A Face That Fits: Expression on the Brown & Queer Side of the Spectrum


In a May 2016 article for The Norwich Radical titled The Struggle of Painting Your Many Faces, Umber Ghauri somberly expresses that which many trans and queer POC already live in their daily lives: how to express their gender in a self-determined and authentic way.

“When you are agender, queer, Pakistani/arab/brown, feminist, perceived as a woman and have mental illnesses, deciding how to express your identity can be a little difficult”, opens Ghauri.

Queering one’s gender expression can very easily be the first struggle of the day for many non-binary individuals. How can the complexity of gender(s), or the lack thereof, be properly translated into grooming rituals and clothing selection, and further translated to passerby? Ghauri ponders this thought in a similar fashion:

Daily choices like clothing, hair and makeup, can be a constant struggle between what is labelled as assimilation and what is labelled as resistance for all marginalised people. It can feel so out of balance no matter what you do with your appearance.

Umber Ghauri and I have some baseline commonalities: both non-binary people of color, queer feminists, perceived as women based on body parts alone; both of immigrant descent, both rocking a mean undercut and delicate septum rings, both with backgrounds as makeup artists. I read Ghauri’s words on self-image as if I had dictated to them from my own mind.

People probably are not writing mental essays on my appearance every day as I pass them on the street, but they probably do have thoughts that are ingrained and intuitive, popping into their heads when they see me…I see how insecure people around me are about their self-image, as if they have deep secret questions about how they themselves appear.But marginalised people, living under global hetero patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism are all wriggling around trying to find a face that fits.

Non-binary folks are very often searching for a look that encapsulates or even decapsulates them, and many times that struggle is compounded when playing with gender on the femme side of the spectrum. Even the queer world has set the non-binary default look to chinos and Sperrys and crisp button-ups, fresh out of a Gap or J. Crew catalogue.

No shade, of course, to those enbys (shorthand for non-binary people) for whom that face fits -- you deserve to express your beautiful selves in that way, should you choose! But who sets the standards for non-binary femme expression, especially for  those who are/were Assigned-Female-At-Birth (AFAB)? Ghauri echoes my thoughts on this as well:

And I think for a lot of people like me this constant feeling of not-quite-rightness follows all our attempts at authentic self-expression. We don’t really have role models, except for each other, and we’re all pretty lost, often pretending not to be.

Those of us who are further marginalized past our genders and into our race, ethnicities, and religions, we may begin queering our expression through the inclusion of cultural markers. Once simply part and parcel of our experiences as humans, we arm ourselves with our culture, sometimes (and hopefully) confusing and estranging those passerby. Ghauri speaks to their experience:

It wasn’t just this friends/family difference, I felt like a different person.  Switching between this white version of myself with my white friends and the version that wears a shalwar kameez on Eid with my family never felt natural. Either they wanted to join in and put mehndi on (but never eat our home cooked food), or they were outright uncomfortable as if they had been dropped into another dimension or planet, and all my foreign looking and sounding relatives were aliens. It was like they’d seen this huge secret and they’d stare at me wide-eyed wondering who I really had been this whole time. My culture and my religion were never really mine when I was constantly aware of who was watching.

For me, there is no way to look Caribbean. But the queering of my expression took my hair out of its chemically straightened state to its natural “coolie”* curls, and made sure that partners and friends ate the callaloo and brown stew that I was raised on, prepared by these gender-outlawed hands.

Being raised in a dual faith household, there was no standard of presentations required of the faith my mother raised me with. But my father wore his faith in his hair as a Rastafarian, which impacted my own goal of wearing my faith in the Ancestors in a similar fashion.

Being raised by the women of a Pakistani household impacts Ghauri in kind -- being witness to an unapologetic state of being that almost becomes an intangible thing:

These women taught me by example what beauty and authenticity was. I was in awe of their utterly shameless womanness, brownness. Sometimes that felt as unattainable as billboard beauty. They were this whole other dimension where beauty could be fat, odd, full of life, not for anyone’s eyes but yours.

The daily struggle of painting one or any combination of your many faces is exhausting. I woke with that exhaustion today, in fact. Selecting who you will be -- and for whom you will be -- sometimes is a stretch of one’s ability, an expenditure of energy that may or may not be available. Ghauri expresses their exhaustion and the bursts of energy as I would:

It’s never quite what I want it to be, it never feels honest enough or beautiful enough. But, most of the time I wear the same clothes daily because it is so exhausting to choose who I want to look like. I usually don’t wear makeup. But then when it strikes me, I feel the constantly moving image of who I am as a blessing.

And then there are the days when you feel the ability to shapeshift, to stretch that ability, to suspend your own self-doubt and step into the ownership of so many facets, like the precious jewels we are:

On those days I know my mother was right, I am always too extraordinary for them to understand. I see all my siblings, queer, of colour, confused and insecure when we’re supposed to be cool and interesting. You have it too, the insides that stretch far beyond what a body can do, what a face can show. Tragic magic.

Read Umber Ghauri’s The Struggle of Painting Your Many Faces in full, and follow them on Instagram.

*"Coolie" is a debatably derogatory term used by the British for Indian and Chinese slaves imported to colonies including Jamaica and Trinidad.

Tahnee Jackson serves as operations coordinator for Transfaith.

More Artlcles from Pagan Traditions at Transfaith