Black Boys Fly

content warning: sexual assault

Lilly O. [Photo description: a young black man in a red jockstrap poledancing, his arm out and head thrown back].

Lilly O. [Photo description: a young black man in a red jockstrap poledancing, his arm out and head thrown back].

I kicked my package, which was waiting on the doorstep days earlier than expected. Within minutes of the surprise delivery, I slid into its contents: a red jockstrap, shipped fresh from Australia. Staring at my thick frame, wishing I cut back on sugar or done a few more crunches the last few weeks, I paused. Anxiety swept over me like a shadow. What will people think of me? What if someone sees me the week after the performance, assumes because I am erotic with my body they can thrust themselves on me? Can I go through with this upcoming pole dance performance?   

For six weeks prior to this moment, I took a pole dance intensive class teaching basics and choreography for an upcoming performance. In Oakland "party for a purpose" social justice events punctuate event calendars within the tightly knit QTPOC community. The model uses party raised funds for a cause. My teacher, the wonderful India Sky Davis,  has a  practice empowering queer and trans folks of color of all body sizes and abilities through teaching pole dance and aerial gymnastics. I was especially thankful to get a slot because these classes are restricted as an intentional safe space for femmes, women of color, and gender expansive individuals. In class I knew to be mindful of my male privilege, not taking up too much space, yet striking the balance to remember I deserve space too. As a pole dancer assigned male at birth I immediately saw the specific challenges for my body. While we all had to lift our own body weight, I easily outweighed everyone. There were ways I had to teach my body to move with my specific needs, or tuck as to not bash my genitals into the pole. The first half of the intensive went well, but the other half began triggering unaddressed trauma I felt would go away if I just ignored what happened.  

“I thought you were innocent, until I saw you dance,” my attacker told me the morning after sexually assaulting me. There’s an impulse, as for most victims of sexual assault, here to detail what dance I was doing. I’m asked to assure my audience, if and when I choose to tell this story, I wasn’t being provocative. I am told to persuade those unaware of the subtle ways they enforce rape culture I did not ask for what happened to me. Because I know that this is untrue, I will bypass that part of the story. I will detail the irony of the day he saw me bust a move; we were at an academic conference on black masculinity. The keynote speaker addressed the current R. Kelly trial in the media, acknowledging how often in black community abuse is cyclical and intergenerational. If Kelly had not been attacked, or had had someone willing to help him work through his sexual trauma, the keynote argued, then he would not have perpetrated sexual violence.

"There’s no justice for my body," I remember thinking loudly, blaring out the sounds of my dorm mates suggesting I use carceral justice, call the police, as a response to my attacker. I kept thinking about how I’d be humiliated as a man to report being sexually assaulted in general, let alone by another man. As a black man, police are used to seeing me as a perpetrator of crime, which already is the case for most victims. I shucked it off for years, but it settled deep inside me: the victim blaming. You shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation. You should’ve known this professional colleague that invited you over for dinner to discuss your academic pursuits was trying to have sex with you. You should’ve known he was a rapist.  Writing this out in the open it seems nonsensical, but this is often the way victims learn to police themselves to  avoid future violent interactions. In response to his words, I became meticulous about how I carry and present myself in public. If I actively performed a modest, sexually repressed public persona then I could repel men from finding me desirable. I wouldn’t have to ward off similar attacks if they didn’t see me in the first place.

I vividly remember at the end of class one week all of my classmates organically beginning a conversation about having to leave this safe space of embodying personal fantasy and desire to enter back into the patriarchal world. They discussed the constant micro and macro aggressions they experience hourly from men. The need to be beautiful by mainstream standards, the ways they are punished for meeting, or exceeding, those standards. I continually marvel at the strength femme presenting and existing people possess. Although I can become under siege if my maleness is read as queer in certain spaces. I also have the option of passing in public spaces. There’s a way I can dress and carry my body almost rendering myself invisible from harassment, except perhaps police officers always searching for a black (male) body to stop, frisk, and shoot.  

"Our Bodies Should Be Natural Here." Around the time of my performance a friend released a poetry zine with that title. That stanza floated through my veins the night of my performance. How had I internalized the ways I’m taught my body, its desires, its provocations, its naturalness was disposable inorganic material? At the party I walked into the space wearing my jockstrap. Metallic paint adorned my body for the robotic, Afrofuturistic aesthetic we had agreed upon for our performance. All my nerves went away when a friend not only affirmed me, but nonchalantly addressed me in a way that said, “Why don’t you walk around dressed like this all the time? Shame was the outfit I wore for years attempting to hide even my wrists to ward of a possible attacker.

The performance went by fast. Each step, each flourish, each kick felt invigorating. Me inside my body, a home I often leave vacant in a world constantly attempting to ransack me. For all the anxiety leading up to the performance, it was over before any of us wanted it to end. Minutes later my partners and I were in the changing room throwing the dollar tips we earned up in the air. I can’t remember how much I earned, I remember it was a profit off the jockstrap, but what the dollars represented mattered most. I was seen, respected, and affirmed by my beautiful community members at a party where personal vulnerability was welcomed. I tried something new, stuck with it, and fought through the memories attempting to keep me trapped in the past. My performance was years in the making, although it was billed as the capstone at the end of six weeks of pole dance classes.

I didn’t share my trauma history with my classmates or the onlookers at the party. Non-disclosure has been a mode of performance contextualization for me. Although I understand the value of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and pole as a healing praxis, queer art often neatly frames sensual expression around the body, sexuality, or the erotic to avoid the shame others spew. There’s a way others, not knowing my history as a sexual assault survivor, feel very confident slutshaming me for even daring to pole dance. The few I have shared with, after receiving even playful flack, immediately apologize, “I had no idea,’ they’ll say feeling terrible for gratuitously revealing something about themselves. Without adding context, I open myself up to receiving truths about others they attempt to make about me.  These revelations I see as exorcisms of sorts. In watching me, I realize many immediately reflect about their own ideas about their body, beauty, bravery, and sexuality. A lot of cultural, societal, and personal trauma surfaces and my body exists as a target deserving abuse for being triggering. I don’t welcome the scorn, but I work to deepen my empathy for others around how they allow fears to paralyze them into silent submission. Realizing what’s being said to me isn’t about me allows me to connect with what lies underneath others don’t know how to unsettle. My healing is not just about me. Pole dancing allows me to hold space for others in my community wrestling with the same demons I momentarily pin down as I twirl against gravity.

Since being back on the East Coast I have tried finding similar queer community, or remnants of my former Californian life. On my front porch at midnight, as the atmosphere shrouds between day and night, I feel worlds of choreography unfold in my body. The aesthetic my body craves reminds me of Audre Lorde’s writing on the erotic as a differentiation from the pornographic. I am not opposed to wildly shaking what my mama gave me to Juvenile’s, ‘Back Dat Azz Up,’ but I am attracted to more sensual expressions. I was taught to police expressing for fear of attracting another attack, or for the ways this tender vulnerability disrupts the myth of toxic patriarchy society often asks for me to perform.

In my first memories, my mother and I are dancing in the kitchen to Deniece Williams’ Special Love cassette as dinner cooks on a low fire. Spinning around in circles, dimples searing deep into my face, I knew a connection with my movement disconnected from ego and perfection. This is well before the world taught me my body as a site of shame. First grade was when I first enjoyed the idea of taking a dance class. Asking my parents about this opportunity brought the lessons: I am poor. My growing frame, my unit, was a tax credit annually filed with the invested hope my rigorous studies would bring a crash through the glass ceiling of economic disenfranchisement into a higher class. Until I became a millionaire, all the rage before hyper-capitalism made being a billionaire the new chic, I was a liability to the family’s stability asking for unnecessary funds. Number two: Boys don’t dance. My parents did not overtly say dancing was only for girls. Frankly, dancing was for no one, it edified the body in a lascivious manner. Hip hop dance - the growing dance style capturing the evolution of 80’s street style movement with the blazing bravado of the 90’s- would have been acceptable in my neighborhood.  Formally taught dances,  being heavily associated as a high feminine art, were not decent. Yes, Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, and Gregory Hines existed, but, their names leaped outside the sphere of my territorial neighborhood where few dared cross lines.

“Stop rolling your eyes.” I am stopped. “Boy, why do you have you hand on your hips?” I am frisked. “Only girls suck their teeth. What are you a girl?” The gender police restrains my body from violating culturally understood male gender performances through speech, disapproving reaction, and (violent) discipline. Masculinity and maleness are, unfortunately, conflated in my village. Thus, my body must announce itself at all times. Maleness, I am taught, actively works to enact itself, must always exert its existence unless someone dare question its validity. “What if I don’t want to be a, ‘real man’?” Often, I would directly question the projected truth of my body feeling crushed under the oppressive caricature of a person I am expected to grow up to be.

I left Oakland due to a maelstrom of structural violence. Last year I entered therapy beginning work around addressing various forms of violence I've survived, especially at the hands of other black men. Some mornings I wake up, almost stunned, by flashbacks. Facts show most people are raped by someone they know. What often goes discussed in our modern moment of mutual friends is how many friends in common we usually share with our attacker. It hasn't always been graceful or restorative in the long term, but I've reached out to the men who introduced me to my attacker. If ghosts are phantasmal, how can their haunting weigh so heavy in my bones? Needing an outlet, amongst other reasons, I started looking into pole studios here on the East Coast. At the door of the first one, a lithe white woman recoils immediately upon seeing me. Her tone comes off unwelcoming as she gives me the form with class information. Entering formal dance instruction spaces on the East Coast has come with a series of microaggressive racist/classist projections. From being completely ignored in dance studio stores to receiving suspicious responses to my body, I'm supposed to rationalize as a legitimate because I'm a black man. This has left me interested in how I can create my own space to spin, heal, and fly.


Marcus Borton: is a cultural worker + sex educator + black writer with a B.A. in Human Sexuality/U.S. Literature from Goddard College. Hailing from Fruitvale by way of Harlem by way of his mama, Marcus knows it is not only necessary people of color survive globally, but imperative we thrive through embodying fullness, wholeness, and roundness. In his spare time, he casually stunts on cisheteropatriarchal ableist white supremacy by remaining well-purposed, hydrated, nourished, moisturized, prayed up, read, and rested, in that order! His work can be found at https://medium.com/@mr.borton, where he shares as a Medium Rising Writer.