The Danger of Desire

Faylita Hicks considers what it means to be a Black nonbinary activist in the age of Trump — and questions how the social justice movement has changed the way they have sex.

Faylita Hicks | Longreads | April 2020 | 28 minutes (7,041 words)

I was late. Even though the album dropped in 2018, I didn’t know about the track until June of the next year. Which was tragic, because the first time I heard Teyana Taylor’s “WTP (Work This Pussy)” — I went off.

The command hit my speaker and I dropped the washrag I had been using to clean the dishes, into the soapy water. Splashing it all over the frail kitchen counter, I leaned forward over the sink. Gripped its metal edge in instinctive obedience, desire trickling through my body electric. Throwing my head back, I left behind the part of my day that had been filled with judges, sheriffs, the DA. I turned the music up, grinding my pelvis to the tempo, shuddering in spasmodic rhythm to twerk.

I wanted to shake out the fear I had carried since that afternoon’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting with the county officials. Forget all about the Black and Brown bodies that slept in a small metal box less than five miles away from me. Swaying from side to side with my eyes closed, I let guiltless memories of pleasure snap neon through me. Let holographic echoes of my past life — the time before I was an activist and after I was a Christian — fill to the brim the dusty corners of my small and empty Central Texas apartment. Hot, I rode the hum that rolled out from my bluetooth speakers, ignoring the sound of my phone vibrating with updates from the group chat about bail. All I wanted was to make my lower back flinch as I rolled my hips and popped to Teyana’s simple instructions — work this pussy, work this pussy, work this pussy.

But I must’ve been too tired. Too tight in the shoulders to flex and hold the pose. Too thick in the thighs now to dip low and pounce back up with ease. Too heavy with the backhanded comments about criminals and “bad decisions.” Too dizzy from the tight, bone-straight lace front that had made me feel more pretty in a room full of white. Too distracted. Too hurt. Too tired. Like trying to shake molasses off of me, I rotated my hips in place. But nothing moved as easily as it used to. My rhythm was off — and it made me wonder. How long had it been since my back was blown out?

***

When I was younger, I lived under the radar, aching for language that could accurately describe what it feels like to live in this body I love, even though it doesn’t adequately depict my ability to carry more than one identity. At 11, I was already thick and grown-looking for my age, easily passing for a 15- or 16-year-old. By the time I was actually 16 and my breasts had reached their first DD-cup phase, people started asking if my youngest sisters were my children.

When I was younger, I lived under the radar, aching for language that could accurately describe what it feels like to live in this body I love, even though it doesn’t adequately depict my ability to carry more than one identity.

Older men would see me on the North Lamar bus and ask not if I was single, but how many children did I have. This mothering of me, an implied sexualization of my young body in my most transformative years, would impact every decision I would later make about marriage and children. I suffered, for most of my life, the social consequences of being a young, Black, unwed mother. People perceived me to be one through most of my pre-teen and teen years, though I wouldn’t give birth to a child until I was in my mid-20s. It still happens sometimes, when people ask now if I ever want to be a mother. I reply, “I have already been somebody’s mama. I did that part first.”

But in 1997, just before the breasts and the buses and my children/sisters, I was 11 and easily passed for just some young “teenager” hanging out in the stacks while their mother worked on the computer. It made it easier for me to slip under the Killeen Public Library’s velvet rope meant to deter children like me from crossing the line. At that age, I just wanted evidence that I could become someone other than a girl, a part of me knowing that even this line of internal questioning was dangerous. I knew I could be more, if I wanted to.

One day, sitting on the faded green carpet, I asked a book whether or not what I had discovered the night before was a penis. Or was it a clitoris? Could girls ejaculate in their dreams? I had read about boys who did that. I wanted to know if I could. I told no one about my discoveries, choosing instead to perform “surgery” on myself. I spent hours trying to locate malformations in and on my body, using a high school anatomy book to help me figure out the parts I didn’t understand. I wanted to know. What made me feel so incomplete?

***

I would be almost 20 before I had the right word to describe the spectrum of my sexual desires, first as a bisexual woman, and then, as a pansexual femme. I was 25 before I was confident enough to take ownership of those desires by publicly identifying myself to others; first, to my church-going mother, who only said, “I went through that phase,” then to my father — a veteran of the Gulf War — who just laughed.

I was 30 by the time I could accurately delineate the fluidity of my gender: nonbinary. The body, I discovered in my early undergrad years at the Alkek Library on Texas State’s campus, was full of anomalies. I was average in my dissent The biological variances that can be found from person to person made my own unsettled feelings about my sex and gender seem normal. I understood intuitively that the binaries were false borders that were subtly crossed, uncrossed, and crossed again, by everyone I knew. For years, my friends and I redefined, for ourselves, what the role of our genders should be in our lives. It turned out I was one of the few who found gender, for the most part, arbitrary. I didn’t need it to frame the entirety of my existence — as it was incapable of doing so, anyway.

At 32, holding a pile of my printed poems, I waited to be called up to read before the small gathering that had come to hear me at Flagstaff’s Uptown Pubhouse, a poet-owned billiards and Irish whiskey bar. The host read from my bio, looking up to say, “We are so glad they are here with us tonight.” That moment, the first time anyone had said it out loud, was unexpected. I cried later that night in the car as I drove through the dark snug mountains of Arizona, tears of relief and joy. For the first time in my life, I felt like I didn’t have to hide that part of myself anymore.

Now, at 34, I still struggle with my closet. With my buzzed hair and $20 Dime Store wigs. With the questions of what I will and won’t allow people to call me. Even more than with my sex or my gender, I struggle now with the facts of my race and ethnicity. A recent DNA test calls into question how I have always identified — as Black. I struggle with this semi-new knowledge that I am more. I grew up in the ’hoods of cities that dotted the IH-35 corridor, from Round Rock to San Antonio. Culturally, my childhood is a strange quilt of experiences and identities that match what the paperwork now proves. My sister’s quinceañera. Our little nicknames and broken Spanish. My mother’s “Mija, come rub my feet!”

The link feels thin, like a memory I was forced to forget. Most days, the question hangs. Am I part Afro-this and part Latinx-that? Do I have any real right to that narrative? I struggle, mostly because it is yet another intersection rooted in my body. My desire to connect with my ancestors has dug up new plot holes in my family’s collective tale. It has become yet another bridge I have to cross, and it is so tiring, coming across all of these bridges. The truth is, to be an Afro-Latinx non-binary femme pansexual — in Trump’s boundary-hungry world — is just frightening.

***

Trump perks his flat-lined lips and lets the phrase “Chinese Virus” shoot out from the gum. It has the same horrible ring as the “Mexican rapists, murderers, and drug dealers.” It seems so much like, “Maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done,” the atrocious words he once wrote in a full-page ad he placed in the New York Times. It seems so much like 400 years of American values. It looks like a fist slamming into the skull of a 23-year Singaporean man. It feels like the waters of the Rio Grande rushing up to hug the Brown prostrate bodies of a man and his daughter on the outskirts of my state. It sounds like five melanin-rich boys wildin’ out in the savage streets of New York like a pack of wolves. It feels like I’m back on the backroads of Texas — about to get “lit up.” It sounds like “welfare queen.”  It sounds like “the radical homosexual agenda.” It feels like waking up in a nation that isn’t mine, was never mine, will never be mine.

***

In 12th grade, I hid in a corner behind Lanier High School’s theater, making out with C., my blonde-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend. My mother had forbidden me to date anyone outside of our church, but C. convinced me everything would be alright. Frustrated with being 17 and ignorant, I threw my jacket over our hands in each other’s laps, and I reached into his pants, curious — and hungry. He was nothing like me there. It was the first time I knew what the difference between us was, though it didn’t answer all of the questions I would continue to have about my own body for years. At that moment, I could only focus on what sort of sensuous world awaited me. In love, the young and unkempt kind, I imagined what sex with him would be like. I wondered about who would be on top of whom, or who would make the first move. I wondered about what it would feel like, reveled in the possibilities. Like any teenager, I yearned to learn more, to take the next step. But, besides this singular moment in our history, nothing about our sexual relationship could ever be considered beautiful.

One afternoon, he locked me in an empty room on the second floor of our friend’s apartment, telling me I would still be a virgin if it was just from behind. I considered it, as he kissed me and rubbed me in places no one had ever rubbed before. I considered it, and was still considering it, when he decided to start on me without my having made up my mind. I cried into the carpet, asking myself why and staring out the window, trying not to make any sudden movements that might make it feel worse. Throwing up in the bathroom afterward, I decided not to tell anyone about it. Decided that I had asked for it. Decided that I should be grateful that, at least, it was someone I loved.


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I stayed with him for another year. Even after he tied me to a bed with a rope and left our apartment, returning hours later through our bedroom window with a mask and a kitchen knife. It was the first time, but not the last, that I wondered if he had done this before. To someone else. By the end of my final summer before college, I had been groomed and passed around at his request. My freshman year of college started with him picking out guys from my dorm for me to sleep with, women for me to bring back to Austin for the weekend. It would take six months of living apart from him, in a different city, for me to finally feel safe enough to end it. Our “friends” would later tell me how horrible I was to have cheated on him, even though initially he was the one who’d pushed me to hook up with people outside our relationship — so I left them too.

That my initiation into the world of sensuality and pleasure was so diluted by the reality of abuse and control is one of many reasons why pleasure has always seemed dangerous to me. The power dynamics of a white male controlling my Black femme body, in this era, is a shame I have carried with me for almost two decades. It lived in the skin of my relationships, a constant reminder that whatever joy I could receive from sex could easily be turned into something vile and degrading. It took years to unpack that trauma and examine it closely, interpreting the ways it had seeped, like poison, into my sexual practice. To feel more whole, I’ve revisited my sexual assaults extracting the pain so that I can heal my specific ails.

I was 30 by the time I could accurately delineate the fluidity of my gender: nonbinary. The body, I discovered in my early undergrad years at the Alkek Library on Texas State’s campus, was full of anomalies.

In a way, I have spent the last 15 years attempting to understand and master myself. I want to know what my limitations are, and understand the root of an orgasm that is not buried in self-degradation. I want to act in my own stead as my protector and my seducer, claiming authority over my body and accepting its inadequacies. The practice of claiming my orgasm has led me to new and unexpected rooms within myself, which has helped me to approach each and every sexual encounter with a confidence that I once only imagined was possible.

I realized that if I could have real power over what went down in my bedroom, I might have power over what went down in my life. In my neighborhood. In my state. If I could find a way to heal from this intimate trauma, I might be able to help others learn how to heal from their own. And healing is the first step in any major transformation.

***

“Save your tears, honey! You’re a motherfucking diva!” Mykki Blanco hollers over the fixed bounce of Teyana’s WTP track. I twist and spin around, suddenly reanimated by the memory of the claustrophobic corridors of a small underground swingers’ club in Baltimore, knowing that if I was there now, I would be getting muscle deep massages and free drinks all night.

The Tabu Social Club, or Eden as I called it, was nothing like Austin. At first, it was just a poorly painted black door in what looked like a run-down shopping center. When we drove up, I looked at my couple and asked them if they were serious. “Yes, girl. Just wait until we get inside!” I had known them for several years at this point. Been around to watch them get engaged and then married before they moved on to bigger and better things. Our affairs, being casual and sporadic, had almost ended after my fiance Ray’s request for me to stop seeing them. But it had been a year since his death, and I was ready to try and start having fun again.

After the fee was paid, with a discount for the single ladies, I was met with a packed bar but a relatively empty dance floor. The owners, a tall, coffee-skinned couple with locs that hit their backs at similar places, took us on a tour of the main floor. There was the bartender, hired for the night to be oblivious to the on-premise activities, and the DJ. “A local favorite,” I was told. Turning to my couple, I gave them my best “Ima ’bout to act up” face before sliding up to the DJ’s booth with a very special request.

My request had nothing to do with what song should be up next. It had nothing to do with turning up the sound or giving me a birthday shout out. All I wanted, if he would let me, was a few minutes to make my fantasy come true. Headphones laying at a heavy angle, one-off his left ear, he smiled and looked to the owner of the establishment for permission to break protocol while working in the booth. It was given, and I slid to my knees, undoing his starched black slacks. I wanted to give the DJ a tip — one I’d hoped he’d never forget — and he quickly switched the records to vibe to.

It is a desire of mine: to give more than I receive. Not out of duty or some gendered requirement, but as someone who knows what it is to be on the one-sided take of someone else’s selfishness. The act of this giving, in this intimate way, is a gift and so rare that it typically shocks or catches someone by surprise, making them reconsider every other encounter they’ve ever had. To give, without expectation of a reward or a commitment or applause, is to practice a sort of love — in an unconditional way. And I was very particular about who received it. He wasn’t what I would call “my type,” but that was precisely why I chose him to be my first for the evening. I wanted to offer a kind of intimacy. Not the kind you would find in a mature relationship, but the type that you find when you genuinely enjoy someone else’s presence and body for what it is — not what you wanted it to be. The sort of intimacy too often reserved for the few and “the beautiful.” To give the gift of intimacy to someone who did not necessarily expect it, did not require it, and who could appreciate it, is something I have learned to incorporate into my sexual practice. And, truth be told — I just wanted to know if he could keep the mix on beat while I did what I did best.

Thanking him for giving me a moment of his time, I returned to the bar where my couple and the owners waited, all of them with smiles on their faces. “Oh — you’re gonna have to come back fo’ sho!” piped one of the owners. I sipped my drink and laughed, following them down a tiny hall that led to the stairs and a second underground level.

***

The exhibition of one’s self, in intimate or gratifying exercise, is sometimes about shame. Some are facing their “fears,” which can range from obesity to deformity to the threat of damnation from their Christian friends or family. Some people are afraid of their bodies, of what gives pleasure to their bodies. Out of a desire to thrive, I practiced my way into self-acceptance. As often as I could, I showed off whatever I had been told to hide: My rolling belly, my puckered thighs, my flabby arms, my swinging breasts, my pock-marked legs. The older I became, the more it seemed important to appreciate every part of my body — especially when it started to feel unfamiliar. After the baby, my hips swelled and flanked, my fupa pouted and my back widened. At 34 and 250 lbs now, my body feels almost unrecognizable, but I am still trying to appreciate it. Still trying to find new ways to honor it for having brought me this far. When I stand in the mirror naked, I mostly recall my potential. I tell myself, over and over, “This is what sexy looks like.” Powerful. Confident. Excited. Whole. And I touch what I have come to love most about my body: the massive rounds of my breasts, my fat hips, my neck, my lips.

To be in this fat, Black, femme body, is to always feel a bit exposed. But the risk of exposure has always excited some in a way that cannot be easily defined. I believe this sort of exposure embraces the mental and emotional freedom that is typically truncated by societal norms. In a word, radical self-love is mostly about radical self-rubbing.

***

Social distancing translates quickly into quarantine in Italy after the country sees its number of COVID-19 positive cases double and then triple over the course of a few days. Scrolling through the never-ending updates about the “’Rona,” I find a tweet that makes me smile. Pornhub will be offering Premium content to Italians for free. Exhaling, I lean back in the rolling chair that keeps me glued to my tiny work desk in my bedroom. I read that the sales of adult toys and porn subscriptions are skyrocketing despite the faltering global economy. Something about the idea of millions of people becoming reacquainted with their own bodies, as a way to cope with the stress and anxiety of this pandemic, reminds me of a sort of pseudo-group therapy session.

I know, from experience, that beneath the millions of videos being silently (or not silently) streamed simultaneously around the world, there is a grief that is hard to put into words. We have all lost something: an opportunity to connect physically with others. Not necessarily in a sexual way, but certainly in a meaningful way. I know that gratifying one’s self, in this small and straightforward act, is how some will learn to cope with the fear they feel. We have always been living in this world — alone, together — but now we are being asked to stay that way for an indeterminate amount of time.

We have lost our freedom, been brought to our knees by something invisible. We are scared because some of us will not make it out of this. And if some of us should make it out of this — how will we be able to trust the touch of someone else ever again? I know there are other people out there in the world — like me — who just want to go out with a bang.

I say, let them.

***

Shaking to the last verse of Teyana’s single, I wondered at the way the vision of sweating shapes had faded with the decade marked by bouts of national violence and social justice work. Became disappointed with how I had moved away from embracing my sexuality as a tool of empowerment because I was afraid — for my name. Somehow, just eight years after spending time in Eden, I found myself undersexed and gyrating, barefoot and alone, in my kitten-sized kitchen on a Thursday night. How had I let this happen? Maybe I didn’t know how — but I knew why. 

I realized that if I could have real power over what went down in my bedroom, I might have power over what went down in my life. In my neighborhood. In my state.

Over the years, I had become too cautious — swallowing the never-ending list of Black womxn’s names who have been going gone. Another that night. Two more in the following weeks. Twenty-one Black transgender women total in 2019. Four in the state of Texas. Samuel Little gets convicted in 2012 for the murders of three women, only to later confess to almost 95 murders of mostly Black womxn at the end of the decade. Those are the ones we know of. The shadows of the ones we don’t know of crawl along the walls of my bedroom. Haunt my diminutive wig collection and plastic heels, my makeup on the bathroom counter, and my dresses hanging in the closet. I’ve had the privilege of a body that matches my own view of myself, though not always aligning with my complete identity. This body I love in the mirror is coveted — was coveted — by those who were not born with bodies like mine, and their lives were lost in their pursuit of it.

Though I never wanted to share my body or my time for money or gifts, it kept being offered and I was behind on rent. You understand, some of us have to make the tough decision to do what we can with what we have, in order to survive. I may not have had my own corner, but I’ve been so close it, I copped the gear. Every day, sex workers find themselves at the latent mercy of someone else’s desire. That they profit off that desire is not anything to be ashamed of or to look down upon. Sex sells. Every principal advertising agency knows that. But because of antiquated laws that choke up our country, people are not allowed to do what they want with their bodies. Athletes can make money — with their bodies. Vocalists can make money — with their bodies. But sex workers — their bodies must be hidden. And when you disappear that work, when you don’t provide protections for that work, they stay hidden. And too often, those invisible bodies are the bodies of poor, Black womxn.

It had always been dangerous to be Black. More so to be womxn. How much more dangerous is it to inhabit a body that may require some additional realignments? A body that hungers for something outside of the heteronormative? How my body has been confiscated and abused, by both white and Black men, is no secret. The number of Black trans womxn — the number of Black womxn — who enter into sex work due to economic deficiencies, is no secret. When I say womxn, I am referring to both distinctions, all of them experiencing the same intergenerational traumas of being too dark and too damn much. All of us womxn, born much closer to death because the state refuses to protect us. It punishes us, criminalizing every aspect of our bodies.

Afraid to be added to the growing number of missing queer Black femmes, I had turned away from what I know of pleasure, in fear. I had started to gather their photos up like feathers and place them on the small altar next to my bed. I had pulled my sensuality back into my body and hid hir away for private and prescriptive moments. I could touch myself — but anyone else? They might make me disappear.

Until that night, bent over the kitchen sink and throwing my thighs from side to side, I did not realize that I had also been in mourning. Again. But this time — not for my lover. Or for my daughter. But for my own body and all of its consequences. How long had it been since I made loveThat question hurt, so I turned up the music and allowed Miss Taylor to sing the blues. 

***

This past summer, I hopped a plane from Austin to Los Angeles and found myself sitting next to my grandmother, and across from my mama, a few days before a writing retreat. My grandmother, who I’ve always known to be a cis-Black woman, wanted to know why I was there. It had been almost a decade since I’d seen her last. In that time, I’d gotten engaged, buried him, went to jail, been homeless, gotten pregnant, placed that baby for adoption, gotten an MFA, and started working for a nonprofit social justice organization. So much had happened — and I was just now coming to see her? Taking a big sip of coffee, I decided it was time to tell my grandmother who I was.

I explained to her that my body was only half of how I felt inside. Explained that I didn’t care if it was a man or a woman or both or neither — I dated whoever I felt most attracted to. I didn’t know what to expect, but my backpack and suitcase were already by the front door. Just in case.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t think I understand everything, but all I ask is that you don’t bring no mess around here!”

Later that week, listening to a white gay elder speak on the importance of creative lineage before a crowd of emerging writers, I pause when he leaves out the T and the Q in LGBTQ. In the front row, a womxn’s face runs a little red. I wait to hear if it was a slip of the tongue, something he’ll fix the next time he talks about “us,” but it never comes. “The GLB community…” It slips again from him so quickly that I know that this is an integral part of his regular lexicon. The woman in the front row eventually leaves, and I stop listening. I can’t tell if this exclusion of Transexual and Nonbinary people is an elitist’s trick to dominate the conversation surrounding the growing popularity of LGTBQIA+ issues in the political mainstream, or if it’s something related to the watered-down privilege of gay white males from specific economic backgrounds. Either way, it reeks of self-importance, and I know that he does not consider people like me an equal member of this community.

In contrast to my Black cis grandmother’s wary but quick embrace of my self-definition, this white gay man’s practiced exclusion of people who identify in the ways that I do is exhausting and reveals just how ingrained certain biases still are in our country’s culture. He doesn’t represent the entirety of the community that was present, and for that I am grateful, but for me to ignore his actions would feel like complicity — and I have done enough of that in my life.

What still perseveres throughout the LGBTQIA+ community is the idea that fluid genders and fluid sexuality are somehow impossible. Improbable. Imaginary. That the nonbinary individual is putting on a show for the masses — somehow devaluing the particular struggles of self-identified womxn or men. That pansexuality is really just an excuse to bump bodies with as many strangers as possible. Well, I mean — I do want to bump bodies too. But my identity as a pansexual is not directly related to my desire for many partners. My identity as a nonbinary person is not a practiced performance or a cry out for attention. My sexual desire for bodies that cross the spectrum does not automatically mean I want everybody — because I don’t.

My decision to present as mostly femme is not because I still want to adhere to society’s standards. It’s because I woke up in a body that I adore and want to accentuate it with my joy. In truth, I desire only to express myself genuinely without being deterred by artificial borders. To have the freedom to connect with anyone, in any way choose.

***

After leaving the emergency Zoom webinar to discuss how justice organizers across the country are going to start writing letters and making calls for the release of all the people in pretrial, all people in detention centers, all the elderly, and immunocompromised people — I hop back on Twitter to see that #Twinder is trending. I must have missed it before, but I see it now. Threads full of young Black singles shootin’ their shots via Twitter. I browse, the way I always do, but can’t bring myself to send any DMs. I post a few of my latest selfies in half-hearted hope. I’m too tired and, really, I was just looking. Tomorrow, I’ve got to read through more drafts of a letter to the county judge. Just as I’m about to finally close the app I get a notification. There’s a hit in the DM.

***

When I was younger, before Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, it seemed as if the world didn’t know — or was still trying to figure out what to do with — oddities like me. I know I was. Men had always been my first choice, and not for the apparent Christian-way I was raised as a female-presenting child. No. I genuinely liked the hard and husk of a 6’2, thick-skinned dude with big hands and a sizeable grip between the thighs. But I wanted women too. Almost as much as I wanted men. Curvy, thick slims with big eyes and a lack of inhibitions. Of course, I was surprised to learn that I didn’t care if she came with a grip of her own or if he got wetter than I did at the memory of our last hookup. But living in rural counties and military bases, without having essays to read or shows to watch or the mobility of a large city with established communities and support services, I had to learn how to navigate my sexuality and gender identity alone. I learned through practice that I didn’t care about what was between their legs as much as I cared about what came out of their mouths. Personality has mattered most to me, even if it was just a hookup. What is said and what is done tells me everything I need to know about what to expect post-sweat session.

***

The first note of the next track on my playlist is definitive. I could hear just that one note and know exactly what song it is: Cardi B’s “Money.” In true form, I drop the washrag back into the sink and completely abandon the charade of dishwashing. I’m posed and ready for the first verse with my chin propped up, my hand on my hip, my back long and arched like this is the live show. “I was born to flex/ Diamonds on my neck/ I like boardin’ jets, I like mornin’ sex/ But nothing in this world that I like more than checks. Money.” I jump into the breakdown, trying to pull from the recesses of my ratchet undergrad memories, the moves that convinced me I would have made bank if I had ever gotten that job as a stripper in Austin.

On this evening, one too packed with unfulfilled desire and restless rememberings, I am giving praise to the bodies of womxn who’ve hustled and found themselves prosperous. Like a witch doctor in commune with the spirits of video vixens past, I rock my body with pride and frivolity, letting the shame of my own failures and inadequacies slide off me like honey. I may be late on rent, but I’m getting closer to my dream of writing for a living, promoting policy reforms that will have a direct impact on my communities — and fighting against the notion that Black women’s desire for power, money, and sex are somehow evil, rather than being rooted in a need for self-preservation. Should the ancestors let me, I’d be as fly as she.

***

The death of Sandra Bland in the summer of 2015 was not the first time I questioned my role in the conversation about the over-incarceration of Black femmes in America — but it was the first time I felt like I should stand up and say something. Nine years after my own arrest and theft-by-check charge in 2010, I am now working with the social justice group Mano Amiga in San Marcos, Texas. The work involves meeting with other justice-impacted people and trying to help them tell their stories while the organization advocates for pretrial and bail-related policy changes at the city and county level. It’s exhausting.

My decision to present as mostly femme is not because I still want to adhere to society’s standards. It’s because I woke up in a body that I adore and want to accentuate it with my joy.

In 2019, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition released a two-part report series that highlighted how Black women were at a significant disadvantage when it came to being released with probation or getting out on bail. The study showed that “half of all single Black and Hispanic femmes have a zero or negative net worth,” which means that they are less likely to be able to afford bail or representation equal to those of their single white counterparts, who had an average household median wealth of $41,500. The results matched the findings of The Sentencing Project, which suggested that Black femmes were being imprisoned at twice the rate of White femmes. The combination of the two reports just emphasized what I already knew: Black femmes in the United States are more likely to be taken to jail and die there — because they can’t afford to get out alive.

Besides the way Black femmes bodies are treated in general — as objects and or sexual fetishes — the Black femme is also at risk of being prosecuted for their systemic poverty. If Sandra Bland, or myself, had access to the kind of wealth our white counterparts did, would either of us have ever had to experience incarceration? Would Sandra Bland be alive if she could afford bail? How many of those Black femmes are going to jail because they participate in sex work as a way to bring in the income that has historically been denied them? How many of those Black femmes will die — either in the streets or behind bars — because of their identity?

Black femmes’ sexuality has always been used as a weapon to discredit the person and the person’s successes. We see that play out over and over when it comes to Black femmes in the Hip Hop scene. Megan Thee Stallion. Cardi B. Doja Cat. Nikki Minaj. Lil Kim. All Black femmes whose pain or experiences get drummed over by the resounding crowd telling them that they can’t be loud about their pain when they flaunt their sexuality. They can’t make bank and be conscious. You can’t twerk and be educated. It’s always one or the other. It lets me know that this world is not ready to see me healed and happy and free.

***

They said, “Rico, you so nasty.”/

I said, “Thank you very much.”/

I got a lot of money /

but a lot ain’t enough.

— “Tia and Tamera” by Doja Cat ft. Rico Nasty

***

My first gangbang was four years ago, a gift to myself for my 30th birthday. I had called in a favor from a swinger I knew in San Antonio, after growing tired of the vanilla sex from my on-again, off-again boyfriend, Professor X. This gangbang was a chance to get free again, to state my needs and have them met. I knew it was vital that I basked in this moment because it was so rare — is so rare — for Black, thick, scarred bodies like mine to be loved upon and coveted.

It is rare for a fat Black queer femme to command the sexual attention of her peers — consensually. To have the power and authority to say “yes” or “no” and have their decision respected, acknowledged, and if need be, protected. That night, I basked. I rolled. I sang. The sex that night was like air, bodies moving through the room in a cloud of color and laughter. I left with my panties in my bag, and my hips loose. An orgasm was one less major thing on my to-do list, and I could finally get back to work.

***

On October 12, 2019, Atatiana Jefferson was murdered by an officer in Dallas, just a month after Itali Marlowe was killed by her roommate in Houston. These Black women’s faces clog up my timeline, hang like shadows in my bathroom mirror. It’s too easy to imagine how likely I am to end up like them. It’s too easy to conjure up the small and fateful steps that lead up to each of their deaths. I could have a bad day and easily be a name and a photo someone scrolls past on their way to find a funny meme to share. I could be a piece of history — just for living and loving the way that I do. It doesn’t matter if I am cis or trans, if I go to church or enjoy sex for fun. I am Black womxn — and that is enough to get me killed.

Queer black femmes are especially struggling to be recognized for more than their fetishized bodies while maintaining a healthy sexual lifestyle that celebrates and encourages sexual freedom. Ownership and control of our bodies are rights not often afforded us, and that makes every day of our lives a rebellious act.

Shame has permeated my existence, but I have learned that by owning my sexuality — embracing it privately and publicly — I work to disassemble the narrative of shame that is often associated with desire. What I advocate for now is the rights of Black and Brown womxn to live full lives, being able to move freely throughout the world and receive the respect and dignity that is an inherent part of their existence as human beings. I advocate for the rights of these womxn to embrace their sexuality, despite any previous abuses or trauma, because sex is an essential part of living a healthy life. I advocate for the people who do not fit easily into a binary definition, who cross the dangerous line between familiarity and the unknown, to find themselves in a body or mind that feels genuine and natural to themselves. I advocate for me — because I have to.

***

Desire is not relegated to the feral body, but exists as a common factor in the lives of us all. If it weren’t for our desires, the carnal ones, and the domestic ones, we would languish as a society. We must desire because desire is the mother of purpose.

***

I have had some time now to rediscover myself. To create, for me, a new, safer community. To be reinitiated in the ritual of self-love. A love that isn’t dependent upon another body or weaponized by another’s emotions or condemned by the law.

Now, I gyrate in the mirror, improving my own arch. I choreograph my personal, intimate tour of this reclaimed body. I praise my body for its gifts of tolerance and acceptance, grateful for the air still moving through it. I forgive it for not being average or straightforward or easy to understand. I listen for the women, the Black femmes who have come and gone before me, who beg for me and this body to come to an agreement: We will not hide. We will not live afraid. We are gonna go out and get our freak on.

* * *

Faylita Hicks‘ debut poetry collection, HoodWitch (Acre Books), has been named a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Award. They are the Editor-in-Chief of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and a Lead Organizer with social justice nonprofit, Mano Amiga. They are currently working on a memoir-in-essays.

Editor: Sari Botton