My mother has never believed in rules as an adult. “Nobody can tell you what to do with your life. And if they do, they can fuck off” she told me once, sitting at our kitchen table in Stockholm, Sweden. My mother and I came out around the same time. I say ‘came out’ but the phrase doesn’t really map onto how queerness functions in our relationship. There was no coming out, at least not to each other. Most of the queer black spaces I have been in, physical and pop cultural, consist of mostly young people. As a non-binary femme descendant of African diaspora, a historical or generational context can sometimes feel distant and nebulous. So it’s with this in mind that I write about my mother. She is one of the first building blocks of the spirit from which I came both literally and figuratively. Part of resisting white supremacist and patriarchal constructs is to retrace our steps and reaffirm the truth that our communities are, in fact, not new. What follows is tentative but loving step in building that consciousness for me and hopefully for you too.
The first time I knew my mum was attracted to women was when she said she’d met a woman called Hanna, who is now her wife. I have never known my mother to explain her queerness to anyone – not to me, nor her friends, not to her family. She just expected more of us as people who love her and you just had to get with the programme. It’s one of the many things I admire about her. When I ask about it further she reminisces: “I remember your openness when I told you that I’d met a partner for the first time after me and your dad separated. As an 11-year-old, you asked if they were a boy or a girl. I was so happy you asked me that, not because I’d come so far in my own queerness to have met a woman, but because it clearly didn’t matter to you either way. It wasn’t obvious to you I had met a man. Seven more years would pass until I met Hanna.”
My mother and I grew up in Sweden. I know. It was about as white as it sounds. Especially for my mom who had to learn from a young age how to survive as the only black girl in the suburbs outside Stockholm during the 80’s and 90’s. She told me once about how nazis chased her and her best friend down the platform of a train station as a teenager. When I ask her when she knew she was queer she says, after some thought, that the question implies that there was a single moment she knew she loved women. “Identity has never been linear for me, but rather an intuitive sense in my mind, heart and subconscious. I’ve always known on some level that I was gay, but it’s not until now that I actually live it” she says. “I never had the chance as a teenager to discover my sexuality in a natural and healthy way.” This is not the first time my mother mentions her childhood trauma and the shame it fostered around her queerness. It’s only once you have the benefit of hindsight, safety and healing that memories can be identified for what they truly are.
It’s late at night and my mother and I are sitting in bed. Patterned fabrics in deep purple, red and orange drape the window behind us and a thick duvet hugs our knees as we sit next to each other. The bedroom light to our right paints the room in a warm glow as we start to talk about what we’d like our lives to be like. We laugh at a joke I can’t remember and my mum says to me: “You know, if whatever comes into my world doesn’t help me live my best lesbian life, I want no part of it.” Since then, the Lovely Lesbian Life™ has become a staple between us, synonymous with learning to live our lives on our own terms – womxn loving in all our glory. My mother sometimes gets a cheeky glint in her eye. I think it was there when she said this to me over the phone: “When you told me about your current partner, I was just happy and proud that you’d found a love who happened to be a woman. My happiness for you was just increased because I think women are so much better and I want you to have the best.” She laughs at this point and clarifies: “You decide what the best is and I’ve got you no matter what.”
Like most relationships, ours occur maybe most significantly in those small moments my writing skills aren’t able to capture. It’s the ones that often go unremarked upon. We live in seperate countries now and it’s only for this essay I’ve asked my mother explicitly how she feels about gender and sexuality. After some time she responds in a Whatsapp voice note: “I have a hard time separating sexuality, gender identity and gendered norms of behaviour. I’ve always felt different, as though expectations of me as a girl were at best suffocating and at worst violent. I’ve always envied men’s freedom to move through the world unencumbered by these norms and expectations, to pursue interests I too wanted to take part in. I understood myself as a girl who wanted to be a boy and do boy things. I envied men because they were expected to like girls – love, admire and have sex with girls. For a long time, my sexuality was wrapped up in so much shame that I could only explain it to myself as a kind of penis envy. I just wanted to be a boy because then my identity would make sense in the context of societies heteronormative binarism.”
My mother had me when she was 20. This is mind-boggling to me because that’s the same age I am now. My dad was equally young, but they never talked about my birth as an accident. If there was a party, I came along, dancing with their friends only to fall asleep on a pile of jackets in what became my extended families bedroom. My mother pursued her dancing career, training Olympic athlete style everyday while having a small child in London. We moved back to Sweden when I was five and she kept at it until her body gave way and she had to stop. I remember sitting in countless dance studios watching my mother teach a class or rehearse for a performance, her body moving only against gravity as it swept across linoleum floors. Even as a kid, I understood what a loss that was. The truth is that my mother found her queerness despite all odds and in tandem with everything else in life. There was never a moment to pause, to reel in uncertainty, there was only onwards. After all, queerness is something you live and something you are.
Figuring out my own gender identity took longer than my sexuality. I knew that I was attracted to women from a young age and remember imagining a big red x covering the venus sign and green tick for the male equivalent. My nine-year-old self was clearly an adamant enforcer of compulsive heterosexuality. It never came from my mother though. “I hated the binarism that came with raising a child and refused to dress you in pink as a kid. I’d shop all your clothes in the boy section because I thought they were more practical clothes for children. I was so happy to see that you were an active child, swinging your way through monkey bars and climbing anything that was climbable.” she explains. In hindsight, I think my rigid policing of my attraction, which continued into my teens, stopped my mother and me from having an honest conversation about sexuality. I never told her I liked girls. I never told her I didn’t feel like a girl. At least not until much later. Now that we’re both out and we discuss my gender identity as a child, she says: “I saw you as free, free to be yourself rather than a boy or a girl.”
For a long time then, my mother and I just made do with what society expected of us. It wasn’t like I wasn’t attracted to my male partners, but performance of straightness was still just that.. A performance. Remaining seemingly straight to the outside world became an elaborate theatrical masterpiece with high stakes. My mum and I played the leads in our separate plays and both of us played them well for a long time. Who would have imagined that my mother saying something as simple as: “I’ve met someone. Her name is Hanna.”? put a pause in such an all-consuming show? Everything goes silent. The audience holds its breath. The curtain finally falls and we begin again as us. I told my mum and Hanna that I was nonbinary this summer. It felt formative, like another one of those showstopper moments. When I ask her about it now she says: “I remember it as a moment of celebration, a moment where I got to know something invaluable about who you are. I could tell that this was important to you, an important part of seeing and understanding your whole self. I’m so proud of who you are and the courage you have to speak your truth out loud.” Her reaction confirmed what I already suspected: we build our realities together and we can choose to support each other’s truths. This, to me, is what makes or breaks love, familial or otherwise.