Growing up, I did not like when my mother put me in dresses or decorated my room with pink flowers and bows. I wanted bows on my neck, not bows in my hair. I never understood why I was feeling dysphoric when I was forced to wear skirts or when I realized my breasts were growing.
In the summer of 2015, I started attending a dance place called Fuzion Force Entertainment Academy. I was thrilled that most of the students there were a part of the LGBTQ community. One of my dance members asked if I was gay. This question shocked me because I did not know how to answer—I had never thought about my sexuality. That was the moment I learned that I was not straight in the slightest.
One of the choreographers at Fuzion Force was a perfect representation of how I wanted to look. She was right in the middle of androgyny and masculinity. I looked up to her, people loved her despite the way she dressed differently from others, and that drove me to embrace my gender expression as a “dyke” — a slur that has been reclaimed by many lesbians after years of discrimination.
Stud, Stem, Fem: All labels created by the Black WLW (women loving women) community to describe their gender expression on a scale from masculine, androgynous, to feminine. My gender expression falls between masculine and androgynous, and although I refuse to use these labels, I am still considered a “dyke” by others. This label has prevented me from pursuing simple things that are classified as “feminine” and has downplayed my experiences and existence as a Black woman. All for the sake of what I choose to wear.
Trying to find the answer to why this word held so much weight, I turned to books and social media for answers. Come to find out, colorism is also an unspoken problem in the gay community. I noticed that all light-skinned, masculine-dressed women were often called the label that they wanted to hear. Stud. These were most likely seen as “pretty boys” and include stereotypes such as athletic, fit, charismatic, and “clean.” Women with brown skin, no matter what they wanted to be called, were almost always called by the slur. As far as I could tell, they were stereotyped as the dirty, rough, drug addicts who were trying to be men. This comes from the societal issue of how darker skin is seen as aggressive. In media like the WNBA, or movies like Precious, The First Purge, and Set It Off, the only representation Black masculine-dressed women have are called ghetto or where basketball players. And the only purpose in many of these depictions were for these women to have sexual relations with women and die. All of these tropes were meant to demonize or ‘other’ Black women who chose a masculine or androgynous gender expression.
Seeing these depictions in media furthered my confusion as to why I kept being called a homophobic slur when I dressed the exact same as the other queer people did. I did, however, learn how this label can be toxic and can even jeopardize my safety and support as a Black woman. During the time where I saw a joke going around social media about how “dykes don’t die,” multiple cases of butch lesbians and their families were being killed. One of these cases was Kerrice Lewis, a lesbian who was burned alive in her car on the night of December 28, 2017. Some people, and most of my own race, responded to this hate crime with mockery and laughter commenting, “Maybe dykes do die.” As a masculine-dressing woman, seeing comments like those from your own people is alarming. It made me feel as if I was ever a victim of a hate crime or police brutality, my people would not fight for my justice, but instead laugh, or worse, no one would ever hear about my death. These kinds of beliefs, however false they may be, took a toll on me and affected my mental health.
“When we fail to teach Black queer youth about how there always has been, and always will be Black LGBTQ+ people succeeding, writing, working, and existing in the world, we are denying them access to a part of their humanity.” @AmiriNash #SpiritDay https://t.co/113TWpayh7
— GLAAD (@glaad) October 15, 2020
Having these fears growing up, I still found myself staying silent. A lot of society does not believe a masculine-dressed people should show emotion at any circumstances. This made me suppress my trauma and mental health. My mental health has also been swept under the rug in relationships, friendships, and individual interactions with unknown people. Due to our choice of clothing we’re told to act hard, always be happy, and never show an ounce of depression. Otherwise I won’t be fit for a romantic relationship. Since the world also treats men this way, I’ve come to the realization that the problem is within the actual definition of masculinity, where society thinks anything that is dominant or masculine should carry the weight because emotions are seen as weakness, and weakness is not a desirable trait.
It comes to a point where being labeled a “dyke” prevents others from doing simple things as a woman without mockery. I witnessed this with a YouTuber named Domo, who is a masculine-presenting woman. When she and her girlfriend, who is feminine, decided to have children, she carried the baby. Domo received a lot of hate and backlash because people did not see her as a woman. Comments flooded their pages such as, “Shouldn’t it be the feminine one in the relationship to carry a child?” and “Who said this was ok? Dykes have to be fake gay.” These made it seem as if she wasn’t allowed to have a child because of her masculinity. I remember when it came to my menstrual cycle, an old friend commented, “I forgot dykes have periods too,” as everyone laughed and agreed. This experience was both embarrassing and baffling.
The more conscious I became about this subject through my experiences; the more I realized that there was nothing wrong with a Black woman dressing masculine. We are people too, yet there are others who treat us like rare, unnatural species. When informing people of how “dyke” is a homophobic slur, all I would get in response were excuses like “My friends let me say it,” “I’m not saying it in a bad way,” and “it doesn’t have the same meaning.”
Not every Black woman is cocoa butter, afros, and body oil – and that’s okay. Masculine-dressed women should not have their experiences downplayed due to their gender expression. When fighting for Black rights, we should be open minded to all Black struggles for true unity, so no one suffers silently.
Grace Ancrum is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and junior at North Carolina A&T University studying business management. Grace has been featured in Teen Vogue and Hello Giggles, among others. She serves as a Junior Editor for GLAAD’s digital platform, Amp.