Redefining Gender | ‘The Black Flamingo’ by Dean Atta [Book Review]

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When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why I was directed towards the pink isle at Toys R Us. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to be a Boy Scout like my brother with a wolf name and instead was a Spark where everything was pink and rainbows. I couldn’t understand why I was separated into the group of girls where they played games about cooking and caring for plastic children and putting on fancy dresses to go nowhere.

I couldn’t understand why I had to do these things I didn’t like. The only answer I got was “because you’re a girl.”

I couldn’t understand what that had to do with anything.

It’s been a long time since I read a book in verse but I honestly fell in love with this book so quickly. It’s not just how clearly I could see something of myself in the story about Michael getting a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle instead of a Barbie for his birthday. It is one of those novels that I find compelling from a narrative and character standpoint that also has gorgeous word-play.

You know a book is good when you get to the acknowledgements and exclaim “No, give me more story!”

Length: 360 pages

Published August 8th 2019 by Hodder Children’s Books

Genre: Poetry/Young Adult

Goodreads Summary

A boy comes to terms with his identity as a mixed-race gay teen – then at university he finds his wings as a drag artist, The Black Flamingo. A bold story about the power of embracing your uniqueness. Sometimes, we need to take charge, to stand up wearing pink feathers – to show ourselves to the world in bold colour.

I’m Just a Man and I Want to Wear a Dress

Men are sandcastles made out of pebbles and the bucket is patriarchy: if you remove it, we fear we won’t be able to hold ourselves together, we pour in cement to fill the gaps to make ourselves concrete constructions.

Recently I’ve been helping out a friend by looking after her kids while she’s at work and one day her son (who’s 3 years old) said that he wanted his mom to buy him a dress so he could be a girl. Far be it for me to correct this small human and tell him that dresses don’t have to be for girls but what was more worrisome was that his sister replied that their dad said the boy couldn’t have a dress because he was a boy.

I looked at that little boy and said “you can wear whatever you want as long as you’re comfortable in it,” and then I painted his nails pink partly because he wanted me to and partly because I knew it would bother his dad.

Because what clothing and colours are assigned to which gender is something we made up. It’s arbitrary.

The pink isn’t what makes the flamingo–the same as painting my childhood bedroom pink didn’t make me enjoy dressing up as a princess more than a Jedi (I mean, who doesn’t want to be a space wizard-samurai?).

And I think that’s what made the quote in the header standout so much for me. I’ve never had a problem with being labelled “a girl” nor would I claim I wasn’t delighted with my pink room. But, like Michael, I wanted the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be regardless of gender or expectations.

I love how this book dives into the idea that being gay doesn’t mean you have to be flamboyant. Dressing in drag isn’t the same as transgender. And that gender identity and sexuality are complex and no one can tell you how you feel except yourself.

I Wanna Be Fierce

I’ve been friendly. I’ve been frightened. I’ve been fake. But I’ve never been fierce. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve been forgotten. I’ve been forgiving. But I’ve never been fierce. I wanna be fabulous. I wanna be flamboyant. I wanna flaunt what I’ve got. I want to be fierce.

As someone who is mostly passive and tries to avoid any real conflict by any means necessary, this quote hits home.

There’s something intoxicating about becoming a character who has an unflinching confidence–something that drew me into doing theatre when I was in high school. To be up on a stage and be given permission to completely change who people see you as without any of the backlash–or at least less of it.

This book is a fairy tale  in which I am the prince  and the princess. I am  the king and the queen.  I am my own wicked  witch and fairy godmother.  This book is a fairy tale  in which I’m cursed  and blessed by others.  But, finally, I am the fairy  finding my own magic.

But I also think that this book does a good job of showing how fearless people within the queer community are. I come from a forward-thinking and endlessly loving family and even I struggle to be authentically myself around them. To wear their “otherness” on the outside and presenting it to strangers is something I think people don’t recognize for the bravery that it shows.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is honestly one of those books that I just have too much I want to talk about. The kind of book where I just want everyone I know to read it so I can have intense conversations about its nuance. Alas, I’ll just have to settle for gushing about it on the internet.

Even now, with a week between when I finished reading it and writing this review, I still get excited about reading back passages and remembering scenes. It’s a beautiful book and I hope it will find its way into the hands of others who will enjoy it as much as I did.

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