Shame: A Black Perspective by Mabell Holand

I am writing this on the international coming out day, and as I look back, perfectly aware that I have been out of the closet for over a decade, deciding to write a text about shame demanded a good portion of inner work on my part.

First of all, I think admitting to feeling ashamed is a tough thing to conclude for anyone, but reflecting upon how this shame potentially has aided in one’s personal growth and becoming, adds another and even more personal layer to the question. These are thoughts that I am, if not reluctant to visit, then I am at least forced to admit to how they challenge my personal level of comfort.

My journey has consisted of leaving a lot of shame and hurt behind, keeping my sight sturdy ahead for a future I could not even picture. In a way you could say I have been led by faith, a paradox really, seeing as I am not one to embrace the notion of “things will always get better.”

I have lived my life hoping to overcome, more so than hoping to prosper. And now that I have reached a point, where I’m finally able to look back with calmness in my body, I do realize how I never truly let go of that shame, even though it in many ways evolved to be the fuel in my quest for liberation, I see now that I have been mistaken in those moments where I led myself to believe that I had freed myself from said shame. And what better day to reflect upon this, than October 11th.


If feeling ashamed could manifest physically, then it would be the backdrop to my explorations for an identity. For as long as I can remember my biggest enemy was the notions of society, and how eager I was to satisfy my surroundings, not knowing that my favors did nothing but disincline my true form to reveal itself.

Growing up black in a majority white society can be tough for just about anyone, but growing up lacking the fundamentals of self-love, feeling of empowerment, and the will to carve one’s own path, subsequently made it even harder. The challenge of navigating the world I came into made me feel like I had no choice but to cloak myself, learning how to balance my blackness with the winds of bias and prejudice, in order to keep the waters calm so that I could steer clear of the storm.

Now fast forward to my realization that this world was simply too set in its ways, and how clinging onto it was like trying to hold onto one simple grain of sand. Even though I was still quite young and unbeknownst of the impacts I was yet to face, my only option was to let go, and face my fears, my shame, and my insecurities: I was black, I was gay, and I was floating towards a more masculine energy. Three of what I today deem to be the finest additions to the beauty of being me, yet all of them representing the roots, the stem, and the branches to my indoctrinated and internalized shame.

I do believe that it is important to look at shame as a phenomenon that operates on multiple levels, quite often it can just be a subconscious feeling which discreetly and slightly alters your actions, and in other instances, shame can be completely overwhelming and inescapable. And though the actuality of dealing with the shame itself is up to the individual, there is nevertheless a truth to how it blooms as a society and being crosses paths. And the more layered a person turns out to be, the more crossings are bound to happen.

While searching to further uncover and understand the constructs of who I was, I suddenly became more acquainted with the notions of what is beautiful, and how beauty was not something I could simply have, but rather something to be gained - especially being a black person. Even though I, from early adolescence, was acutely aware that my traits, my hair, and my skin tone were not what society preferred, I was still so naïve to the capacity of my self-image, and how it would come to lead me astray. Blind to how this subconscious perception of myself would make it so much harder to understand my own gender.

I am convinced that my pattern of continuingly needing to change my gender expression through clothing and style, has been a contingent result of this internalized idea of being inferior, and I only just realized how destructive this pattern has been for me but two years ago. I cannot even count the times that I have forced myself into a feminine look to be able to accept myself as beautiful, only to find that as a black femme you’re almost inclined to over-feminize, as the white society robs black femmes of being considered beautiful and feminine the way that they are, and adding to that, the same society both regards and assigns black femmes more masculine attributes than white femmes.

I was never beautiful: I was exotic, I had to be mixed, I sure looked good for someone who’s black, I was not really their taste, but I made the cut due to various ignorant reasons. This was a lesson I had to relearn in numerous ways before it finally stuck with me. And it just so happens that the experiences of being masculine-presenting and black are, unfortunately, not so different. Watching androgynous-looking white models and lesbians get praise for their gender-bending expressions, I ended up being misgendered, called a man, and having to explain myself to both men and women.

The first time, I was just perplexed by the liberty of some people, and therefore it took me quite a few experiences before I was able to accept that neither of my expressions might ever serve as satisfactory to the white society, and in such ways being black is like being alien.

And this is how the very shame that initially had me going in circles, ironically ended up becoming my beacon, a bid farewell to a society that I would no longer allow to contain me. As bold as it may sound on paper, I was further from feeling brave than ever before. Choosing to leave my confinements was also a choice to leave that which was familiar to me, another paradox; how you can almost feel frightened to be without your restraints because the truth is: you have yet to live a day without them. And what is even more true is how coming to terms with oneself is a long and patient process, a type of “coming out” that does not automatically make you wiser, nor any more ready for the challenges that are found within our movement.

Our community exists because so many courageous people have fought for the freedom to break with the heteronormative structures of society and worked to build an alternative space where these constructs do not govern. Nevertheless, I do believe that we in many ways have ended up reproducing a lot of the hierarchy and structures we initially tried to escape; there is no hiding how parts of the LGBTQIA+ community suffers from both internalized homophobia and transphobia, and the fact that our movement has a big job to do in decentralizing whiteness. And this brings me to the last chunk of work I had to do, to fully relieve myself from being in accord with my shame.

For way too long I wanted to protect my title as a masculine-presenting woman because it felt more correct to say I was one to break with traditional gender norms, rather than identifying as gender non-conforming. I presented myself as someone who was fighting against the established understanding of gender, and through my fluctuating flirts with the feminine, I had almost convinced myself that this was true.

Now I hope I have made it clear throughout this reading, that there is more than one reason for why I have spent many years accepting my true form, though it does not take away the substantiating factor of where some of these ideas actually originated from.

Some of these thoughts I did inherit from conversational conducts of the gay community, and the reason for my bold statement is because I have been a part of these conversations. Just like I had to witness the horrible raise of hands as to who was a “goldstar lesbian”, which was an activity that somehow always seemed to spark up the party (remember my point of reproducing the hierarchy and structures we tried to escape?) Anyway, not only did I witness, but I sadly also participated in disapproving discussions about the need for pronouns and the non-binary label.

“Why do we need pronouns? If that someone is not really trans then…? And now that we have finally reached a point where people understand more, are we really to add another label to the mix?”

Today it is not easy to admit, that for someone like me who had lived so entwined with my own shame, these were questions I thought to be reasonable, I wasn’t looking for another label, and I most certainly didn’t need another thing to overcome! Yet again I completely failed to understand that my self-proclaimed title was nothing less than another cloak, concealing my true colors.

Now, it is hard to look back at how I was my own torturer, but it is even harder to acknowledge the ways in which I might have influenced, scared, and obstructed another TGNC’s journey, which is one of the toughest things I have been forced to admit now that I am finally starting to come to terms with who I am. But(!) by not admitting to this, I am sure I would cause more damage than what I potentially already have or will do by sharing this.

I think we owe it to ourselves to show others that growth doesn’t always look beautiful, and evolvement happens when you are truly ready for it.

Talking down about experiences we do not understand and therefore fear, or find ourselves too afraid to acknowledge, is exactly the circle that we as a community need to break, a circle of fear that keeps us from pushing forward, and redefining once more what has already been redefined - and in all probability will have to be redefined again after us.

I stand before you with my shame on display, well knowing that my fears could have stopped this story from reaching you. But just as others in the community have taught and shared with me through the years, I choose to pass on my knowledge, a harvest of both good and bad seeds.

And I will not pretend that who I am today is anything other than the result of being imperfect, of simply being human.


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