I’ve always been a gentleman. Chivalry, leadership, and a strong sense of duty were at the heart of my sense of self as a little girl.

Yes, you read all of that correctly. 

Alas, little girls aren’t given space to grow and cultivate these traits. Ask any LGBT or queer person—yes, some of us use "queer" as a combination of sexual orientation and political identity instead of LGBT (similar to the emergence of Black instead of African American in the 60’s). We all have a story of origin about when we discover within ourselves the truth of our identity. My conversation with myself came at 19, but it’s different for each of us. This internal conversation reflects our coming out journey and the challenges ahead. Will I lose my family, friends, church, community if I live out loud? But the truth is that Black people make the largest portion of LGBT people in the US and our struggle with gender norms holds the possibility of transformation for our entire community.

For all of us, straight or gay, there was at least one moment when we were told there were certain parts of ourselves that were not 'okay' to express. Driven by social expectations of gender, most of us learn at a very young age just how we are supposed to behave. If you’re a man who loves to cook, then you’d better become a chef because if you just enjoy cooking shows and cooking at home, you might be in trouble. Enjoying romantic movies, crying, getting a pedicure every now and then…all pretty much off limits to men unless they want to invite ridicule. On the other hand an outspoken, assertive, woman who’s into sports, action films, and other activities designated for men has a whole list of names she might be called. Opening up a new conversation on gender will allow all of us to feel less pressure to fit into a narrow definition.

As a masculine of center* woman, I’ve spent three decades fusing myself together from across the gender spectrum. I encounter many challenges in my youth, as do most folks who break boundaries and challenge norms, but the end result has been amazing. My family is more understanding than most, but due to peer pressure, I actually dated boys and did my best to fit in when I was younger. It wasn’t until college that I felt independent enough to actually be honest about my desire to date women. When I finally did, it was as if a huge missing piece of myself fell into place. I felt whole in a way that had eluded me my whole life. For me, being queer has never been about how I felt about men but rather my love of women and the full discovery of myself.

In 2010, I launched an organization called the Brown Boi Project to build solidarity and alliances across race and gender. We bring together young straight, transgender, queer, and bisexual men of color together with masculine of center women to build a new vision for masculinity. That’s my piece. In doing so I’ve become an unlikely godfather to a new movement that will change the way we see gender in this world. 

Gender norms control us in ways that distort our true gifts and happiness. Living as your true, full self with a life partner who loves you, for who you really are, is life changing. I found mine in Aisha, my wife of 10 years. She is my rock and brings out the very best in me. Through her love and friendship, I have become a better partner, leader, parent, and person.  It’s a love that makes every great thing I accomplish possible. A love I never would have found without the evolution of my queer self. 

I now embrace the complexity of who I am and I’ve become comfortable in my own skin. I prefer the pronouns 'she/her' but I’ll take sir over ma’am any day of the week. I’ve discovered the secret to life is to regret nothing; live your authentic self (starting today); and never be afraid to grow and change. Yet the key takeaway here is that knowing part of my story might not help you to understand anyone else’s. But when we look at the 43 percent of Black LGBT youth who have thought about or attempted suicide as a result of issues related to their sexual orientation, we should take on understanding as an obligation of justice and love. 

We need each other. The only way to bridge this expanse is if we make space in our minds to see each other for who we truly are. It takes time, yes. But more importantly an investment in each other’s humanity—something that so many Black people are denied everyday. Only we as Black folks can give to each other what society takes away.

I tell the brown bois often that my deep and abiding connection, and responsibility, to Black men is not absolved because I married a woman. Our fates are bound together. We have been convinced by society that we can watch each other die and not be affected. These tactics have worked to keep us silo-ed for too long. I believe that we are the generation ready to set aside these barriers and build a powerful future. One in which all of our authentic selves can thrive.

*Masculine of Center (MoC) is a term that recognizes the breadth and depth of identity for lesbian/queer/ women who tilt toward the masculine side of the gender scale and includes a wide range of identities such as butch, stud, aggressive/AG, dom, macha, tomboi, trans-masculine etc.

Cole holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and has worked as a community facilitator, strategist, and consultant for the last ten years. Drawing on this experience, she launched the Brown Boi Project. A graduate of Mills College, a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, White House Harry S. Truman Scholar, and Black Male Achievement Echoing Green Fellow she has worked across the US and internationally on issues of leadership development. As a health activist and author, Cole edited Freeing Ourselves, the trans/LGB health guide; which is now being used to forward understanding of the incredible breadth of health needs for LGBT people of color. Follow her on Twitter at @bespokebutch