Being ‘Masculine of Center’ While Black

For black 'masculine of center' women, racial profiling and harassment are everyday struggles.

By Dani McClain Aug 07, 2013

The weekend after the George Zimmerman verdict came down, Erica Woodland of Oakland stayed close to home. She could identify with the righteous anger expressed at the protests. But rather than join in, she canceled plans with family, postponed a trip to the laundromat and limited outings to work and the grocery store.

"I decided for my own safety, I need to stay in the house," Woodland recalls"I knew I could be putting myself at risk for anything."

The possibility of being targeted by police or by a fearful, overzealous civilian on account of her race was one consideration for Woodland, who is black. But so was gender. She describes herself as masculine of center, which means that her way of expressing herself – clothes, mannerisms – falls toward that side of the spectrum. It also means that like many of the black men and boys at the center of the recent conversation advanced by everyone from President Obama to Questlove, she’s been profiled as criminal or suspicious.

"We walk through the world and some of us pass as male," Woodland, 33, says. "We get left out of this conversation." 

Somewhere at the intersection of blackness, gender expression and sexual orientation is a heightened risk for harassment and bias-driven violence. According to National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program’s 2012 report on hate violence, LGBTQ people of color are nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to experience physical violence. Last year, nearly three-fourths of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color and just over half were black.

People who are perceived as feminine–including femme lesbians and trans women–are certainly at risk, as the case of CeCe McDonald brought to national attention last year. But trans men and masculine of center women experience discrimination and harassment in ways that often map more clearly to mainstream narratives about black men.

Chai Jindasurat, co-director of organizing and advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, says this shows up most clearly in the context of police interactions.

"They’re stopped, searched and arrested, and sometimes they experience police violence as a result of that," says Jindasurat, whose organization is part of a New York City coalition working to address this problem. "It’s a combination of both identities that contribute to that disproportionate impact of violence."

Police can be a threat, but more often aggression comes from strangers in public places. In situations where an offender is unknown, nearly three-fourths of assailants are strangers, followed by police at 24 percent, according to the Anti-Violence Project report.

Morgan Willis says she’s been confronted by random aggressors at bars, in subway cars and on sidewalks. But there’s one demographic she tries her best to steer clear of in public spaces: white, intoxicated men in groups.

"It’s a group of the most powerful people in the world who are not in their right mind and who feel empowered to do whatever they want," says Willis, 29. "Not only do I have to be extremely cautious with my safety. I end up feeling like if for some reason whatever happens escalates to violence, I’m going to get in trouble."

Willis lives in Detroit and works with a collective of masculine of center people called Bklyn Boihood. She said experience has led her to believe that any official first responder or bystander would side with her attackers or otherwise fail to support her safety or version of events.

"They’re going to be the ones that walk away and I’m going to have to start a campaign online to get people to acknowledge that something actually happened."

Something along those lines unfolded in Oakland five days after the Zimmerman verdict was announced. Veteran community organizer Malkia Cyril says she was verbally and physically attacked outside a downtown bar after she accidentally backed her car into a parked motorcycle. That bar had had its windows smashed by protestors responding to the verdict earlier in the week, and tensions in the neighborhood were high. None of which excuses what unfolded after Cyril got out of her car to assess the damage.

One of the bar’s employees, a white man named Issa Eismont, admits he called her a "bitch" and stood in front of her car door, blocking her from being able to reenter. After hearing the crash, he approached the scene and thought she was trying to flee the scene, he said. Cyril says she was also called a "dyke" and "stupid" by bystanders in the crowd that gathered, many of whom were white and male, according to Cyril and another witness. Cyril says a black male employee of the bar pushed and restrained her. Of her version of events, that employee – who was off-duty at the time and would only give his first name as Marcus – told me a week later, "I’m not going to dispute anything. I kind of forgot about what happened."

But Cyril hasn’t, and she has ideas about why a simple auto accident escalated so quickly to insults and physical aggression.

"They were reading me as a butch. They were reading me as a black woman. They were reading me as a masculine woman," Cyril, 39, says. "The combination of those things is why they felt they could be so physical toward me."

She eventually exchanged insurance information with the bike’s owner and continued on to her original destination — a panel on media portrayals of black masculinity. And later that night, she shared her account of what happened with her more than 3,000 Facebook friends and named the bar in question. By the next day, the bar’s owner issued a public apology on its own Facebook page and Eismont had reached out to Cyril to apologize.

This kind of online organizing around individual incidents matters, and so do more systemic efforts to shift perceptions and institutions. Jindasurat of the Anti-Violence Project mentions a public awareness campaign run out of the Washington, DC Office of Human Rights and a legislative campaign advanced by New York City’s Communities United for Police Reform as bright spots.

But two groups doing some of the most innovative work in the country with trans men and masculine of center women of color are actually focused inward rather than on advocacy. Willis, of Bklyn Boihood, says that collective is more interested in building community than in confronting head on the harassment and violence that many in her community consistently face.

"If this happens 100 times, I don’t have the energy to articulate and to make this call to arms and action 100 times," Willis says. "A lot of times it doesn’t feel valuable to take to task something that’s happening all the time everywhere."

Woodland, who is field building director at an Oakland-based national organization called Brown Boi Project, expresses a similar belief that her energy is better spent shifting the culture of privilege within masculine of center communities of color than on challenging the broader culture. Still, she acknowledges that someone needs to organize in response to the violence, the threats and the humiliations.

"Because we are always responding to events, we don’t have any healing going on," Woodland says. "How do we reframe the conversation, first for ourselves?"

Dani McClain lives in Oakland. Her reporting on reproductive health and sexuality is supported by the Nation Institute.