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Ok, so what is a "boi?" according to Urbandictionary.com (a HIGHLY trusted source), it's a word used in "the lesbian community, a young transgendered/androgynous/masculine person who is biologically female and presents themselves in a young, boyish way." Ryann Holmes, the co-founder of Bklyn Boihood, whose mission is defined as "to spread love through community-building events, music and art while sharing our journey as bois of color who believe in safe spaces, accountable action and self-care" has a more interesting way to answer that question.
In addition to providing physical space for bois to commune, chill, talk and party, Bklyn Boihood also produces a yearly calendar that slyly and geniusly pokes playful fun at annual firefighter calendars by using a similar format that instead, promotes beautiful, regal, stylish images of bois of color empowered by their image. Bklyn Boihood also host an annual retreat and conducts workshops at colleges and community organizations on "Un/Doing Masculinity" which champions "healthy masculinity, intersectionality of identities and anti-misogyny for bois of color all over the world."
We spoke with the exceptionally down-to-earth, intelligent, and cool-as-hell Ryann about the origins of Brooklyn Boihood and its journey to becoming an international movement (at the interview, we were told the collective had just been granted a publishing deal for an anthology due out mid 2015), Ryann's own struggles with self-acceptance and the complexity of masculine and feminine identity.
So, you were telling me that you’re a bit tired from hanging out with Nikki Giovanni last night at The Red Rooster in Harlem. That’s some impressive sounding ish.
Ha - yeah, my brother is in college in Virginia and became friendly with Nikki, she's a professor at Virginia Tech, and I met her last night. She is incredible. She said something really great last night. She said that she lives in Southern Virgina and the pollen is so thick that this room would be covered in no time. It comes through the window, and your house is so dusty. Every morning you wake up and there’s this dust. You dust it off, you wake up again, there's more. She really believes in pushing people towards what they can do, because you can only do what you can and if everyone continues to dust, that means someone else can do something. You do what you can, and you make it possible for someone else to do what they can. When I was with her last night, I was like what time does your day start? She's like 5:30am - I don't know how old she is but she has so much energy. We were there till' midnight and I was telling my brother, like, I gotta get out of here. I'm tired! But I think having that outlook is what keeps her going.
That’s a beautiful analogy. Is that what you feel you’re doing with Bkyln Boihood? Making room for the next person?
Yeah, definitely. Bkyln Boihood evolved from me - out of something I was so naturally called to. I’m from Maryland and was born in DC and have lived in NYC for almost a decade. Bkyln Boihood started in 2009 and we started gathering people together. Come January 2010 we had the website going and started openly promoting the calendar. I’ve always been a person who under any circumstance or situation - if I feel injustice or feel like people aren’t being respected - even if it isn’t myself, I feel it the same. So it was only natural that in my identity, I couldn’t actually stand walking through life feeling this way or not loving myself or being in places where I didn’t feel like I could discuss my identity.
What was it like for you growing up?
I was so embarrassed, unclear and confused about what I was supposed to be doing and I wasn’t being affirmed at all. I didn’t disclose a lot…I was outed in high school, I didn’t come out. I didn’t have that many people super close to me to relate to. I didn’t have community. I was searching for myself and didn’t have enough confidence to really do me and not be looking around like, ‘is this weird?’ Just because of the nature of who I am, when I got to NYC, I sort of settled in and got comfortable and made a community hub. I’m that person who is like, ‘wanna come over tomorrow?’ and I met you two days ago. So my space really quickly started to grow...that was my nickname, ‘the hub’ and that’s how my mom was. We were that house on the block that all the kids were at.
Has your family been supportive?
It’s a weird thing. I don’t do the type of work that is easily shared. I don’t know that people get it – get the magnitude of it. My parents are proud of me, but they don’t fully understand what I’m doing but my siblings, they follow me and keep up with me online and they’re so supportive, my sister buys a calendar every year.
Was there a moment where you had this idea or did it happen over time?
It was probably a build up of things. I came to New York to really explore and embrace my identity. I started to present more masculine and I was meeting different people and connecting and sharing my experience. I was thinking ok, I’m not imagining that I feel this way. I really began to connect with people and recognize my power. With an old friend, we started Bkyln Boihood together. We had just gotten haircuts – and we were looking in the mirror and going, ‘I’m not bad looking’ and really feeling good and thinking, we should appreciate this.
That’s when the idea came to do something visual. Some kind of project that showcased different images of queer, trans, or however people identify because I realized I hadn’t seen any of those images. Other things were coming out but not in the way that I wanted it to be portrayed. If I saw things with boi’s of color, it wasn’t that professional or I wasn’t really diggin’ the fashion. It just didn’t translate. It was so bizarre, us looking in the mirror...we were like, people should see this and we should show them. We were like, why not start a project and take leadership? So that’s what shaped the idea of the calendar.
It sounds like you’re a natural community curator. Who were some of the people you were meeting when you first came to New York?
When I first got here I ended up meeting a woman who I ended up dating for four years. She was from Yonkers and we began exploring Brooklyn. As I met more people, I started wanting to be involved and started asking about an organization I could work with. I started volunteering with the Audre Lorde Project and that was sort of my entry into the activist world. It gave me a little more language to say what I was feeling and to identify who I was. It was an interesting environment but at the same time, it wasn’t quite right. I still felt there were things that were missing. It didn’t fulfill me enough and that led me to want to create another type of space.
I think lots of high school students can relate to feeling isolated or trying to figure themselves out. Yet you’ve created a community where young bois of color have an alternative to that.
It’s so intense. We’ve gotten letters from people in different places. I remember getting a letter from someone in Kenya who had gotten the calendar in a really sneaky way and it meant everything to them to just know that we’re out here doing this...that they can exist in this and that they’re actually a person and affirmed. I get so emotional talking about this. I mean, we have our struggles but we live in New York City, I can walk from here to there. To think about how much we do have...and be able to tell people about that…it’s completely changed my life.
Yeah, it really feels like that.
Within the queer community, I imagine there are a lot of sub-communities. Did you get any push back from other groups?
Yeah, definitely. Neither of us [the co-founders] have activist backgrounds. I remember when I first got to Audre Lorde I was like, I don’t know what these acronyms are. It’s get a little academic. There are parts of that that I love but it wasn’t exactly for me. I felt like it could shut people out and isolate people that were like me and maybe not able to completely connect with it. When academia comes up there’s also this perceived class thing that starts to happen, like, so if I didn’t go to school am I not worthy of being in this conversation? We got a lot of push back and were told we were perpetuating this kind of good ol’ boys thing.
That shifted when I went on a leadership retreat for the Brown Boi Project in 2010. I went out to Oakland and that conference shifted the course of my life. I didn’t even know what I was getting into. We stayed in this big mansion and had workshops and were inundated in everything from self-care and financial stability to breaking down gender justice and femininity and masculinity...and it wasn’t just queer and trans folks, there were straight black men who were part of the program. It was really transformative. At that moment I knew I had a bigger responsibility – it wasn’t just about visibility but about re-shaping the way we internalize masculinity when it comes out negatively and how that affects people in the world. I was able to recognize my power. Everyone in the collective feels like we have an obligation and a greater purpose.
What is the greater purpose?
I mean, it sounds super cheesy but it’s to spread love and that starts in the way we care for each other to how we choose to be a platform and to the way that we create space with people and in communities. Even if we have to do something that’s hard or controversial, we always try to come from a place of love.
Can you talk a bit about your work mentoring young people?
I also mentor young people and we talk about sexuality and homophobia and the young girls, a lot of them have no problem saying, I love women but at the same time they say a lot of really negative things about gay men, femininity, and gay feminine men. If a gay man isn’t feminine, there is this disbelief that that can even exist. I tell them all the time, the society we live in hates femininity and we can’t support that. To me honestly, I feel like all it is energy. I feel like our spirits are ebbing and flowing with one another and we all have different ways that manifest. Some of us choose to express it more than others whether it be through how we present our gender, who we choose to love.
Everything is so fluid and we all embody femininity and masculinity but the femininity isn’t embraced unless it can be possessed or objectified or there to enhance masculinity or serve the more negative aspects. It’s not this black and white thing and it’s not directly related to our body parts. There’s so many misconceptions. Our body parts aren’t necessarily related to who we choose to love. It’s so vast, the ways we can actually connect to ourselves and each other. We limit ourselves and we shun those who don’t...we shame them and make them think that they’re weird but actually they’re doing what comes natural. To me, this is the more incredible thing to do. I’ve always maintained a particular type of energy from when I was a baby and I was lucky enough to have a mom who was like ‘ok, fine, you can wear the baseball hat.'
I think folks who define themselves as heterosexuals have a lot of stereotypes or misconstrued ideas of “boi” relationships. Does the “straight” opinion even matter?
It’s funny because if you look up femininity in the dictionary it will say things like ‘weak’ or ‘nurturing’ ..if you talk to a young black man and ask him who is the strongest black icon in his life he will often answer his mother. To be cliché, I feel that people fear what they don’t understand. They have a hard time with someone threatening what they understand about themselves. It matters to me because it affects my life. If you feel a certain way, your actions may reflect that. That’s what leads to people being in violent situations.
That’s why I work with young people. I’m interested in talking to people who don’t get it - who are like, what? I’m not interested in sitting in a room with people who get it – I mean, it’s important to continue to analyze but I like to push it and talking to 16, 17 or 18 year old men who have been on the block their whole life, that’s what they know. I just feel like something has to happen to people...to have some relatable moment, where they see beyond themselves. If you think you know shit, that’s when you stop letting yourself learn more shit. That’s when you’re in trouble. That’s why I like young people. They don’t mind being told what you think you know may not be the truth.
What are your thoughts on boi relationships in which one or both people are mimicking masculinity in dominant and oppressive ways?
That’s not a foreign experience. That’s the problem with a lack of visibility and a really short list of examples…people latch on to stuff. So if there’s this self hated and it’s internalized when it comes to not wanting to identify with certain parts of womanhood or perceived womanhood plus wanting to be affirmed in how they present and their masculinity...the reason men embody these negative things is the misconception that this is what makes you a man and a lot of that comes from this really false sense of what it means. It actually looks crazy as hell, especially in certain bodies, like how could you treat women this way and look at yourself? I guess that is what we push back on and I think it’s just a part of a lot of people’s process because they don’t have any other framework. I think that’s a lot of what we try to do is offer another perspective. Here’s a boi who does not cheat on his girlfriend and just graduated from law school and looks like you do and came from where you came from...just to provide another framework because if all you have to model is the men in your life or other bois who are mimicking that shit, then that’s what it’s gonna be.
Did you ever expect Bklyn Boihood to have blown up like this?
I always believed it could, somewhere deep down. We always spoke about it really affirmingly but we never expected it to reach overseas and for people to be ordering it from London, Nairobi, South Africa, Brazil…there’s a woman who takes 20 or 30 to Brazil and gives them to bois. We exist all over the world and all over the planet. That to me is amazing, for there to be no mainstream visibility and for people to be at home just like me, in the mirror, getting dressed, figuring myself out and coming to terms with who I am. For the people on that journey, that just makes me want to keep on doing this work, keep affirming each other, it’s just amazing. I think the next part of our journey will be to not only reach but continue to expose these individuals and stories.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Feature image, photo credit: King Texas
Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot.