SOCIETY

Developing a Black Genderfluid Feminist Critique via Tumblr

by STRUGGLINGTOBEHEARD

01/07/2022

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.

Foot­note
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).

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