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June Jordan teaches that: “Love is lifeforce.” And the healing power of love has saved my life more than once. In the name of this truth, I affirm the arrival of Freeing Ourselves: A Guide to Health and Self Love for Brown Bois, a recent resource published by the Brown Boi Leadership project and written by masculine of center queer people of color and their allies.
I think of this resource guide as a chapter that should have been, but never would have been, in Our Bodies Ourselves or even in Jambalaya. A resource that my partner, who identifies as a gender queer artist and a Black feminist boi, and our future children will probably not read cover to cover chronologically like I did, but will flip through, looking at affirming and beautiful photography, reading stories of how people we know and strangers survived trauma, transformation and the oppression of the medical industrial complex. We will browse it for a list of self-advocating questions before finding a health care provider. We will look at for options of how we want to get pregnant, what health issues we should look out for at different ages, how one gender affirming surgery differs from another one. Freeing Ourselves is a non-linear invocation of a community of people with different needs, at different stages of life, with different approaches to their own wellness and wholeness who will interact with this book from where they are at, and then differently again at another moment. It is a tiny, audience-specific, audience-accountable encyclopedia.
“We are working towards profound social change, knowing that there are no disposable people or communities. We all need to be here.”
– Brown Boi Health Manifesto by Prentis Hemphill (119)
I affirm Freeing Ourselves as a poetic and practical statement against genocide. At the book’s ending the manifesto makes clear, there are no disposable people. But masculine centered queer of people of color, like all people of color, like all queer people and also by other people of color and by other queer people have been excluded and denied their place as valuable members of all of our communities. They have been harassed in the bathroom, beaten in the streets, and silenced in their own given and chosen families. The genocidal threat is that for generations inside white supremacy and colonialism, communities of color have suffered from the wider western insistence that there are only two genders, there is no spectrum, and that all people must either conform to a violent binary made up of two gender roles that serve to reproduce domination, or disappear. This is genocidal, not only because of the deadly impact it has had on our people through suicide, hate violence and neglect, but also because it drowns out the traditions of our ancestral communities that precede the western binary and in which people have accessed the divine by transcending the strictures of gender. I also affirm an approach to queer masculinity that privileges love, because I believe it is our society’s best chance growing and nurturing masculinities without reproducing patriarchal power and violence. I believe it is our best bet to collectively affirm our masculine and feminine and unnameable energies as love and more love in more forms.
Freeing Ourselves acknowledges the profound impact of the combination of systemic, interpersonal and internalized oppression in the lives of people living at the intersection of multiple gendered, raced, classed and sexualized oppressions who are looking for alignment and prioritizing a form of wholeness that is repeatedly invalidated. It documents the impact of inept medical providers, internalized shame, and even stoic survival skills on the bodies, minds and spirits of the diverse people hailed by the term “brown boi.”
Brown Boi is an intentional alliteration, a poetic term that invites people of color who identify as masculine, who may be trans men, butch women, masculine people who do not identify with a gender that has a name in the western lexicon, people who identify strongly with one of the many genders named in indigenous cultures around the world, and people who are in a transformative state of redefinition, to affirm themselves and to come together to support each other and the communities and people they love. The Brown Boi Leadership project explicitly advances the perspective that brown bois are crucial members of all communities of color and LGBTQTSGNC (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Two-Spirit and Gender Non-Conforming) communities because they are leaders, which means that we all benefit from their self-love and self-actualization. Their access to their own power increases and catalyzes our collective strength.
So a book like this would have to be art, as evidenced by the striking portraits of Brown Bois laughing, injecting themselves, painted with words on their bodies, holding each other, having sex with each other, exercising, embracing their own pregnant bellies, looking at the camera, looking away, and the poetic definitions of wellness and vitality that jump off the pages.
Wellness Does not Equal Conformity
Among the powerful insights that Freeing Ourselves teaches with its content and its approach is that wellness does not equal conformity. Using photographs and personal narratives from a compellingly diverse group of self-identified brown bois with different approaches to their own bodies and their masculinity, the guide encourages readers to create their own definitions of wellness and vitality in conversation with concrete examples and examinations of mental, physical and spiritual well-being and risks, instead of reproducing models of “health” that presume that everyone’s vision or goals for their body, mind and spirit are the same. The guide could have taken this tendency further by including the voices of brown bois who identify as physically disabled and who could speak from a disability justice viewpoint about what wellness and vitality mean when one’s body is pathologized not only for gender non-conformity but also because of ableist oppression.
Keeping it Real: Collective Approaches, Systemic and Interpersonal Barriers to Wellness
I also appreciate the fact that this guide does not pretend that well-being is an individual pursuit impacted only by an individual’s eating or exercise choices and their decisions to engage healthcare providers. The guide addresses the ways that immigration, poverty, trauma sexual violence, institutionalization, racism and appropriation of cultural forms of wellness compromise the wellness and vitality of brown bois and make their proactive pursuit of well-being on their own terms even more important.
Since well-being is not an individual problem, it also cannot be merely an individual achievement. Freeing Ourselves is strongest when it encourages collective approaches to well-being by sharing the stories of survivors of violence who have created support circles and when it encourages the sharing of holistic health methods across cultures between diverse people of color as a way of building strength and community in a context where our traditions are often appropriated without accountability or reciprocity.
For All Of Us: The Importance of Self-Love for Collective Survival
Here on The Feminist Wire we have repeatedly spoken out against the harm that violent forms of masculinity visit upon the bodies minds and spirits of women of color. For this reason it matters to me that accountability is a central piece of the Brown Boi health guide for trans-masculine people:
“To nurture our spiritual and emotional connections as trans-masculine people of color is a radical act of self-care. This also includes learning to hold each other accountable and to confront unnecessary and harmful dynamics within our communities.” (30)
Self-care includes holding each other accountable because we are interconnected. Loving ourselves includes learning how not to harm each other. Loving ourselves includes disrupting violent patterns in our homes and in our community-building spaces. First and last, I affirm this small black book as a vessel for love as accountability, wellness and profound connectedness. This is the love that will save our lives.