The Power of Your Signature


One day as I was sifting through a stack of emails, I noticed that people often greeted me with “Mr.” or “Ms.” or would respectfully add “ma’am” or “sir” to the end of their sentences and although it was not their intention, it grated my last nerve. They were making assumptions before they even said hello.  My supervisor noticed as well and encouraged me to add my pronouns to my signature so that the world could be clear. It was the second time in my professional career that someone had asked me to share how I wanted to be referred to and it was just as empowering and welcoming as the first, however this time, I had not shared with her my pronouns either. So I did it passively, quietly, to the entire office and our constituents by adding a quick line to my signature.
If you would have asked me three years ago, I would’ve said something else automatically, because it was what I knew, what my mother told me that I was because a doctor told her, and that my life would forever revolve around that identity. It never felt quite right, but I was a black queer kid living in the south, so nothing really ever felt quite right to me. Not the clothes I was told to wear, the hairstyles, the mannerisms I was supposed to emulate in order to attract the opposite sex, not even the people who surrounded me, which were typically white suburban kids whose lives revolved around sports and social stature. I accepted it because it was all I knew.  My mother and her partner at the time raised me with the values that they held, which their parents knew, which their parents had known, even though it did not fit them either. Two independent black women raising two black kids was queer enough to them and their families. My sister and I knew it was not to be discussed outside of the household, and we were to be careful about giving people our mother’s name, less someone Google her and discover her passion in writing about “us”, the outsiders, the unmentionables. The gays.

I moved from Gwinnett County, Georgia to Washington, D.C., where there were fewer closets and more organizations dedicated to dismantling the need for a closet in the first place. I found a second home in a youth organization called SMYAL and they gave me something I can never thank them enough for: the courage to live my most authentic self. I came out. I got into advocacy work. I funnelled hours and hours into creating safe spaces and programming for LGBTQ+ students. But something was disconnected. Somewhere, along the way, when explaining myself and my experience to other people, I felt like I wasn’t sharing the whole truth about me. None of the labels I’d known could encompass my blackness, queerness, masculinity, femininity, and “otherness” at once.  As I matured, I rejected any identity that tried to put me in a box. None of them served me, so I would not force myself to conform to them.

We want to be something, someone, don’t we? I still felt the need to at least be able to articulate my constant experience of gender, of queerness. How could I explain to someone that my identity simultaneously encompasses the binary and expands well beyond it and that there are days when my masculinity, femininity and “other” energy exist so harmoniously that I want them to all to be acknowledged, especially to my community? It all sounded so complicated and just too much to have to explain over and over again and frankly, who cared?

Well...I did. I do. The shy, anxious child sitting in their third grade English class perpetually annoyed by the press ‘n curl on their head and the too tight jeans hugging their thighs does. The little boy who wants to play in make up and play football does. There’s a quote somewhere that says  “Be who you needed when you were younger"

I needed someone who lived true to themselves everyday, not to archaic societal expectations and roles that serve no one but those who created them to retain power. I needed someone courageous enough to be who they were, no matter what this country tends to dictate. I needed someone who saw value in themselves, who wrote their own stories, created their own narrative for their lives. I embody the hope and dreams of my ancestors, which I believe universally was to be free, which is a beautiful and continuous experience like my blackness, gender, and sexuality, so I needed something that could capture as much of it as possible.

So they/them is what I chose. Not only for my identity, but for my experiences, my lineage, and my liberation as well. It might change. Some days I don’t mind gendered pronouns. It still sounds new to me just like it sounds to other people. But it is what feels right now, in this moment, when so many want us to be quiet and afraid when instead we are loud and proud, and authentic. That is where our power is. When we have audacity to be true to ourselves, even if it’s through a signature in an email.

Yours in the struggle,

Cydney O. Brown
Pronouns: they/them/theirs
Registrar and Database Coordinator


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NMAC leads with race to urgently fight for health equity and racial justice to end the HIV epidemic in America. 

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