970: Ungendered 2

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970: Ungendered 2


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

In a conversation with coworkers, I acknowledged in a celebratory fashion the gender transition of a young person, or what I perceived as a transition. Yet my remark elicited a rebuke that had me initially confused. I now understand why my colleague was so taken aback. What I thought was an innocent observation actually caused unintentional harm in that conversation. They explained to me how the comment reminded them of when they were misperceived.

Although I thought I was championing a decision to claim one’s true self and saw myself as a supporter, I later understood that my mentioning my perception of this person’s gender is akin to calling out, or even questioning, their race or age or sexuality. It had no place in the conversation. Having experienced so many moments of being othered, I knew this lesson well. “Hey Major; you’re Black; tell me why ___________.”

As someone who has closely mentored and taught trans students, and counseled parents who themselves had difficulty processing their children’s journey, I understood myself as someone who had a grasp of the issues. I thought myself incapable of blunders. I now realize this is one problem with self-regard. It leaves you vulnerable to your own ignorance and biases, or in my case, virtue-signaling.

What I thought of as street cred should really be seen as baby booties; I am, and I think all of us are, forever learning to walk, and to walk solidly with grace and goodwill in the presence of others.

Given the staggering rate of violence against trans people, I thought a supportive remark would be read as a form of advocacy, maybe an overt way of saying without saying: I am aligned with decency and good in the world — yet that makes the comment self-serving. Naming is also an act of power, a one-way exchange between viewer and subject involving the body. Again, lessons I know well.

Several months later, these lessons really hit home. Talking with a group of female colleagues, one of them remarked that, even though I am a man, I have a trait normally attributed as feminine; I understand the edges of my identity; I think you have to as a poet. And outside perspectives don’t always account for the fluidity of those edges. Even if identifying something true, when other people apply their own labels to an aspect of your selfhood that is as natural as breathing, then you feel reduced, as if dissected under a microscope. I’ve felt that wound of being singled out, being made a target.

Today’s poem rightly resists labels that limit our lived experiences, and rallies for us setting our own terms for how we are viewed in society.

Ungendered 2
by Kwame Sound Daniels

Not-woman, not-girl, not-man, I was not,
not, not anything that could be solid, 
anything concrete, in stasis; I was
not a fan flicked open and fluttering, 
not the swish of satin skirts, not a bow
at the nape of a neck, nor coquettish
batting of eyelashes; I couldn’t be
the tweed of a jacket or patches at 
the elbows, the smell of a tobacco plant,
the knife that cut the leaves from the stalk; I
wasn’t white nylons, nor the run in them
caused by nails; I was neither sun nor moon;
I was not silken or lace lingerie.
I wear the fugitive space in blackness.

"Ungendered 2" by Kwame Sound Daniels from THE PAUSE AND BREATH © 2023, Kwame Sound Daniels. Used by permission of the poet.