Black Masculinities scholar, Nalo Zidan is determined to help the world learn more about the spectrum that is gender and the expressions gender encompasses. In true academic fashion, she poses questions that make most people take a beat before responding. The first one she asked this writer was, “How are people supposed to be in their bodies?”
And she’s the expert. A masculine woman, Zidan was displeased with the way the media and even society at large has depicted and considered Black bodies. She founded the nonprofit, Blackgirlmasculine, which is dedicated to showcasing and celebrating the ideas, issues and contributions of Queer, Black, masculine-identified women and non-binary people.
“Men don’t own masculinity,” Zidan begins. “There is masculine energy. And women can possess that energy and identify in themselves that energy.” And sadly, therein lies the threat that has and continues to oppress those women who don’t perform gender in ways that are expected. “A woman who is trans masculine is degenderizing masculinity. And masculinity is not an energy that rests only with men! How a person wants to be seen stands apart from those labels.”
But the images of bodies, and what they’re supposed to look like even clothed isn’t always done to Zidan’s liking. So she created the YAZI Clothing CO. LLC. Freedom being the theme, it’s printed across many of the pieces which are designed to fit bodies. Not men’s clothing or women’s clothing, Yazi, Zidan explains, is designed to be worn by the wearer, not to dictate who that wearer should be. “It’s a degendered bamboo line that is sustainable fashion. It allows the clothing to be accountable to bodies, and that’s it!”
As a scholar, and as a person with lived experience, Zidan is also deeply aware of how sexualized identities are often oppressive and harmful— particularly where Black girls are concerned. “Black girls are masculinized in general,” she says. “They’re supposed to be attractive to men, they’re supposed to be consumable or kept by men. These rules of what a girl can be are a tool to dispose of us and make us undesirable unless we are in a position of being considered or selected by men.”
It’s a powerful thing, according to Zidan, to be able to discern and to define one’s own identity. “I am a disruptor of gender norms. And I have to ask people, ‘Do you want to be free?’ Because those who insist on gender norms and roles I ask them, ‘What does it hurt you to experience the world in a way that’s outside of your limitations?’ Because freedom means all the things that give power to living a full life.”