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This essay first appeared in the February 2018 Poetry Issue of FlyPaper Magazine.

Visibility matters. It always has. I was 8 years old the first time I saw someone like me on screen. Cleopatra (Cleo) Sims in the 90’s film Set It Off. It mattered then. It mattered to see a woman of color being openly gay. Openly masc presenting with cornrows, baggy jeans, plaid shirts and big breasts. I was 28 when Lena Waithe became the first African-American woman to take home an Emmy award for comedic writing for her work on “Thanksgiving,” an episode that chronicled her coming out story, on Netflix’s “Master of None.” It mattered then. It matters that women that look like me and live outstories like mine are broadcasted.

Children who are sexually assaulted are reborn into fire. There is always a trail of smoke. There is always ash. It is common for some folks to believe that these assaults will inform our sexualities. In some cases, this may even be true, but it is faulty to believe that this is always the case. Trauma and its responses will manifest in millions of ways depending on the host it is feeding off. I knew who I was and who I was going to be way before my assault. I was 8 years old and I knew I was going to love women romantically. I knew at an early age what that consisted of. As the youngest of 8 children, there was sex everywhere. I was hypersexualized by proximity, but my only experiences involved heteronormative behaviors and depictions.

I knew I was “different”. They knew I was “different”. Homosexuality wasn’t something that was prevalent in my family and even much less discussed. It was usually passed off as “funny”, “different”, completely disregarded or introduced with homophobic epithets. From the moment I was able to dress myself, I wore pink windbreakers and a Batman crewneck like a uniform. Dresses, barrettes and the like were never my niche. So, I wore overalls and was “tomboy” passing.

Being assaulted in childhood made me way more susceptible to being assaulted in my teenage years. I ran into a blockade and still am greeted with ignorance when I discuss this at times. Some folks just can’t fathom any hetero-predator wanting a girl like me. Some folks can’t fathom a woman like me having sex appeal to a man eager to conquer.

Most days my femininity is catcalled into existence. They consider me woman enough to fuck back into a woman the world can accept. I know visibility isn’t the only cure, but it is a definite start. If we don’t work harder at normalization and inclusivity my fear is that violence against us will further and grow.

I see Cleo and I see myself. I don’t perpetuate the levels of toxic masculinity and objectification that the character displays, but I see so many likenesses. I see wit, strength, pride to a fault and becoming so unfuckwithable your only choice is to go out like a G. I see Denise and I see myself. I see a woman just living her happy lesbian life and dealing with the eb and flow of other’s perceptions. It matters that things are not easy and it matters even more so that the work is draining. It is important that the entire episode is dedicated to this journey into womanhood and not oversexualized for any one’s fantasy.

Cleo from Set It Off

In the time of #MeToo I have been longing (selfishly enough) to see women that look like me coming forward. It is not that I wish us to be victims, it is more that I want the world to know there isn’t one type of woman as victim. I’m calling us to the front because I know we are out there. Women that present like me trapped in yet another closet. I want google to equate strong black woman and bad bitch with images of us, too. The Masculine of Center (MoC) women, the butch, the Colored Dyke, the survivor who struggles with forgiveness. I am forever indebted to writers and artists that showcase these characters and narratives. It is my hope that our visibility grows and the support supersedes any level of hatred and backlash.

We often forget the wonders of fire. There may be smoke, there may be ash, but in our wake will be evidence of the work it takes to light the way.

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