Editor's note: In celebration of pride and in reverence for the victims of the Pulse shooting, we are publishing two poems by Kelsey Smoot, who adds their own voice to a chorus of Black queer folks writing poems not only of survival, but of permission and love.

"How to Survive a G*rlhood"

Gay people weren't real in my house
I was an imaginary friend in my house
The first memory I have
Is of myself
Trying to wipe a memory away
Something torn and tender
Shrouded in fog
I wonder if I am both genders
Alien and mirage
And red flag
To be a girl is to constantly assess
What do I need to do right now,
To continue to be invited tomorrow?

I learned to blend into the background
Hid myself in closets
In fists
In another lost girl
Followed them like dyke Moses
Knowing damn well that
We could just be going
Further into the dark together
Into certain alienation
But sometimes it was worth it
Seeing other people from my planet

One time, I was invited into the boys club
But grown men showed up
Making themselves comfortable on my couch
Rough hands
Telling me
This is not permanent
What I am
Is definitely not something I want to be
That their goal
Is to fuck me into a sundress
But this is about much more than clothes
I can see past clothes—you feel me?

I would say my gender is Black
And that masculinity is just
How I relate to other beings
A state

An expression
A genre of human experience

When you ask me how I survived it, I say

I learned to send up a flare
I still naturally lilt my voice
Trauma bonds
And maybe some toxic ass nigga shit
But I'll be damned
If I'm going to be trapped in your image of me
On some slow, miserable death shit

If my younger self could see me now
They would ask
You chose yourself?
You're not scared to go to hell?
If my parents were still here,
Would I be this looking free?

Some girlhoods end in manhood
And we don't talk about those things
What isn't allowed under masculinity
What kept us from ourselves
And consumed with survival
I'm learning how to speak on it
Stand in it
Move in spaces
Embody the divine feminine
Honor the masculine
And see myself

One day I realized
I just don't have to give a fuck
I don't have to make my parents proud
I could just give myself permission
I already knew, I already felt
I know what my people look like
Whether you see us or not
And in the end
The conversation will always include me
Because Black women and queers
Will always be at the forefront of the struggle
Will always be at the forefront of the struggle
Will always be at the forefront of the struggle1

1 "How to Survive A G*rlhood" is a found poem—some phrases and quotes we sourced from the 30+ oral histories I conducted in service of my dissertation research.

"Maxx Puts Their Arm Around Me In the Uber Ride Home"

________and somehow, we are boys again
________but this time, i allow myself to love them with my skin off

their shoulder is a marronage,
and i resile all the mannish hauntings
that had us caught up
got us fucked up
kept us locked up
and lost to one another

___________________we sat this close a million times before
___________________but still, i feel nervous to lean into them
___________________as we whirr over charleston streets
___________________under sleepy moss trees
___________________and i am keenly aware of their breath,
___________________just above my temple

maxx is 30 and drunk this night
and i realize we've spent half our lives
like lathes—cutting and turning and shaping one another

_________________and too, like mirrors

how they are not me,
i'm still not sure

maxx pulls me closer, until we are

blood brothers

i feel a warming joy grow in my gut
knowing we are both done
with the banal bravado of boyhood

i close my eyes and recall every tender moment between us
that wanted to be this one
i know that i will know them
for every moment henceforth
but i still grieve the ones in which
i couldn't be brave
because i was busy being a boy

___________________it's almost like they hear my remorse out loud because
___________________maxx leans in closer and says
___________________"you are so beautiful"
___________________in a voice i've never heard from them before
in an instant
we are boys
we are grown
we are grey
and we are gone

a whole lifetime passes

___________________i promise myself i will come up with something
___________________just as loving to say back to them
___________________someday soon
___________________i promise
___________________i will be their better, brighter reflection

but this night, i keep my eyes shut
fall gently onto maxx
into sleep
and dream about mirrors

More in poetry:

"Dark Matter": A poem for grief & other loves

The other love of grief: loving something you never were, but somehow used to be. Using the formal constraints of the sestina, this complicating and uncompromising ode to Black womxn explores the reflexes, annulments, and returns of gender.

An anthology for people over capitalism

The first collection of labor writing in nearly a century, 'What Things Cost: An Anthology for the People' arrives right on time: "These poems are a beginning, a way into the worlds of others' laboring lives to see how we need to be set free."

Altars for the alter-life

With Destiny as a guide, we are invited on a walk around the block, into other worlds—the alter-life. More than a collection of poems, 'motherworld' tunes songs of the South, lit up with magnolias, dandelions, rivers, and "testaments/of the cosmic."

Kelsey (they/them/he/his) is a PhD candidate in American Studies. Their work and writings explore the process of identity formation at the nexus of race, gender, and sexuality. He is a cultural and gender theorist, a writer, an advocate, and a poet. Having grown up bicoastal and spending the majority of their adult life in a state of transience, they draw from their eclectic life experiences both deep fear and great optimism regarding what people are capable of. Kels seeks to illuminate the experiences of Black queer folks, navigating the contemporary U.S. sociopolitical landscape.