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Performance is Exhausting

I am SO thrilled to be hosting my friend, Justin Grays, to talk about performing masculinity as a person of color and as someone who is (to put it broadly) gender non-conforming.

Justin and I met as students at Metropolitan State University where we both earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in Gender Studies. While time, money, and emotional energy keep our friendship mostly based in Google Chat he is an incredible person to know and I am so glad to have him here in this space.


When my dear friend Rachel asked me to write about how I perform masculinity as a Person of Color in my personal and professional spaces, I thought that it was a very interesting writing prompt. I often ask, what is masculinity? How does one define it? How can one perform it?

I identify as graygender – that is, I identify as being outside of the gender binary, and I am strongly ambivalent about it. I don’t really care what pronouns people use for me (as long as they do not use the pronoun “it,” as I am not an inanimate object), but I do enjoy when people switch up what pronouns are used for me. It’s not the easiest thing to pinpoint for me, but that’s the best way to describe me when it comes to gender.

However, I also navigate spaces that are not queer friendly. I have to perform masculinity to remain safe and present myself as a male to navigate certain segments of the world around me. This is no easy task because there are so many expectations and stereotypes wrapped up around race and gender. At work, I have to present a certain way because I want to keep my job and do not want to risk being harassed by people who may turn out to be intolerant. In public, I have to be prepared for the increased risk of discrimination or worse by strangers. Though I can be, and am open with friends, I am more cautious around family because my past experiences have taught me to be cautious.

When talking about performing masculinity, it is best to explore “what is masculinity.” This is perhaps the easiest to answer and most difficult to define – masculinity is the qualities traditionally associated with men. That is to say, it’s the social construct that describes how men should behave and how men should act. As social constructs go, the ideal changes from society to society, culture to culture.

Which leads us to the next part: “how does one define masculinity.” What are qualities that are traditionally associated with men? Does that count for Persons of Color as it does for white people? My studies and experiences have led me to believe that race is gendered and gender is raced – there are barriers in place in society that affect those who are not members of either the dominant gender or dominant race, and those barriers stack up. Audre Lorde pointed out that there is an “absence of the experience of women of color as a resource for women’s studies courses. The literature of women of color is seldom included in women’s literature courses and almost never in other literature courses, nor in women’s studies as a whole” – this is doubly-so for non-binary and genderqueer POC. Or consider Tatyana Hargrove, a 5’2, 120lb, 19-year-old girl who was mistaken for a 5’10, 170lb man in his 20s-30s whom the police were after – she’s Black, and therefore she’s more masculine and more of a perceived threat.

So, to answer the question that I was asked, how do I perform masculinity? I keep my mouth shut and let people make assumptions about me based off of my looks. Ability to grow a beard – masculine. A certain body shape – masculine. The timber of my voice – masculine. Being Black – masculine. What’s inside doesn’t matter much to some people, even though what is inside is the truth.

Though it is also exhausting.

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Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

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