain from cutting them off. We also pass the mic when others want to speak who aren’t normally as vocal. While I might be one person involved in facilitating the space, know that anyone can take the initiative to facilitate if they feel moved to do so and do not violate our conversational norms.” People are also free to not engage or even leave as they please.”

  • Vision for Black August –

“During Black August, radicals commemorate the struggles of our incarcerated (and formerly incarcerated) community members, family, friends, and kin. First organized in the prisons of California in the 70s to honor fallen Freedom Fighters, Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson, William Christmas, James McClain, and Khatari Gaulden, the “Black August” tradition aims to honor Black political prisoners and the ongoing legacy of resistance against slavery… But, historically speaking, Black August has often put focus on the contributions and struggles of cis/het and abled Black men, overshadowing the lives and liberatory contributions of Black and disabled women and other maGes. We know for a fact, however that it is Black trans and disabled folk on the front lines of anti-black criminalization and State/capitalist violence. Since 2019, the Afrofuturist Abolitionists of the Americas has been working to redefine Black August intersectionally, through a series of Kritical Kickbacks framed around Black Anarchic Radical politic.”

  • Anarkata: A Statement on gender variance and Black trans struggle –

“While precolonial Afrika was by no means a monolith in terms of gender/sexual diversity, many of our ancestors had ways of being that would today be rendered trans, gender non-conforming, queer. Often times, spiritual leaders in Afrikan traditions were what would today be considered queer, trans, gender nonconforming. Europeans encountered this and so used religion to demonize transness,
gender nonconformity, and queerness in order to destroy cultural practices that helped Afrikan
people form community.”

  • Our host really holds it down from here: “When it comes to gender variance in African culture you cant really look at it from a Western lens. Gender as a system was built from antiblackness. From a precolonial… perspective. Look at it from the lens of Black culture.”
  • “There is a big difference from the way Western society builds gender. Western culture uses biological essentialism, where the body determines gender.”
  • “In ”The invention of women‘ by Yoruba author Oyeronke Oyewumi she talks about how the category of ”woman” didnt exist in precolonial Yoruba society. She basically says that the body is a vessel that carries the spirit, so masculinity and femininity, women and men are not fixed. Modern society bases gender around genitalia.” 
  • ”When looking at different precolonial African societies, we cant use the terms used by the West… [insert people] saw people as a vessel. They believes certain parts of the body represented both masculinity and femininity; it was more about how the vessel would use divine energy.”
  • Our co-host brings up the ancient Egyptian concept of a “”Sekhet” and the difficulty in understanding posed by Western translation, by using Western terms to understand precolonial and indigenous lifeways 
  • Our host: ”It would not make sense to call them nonbinary if the binary didnt exist in their culture. We do the best we can with the language we have; we dont have control of the nomenclature and naming in English. We do the best we can. When it comes from Westerners doing research on cultures they destroyed, it is from a colonizer perspective. So when you look this stuff up, alot of it is coming from white man’s perspective.”
  • ”The scholarship was very ableist in how it categorizes precolonial lifeways.
  • ”They come in with the perspective that we are savages and niggers. You cant trust nothing they write. When you research, source directly from someone in the culture… [because white people] be giving human zoo.”
  • Someone in the space shared a personal story: ”When I was trying to study in Senegal, there wasnt scholarship made by Senegalese people for senegalese people. There was alot of pushback when it came to gender, so the literature I was finding is really awful. Finally getting there and talking with folks was a completely different world. They had people who identified as ngoor-jigeen and that is not seen as nonbinary or two spirited. Neocolonialists have warmed it and redefined it as ”homosexual.” Once Obama came to legalize gay rights, alot of Islamic leaders tried to say the West was imposing queerness, which is why alot of people who identified as ngoor-jigeen went underground. Once neocolonialism comes into the conversation and your own people are suppressed… it becomes very complicated.”
  • Our host: ”It is interesting to see how US imperialism has shaped discourse on gender in the US, Caribbean, and Continent in Black communities. The term ”gay agenda” came from US evangelists who popularized the term and went to African countries. That [interacted with] buggery laws in these countries. Then the US comes along trying to claim to be LGBT friendly, and trying to tell these nations to change their laws after having started the problem. White people like to act progressive when it really is the opposite. Our precolonial African cultures didnt have the restrictions they have now, or not as heavy as they are now. But colonialism comes along and demonizes… But then the West turns around trying to pretend to be progressive and looking down on African nations as backwards even though they are the ones that caused the issue.””
  • ”The Yan Dauda [among the Hausa people ] of northern nigeria, the only book written on them is written by a white gay man. I of course didnt read it, because I felt like the information is coming from a white person’s viewpoint. The author was hoping to relate to them. He described them as men who dress as women. There goes that language [problem]. English does not have vocabulary for talking about gender beyond the binary. The terms we have still reinforce that idea”
  • ”In the invention of women, Oyeronke Oyewumi talks about how the difference between Western and Yoruba culture, the West sees things based on [visuality]. They see you and identify. I see you: you are Black. I see you: you are a woman. They see you, they identify you. When it comes to culture that dont do that right away, she calls that ”worldsense.” Spirituality is a big part of African cultures, where spiritual and secular arent divided. It is a Black/indigneous way of seeing and so someone wouldnt just be identified off appearance.”
  • Our cohost: ”Among the many of hierarchies, a hierarchy of senses was imposed under colonialism. Visuality is put at the fore in a unique way that is oriented around objectification.”
  • ”Capitalism means everything and everyone has to bea assigned a value in hierarchical value to everything and everyone else. People cant just BE in capitalist culture.”
  • Our host: ”The politics of passion” – the Gloria Wekker talks about Mati work, which is an indigenous institution that is in Black Suriname culture. Men and women, mostly women, are not taking up partners. And if they do, they take up a women partner, and dont settle down. The author talks about the institution’s connection to African spirituality and history of slavery. The word ”mati” means ”friend.” On slave ships, two folk would become really close, and would then call each other shipmates, including ”mati.” When they reached the shores, they would stick together. There is different words for it around the Caribbean, that literally translate to ”’my friend” or ”mate.” In Suriname, lesbian relationships described themselves as ”mati.” I connect it to the way queer relationships here in the US are jokingly referred to as ”lil friend.” It is not an identity, it is about the behavior. Which is important to how gender and sexuality is organized in our cultures: it is not an identity. The history of LGBT categories comes from the medical field [by contrast]. They popped up as diagnoses. They were pathologized. ”Homosexuality” wasnt taken off the list of mental illnesses [DSM] til the 60s or 70s. THe history of those categories doesnt apply to our cultures. In an indigenous/African worldview, gender/sexuality was more about performance. ”
  • Our cohost: ”When I first came out, I had said ”My gender is marronage” – i was remarking that my way of being, and my behavior was more about a fugitive act, a performance beyond logics imposed by slavery than it was about a (static) identity. I didnt have vocabulary like nonbinary or queer or knowledge of pronouns to describe myself and originally these terms didnt make sense for me.”
  • Our host: ”I came up with the term Two Head. This comes from a Hoodoo, rootwork framing. The TwoHead was one who practices both conjure (working with spirits), and rootworking that focused on herbalism. They had power on the plantations [in both facets of these traditions]. It comes from West African spiritual practices. What i was thinking was in West Africa, I had read about the Chibado—from the Congo and Angola area. 40% of Africans brought here were Congo, so I was thinking [that] since the Congo priests were considered gender variant [we should look here for a precedent to the reclamation of TwoHead as gender variant folk in the US]. In African cultures, gender variance was not just accepted, it was considered a spiritual thing. Like I said before, when talking about our cultures, you cannot separate the secular from the spiritual, whereas in the West you kind of can. That’s a big difference when we are talking about gender. Gender was considered sacred; if you were gender variant you were most likely to be seen as spiritually chosen. It does depend on what society you are talking about because I dont wanna generalize. In the Congo context, the priests were gender variant. When I picked the term TwoHead, I was connecting a spiritual basis. It is not functioning the same way as Two Spirit.”” 
  • “When we are creating this stuff we are trying our best to decolonize. The term SGM never sat right with me. I have never seen it extended to Black women as much as I have seen cis men using it. The ones that still use it.”  
  • “”Blackness itself, when we are talking about Western gender categories—Blackness negates that. Black people were considered property, nothing more chattel. Nowadays, Black cis men and cis women do uphold the gender binary, so we cannot say they dont aspire to it. But they really [shooting themselves in the foot]. You can never be considered a real man under white supremacy or real man because those standards dont extend to you, they exclude you. Black men cant really be patriarchs of the home in the way white men can, and niggas aspire to that… but are oppressed. They try to enact it and uphold it through violence, but the gender binary excludes them as well, as much as they hate to see it.””
  • ”There is a rise in TERFS [on the internet] who dont have Black feminist foremothers. The foremothers might have had exclusionary language, but I cant recall any who excluded Black trans women from liberation [in the Black feminist tradition]. The rise of TERFs is a set back, because Black cis women are already subjected to being unable to enjoy the benefits of the gender binary. When it comes to beating down on trans people is the only time they try to give Black cis women their womanhood. This situation with Megan Thee Stallion is also an important discussion.”
  • Ungendering what does it actually mean and why are people on Twitter using it incorrectly? The Anarkata Statement warns against centering Black cis women in the conversation. Ungendering is a structural problem drawn from Hortense Spillers. A very complicated notion, ungendering is best understood when thinking about how Black autonomy over our gender is denied by colonizers in the process of our anatomy being sexualized, animalized, demonized, and used to impose a binary gender onto us that codes us as something to be held as property. The Anarkata Statement is clear and explicit that the horizon of Black gender struggle is led by Black trans women.
  • “There are cis women being asked if transmisogynoir affects Black cis women, and excluding trans women from the platform and conversation. This is wrong. ”If you are not a Black trans woman, you do not experience transmisogynoir.” We cannot center cis women in a conversation that is supposed to center trans women. ”You are not dying from it. You are affected because you do not fit into this society’s conception of the gender binary. I wish they would just stay on that topic. We dont need a specific term for that, they are looking for a way to center what affects Black cis women rather than talking about Black trans women and Black trans women struggles.”
  • ”The investment into cisness needs to be reckoned with because it erases Black trans women.”
  • ”[cis] people are trying to uphold the status quo.”
  • ”They are not getting free until they get it the fuck together.”
  • Our host: ”Black trans women are doing alot of the work. Black queer people are on the front lines. Black women are the ones that are preserving cultural traditions. I rarely see black cishetero men engage with hoodoo. That is a common thing around the diaspora. The traditions are usually held by women. In haiti alot of queer and trans people are turning to ancestral traditions. The people who want to assimilate into whiteness the most are the niggas. They will uphold the violence against you even when you fighting for them. It is just tragic. We need to divest from centering Black cis men in liberation. They not doing it for everybody; they doing it for themselves. White people not finna let up for you to get they spot.'”
  • We started to close out, wish each other goodbyes and a happy Black August

Suggested resources

Black Gender Variance and Self Naming – The TwoHead Manifesto

The Splendor of Gender Nonconformity in Africa

Cosmological Queerness Across the Yoruba Diaspora

Beyond Binary Definitions of Gender

Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe (for better understanding of ‘ungendering’ as a concept)

Twitter thread about ungendering as a ”territory of political and cultural maneuver’

The Invention of Women

The Politics of Passion

Black On Both Sides – A Racial History of Trans Identity

Male Daughters, Female Husbands

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