What Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ means to me as a Black trans woman

·5 min read

It’s July 28, 2022, 11:59 p.m. In the seemingly illimitable space between now and midnight, I’m sure of two things: It’s hot as hell, and Beyoncé’s coming. My knees are knocking. I can’t breathe.

Like any good member of the Beyhive, I’ve done my due diligence. Released my trade as Big Freedia demanded on “Break My Soul” and ignored the leaks that had popped up on my social media feeds. My roommate jokes that the Queen of Surprise Drops letting us know this much about a project is charity. They’re not wrong. After years of being unable to predict when our lives would be ruined (a term we use with the most exquisite endearment), it’s nice to know, if nothing else, that we’re going to be dancing. But I’m still full of questions. If “Lemonade” invoked the spirits of our mothers and grandmothers to repudiate the relationships that make Black women feel disposable, and “Homecoming” shook the foundations of Coachella to honor the institutions that cultivated those same ancestors’ minds, then what would an album prioritizing the pleasure of experience — as the superstar suggested this one would be — sound like? What aspect of The Culture would be illuminated by the pop icon’s gaze? I find out almost immediately. Midnight is here. The album drops. And that gaze shines on me.

Early in my transition, a man threatened my life on the subway. I expected it would happen eventually. There’s nothing necessarily novel about transphobia. What was surprising, though, was how adamant the gentleman was about performing his disgust. “I’ll send you to the shadow land and show you the true face of the demon king,” he spat at me from the seat across from mine. It was unhinged. The type of 90-degree nonsense only a New York City summer can bring out. But it’s not every day a bigot spits verse at you. I didn’t get up and go to a different subway car. Partially because I was entertained and partially because looking at this man, I was learning something. The pathological rage he felt toward me was because I committed the cardinal sin of being visible. A sentiment seemingly shared by the government officials, podcasters and beloved children’s book authors who struggle to cope with the fact that some of us use different pronouns. At Club Renaissance, though, everyone’s welcome. And whether we’re cis, trans or nonbinary, we’re all expected to show out.

Beyonce
Beyonce

The first spoken words we hear on “Renaissance” are those of a Black trans woman. “Fluorescent beige b—, I’m Black.” On first listen, Ts Madison Hinton’s sample on “Cozy” rings like church bells in my ear. It’s so surprising to hear her, I start the song over. The sample’s source material, a 13-minute video essay published in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder, is an obsession of mine. The candid, nuanced and cathartic expression of a woman with intersecting identities — Black and trans — craving acceptance from a world that would prefer we disappear. The same expectation that emboldens random men on trains to wax poetic about abstract ways of vanishing us as opposed to sitting quietly in their seats and minding their business.

When you’re used to being treated like you are too taboo to be acknowledged, you expect to be overlooked. So imagine my surprise when I realized the biggest artist in music was explicitly telling trans people to dust off the haters; self-love is our birthright and we deserve to claim it. A point Beyoncé drives through the heart when she takes an entire verse to shout out each color in the Progress Pride Flag, a subversion of the original pride flag by designer Daniel Quasar that adds colors to make specific room for Black and brown trans people. If so often it feels like no one sees us, Beyoncé made it clear with this album that she does. And when it seemed like no one was listening, she used our own voices to be sure no one could deny them.

It’s been some time since the release. Clubs that should be bumping the album have been abandoned by queer people for fear of contracting monkeypox. Even I’m terrified, telling myself that my house can be the club so often that I’m considering charging myself for drinks. As far as my delusions about making the most out of whatever pandemic I’m in go, it’s the most promising. At least it was, until the Queens Remix of “Break My Soul” dropped. There’s something darkly cyclical about a song that samples Madonna’s legendary “Vogue,” embracing the queer art form of ball room — a culture of performance and found family cultivated by the trans women of color in response to feeling unseen by the rest of the world — at a time when those same communities are yet again at risk of being disproportionally affected by a health crisis. The Queens Remix is a house anthem in the making. A fun and bopable dance hit that I’ll definitely be requesting whenever the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows me my second monkeypox vaccine. But its real strength is in the threads it weaves between the past and present. In one breath, Beyoncé invokes such legends as Roberta Flack and in another gives flowers to the myriad of ballroom houses that have been integral in shaping music, fashion and culture. Her message is clear, and it’s powerful: Trans women are an immovable piece of history. And we’re not going anywhere.

When I chose my name after transitioning, I knew I only had one shot at it. If my experiences with my trans friends who’d ditched their birth names proved anything, it’s that when telling people how to address you, it helps to be as straightforward as possible. I bombarded every group chat I belonged to with suggestions. Spent hours on the baby name websites. Even threatened to poach the names my loved ones had called for their children. None of them stuck. I wanted a name that felt sacred. Eventually, it found me. A name that when broken apart and translated from enough different languages to give a linguist a migraine explained my journey perfectly: Ariadne Nova Night. A most holy new night. A renaissance.