We spend a lot of time on the phone. Not texting, but voice to voice. I don’t think the calls are only or primarily about the distance between us. For me, they are affirming gestures of my Black Queer Gender Nonconforming (GNC) existence. It is good food. And such a good old thing between new friends.

So, again, we get on the line.

In May 2018, I asked friend, artist, good human, NIC kay to ruminate with me. They informed and stormed in our talk, most of which you’ll read here. You won’t experience the mmm hmmms and okay, I see and yaaass moments, but the conversation was littered with them. I remain grateful to NIC for the sharing. Note this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

NI’Ja Whitson: To make sure I’m on point, how do you articulate your gender identity and use of pronouns?

NIC kay: I am a gender nonconforming, femme person who loves they and them pronouns. I also love to be referred to as NIC. But at the same time, I am not militantly policing people’s usage of gender in relationship to me. I just … I often like to have open and honest questions about how people perceive gender identity in space. It allows them to discover their own expansive ideas of gender on a spectrum through their experiencing of me, and having that be the sort of impetus to share where I’m at. I don’t really care about how they refer to me in terms of their pronouns, which is usually always more reflection of where they are than where I’m at.

NW: Have you always engaged with people that way around your gender, or has that developed differently over time?

NIC: I started to identify as GNC and using gender neutral pronouns about 5 years ago now, in 2013. So, I’ve had some varying experiences in terms of how I felt about where I was on the spectrum and also building the confidence to feel like I deserve to be referred to and seen as I experience and am in the world. I deeply have always felt in alignment with that thought that Black femme, Black girls, Black women are denied a sort of femininity in western beauty standards. I was never considered soft enough or any of the things, so I think I always had a sort of subconsciousness about not being seen as a girl or whatever that meant; a “girl,” attractive, soft. And then when I cut my hair in about 2008, I was experiencing what I would at that time not have known to say was misgendering, but I was identifying as a young Black woman and I was constantly being misgendered which made me feel very uncomfortable and very confused, but it was something that always happened, even when I was a child. People would, if I had a sport suit on would call me a young man or a young boy. So, I think really my consciousness in the present leads me to question people’s refusal of their own expansive understanding of gender on a spectrum. So if I am this person standing in front of them in all of my power and beauty and humanness and in that sense introducing myself, and this person reads me as however they understand that to be, and then they feel embarrassed because they then see something else that conflicts with [what] they first thought was X or Z, it’s really sort of a cognitive dissonance for them. It’s really them fighting what they’re actually experiencing versus what they’ve been told. They’ve been told that gender is fixed, but what they are experiencing, actually, is fluctuation. And I think that has been the challenge with me in terms of gender policing and mis-pronouning. It’s that I don’t care what pronouns you use, actually. My choices are about having conversations about respect. Because in that moment what those people are doing is fighting what they’re seeing, then choosing then to impose on you their issue with feeling “got” or feeling somehow deceived.

The tire grits its teeth along the gravel and brakes to silence – a pause for effect. Have you ever siphoned rupture through a narrow opening? (Do you know the control it takes to slingshot a sound?) (2018). | Art by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. Medium: Photograph, Variable.

NW: That feels like the significant part of those relationships is about how your own body and assertion of neutrality throws the binary into a tailspin as folks are interfacing with their own perceptions and maybe internal questions of who they are . . . I’m curious about how or if you’ve experienced, in working with Black women, any unique characteristics of how folk relate to your gender. Has it been challenging or easier, these conversations about respect and understanding?

NIC: When you’ve finally arrived in a space with Black women, specifically in your career field, the first thing is the breath of fresh air. People are just happy to be around Black people, and then if they identify you as a woman or a femme person they are happy to also have that identity sharing. Then comes, for me, often the cold sweat and feelings of betrayal, of not wanting to betray somehow by ‘dropping this bomb.’ So often, I arrive in these spaces and so often specifically from older Black women, older Black lesbians, there is a sense of coming home. They’re just so excited about my being in my body and how they understand me in a lineage of other people who spoke and stood in a way that feels familiar to them. So, in some ways it feels really encouraging, and it feels very maternal. But at the same time, inevitably what happens is I try to explain how I have had experiences in my life when I’ve occupied space and even in the present, I can have experiences where I am occupying a space – and am occupying that space most of the time – forcibly as a Black woman and then in another breath am actively having a conversation about my lived experience as a gender nonconforming person. So that becomes challenging. I think often I’m trying to manage their feelings of betrayal even if they don’t say so. And then the projection of me being confused about where I’m at. Even if these things aren’t said because a lot of times they’re not said there’s just a lot of passive aggressiveness or underhandedness in the conversation. But very often it’s hard for people to see beyond themselves even when you’re talking about yourself. They’re trying to make sense of where they fit in versus also how they were perceiving me in the beginning. But unfortunately, I’m not so often in spaces, and haven’t been since coming out, in spaces with Black women. I’ve been mostly nurtured in spaces with Queer cis Black men, so the women that I have had contact with are usually in those spaces as well. Which is a different type of sharing of a femme energy.

I began to feel a rush. A familiar heartbeat arrived: rapid, bruised. These circles and feelings of betrayal on the many sides of sisterhood as a gender nonconforming person are tragically isolating. Most of my Queer upbringing has been in the powerful circles of Black and Brown femmes, studs, and dykes, learning the truths of my own gender presentation and identity along the way. I have been loved, schooled, embraced, and warriored by Queer women of color and Black lesbians, along with straight, cis Black and Brown women; However, the walls of sisterhood had seemed to close in on me, pushed me out after I transitioned into gender nonconformity and use of neutral pronouns. And there are times when I deeply miss their love.

NIC’s similar longing (and empathy) triggered my own, and brought forward what was in the underbelly of the call.

The company of her shadows (2016) | Art by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. Medium: Photograph, Variable.

NW: I am thinking about the languages of silence; of why leaving Skeleton Architecture* has been a silent endeavor. Firstly, because, I still love many members of that collective, and I don’t want to threaten the possibility and good, important work of Black women, cis and trans, having space for themselves. One of the collective members talked about a mourning for, and a feeling of loss of Black women’s spaces, which, spoke volumes for me in terms of my ability to be welcomed or feel loved in that space. But, I’m curious about how to strategize a love principle, while Black women can feel that the intersectionality of gender nonconforming folks presents a loss for them.

NIC: Yea, I often think that the conversation is of semantics. It makes me think in some ways, not to conflate race and gender, but I think there are intersecting concepts in terms of language and uses of language, in terms of time and consciousness and political positioning.

I think so often about books that were on the shelves of the friends of my parents and the friends of my grandparents and what was really cutting-edge theory and thought and how a lot of times those things were foundational and then maybe later rebuked and/or added upon. So often those things are honored and with time that is hard to grapple with. I think so often in the conversations of the missing I want to honor that. I want to honor what time does to discourses.

I remember being in those spaces, I remember occupying those identities and sharing a particular type of sisterhood, and I know that Black women are mistreated–cis and trans–in such a way that I’m like: nothing comes from impatience and revenge. Trying to figure out ways to have an ongoing conversation with love as much as possible but also with distance and strategic tools. It doesn’t always have to be up-close and personal, distance can be a part of it. For me what I always try and remember specifically as time goes by is that it’s so easy to become brand new about things, like how far I’ve come in terms of what I’m learning every day. And it’s just so flabbergasting how controlled and curated knowledge is in our society, but yet how readily available it is. And how long it takes to chip away at whatever sort of foundational oppressive thinking about yourself and the outside world that so many of us have been left with.

I am working through an understanding of where it is exactly that I have been left. The concentric circles overlapping, intertwining, undoing and redoing us. I’m bruised from the edges of circles that are unbending in their rigidity. And I’m falling fast through the hands of my Sisters who, too, are bruised from the world. Whether on the binary as trans, or cis, being a woman of color who is committed to her freedom, is dangerous. There is hard and fierce love in those circles because they have been measured in the healings from blood spill and spillings of joy. And quilts. Dancing feet. Sports bras, and stilettos.

We are all working through our own versions of white boxes and broken circles.

I’m working to be free in the world we have “been left with” and vision with others, parts of the world we can simply leave. While I choose to reject, release, or transform the parts of the world (and the white boxes) who would rather have me invisible or dead, I am trying to breathe right alongside those of us trying to hold up our own ends of the earth. As artists we are holding and transforming. As Trans and Nonbinary folk we are transforming the earth of ourselves as well. We invite our Sisters to transform circle keeping so as to avoid it becoming a line or border. Ones that lead beyond our abilities to see and hold each other as vastly as we are and have always been.

The marks on the wall match those on the body (2017). | Art by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. Medium:
Photograph, Variable.

About the Author: Ni’Ja Whitson
About the Editors: J. Soto, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Works Cited

Skeleton Architecture Danspace Project, St Marks Church, NYC, October 22, 2016. Performance.