The Queen Diva You Best’a Believah: Big Freedia Reframing Pop Culture

Teaching the course “Race, Sexuality & Representation” has been a great joy. To have 15 upper-level students who are Women’s Studies majors and minors has been a privilege. It is also fun to be able to study people I greatly admire, like Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Sylvester and Beyoncé. In this article, I would like to focus on another person that we have studied: Big Freedia. We read Big Freedia’s autobiography and watched a short documentary about her on YouTube. I am a big fan and this article will be largely be me fan-girling about Big Freedia.

I first was introduced to Big Freedia on her TV show on Fuse called Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. The most recent season was called Big Freedia Bounces Back. Seeing Big Freedia on the screen brought me back to when I was around 10 years old. I was watching a show that has long since been cancelled called Solid Gold. It was kind of like American Bandstand and featured popular artists performing their hits. That week they had Boy George and Culture Club on and I was Transfixed. Finally, I knew I was looking at someone like me, someone who did not fit the cookie-cutter image of traditional men and women. It was so empowering to see a reflection of myself on the television screen.

Big Freedia is a Black, Gay, Gender Nonconforming Icon. Although Freedia identifies as a Gay Man, many people use she/her pronouns and it is believed that this is Freedia’s preference. In honor of Freedia’s preference and femininity, I use feminine pronouns in this article. Like with Boy George, I was transfixed when I first saw Freedia on television. Big Freedia the TV show is not just another reality TV show. It has a lot of heart and it profiles people that we NEVER get to see on TV. Big Freedia is not Transgender, as far as we know, but she is Gender Nonconforming. Perhaps even more importantly, Big Freedia is African American. We don’t see Trans and Gender Nonconforming People of Color on television. Big Freedia having her own TV show, making her own music videos, writing her autobiography and doing many other things is truly revolutionary. It has taken a long time for her to rise in her career and she has worked incredibly hard. I hope she realizes what she means to so many of her fans and what she means to the culture as a whole for LGBTQ+ people, People of Color and many other groups in American culture.

Big Freedia has truly had to crawl her way up the ladder of media success. She was born poor as Freddie Ross in New Orleans and started out singing in the church choir. She switched it up and got involved with the Bounce music scene in New Orleans. Freedia was very close to her mother, Miss V., and her mother supported her in her career and through coming out as Gay. Freedia started performing in the club scene and quickly made a name for herself. She has had A LOT of challenges to deal with in her meteoric rise in the Bounce music industry. These have included the death of her beloved mother at a young age from cancer, being shot twice in an attempted crime, Hurricane Katrina, the death of colleagues, lots of management changes over the course of her career, and a legal problem that made headlines when she was accused of Section 8 theft.

I absolutely love Big Freedia’s music videos. My favorite one is called “Explode.” In it, she begins by saying:

“My music, it makes me feel good about what I do and the culture that I represent. People get confused by if I am ‘he’ or ‘she.’ I am more than just Big Freedia. I am more than just Queen Diva. I am more than just Freddie Ross. I am Me. I am the Ambassador, representing for New Orleans and for bounce music. So many things in my head sometimes, it just all makes me want to explode.”

The video then goes on to show Big Freedia and her troop of dancers, often called shakers, dancing on the street, in a laundromat and in a club. Big Freedia’s style might best be termed “androgynous royalty.” I particularly like how they are engaging in twerking in the laundromat. I go to the laundry every week with my mom and it is a pretty dismal place. As many people have commented, bounce music is happy music. It is by definition fast paced and euphoric. So Big Freedia and her shakers taking over the laundromat is a form of breaking up the mundane practice of washing and drying clothes. When Freedia and her dancers take over the street, which occurs in videos like “Duffy”, they literally stop traffic. I see this as a decolonization of space: a decolonization by Blackness, Queerness, and Gender Nonconformity. It is reclamation of territory that has been dominated by whites, heterosexuals and cisgender people.

Freedia reframes popular culture in the same way that she reframes identity. In Euro-American identity politics, there are very clear demarcations between “Gay Man” and “Transgender.” While I am not making the assertion that Freedia is Transgender since she has said explicitly that she is not, I am asserting that her Gender Nonconformity and Queerness mix together in a very fluid way. Freedia’s best friend and fellow Bounce music artist Katey Red is a Trans woman so Freedia is very familiar with Trans identity. Freedia may identify as a Gay Man but prefers the use of feminine pronouns. I think Freedia challenges the fixity of a Euro-American paradigm that would see “Gay Male” and “Transgender Woman” as absolutely antithetical. Big Freedia’s Queerness is complex and challenges us to re-think the total separateness of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation and how we might rework these entities in very creative ways.

Finally, I wish to end this piece by saying that Big Freedia is Royalty. There is a reason she is called the QUEEN Diva. There is a reason there is such a thing as Drag Queens and Drag Kings. In a society that hates Blackness, that hates Queerness, that hates Gender Variance, for a Black, Queer, Gender Nonconforming person to demand their right to the throne is revolutionary. Big Freedia will never know how many countless people she has helped to honor their own uniqueness and claim their own nobility. We are all majestic and remarkable, larger-than-life figures like Big Freedia remind us of exactly that.

 

 

Trans Support Groups

I remember the first transgender support group I attended. It was at the Milford UU Church and it was called Transgender North or T.G. North. They had an old-school snail mail newsletter they would send out and they would address it as T.G. North so it would give recipients of the newsletter more privacy. There would usually be between 10-20 people who attended G.T. North. They were an interesting bunch with the usual diverse “characters” you often find in the transgender community, and I say that only in the positive sense. It felt good to be in a community of trans people [and it was almost exclusively trans women and MTF cross-dressers.] This was back in the early to mid-1990s and the group was run by a couple names Karen and Pat Wells. They worked very hard to keep the group going for a good amount of time and I am not sure when the group eventually folded. There were some people that got cross-dressed in the church bathroom, as they did not have the privacy or safety to get dressed in their home. A few brought their wives and partners but many did not, either because their spouse was unaccepting or because their wife did not know.

I went to a few other support groups including Tri-Ess New England, the Tiffany Club in Waltham, Mass and one in Portsmouth, NH. Some I only went to one meeting while others I went to a few. A group I founded called New Hampshire Transgender Resources for Education and Empowerment [NH TREE] in the early 2000s had a number of open houses where we had meals and shared comradery with each other. The same was true of the 2009 successor to NH TREE that I formed entitled simply Transgender NH. There have been barbeques and house parties and pot lucks.

However, what I would like to point out is that the days when the support groups had their heyday, in the 1980s and 1990s are over. Starting in the mid to late 1990s, the internet happened. This enabled people to meet online. It enabled people in rural areas to find each other much more quickly. I remember back to Transgender Tapestry Magazine and how they would have personal ads in the back of the magazine. People would then write into the International Foundation for Gender Education [IFGE], who ran the magazine and the mail would get forwarded to the correct person. It all seems so quaint now. Snail mail! Imagine that.

While I would say there is still very much a need for trans people to get in a room and be able to look each other squarely in the face, I am not sure the next generation agrees. Digital natives, they have grown up with the internet, smart phones, social media and digital technology all around them. Going to a brick-and-mortar trans support group may seem old-fashioned or even unnecessary.

I will always be thankful for trans support groups, especially T.G. North. This was a time early in my coming out when I definitely needed this type of support. I only wish I knew where many of those early pioneers I met are and how they are doing. Their courage is inspiring to me and I will never forget them.

Haircuts

The most accurate thing I can say about haircuts for me is that they have been inconsistent. I have never had a stylist for more than a year or two at the most. I cut it differently and get different colors. What I want to talk about in this entry is working through my desire to shave me head.

When I was in Bowling Green towards the end of my stay there, I shaved my head one summer. It felt liberating but I didn’t really own it. I often covered my head with handkerchiefs, hats and wigs. If I do it this summer I do not want to succumb to that. But I understand why I did it because I have lived in such conservative communities that they don’t understand why a “transgender woman” or more accurately non-binary trans-feminine person, would want to get rid of their hair. To be feminine means to have longish hair.

I want to shave my head because I hate my hair. It is thin and getting worse. I want to feel cooler in the summer. I want to not have to mess with it through blow drying and styling it. I want to challenge what it means to be trans-feminine. If I wear a wig it will be easier to put on. I want to challenge what it means to be transgender and what it means to be a human being.

When I was an undergrad there were so many queer and feminist women that shaved their heads. I loved it. Some still do, but I don’t see nearly as many. I think a woman shaving her head is exercising her agency. She may or may not mean to make a statement, but I believe she is definitely making a statement against heteropatriarchy. The beautiful woman with long, lustrous hair stereotype needs to be ground into dust. Women are beautiful regardless of the length of their hair. In a way, a woman with a shaved head is giving her two middle fingers to sexism, misogyny and patriarchy.

Because I am so inconsistent when it comes to hair, I could not maintain a shaved head, anymore than I can maintain one single haircut or hair color. But I can do it from time to time. And I can try my hardest to be unafraid about it. But I know there will be people that don’t understand, or will have questions, or that think I have cancer, or that think I am de-transitioning. I will try to be gracious and patient with these questions. At any rate, I won’t let anyone stop me!

People should be able to wear their hair however the hell they want. Any color, any style, any length. And this should not conflict with their profession, their community or their gender self-determination. Hair length does not determine gender identity. I think hair can be fun and people can explore their identity through their hair. It can be a major mode of self-expression, much like piercings or tattoos. Unfortunately, our oppressive cis-heteropatriarchy wants to police and punish hair self-expression. We must resist this tyranny and proudly sport whatever the fuck hairstyle [or lack thereof] that we want. There is pleasure in resistance and in rebellion and it makes whatever hassles you have to face more than worth it.

 

Paris is Burning

I have probably seen the film Paris is Burning [PIB] close to 100 times. I can quote sections of it and know what scene is coming from one to the next. What is interesting about PIB is that I share some things in common with the subjects of the film but also have many differences. Through these differences, it is a film that has given me hope, strength and resilience. I write about it here as an homage, even though there are very real problems with its production.

Growing up as a queer, transgender teen in rural NH, I was in search of role models, of history, and of affirmation. I believe it was around 1992 when PIB was released on VHS. I quickly procured a copy and watched it over and over again. It was a whole new world. I was excited by seeing life in New York City, and I was excited by the whole subculture created by Black and Latinx Gay Men and Trans Women based in the Ballroom Scene. I liked the language, I liked the style and I liked the honesty of the people who were interviewed. As mentioned, I grew up as a white, working-class, rural child and teen in the 80s and early 90s. My first icon was Boy George from the group Culture Club. I was transfixed by his gender variance, beauty and music. Finally, I saw a reflection of someone who looked like me. It was not until I was 19 that I first learned the word “transgender” but when I did I knew it described exactly who I was. I knew I was also queer as fuck and did not fit into the cis-hetero world whatsoever. The subculture portrayed in PIB was one that glorified queerness and gender transgression. Nothing made me happier than to see subjects in the film “queening out” in public, making hyper-feminine gendered movements and articulations to shock cis-het onlookers and to amuse themselves. PIB helped me to realize that I could be myself, even though there was often a steep price for being one’s self.

I love the glamour, fashion and drama in PIB. These sisters, brothers and siblings are really into walking the runway, into performing vogue and to working the different categories. PIB reminds us that gender is a performance. In fact, many different things are a performance, as evidenced by categories such as executive realness, banjee boy and school boy, military, etc. As grand dame of the balls Dorian Corey says, if you can look the part, you can be it. In many ways, the film engages with difficult Butlerian gender theory but in a much more relatable way. In fact, Butler writes about the film and the film has become famous for its exhibition of intersectionality in action: looking simultaneously at race, class, gender, sexuality and more. As a professor, I have used the film many times to cajole students to look at the politics of performance and the ways in which intersectional analyses are vitally important in understanding the construction of contemporary society and culture.

As Fabulous and Amazing as the world within PIB is, it is also a world beset by multiple forms of oppression, including racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia. Given my identities I could understand some of these forms of discrimination. I could certainly understand homophobia and transphobia, and I could understand classism to an extent given my working-class background. But I could not understand extreme poverty and homelessness, nor could I understand the extreme racism that people in the film experienced. This was where my differences from the people in the film emerged. But it was also one of the first times that I learned about Queer and Trans People of Color [QTPOC] and the multiple forms of oppression that they face. The subjects of PIB often formed families of their own due to parental rejection and many others had run away from home. They formed “houses” of their own to form community, support and in many cases to forge basic survival.

The oppression can be so bad that it can cost people their lives. Transgender people face massive levels of employment discrimination. This means that people are forced into the underground economies and get by through doing things like sex work, drug dealing and boosting. The woman above in white was named Venus Xtravaganza. She was a Latina Trans Woman and a Sex Worker. This was how she survived in the brutally homophobic, transphobic and racist time of 1980s NYC. She was killed by one of her johns and discovered in a sleazy motel room three days after she had been murdered. Learning about what happened to Venus was the first time I learned about anti-trans hate crimes. I was horrified by the ending and cried many tears over it. A beautiful young woman who had the whole world in front of her had had her life stolen away by a bigot. Her story is one that I have never been able to forget.

PIB is not without controversy. The director Jennie Livingston is a white, Yale-educated cis woman. She has been very tone deaf over the years about her own privilege vis-a-vis her documentary subjects. While she did well financially and professionally from the film, the subjects of the film continued to deal with oppression, poverty and a lack of opportunities. I am sad to report that all of the principles of the film have passed away, many of them quite young. This controversy reminded me of the obligation of a documentarian towards the people they represent. Certainly Livingston failed to give her subjects the money and assistance they needed, even as she cashed in on their lives, experiences and stories.

At any rate, I do not love PIB for its director. I love it for the brilliant people profiled within it. The film will always have a very special place in my heart for showing what is possible, how things are socially constructed and how people can create a fabulous world even within the harshest of circumstances. The film is a queer classic and one of the first that shows the realities of QTPOC. Over 25 years after its release, it still packs a wallop and reminds us that we can be whoever we want if we are willing to fight for it.

Sexual Orientation

What does it mean to occupy a queer sexual orientation? The problem with sexual orientation is that it tends to apply fixity to identity, much like gender identity does. That’s fine for people that have a binary identity, but much less so for people who are outside the binary or who are fluid.

I think my critical perspectives on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation all have to do with my commitment to gender abolitionism. After all, if gender as we know it was obliterated, would sexual orientation even be said to meaningfully exist in any way?

Right now there is such a hyper-normalized sex-gender-sexuality trajectory. If you are labeled physically male, you identify as male, you present as masculine and you are attracted to females. If you are labeled physically female, you identify as female, you present as feminine and you are attracted to males. Obviously, sex, gender and sexuality diversity transform this trajectory. To their credit, categories of sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation help to illuminate some of the diversity that exists in terms of intersex, queer and transgender people.

However, all of these categories have become overdetermined. And the rigidity of the binary has congealed and hardened. Are you male or female? Are you masculine or feminine? Are you gay or straight? For some of us the answer to these questions is not possible. We exist outside of binaries in terms of bodily geographies, our gender expressions and our desire or lack thereof.

Many refuse to acknowledge intersex, trans and non-binary and ace, pan or bisexual orientations. Even adding these additional identities is insufficient. We can add dozens more words or we can trash the concepts altogether. My own view is that the terms will continue to be used for some time to understand diversity and may even prove useful in doing so. They provide a pedagogical function. But after a while people will tire of having to identify their sex, their gender identity/expression and their sexuality. It is not just a question of eschewing labels. It is constructing a new vision of personhood in which people do not have to grossly simply the complexity of who they are.

Many people are now fond of saying “everyone has a gender identity” or “everyone has a sexual orientation.” But what gives someone the right to say that? Do people not have the right to opt out of these categories? Why are they now seen by so many as fundamental components of the self? Why do some get so incredibly angry if someone ELSE says that for them sexual orientation is a choice? If sexual orientation is not a choice for someone I would never attempt to abrogate that reality but if someone chooses their sexual orientation [for whatever reason] I also support that. What if someone chooses to be queer because they like to be different? Who does such a choice harm?

I am well aware that my dream of gender abolitionism is not going to happen any time soon. The concepts of sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are also not going anywhere anytime soon. However, we can in the interim continue to problematize them, continue to stress fluidity, spectrums and continuums, defend a person’s right to choose to be queer or trans and support a person’s right to “opt out” of any of these identities. My criticism is not a questioning of identity politics; it is a far deeper questioning of ontology. What does it mean to be a human being? Why are sex, gender and sexual identity so often cast as basic building blocks of the self? And do they need to be?

 

Gender Expression

Gender expression is the communication of gender to other people in the social realm. It is made up of things like clothing, hair styles, cosmetics, jewelry, gait, voice and more.

Gender attribution is the process of assigning (i.e. attributing) a gender to another person. Generally, in our society, this is done by visual appraisal of a person’s outward gender expression or the tone of their voice. Gender attribution was coined by sociologists and it is not often discussed but it is a vitally important concept.

Attributing a gender to someone is not a taken-for-granted process. Because of the strength of the binary gender system, I think far too many think of knowing a person’s gender as a cut and dried thing. It is not. Gender identity, gender expression and gender attribution are all related but ultimately different things. Gender identity is a person’s core internal sense of themselves as a man, a woman or something else entirely. Gender expression is the way someone is expressing gender. Usually someone’s gender identity and gender expression match, but not always! For instance, someone could inwardly identify as female but have a “masculine” gender expression. This could be because they haven’t started the process of social and physical transition yet or it could be that they are never going to transition and are opting to inhabit a body where gender identity and gender expression are in permanent incongruence. Then when we add in gender attribution to the mix it gets even more complex. People have genders attributed to them all the time that they do not identify with. This is called mis-gendering. It could be accidental or intentional but the effects are the same: hurtful and invalidating to the person whose gender is not being seen correctly.

We look at someone and make snap judgments and determinations about their gender. We are taught through socialization what a boy/man looks like and what a girl/woman looks like. We are not taught how to deal with people who look like both or neither. Thus we either try to re-stuff them into one of the two existing boxes or discount their existence altogether. I have felt this keenly many times. Because I fail to evince adequate masculinity or femininity, I cease to be an actual human being.

For me, I do not wish to present a coherent or stable gender expression. Since I am non-binary, my very goal is to confuse and confound people. I do not do this out of a sense of malice, but out of a sense of rebellion against hegemonic gender norms. Clothing is a double-edged sword. It can be incredibly oppressive but it can also be incredibly liberating as well. Sometimes it is hard for me to see the liberatory potentiality because I get so stuck in the rigidity of the gender system and how hard it is to wiggle out of these cultural requirements of gender. Genderqueer, gender-fluid, non-binary and gender nonconforming people can seize upon clothing, hair styles, jewelry, cosmetics, shaving/not shaving, etc. as tools to confuser and confound people. The goal is for this to happen enough so that people realize the whole project of gender is illegitimate. The more the category itself is assaulted through strategic subversion, the more it will cease to be a meaningful cultural entity.

For some people, including some trans people, their gender expression is very important to them, and they are dedicated to a masculine/butch or feminine/fem(me) appearance. I do not mean to imply that those of us who are genderqueer in our gender expression are politically more progressive or subversive. However, people with masculine or feminine gender expressions do not need anyone advocating for them. This is the dominant cultural norms. Those of us who have betwixt-and-between identities or expressions that are outside of binary gender altogether deserve special support and attention. We often lead challenging lives as we walk through the world with gender expressions that are not culturally legible or intelligible.

Finally, as with gender identity, do we have to “have” a gender expression? What if people just do their thing and it is what it is? While the concepts of gender identity and gender expression may be useful pedagogically or sociologically, from the standpoint of human diversity or radical political ideology they can seem like a real drag, pun intended. What does it mean to just BE, without the need for elaborations of one’s identity or expression thereof? My gender identity is nothing, It is unknown, It is X. My gender expression is nothing. It is unknown. It is X. If concepts like gender identity and gender expression are useful to some people to illuminate their personhood then I have no problems with that. But they should not be compulsory. There is the option to opt out. And I am taking that option.

Gender Identity

Does Gender Identity exist? This was one of the questions that was asked at a recent hearing for a transgender nondiscrimination bill in the state of New Hampshire. Opponents of the bill believe that “gender identity” is a made-up concept that cannot be said to exist because it cannot be independently corroborated.

I believe that gender identity exists. But it exists within a particular gender system and hyper-genderized society. Gender identity does not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes I think: gender identity, do I have one of those? If your gender is not male or female, can it be said that you have a gender identity? I would say yes, you can have a gender identity. It would just be that your gender identity is neither male nor female.

I think opponents of the concept of gender identity struggle with it because it is not something that can be seen or measured in any way. It is a psychological construct. It exists through discourse. People self-report what their gender identity is. This usually does not cause a problem when one is a cisgender male or cisgender female. The problem arises when the self-reported gender identity does no match the assigned sex at birth. This is when an identity falls somewhere under the transgender umbrella. People become extremely uncomfortable when a gender identity does not match a perceived bodily formation or gender expression. Transphobia is the irrational fear and hatred of transgender bodies and transgender lives. Transphobia erupts when a person’s self-reported gender identity does not match the body that they walk around in. Hormones and surgery can bring this body into greater alignment with the gender identity, but it is fair to say that the transgender body will never be completely identical to the cisgender body, at least not at the current level of scientific expertise. But this does not make the transgender body in any way “inferior” to the cisgender body. It just makes it different.

If gender identity exists in a specific cultural context, one must ask difficult questions about the universality or coherence of gender identity as a concept. For instance, if we did not live in a virulent gender binary, in a tyrannical system of gender conformity, how would this affect gender identity? If we lived in a society where all gender expressions from A to Z were wholeheartedly embraced, would there continue to be a need for gender identity? If society become genderless, wouldn’t gender identity cease to exist? I am a gender abolitionist. I loathe gender and wish to see it completely disappear. Therefore, while I acknowledge the existence of gender identity in the current society, I would like to see “gender identity” disappear along with gender in the more radical society that I envision and seek.

My gender identity is agender or genderless. If my gender identity is agender or genderless, is this an identity still or does it cease to be an identity at all? This is not just an intellectual exercise. It becomes particularly hard to explain my trans-ness because the general definition of trans-ness is that of a person who does not identify with the sex assigned at birth. Therefore I am essentially forced to have an “identity” by default in order to make my trans-ness legible and intelligible. But in many ways I feel that I don’t even have a gender identity. This is does not mean to in any way, shape or form deny the validity oif other people’s deeply felt sense of gender identity. And I do feel some level of “gender dysphoria” even though I think that is an ugly sounding term that makes the experience of bodily discomfort sound like a terrible affliction.

What if you are the identity that is not one? What if you place yourself under the trans umbrella and claim that as an identity but do not claim a gender identity? Is that an oxymoron or a distinct possibility? This blog entry may seem like I am anti-gender identity. I am not. I know that bigots and opponents of transgender rights state that gender identity does not exist. I accept the existence of gender identity but problematize it. Usually one states that everyone has a gender identity. But is that really true? Can one simply opt out of even having a gender identity? I think part of it comes down to the question of agender identity. Is agender a gender identity or is it the absence of a gender identity? I struggle with it because I do see asexual as being a sexual orientation. So logically speaking one would see agender as a gender identity. But for some reason I resist seeing my agenderism as a gender identity. There is something about the paradigm of gender identity that feels limiting to me. I feel constrained under the auspices of gender identity. We can ask: why must one have a gender identity? Is this not part and parcel of the attempt to artificially impose orderliness out of a chaotic society? That if one’s internal sense of self does not match their bodily geography, they must take on a coherent and static “gender identity” to explain the complexity of their exitence to a world that seeks controllability and intelligibility.

I am gender identity-averse but I understand that it exists and it is a needed concept for many transgender people to explain their identities. I have laid out some of my objections herte but l know that my desires for a radically different societal organization is very much based in futurism and not likely to appear any time soon. Still, we must problematize and complicate simplistic notions of gender identity and interrupt the psychology textbook definitions to illuminate the beauty of the spectrum of gender and the grave limitations of the bipolar gender schema.