Photograph courtesy of Zoltan Tombor / Trunk Archive

Riley Black Reflects on the Power of Growth

Words by Riley Black

Over 300 bills have been introduced just this year in an attempt to erase queer people, including a total ban of trans healthcare in, among other places, Texas. Atmos contributor Riley Black explores why planting seeds of hope is essential to the fight against bigotry.

Not far from where I live, across from a café among Salt Lake City’s downtown blocks, there is a ragged chunk of broken sidewalk. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.


Honestly, I used to hate the cracked slab. I’d be lost in thought, my German shepherd’s leash in hand, when I’d step on just the wrong part and tilt forward for a minute, unaware that I had stepped on the elevated end of a concrete seesaw. Roots from the massive tree growing along the street margin had pushed up the artificial stone to the point that it cantilevered over the place where the tree had been growing for decades. I tried to remember which one it was, but by the time I’d take the route again I’d forget and stumble once more.


It took some time for me to appreciate the tricky step, mostly by overcoming my minor sense of annoyance and instead wondering how life must be for a tree hemmed in by asphalt on one side and concrete on the other. The rebellious roots aren’t the only such signs of irrepressible growth along the quiet blocks I often stroll along. There are chunks of wood suspended on power lines, remnants of a tree that grew so vigorously that it began to subsume the rubber-coated wires. Even along the roadside margins, in the baking heat of August, mule’s ears and other wildflowers send their roots between the tiny cracks on the shoulder and break up the asphalt just a little more with every season, flourishing in an environment that never existed until virtually a moment ago.


I need these signs. I look for them, trailing my fingers across swollen bark and yellow petals as I pass by. They are my hope. They are my reminder that life is not easily bound, its strength only visible across timescales we are often too impatient to notice. I need them because these days I am starting to feel a little like part of a tree that is slowly, painfully growing against the confines my society says I should be bound within.


A few weeks ago, up on a hill about a half hour from my favorite sidewalk spot, Utah’s legislators gathered to ban the healthcare and support that would allow the state’s transgender children to thrive. It was but one of over 300 bills introduced just this year in a persistent, focused attempt to erase queer people—and especially trans people—from society. Just this past weekend, attendees of the conservative CPAC conference applauded pundit Michael Knowles when he openly called for the eradication of transgender people. This is not about “parental rights” or even care for the children such acts are supposedly meant to protect. What we face is an attempt for control that is little different than the Christian right’s successful campaign to overturn Roe v Wade, the litany of horrific anti-queer bills meant to act as a scattershot approach to get at least one all the way up to a friendly Supreme Court as if each hateful bill were like so much pollen cast into the wind. Make no mistake. This is an attempt at queer genocide, a campaign to eliminate us because we seem too few and powerless to fight back.

These days I am starting to feel a little like part of a tree that is slowly, painfully growing against the confines my society says I should be bound within.

Riley Black

The bills are inventions of new, brittle ideas about sex and gender, not that much older than the invention of concrete. Prior to the 17th century, there was a prevailing scholarly belief that there was only one sex in our species—male. It was only more recently that doctors and philosophers and scientists recognized that humanity is not just a solitary sex. But in that moment of possibility—an alternate history we will never see—they chose poorly. Ignoring intersex people, the cultural fluidity of gender, and the bigger picture right in front of them, these scholars determined that life was divided into male and female, man and woman irrevocably attached to each other. The barrage of 21st century beliefs and bills maintaining this binary are not rooted in some deep observation of nature, but rather a cracked prism invented to promote an imbalance of power between what quickly became viewed as “opposite sexes.”


The new cisgender superstition cut like razor wire. There were cultures and people who did not fit in modern Western conventions of sex and gender long before the 19th century, just as there have been since the theoretical shift through this present moment. Variation in both sex and gender are inherent to what we wholly are, any attempt at self-definition that fails to account for this fact being woefully incomplete. It’s only now, when transgender people like myself have a language for ourselves, have community, and have a sense of hope that life can be more than a performance of what others expect even as the powers that be are trying to shove us back into painfully cramped lives. We need to be quick studies, learning from elders we’ll never know who somehow found each other and survived in a harsh, alienating culture that we now have the task of transforming.


I can’t recall how many hours I’ve spent walking my city’s sidewalks, rolling these thoughts in my head as I look for wildflowers growing along driveways and birds of prey lingering on trees groomed by power companies. I need them because I need to remember that whatever hope I have must be patient and play out over a timescale I might not even fully get to realize in my lifetime. In Texas, where fascist tactics are all too familiar, S.B. 1029 would effectively ban trans healthcare for all. Tennessee, meanwhile, has passed both a ban on transition care for children and drag shows in two separate bills, while the already transphobia-steeped Florida is pushing for a ban on gender studies majors and diversity programs at the state’s colleges and universities.


Trans people aren’t surprised by any of this. We knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t stop with bathroom bills, the calls to defend women’s sports, or even with the conservative press to outlaw abortion, bar “critical race theory,” and the other odious causes they’ve taken up. All of this is part of an effort to reshape America through white Christian nationalism, often by force given how few actually wish to see such a transmutation. Instead of people, we are a cultural panic and a wedge issue, blamed for all society’s ills given that most of our legal rights have only existed for about 20 years.

I need to remember that whatever hope I have must be patient and play out over a timescale I might not even fully get to realize in my lifetime.

But there is something fundamental that the bigots don’t understand, nor will they ever. They are too self-assured of their power and their god to notice the small, seemingly insignificant seed at the center of it all. Those who seek to erase queer people believe that we are cultural creations, corrupted and bastardized manifestations of a sick society that can only be redeemed by their hand. Once they have control, they believe, we will cease to exist and trouble their thoughts any further.


I almost have to laugh. No. We have always been here. We always will be. We are older than the word “trans.” We are older than the moniker Homo sapiens. We are older than the religions that blast us from the pulpit every Sunday. And we will suffer. We already are suffering. We will endure everything that our adversaries throw at us because we are essential expressions of humanity that cannot be legislated into submission or erased from the heart of humanity. That is where I plant my hope. For as long as there are people, we will be an incredibly queer species.


A tree growing into a fence or plants collecting silt to stop up a drain are nuisances to someone who feels all the tar and metal and stone have improved the world somehow. The lives that grow through the cracks don’t fit into their plans, tolerated so long as the misfits stay within the hard boundaries. But life has no concept of good behavior. Life crawls over, pushes up, breaks through and subsumes any thought of control that we entertain being little more than a comforting illusion.


I would have liked to greet a world where I could flourish freely. That’s not the time or the place I’ve found. There are those who are busy, even now, devising new walls and barriers to force the world into the only shape they can tolerate. Yet I know where my roots are. I know that growth is often slow, painful, and powerful. Is a tree stronger than concrete? In any given moment, perhaps not. Wood, everyone supposedly knows, isn’t as strong as stone. But over time, that living tissue pushes, grinds, and breaks, shoving its confines aside through its very existence. We will always find a place to grow. It is not even something we need to try to do. We will by merely existing, a fact as sure as our bones.

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