Transness Does Not Mean Death: On the Erasure of Nonbinary People
“I don’t want to take up space.” These are the words that I hear so often and so devastatingly by nonbinary people and people outside of the binary within shared trans spaces, and outside of them.
How can you take space from another person if space is abundant? If Blackness is abundant? If transness is abundant? How can you take what is already yours infinitely and divinely?
Some nonbinary folks that I’ve asked say that they are cis-passing and that they should limit their space-taking. Some of them say that they are not violated “as much” as binary trans people. Some say that they haven’t experienced transphobia “enough” to take space.
There is no requirement to be trans and to take space. We can honor the realities of the violence our communities suffer specifically and intently without needing to move in scarcity. We can challenge cis-hetero patriarchy to demolish binaries that seek to limit the expansiveness of trans identity and experience. Transness being seen as a hierarchy of violence before it is seen as a boundless identity of powerful being is something that is fueled by antiblackness.
The underlying reality is that many people of all gender identities believe that transness means death. If you don’t die enough, you’re not really trans. If you aren’t visible in your death, you’re not really trans. If you aren’t violated for being trans in the way that people can cohere or prioritize, you aren’t really trans. Transness being limited to death means that we never actually honor any trans person in their wholeness, experience, and affirmation. To assume that we must die to take space, to speak, to be validated, or to be valued means that we are not only being dishonest about antiblack violence but that we are affirming that death is the medium that makes us deserving of truth-telling, compassion, and life.
When Nino Fortson, a genderqueer Black person, was killed in Atlanta, the Atlanta police spokesperson Carlos Campos said, “Our preliminary investigation did not in any way indicate that this individual identified as transgender.” There will never be a way to indicate transness outside of our naming of gender. Nino was never offered the chance to name themselves before the world did. They were also preliminarily named as a transman by queer and trans organizers before their partner and family named that they used all pronouns and were genderqueer. So, where does this leave nonbinary people to name the violence we experience if the world doesn’t see us as trans when we’re alive, and the world doesn’t see us as trans when we’re dead? Where does this leave the nonbinary people who feel hesitant to take space if they can’t access the reality that we are, too, murdered and erased? This only leaves us in a war with being dead, and being more dead.
There is no such thing as “indication of transness” or ‘cis-passing.’ No Black person — cis, trans, intersex, otherwise — can be cis-passing. Pass as what? Pass according to who? Pass where and when? Gender, as defined through whiteness, is a construct of antiblackness that was never made to affirm or fit Black people. The very being that we fail gender [as defined (and confined) to whiteness] enough to see ourselves as non-cisgender is the material affirmation that our bodies, our identities, and our desires can never be protected here. Blackness fails gender through every phenotype of colorism, fatphobia, ableism, and featurism; and will never be passing or go unpunished for existing through the visual embodiment of Blackness.
The idea of cis-passing also exists as an intracommunity transphobic sentiment among trans communities. This belief manifests through ideas that some of us are passing to those who are not trans, and that it changes our material realities. But the truth is — all Black people are misgendered/ degendered/ ungendered in this world with or without self-identifying as trans. Gender violence works through colorism, featurism, fatphobia, and ableism to punish us more grotesquely, and still, this doesn’t affirm cis-passing as a reality because gender as a construct is always mutating and always subjective. There is no presentation that trans people have inherently, or that we all inherently experience. No trans person looks the same. No cis person looks the same. There is no singular non-cis experience that would determine there is a way to pass when that would only affirm that there are definitive ways to fail gender. We all fail the definition of antiblack constructs of gender because there are as many Black people as there are gender identities. And we all die for it.
Nonbinary people and people beyond the binary are violated, discriminated against, and are killed every day. We demand that new worlds are created just by entering the room. We require the shapeshifting of antiblackness by requiring pronoun usage, by intervening assumption of gender, by giving birth to language and embodiment beyond this world. You cannot maintain a gender binary around us without killing us. And our deaths aren’t just relegated to binary violence through conversation, we die physically daily and our deaths are among the dead of antiblack violence.
We are required to pay a debt for the affirmation and inclusion we seek. That debt is having to experience trauma on repeat until people find your identity normalized enough to believe you deserve to live, and believe that we actually die. Our experiences, vast and unlimited, must be included in trans narratives centering our lives and our deaths. Our bodies, our truths, our identities must be valued and honored if we want to get free and if we want autonomy and agency for all Black gender-oppressed people.
The reason for the erasure and shrinking of nonbinary people is a result of antiblackness. The enemy is forever the global demand for Black death. And, everyone who is not nonbinary and outside of the binary perpetuates this killing and erasure of nonbinary identity, validity, and space-taking. In this tension, what must happen is the honoring of the wholeness, affirmation, and safety of people beyond the binary. Our transness is divine, powerful, and deeply authentic to Blackness and ourselves. We cannot honor transness without understanding that the gender binary and the construct of gender itself is what affirms the violence for why we’re trans, and is the reason for all of our deaths.
Boundaries, affirmation, and space are our birthright. We do not have to fight for anything, prove anything, or validate anything. We deserve to walk into spaces that are already ungendered, that are already designed to intervene binaristic violence, that is already designed to hold our whole being. No matter our presentation, performance, pronouns, or embodiment, we don’t owe anything in order to exist in this world. Nonbinary people give birth to new worlds that give the capacity for everyone’s wholeness, and we deserve that same abundance we embody in our politic and our being.