Learning I Wasn’t Transgender

The need for LGBTQ language in the search to define ourselves

by George M. Johnson

It is easy to be something you are not when you don’t have the knowledge and understanding that anything else exists. It has taken me thirty-two years of life to grasp my identity as a Black Queer man because of that. An identity that continues to grow as I continue to learn more about my community and myself; breaking the conditioning I have come to know most of my life that forced me into a box of something I was never meant to be.

Growing up, I always thought I was going to be transgender. As a little boy at the age of five I already knew that something about me was different even though I wasn’t quite sure what that “different” was or meant. Not having the understanding of how to say or express that, I navigated as I was until I couldn’t, out of safety reasons. Meaning, the older that I was getting, the more effeminate I was becoming, something society doesn’t allow in little boys.

It was in the second grade that I had my first run-in with homophobia, after creating a word “honeychild” as my response to everything, similar to how folks say “girl” or “sis.” Some of the kids started using the word, which upset some parents. The teacher called home and I was no longer allowed to use that word, with the reasoning being “because you just can’t.” “Because you just can’t” seemingly became my new way of life, pretending to be hetero enough to get along with the boys while fulfilling my femininty with all my friends who were girls. It was my way of coping with an existence I knew nothing about.

What I did know, though, was transgender. My Black family dynamic was set up where I grew up with trans people in my family. I was closest with my transgender cousin Hope. She was older by about ten years, but, in my mind, I felt I related to her the most in my family. I have memories of Hope during her transition, and the way she walked and talked and was still accepted by family was something that I had longed for. As a child, I felt that I may have been in the wrong body but again didn’t have the language to say that out loud. She was someone I looked up to, although I never once was able to say it. During her life, I was too afraid to be extremely close to her because I was still worried about how folks would view me and I just simply wanted to survive.

Since I couldn’t live it publicly, I used to daydream about what life would be like if I were a girl. Her name was Domonique. I had envisioned myself with a face like my mother’s, long hair and a bright smile. Everything I was going through in my life as a boy I was imagining in my head if I had been a girl. It was my secret place I could go to do all the things I would do if I were in a different body. Getting my hair done, wearing dresses, getting my nails done, and more. I thought I would be trans because I had no other representation or visibility to know that anything other than that could exist for me.

Enter the year 2000 and the show Queer As Folk. Although I had no clue what the hell I was watching, it resonated with me. The show talked about dating, sex, gender, family, friendships, of gay men, albeit white, living publicly as I wanted to do myself one day. It also touched on STIs, HIV, and made me well aware of a lot of things that occur in the LGBTQ community. It was my real understanding that trans wasn’t all that existed. 2004 was when I realized that gay could also be Black. Enter Karamo Brown, from The Real World. He had a great body, great personality, and was gay. It was one of the first moments that I actually can say that I saw myself.

Lacking LGBTQ language is a problem. We are forced to ignore the existence of LGBTQ people as children and then funneled into a heteronormative mold that some of us simply don’t fit. This conditioning can take years to break, bringing about trauma that many are never able to escape, even as adults. We are not allowed to explore identities that we are feeling, nor are many of our parents equipped to understand what it is that we are going through. The heternorms that society place on us stunt our growth and development, often leading to us assimilating into society and into our own much later in life.

This language also includes disparities that affect LGBTQ people at rates higher than heterosexual people. We don’t learn that HIV is infecting more Black gay men and Black women at a younger age, although we are already having sex within those communities. There is a reason that the contraction of HIV and STIs are starting at a younger age year over year, and it’s part and parcel due to the lack of education and knowledge being shared at earlier ages.

I lost a lot of years thinking that I was something that I was not. My hope is that through my work, one day we will be able to reach marginalized identities at a much younger age to ensure they don’t have the same roadblocks many of us had to grow up with.

George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News, and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @iamgmjohnson.