Each week the Honey newsletter includes a column from women and LGBTQ folks in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. This month it’s all about bodies and how they’ve carried us and helped us tell our stories. We’re always looking for more stories from you. Click here to learn more about how to get published.
By Joshua Baker
Beauty supply stores, warm butter rolls, and old-school gospel in the morning return me to my mother’s arms.
Before my mother lost her vision, she would style my aunt’s hair—our living room becoming her makeshift salon. I would peer at this mysticism—this Black woman’s alchemy. How her hands held secrets that even in death would be kept.
I would observe in awe—but only in the way boys are taught to stare in awe at the divine feminine—with an air of unconcern though fervently fascinated.
As my mother lost her vision, this craft would come to belong to me. Slowly but surely, I became my mother’s hands. And while I would covertly relegate this honor to “doing an errand for my aunt” when guy friends asked where I was headed, there was pride in it. Years after her death, there is still pride in it. The way she lives on in this sacred ritual. The way this practice gave urgency to higher order beauty.
I often reflect on the way we’ve distorted masculinity and femininity, conflating plastic energies with rigid, gendered constructs. Mutually exclusive, gendered possessions. Toughen up. Men are masculine. Soften up. Women are feminine.
There is only bondage to be found in black and white—liberation lies in gray.
As a Black, Queer man, engaging femininity is a decadent dance. It is returning, night after night, to a lover I’ve been forbidden to see. To be a Black, Queer man (and yes, both identities matter) in such a love affair is a death wish of sorts—intercommunally and intracommunally alike.
Engaging femininity as a Black, Queer man is more than eye shadow and lipstick. It is more than the high heels and gowns. It is more than lightening the voice or the whimsy of your walk. It is sensitivity. It is warmth. It is tenderness. It is emotionality. It is calmness. It is beauty.
It is Black Women who taught me how to be any of these things. If there was any model of what it was to engage, to admire, to honor any beautiful, soft thing, it has been and continues to be Black Women.
Men—particularly Black men—are not given space to engage femininity with impunity. It always comes with a cost.
Black, Queer men are not monolithic though stereotype presents a general model: effeminate, flamboyant, conspicuous. While Black, Queer men can, should, and do engage these attributes without shame, these generalized portrayals do an injustice to the diversity that exists within us. Despite such depth, unidimensional stereotypes persist. But here, though seldom found elsewhere, exists a unique privilege for Black, Queer men.
The assumption that my Queerness yields me utterly feminine provides a freedom that most straight-identifying men are not afforded. What do I stand to lose? After all, I am not being punished for my femininity. I am punished for how my femininity reflects my Queerness. And God does it feel good to see, to hold, to love the world with softness—nothing grows without it. There is joy and celebration in that. But one must also honor the grief.
Grief that men are taught to bond over violence when there are so many other things that could bind us. Grief over time lost in the pretense. Grief over the expanse of an illusory life. Leaning into femininity as a Black, Queer man seats you within a complex dichotomy.
The pretending is different. They require different labor.
Evading femininity as a Queer man among women requires monitoring—constant intrapersonal surveillance. Watching what you say, how intrigued you appear, how long you gaze.
Evading femininity as a Queer man among men requires invention of new identity entirely. A shell of a self that errs to anger. To violence. To power. A shell created for survival, not for life. At its least, the shell is suffocating. At its height, it’s lethal. And for most men, it makes more sense to carry shallow breath than to carry blood.
I remember being a boy, undisclosed. How being in ear range of ‘sissy’ and ‘faggot’ made me retreat as deeply inside myself as possible. I think about the boys just like me, Queer or otherwise, who yearned for softness—who yearn still. I think about the boys just like me, Queer or otherwise, who will yearn for softness. Ernst Bloch reminds us, “The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security; it’s the loss of the capacity to imagine that things could be different.” I am thankful that Black Women restored my capacity to imagine that things could be different.
Perhaps, for some of these women, this was the furthest outcome from their intention. Perhaps, if they knew what their magic was capable of, some would have done anything possible to disinherit me. However they stand now, my gratitude is in where they stood.
When my grandmother taught me how to cook butter rolls, she wasn’t just giving me procedural instruction—she was teaching me how to love a thing with intention. She was inviting me into the divinity of familial legacy. She was teaching me the art of feeding a family. The same recipes that held our stock over—through triumph and hardship alike—were now mine. There’s beauty in that. And softness. And nurturing. When my mother taught me how to style my aunt’s hair, she taught me the importance of self-possession. What it is to belong to yourself and how to honor that ownership. She taught me the urgency of beauty, that beauty is a gospel in itself. Cooking is not inherently feminine. Hairdressing is not inherently feminine. But they are powerful vehicles for femininity. The act itself is far less important than the emotion it extracts. Acts of Black femininity exist as such because of the joy, resistance, and legacy they alchemize—how there is provided safety for something softer.
Black femininity is an ancient, coveted spell. And for many, like myself, Black women and Black femininity are lifesaving.
To Kathy. To Mary-Louise. To Stephanie. Asé. Based in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Joshua Baker is a writer, performance artist, and social worker impassioned by minority mental health and LGBTQIA+ advocacy. While having work published by Out Loud HSV, Hypertrophic Press, Aura Literary Review, and Button Poetry, Baker is also the author of three poetry chapbooks—This Here Side of Creation, Love Poems & Other Ways to Lose A Poetry Slam, and Excerpts from the Wilderness.