by Taylor Patterson
“Nonbinary” describes a gender identity that is not exclusively masculine or feminine — identifying outside those two binary categories. Jamie, the subject of this profile, uses the gender-neutral pronouns they, them and theirs, rather than he/him/his or she/her/hers.
It was the end of an Ohio summer when Jamie Keaton first felt seen.
In August 2018, Jamie performed a spoken word poem at PechaKucha 20×20 Akron — an event where presenters share a narrative, using 20 slides that each last 20 seconds. Jamie came out for the first time on a small stage at the Trailhead, sharing their gender identity somewhere that wasn’t hushed behind closed doors.
Hundreds of people sat in metal folding chairs, among them friends, strangers and family, as Jamie began:
This is the story of two identities I hold so dearly. The first one is my Ethnic one, black is beautiful, straight African, fist high… but this identity causes violence from the power of the badge and whiteness. The second one, the dangerous one, the one that no one wants to embrace, my queer face, nonbinary.
Jamie grew up in Akron knowing that the world often treats Blackness and queerness like oil and water. Jamie, now 27, spent their teens and young adulthood balancing these two parts of their identity.
“There were times every day when I went to class where about 10 to 12 students picked on me. Some way, some how, they would tease me about how I expressed myself,” Jamie says. “They even beat up on me.”
In the late 2000s, Jamie romed North High School’s hallways, Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube bumping in their headphones. It was the post-golden-age of hip-hop; teen style was flatbills, Air Force Ones and oversized jerseys. The fashion fads were never Jamie’s style, but they dressed the part to fit into the crowd .
The Akron Public Schools student body is roughly 60% Black. Jamie says they always felt pressure to conform to that part of their identity.
“There was an expectation that I had to live up to what their definition of Black meant,” Jamie says.
I was teased and ridiculed because I didn’t fit the man that they thought I would be, confused as ever because no one accepted me.
Editor’s note: Jamie Keaton began writing for The Devil Strip after this profile was nearly complete. Their first piece, a profile of artist Nichole Epps, appeared in November 2019.
In those early years, Jamie didn’t have the language to explain why they felt different. The first time they heard the word “nonbinary” was their freshman year of college in a women’s studies course.
Jamie started attending LGBTQ meetings on campus, which came with a newfound sense of acceptance and love.
During that time, Jamie says they could not share their gender identity journey with their family — Jamie was raised on Sunday church and bedtime prayers. They knew their parents didn’t approve of LGBTQ people and that neither would understand their nonbinary identity.
This isn’t just their reality, but one for many Black queer people, Jamie says.
“Black people, throughout slavery and the civil rights movement, heavily relied on our faith. It was the epicenter of what got us through the oppression of the past,” they say. But many Christian churches teach that LGBTQ people are sinful and mentally ill.
The conservatism of some churches and their stigmatizing of the LGBTQ community has caused internalized hatred within many queer Black men, says Steve Arrington, the CEO and a founder of the Akron Aids Collabertive.
“So many Black, young, gay people have been broken toys, and their spirit has been broken,” Arrington says.
“I thought, this was something you go to hell for,” Jamie says. “I considered everything about me to be wrong for so long.”
Jamie started using they/them pronouns and changed their first name three years after that first women’s studies course. But they still weren’t ready to reveal their nonbinary identity to their family. In fact, Jamie avoided it at all costs. They told their parents that “Jamie” was a stage name for poetry. Facebook posts that referenced their identity would have a block on family members. Jamie kept their queerness hidden because they were afraid to lose something everyone longs for: acceptance.
Since coming out at PechaKucha in 2018, Jamie has not always been accepted or recognized as nonbinary by their family. Jamie’s parents use the name “Jamie,” but still see them as their son. Their mother is still learning, Jamie says, and uses they/them pronouns when addressing Jamie. But their father does not.
I hid it like ‘Where’s Waldo’ and hide and seek. I was so good at it, no one could ever find the real me — until the day that the hiding was so good, even I couldn’t find the real me.
During years of hiding their identity from their family, Jamie got involved with community activism. In 2016, they joined the Ohio Student Association, which focuses on growing leadership and activists at a college level. They currently work with citizens recovering from addiction at the Oriana House and organize with Vibe Collective, which is a network that focuses on creating spaces where a diverse group of artists can come together for support and conversation.
“No one saw my reality, so I became an activist to make damn sure that other people’s realities are seen,” Jamie says. “I came to the understanding that, just because I went through it, doesn’t mean other people have to.”
Jamie says they intentionally organize out of spaces that are intersectional, meaning every race, class, sexual orientation and gender are welcome. But it’s difficult to find groups that are truly inclusive in Akron, Jamie says. They have been denied a voice within activist circles, including at the Akron Women’s March in January 2019. Jamie held cardboard signs with friends and hollered chants alongside hundreds at the march. They were scheduled to read a poem at the afterparty. An organizer who Jamie knew from previous work on racial justice issues approached Jamie and said they couldn’t perform because their identity didn’t “respect the space.” Jamie says they were devastated.
“When you’re Black and queer, white people don’t accept you because you’re Black, and Black people don’t accept you because you’re queer,” Jamie says.
Arrington has worked in HIV/AIDS activism and outreach in the Black community for 30 years. He mentors a diverse group of queer people who have been discriminated against and tokenized, like himself. There are maybe one or two spaces in Akron that are truly inclusive, Steve says.
“The term ‘intersectional’ hasn’t vibrated in a lot of communities,” Steve says. “Akron is behind. We lack the education and awareness around intersectionality and nonbinary [identities].”
Imagine holding two marginalized identities. That doesn’t give you community because the other identity your community has disdain and scrutiny. I’m not telling you this to look in shame. I’m not telling you this to find and fix your blame.
“We [nonbinary people] are stuck in this rut of people making us feel like we aren’t allowed to exist,” Jamie says, “and whenever we come out, the questions are about our genitals rather than our experience.”
Jamie’s girlfriend, Amber Cullen, encouraged Jamie to come out at PechaKucha in 2018 and has been a hand to hold throughout Jamie’s gender identity journey.
“Jamie’s love is so inclusive that it pushes me to be more compassionate in the world. I’m constantly challenged to open my arms wider in how I love because Jamie loves others so deeply,” Amber says. “They have a charismatic, sort of magnetic personality. People feel heard, seen and valued with Jamie, no matter who you are.”
Jamie’s love is expressed as activism and giving voice to marginalized communities. Black voices have always been silenced systematically in this country, Jamie says. As an example, Jamie points to the “Ain’t I A Woman” banner that hangs above Lock 3. No women of color were involved in the making of the banner or invited to the unveiling of the piece in spring 2018.
“People of color are hardly ever asked to be a part of projects like that,” Jamie says.
The banner is a reminder of the lack of black artistic spaces in Akron, which inspired Jamie to help create one: Black Out: The Artist Showcase at the Akron Civic Theatre. Jamie introduced the idea to Vibe Collective, and the group soon began working on the production. Vibe gathered 11 artists to perform at Black Out in February 2019.
The Civic’s sign glowed that night, painting the sidewalk puddles red. Jamie’s eyes caught the Sojourner Truth banner as they made their way into the 90-year-old theater. They walked down the carpeted aisle and up wooden stairs to the platform. A spotlight hit their face.
A tale of two identities — I am handing you that weight. You sit in discomfort while I take my space. I gave you my truth, laying it bare on the stage.
Jamie’s hands trembled — not with fear, but power.
Taylor Patterson is a recent graduate of Kent State University. She is a poet and freelance journalist who asks questions about power and humanity. Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.