We were on her fire escape overlooking a South Bronx street when she said it. “You’re queer, just say it.” I stared at her and puffed on my cigarette, trying not to get angry or come out of my face to this female I’d met just a few days ago. I wanted to say, “Who the fuck are you to impose labels on me?” Instead, I put out my stogie and tried to climb back into the window she was blocking, her face tight, one eyebrow arched high. “Say it. I. Am. Queer.” “I don’t do labels,” I said. She rolled her eyes. She wasn’t interested in hearing my story or my reasons. She had her own agenda. She wanted to school me, son me, show me who I was, because, you know, living in this body for then 36 years didn’t qualify me as knowing it or myself. She was there to tell me who the fuck I am. My reaction: have a fuckin’ seat.

So, this is why I don’t do labels: I watched my second mom Millie, a self-proclaimed butch, be torn down by one word: maricona. Mom took out that uzi when she and Millie were fighting and she wanted to sting her, break her. They were both guilty of it. They were vile when they were angry and arguing. Maricona was hurled like an arrow, a freshly sharpened knife, the kind that takes down hippos. Millie would shrink into herself. Her bottom lip trembled and beads of sweat sprouted on her pointy nose. She’d pound her chest and say, “Yo soy butch, puñeta, butch!” Over and over, like she was trying to convince herself. Then she’d storm out, “Me voy pa’l carajo.”

I saw how one word could break someone I loved. I saw how labels can be used as arsenal, a weapon of war. So, yeah, that’s why I have an issue with labels.

And here’s the thing, those kinds of labels aren’t really for me. They’re for people like that woman on the fire escape. They’re for people who want to pigeonhole you, put you in a neat box, a labeled box, a “this is who you are” box.

I don’t now and never have fit into a fuckin’ box.

And maybe that’s why I for so long resisted the label of feminist. To me, these rabid, foaming at the mouth, militant feminists (like the one on the fire escape) represented all feminists. (See what I did there? I put them in a box. I see the conundrum. No, it does not escape me. I ain’t perfect either.)

The feminists I first met in college (yes, I was late to the game. Sue me.) were white, they didn’t shave their armpits or legs (I remember thinking pero I don’t like my legs hairy), they were always yelling and carrying signs and they hated men. I need to stress that—they loathed men (except sometimes their dads and brothers) and didn’t hide it. Me? I had just survived four years in a rich, white suburban town, a transplant scholarship kid from Bushwick, Brooklyn when it was a crack-infested pile of rubble. I’d spent those four years holding my breath. I just wanted to breathe. I wanted to be in love with my drug dealer boyfriend (don’t worry, I woke up and left his ass a few years later). I wanted to go to school and I wanted to re-establish my relationship with my brother who’d gotten caught with two balloons of heroin in his stomach on his way back from Venezuela and was about to do some serious time. See, he’s the real reason I rejected that man-hating, hairy-armpitted branch of feminism—I adored my brother, he was my Superman. So, I said, fuck these angry feminists and kept it moving.

I read some feminist texts while in college and after, mostly texts by brown and black women who rejected the “original” feminist movement since it was a movement for particular women that did not look like us—rich and white. I read Anzaldúa and Moraga and Morrison. I read Audre Lorde and bell hooks. And that’s how I learned that I’d been raised by the baddest feminists out there. These women didn’t carry a feminist banner everywhere they went. They lived that shit, day in and day out—when they left their motherlands to seek fortune in the U.S.; when they raised their children without fathers because, carajo, worlds can’t fall apart because that mothafucka was a dirt bag; when they spent long hours in factorías making clothes and baking bread. They lived that feminism people theorized about. That’s the feminism I knew and could relate to. Flawed and beautiful, it was ours.

So, when that woman from the fire escape claimed “it’s because of patriarchy” when I wouldn’t help her out of a bind, I could push back and call bullshit. “Nah, mama, I just don’t trust you.” It’s got nothing to do with patriarchy. And, no, the feminism I tout doesn’t give a woman a pass or extra room to fuck me over just because she’s a woman. My ability to say “fuck that, no” does not discriminate. Men and women get it equally.

***

I was once one of those girls who said “I’d rather hang out with men” & “I have more male friends than female.” I don’t say that with particular pride. It’s just fact. I’ve done the work to understand the why—it all comes down to my relationship with my mother.

“…we are made of our mothers. Mother is part of our personality, psyche and structure. It’s as if she is literally a layer of our being. How we are put together, how we see ourselves, our sense of self-esteem, our unconscious beliefs about relationships—all of these are strongly imprinted by our mother.

“Whether you had no relationship with your mother, had a secure and happy one, or fall somewhere in between, it is impossible to escape the influence of this central relationship.

“What happened to you as an infant and young child powerfully shapes how you see yourself and other people, what expectations you have for relationships, how you feel about yourself, and what defensive (and healthy) habits you’ve learned.” (The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed by Jasmin Lee Cori, MS, LPC)

I was an unmothered child. I am still unmothered. Mom was abusive. She still is. I never felt safe with or supported by her. Still don’t. Yes, I know now that there are reasons for it, that she was carrying her own pain and past traumas I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But a child doesn’t know this. All a child needs and wants is for her mother to love her and support her and make her feel safe, and when she can’t or doesn’t, that will damage that child for life. I am that child. From this relationship, I learned not to trust women. I learned they weren’t safe and relationships with them aren’t safe.

My brother, on the other hand, was my first best friend and advocate. As soon as I started walking, we set off to do every wild thing we could think of. With him I could be myself—loud and adventurous and independent. What mom tried to quash, my brother encouraged. From him, I learned safety and adoration, so of course it would make sense that I’d gravitate to men and view friendships with them as safe.

In college my best friends were a group of men I met during orientation. To this day, I’m the one female (other than the strippers) who is invited to bachelor parties and outtings with the boys.

I’ve been deemed a sell out to my gender because I have so many male friends. In college I was told I couldn’t possibly be a feminist. The pressure to be someone I wasn’t and wasn’t ready to be made me shun the label and feminists all together. I’ve never been the type to buckle under peer pressure, especially not pressure that insists I fit into a mold I wasn’t comfortable in in the first place.

It wasn’t until I had my daughter that I really started analyzing my relationships with women. I didn’t want to repeat the terrible relationship I had with my mother. I think of a friend I had growing up who was so close to her mom that she came home and told her the day she lost her virginity. Like as soon as she got to the block, she told us, “I’ll be right back” and went upstairs to tell her mom. She was the first to know. Then she came downstairs to tell us, the girls from the block who were waiting on the stoop, anxious to hear how her night went. That’s a secure, supportive relationship right there; one I strive to have with my daughter though admittedly, the idea of my almost ten year old having sex freaks me out in ways I can’t even begin to describe. Gah! But she’s entering those years when she’s going to start talking about it and being curious, and I want her to know she can come to me. I know I’m doing something right already when she comes home and talks to me about a boy she likes. (Yes, it happens early, folks!)

It’s been a quite a journey, this becoming open to having relationships with women. Above all, I’ve learned that bitchy and catty is not exclusive to women. These people exist in all genders.

I’m still very wary of the foaming at the mouth, militant feminists. Not everything is the fault of patriarchy, and no, I won’t ever buy that argument.

I now have a gorgeous group of female friends who I lovingly refer to as my Loba pack. They remind me of the beauty of sisterhood. None of us is perfect and we don’t try to be. We love, we fight, we piss eachother off, then we make up and laugh at ourselves and our neuroses. I strive every day to be a better friend and sister to them. And, no, I don’t take it easy on them because they’re women. We’re tough and ‘bout it womenfolk. We can take anything you throw at us. And don’t mess with any of my sisters because you’ll have to deal with me if you do. I’m fiercely protective as most wolves are.

***

I was thinking about my mother yesterday. I was thinking about how she made ends meet while making about $13K a year when we were kids in 1980s New York. How she managed before she went back to school and work. How she paid the rent and filled the fridge and clothed three children when she was on welfare, and how she never let me forget that she got on it because of me, because the doctors told her, when I somehow survived, that I would need round the clock care so she would have to quit her job in la factoría. It was the first time she went on public assistance and even then, she only did so for a few years. She eventually went back to school and earned her Associates Degree and started working as a para-professional. She went back for her bachelors but quit when my sister got pregnant at 16. Who would take care of the baby while my sister was in school? So yesterday, when I spent the last few dollars I had until payday on Friday, dug in the drawer for loose change and even took some coins from the santos (I got you later, queridos), I honor my mother and the gangsta she taught me–how to stretch the little money I have to make my daughter the chicken soup she asked me for. When I told her, “I’ll make it for you next week,” she nodded but the disappointment was etched in those big brown eyes she inherited from her tata. I surprised her when she got home from camp with her sopa favorita, and while we ate, I shared a story about my mama, who though she can’t love me the way I want her to, showed me love the best way she knew how, through food and sacrificios and an occasional “I love you, nena.”

When my girl was done eating her soup, which she ate quietly, save for an “mmm” hummed softly every now and then, she hugged me and said, “that was the best soup ever, mom.”

***

This isn’t the feminism you will find in textbooks or hear about in conversations in feminist book clubs. This is my brand of feminism. The gangsta kind. The full of love kind. The this is what we got and we do what we can with it kind. It’s not based on theory. It’s real. It’s lived. It’s mine.

**inspired by “Introduction – Feminism (n.): Plural” in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Cop. That. Book. Trust me.