Developing a Black Genderfluid Feminist Critique via Tumblr
The following text is a chapter from a tumblr book: platform and cultures (University of Michigan Press, 2020) and republished under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license provided by its anthologist. All rights remain with the author and publisher. No changes have been made to the text. Read the original here: Developing a Black Genderfluid Feminist Critique via Tumblr. Ferrars & Fields Magazine is a non-commercial cultural activism project dedicated to the struggle(s).
Strugglingtobeheard works as a therapeutic mentor for youth coping with mental illness and trauma. She has three cats and is going back to school to become a licensed therapist.
My Tumblr experience began in April 2011, when I was twenty-three years old and a junior in college. Prior to joining Tumblr, I had some experience with social media sites like Facebook and MySpace and a few journaling sites and online chat/interest groups. At the time I turned to Tumblr, I was looking for information about Black feminism and queerness. I was majoring in sociology and was passionate about it. Also, I had been in a relationship with a cissexual heterosexual man for years that had just ended. I had identified as bisexual and had been out since age fourteen. I was, however, going through an identity crisis and confused and looking for answers. My queerness had always been present, but in becoming single I was really unsure what that meant for me in my adult life.
First, I discovered the Crunk Feminist Collective, an online (non-Tumblr) blog dedicated to Black feminism and feminist thought. Two of the bloggers there were scholars Dr. Moya Bailey and Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs. They also wrote on other feminist outlets, including blogs on Tumblr, which I began following. Both were completing PhD programs and were providing easy to understand, accessible history and background on Black feminism. Dr. Gumbs’ Tumblr blog, Blackfeminismlives, had a side blog that allowed users to send Asks for advice on various topics, anonymously if they liked. This made me decide to create my own Tumblr, Strugglingtobeheard, so I could send Asks and follow other blogs and have them follow me.
It was here the Tumblr community made me feel like I was really embraced. I received some amazing advice and had the true feeling of being heard and listened to. This really struck me and was what made me start blogging on the platform. On Strugglingtobeheard, I would write my own posts and post pictures. In order to get followers, I would send messages or respond to certain posts of the blogs I followed, which allowed me to create a solid network of mostly Black people and people of color of varying sexualities and genders. It was the diversity and expansiveness of this group that helped me to understand more of myself.
When I first joined Tumblr, I did not know anything about being genderfluid or nonbinary. I knew trans people existed but in a very white context. I had never heard the terms and I lived in a predominantly white city. I belonged to a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) in high school but I was the only Black student. The health teacher who facilitated the group brought some trans-identified people to class, but they were white. A lot of white discussions of gender in general felt unhealthy and stuck on a binary regardless of whether one was trans or not. Men did certain things. Women did certain things. One could change their gender identity, but they would still have to do things according to that identity.
So on Tumblr, it meant a lot to see others of varying genders who weren’t white because it allowed me to see myself. Reading mostly Black queer people write about their gender and sexual identities was often like looking in a mirror. Things that I knew about myself but did not know how to confront I found on the blog spaces of so many Black people I followed. The discussion of loving people of all genders, of identifying and loving across a gender binary were all things that spoke to my soul and that I had not heard discussed prior to my joining. Engaging with peers, youth, and those who were my elders on Tumblr helped to really expand the possibilities around sexual/ gender identities for me and then how I could expand upon my own identity to feel more whole or complete. My Tumblr elders did a great job of providing autobiographical and historical writing showing Black people discussing these feelings and identities as far back as the early 1800s. Mary Jones, a Black trans woman and sex worker in 1830s New York City, was one story that stood out for me. This was a history I had never learned! Dr. Gumbs also shared interviews on her Tumblr that she had conducted for own research, the Elder Black Lesbian mobile project.
Tumblr allowed me to find a place where my words, my ideas, my writing, and what I had to share were honored, respected, and reciprocated. It also provided space to process what I was learning from others. We extended our Tumblr community in private video chat groups on TinyChat, posting a call to join and making users send a private message to get the site information. Here we shared a lot of our hopes, dreams, trauma, and anger. We shared the ways we fumbled in a world not designed to support us, to identify who we truly are and what we truly liked, wanted, and aspired to. This is also where we discussed the terms that did and did not work for us, the politics that we could not stand, and who and how we fucked or did not fuck. The connections that began on Tumblr eventually also led to late-night video chats, phone calls, and text messages.
Having this experience helped me to feel part of a community. My blog focused on reblogging Black feminist writing and scholarly work, as well as creating my own content. In May 2012, I made a video called “Twerk for Mother’s Day.” The video was meant to discuss my appreciation for Black mothers, to dismiss respectability politics and put a queer spin on a Mother’s Day gift. Many of my friends and people I did not know loved the video. I got a lot of praise and thanks from people who felt it broadened their view of the ways respectability politics can be so restrictive, and they felt affirmed as Black mothers who may be poor, queer, trans, etc. It inspired me to keep writing and producing similar content while expanding my commitment to Black feminist and womanist thought.
This video also led to an amazing opportunity for me to go to the Allied Media Conference and do a “skillshare workshop” for the group Shawty Got Skillz. Shawty Got Skillz was a Black feminist collective of sorts that did skillshare sessions where one could share a skill with other marginalized folks interested in learning it. They operated on and offline and I had been getting closer to two of the founders, Dr. Bailey and Dr. Gumbs. Skills varied and included coding, beekeeping, DJing, or, in my instance, twerking. Dr. Bailey asked me if I would be willing to do a twerk skillshare session after the success of my video. I agreed to do it if they could help me access housing and transport, and they raised the money.
This was my first time traveling alone, traveling to Detroit and going to a conference of this sort. But it was also a chance to meet people I had chatted with online and actually exchange these ideas face-to-face and affirm that this was all real. The lack of community and others in my life that identified in these ways made it almost surreal to finally find people who felt and thought similarly to me. I was overwhelmed with emotion during the conference at times, taking space to cry several times and take it all in. It was an ultimate affirmation of who I was and how I could be myself and still be loved and respected by people from so many places. To see these people and see myself in them, to receive guidance and appreciation from others for my own words, it was a lot in the best way.
With all the positives, however, came a lot of negatives. Tumblr was a place where we had to be hypervigilant around safety, keeping parts of our identity private (real names, locations, etc.), and a place where we dealt with threats from others regularly. These threats ranged from personal attacks in inboxes (of rape or physical assault for beliefs/identity) to the extreme of stalking (users had to get restraining orders or constantly shift their online identities/locations to avoid some very unsafe people). This was the reason I never used my real name on Tumblr, why most people only knew what state I lived in, and why I let everyone know I was living with a man at the time. Safety was paramount and an important aspect of how one had to interact with Tumblr at all times. Usually it was white straight people making these threats, but occasionally it was white queer people, or, sadly, other Black people, usually cishet.
This is when theories and lived experience of anti-Blackness and misogynoir became very important to me, my writing, and how I navigated Tumblr. The threats of violence online replicated the very real violence Black people regularly experienced offline at the hands of non-Black people all over the world. Black queer and trans people, particularly those who identified as woman or femme, made easy targets on Tumblr due to always being easy and constant targets offline. And there were other forms of misogynoir, such as when prominent white feminists stole our work and our words without credit.1 In the beginning, it was harder to defend ourselves without active block features on Tumblr or a supportive staff that adequately addressed the concerns of marginalized people, but users with programming knowledge helped create tools to block, redirect, or avoid certain traffic on pages. Some users with coding skills made or utilized technologies to help us protect one another as well.
Anti-Black attacks and threats affected so many people’s mental health, including mine. It was again through Tumblr that I was also able to get the courage to begin understanding more about my own mental health, specifically the effects on me of anti-Blackness, misogynoir, white supremacy, poverty, and PTSD (eventually, this led to me finding a therapist and getting diagnosed). This learning informed me of the ways trauma can fuel some of our reactions but also propel us into spaces we need to thrive. With this knowledge, I saw how many of us struggled with our own mental health and that often these online spaces were a double-edged sword that gave us reprieve from parts of the world while still being unable to avoid its very structures of anti-Blackness, anti-queerness, etc. Personal and political liberation always comes with a price. Tumblr was yet another space that made this evident, and the cost was always highest for those most marginalized by the world (Black, queer, trans, poor). Eventually, the mental cost led me to take a step back from the platform.
After about seven and half years of use, I am forever grateful for the Tumblr platform although, like myself, many of the people I have grown with now rarely use it. Tumblr is a space where language evolved and the use of words such as anti-Blackness, misogynoir, transmisogynoir, and many other important terms became part of our liberation vocabulary. It has been a place where our community helped many poor members, myself included, survive by raising funds for housing, medical costs, transition costs, etc. Now I see it as a coming-of-age space that is important for young queer folks of color in particular, who are finding and building community there. The platform, however, is one that has never truly honored its backbone, the ones who keep it going. It has never provided Black queer people with real protections, and as a result it will never truly be safe. Tumblr is a land mine one has to navigate. Now, a new generation of Black queer youth is navigating the space. Black youth will always push us into radical and transformative territories while adding to our liberation lexicon and theories, which will be exciting to witness.
1For more on this subject, see “We Are More Than Footnotes: Black Women and
Intellectual Theft” by Aisha Mahmud, chapter 11 in this volume.
BOOK EDITORS Allison McCracken, Alexander Cho, Louisa Stein, Indira Neill Hoch.
McCracken, A., Cho, A., Stein, L. E., & Hoch, I. N. (2020). Developing a Black Genderfluid Feminist Critique via Tumblr. In A Tumblr book: Platform and Cultures (pp. 302–306). Chapter, University of Michigan Press.
This text has been republished under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license provided by its anthologist. All rights remain with the author and publisher. No changes have been made to the text. Read the original here: Developing a Black Genderfluid Feminist Critique via Tumblr. Ferrars & Fields Magazine is a non-commercial cultural activism project dedicated to the struggle(s).