Friday, 8 October 2010

A Nigerian who's "queer till I quench", but can't go back to the 'motherland'


By Z Emezi

In Africa, when we see any news or read any stories on LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transsexual) people, it is usually an analytical piece either from a religious, sociological  or even psychological analytic perspective. Sometimes we see “undercover” pieces where reporters visit a hidden gay bar or church. When Z approached us to share her story, it struck a chord. A young lady, living her life and now she shares her story with

“Ah, ah, now. Why won’t you give me your number? See how Naija girls like to play hard to get!” I’m being chatted up by a Yoruba guy in a Nigerian restaurant I used to work at in Brooklyn, and although I’m trying to politely brush him off, it’s not doing much good.

“Me, I no dey play hard to get,” I counter. “This one na impossible to get.” He scoffs and continues trying to persuade me, until I hit him with the final blow.

“I don’t date men.” Omo, I wish I could have captured the stunned disbelief on his face. In fact, he refused to believe me, stating that he had never met a gay African before, let alone a Nigerian. I’m aware that we are mostly a silent closeted demographic, and meeting an out queer Nigerian is like happening upon a museum-worthy specimen. I grew up in Aba until I finished secondary school, and I never met a single gay Nigerian or heard my friends ever mention it (I also went to a private day school instead of the all girls boarding school my father wanted to put me in…perhaps my experience of gay Nigerians would have been different otherwise).

I wasn’t always as out as I am now, mostly because it took me this long to pinpoint this aspect of my identity. Looking back at my childhood, I don’t feel as though there were any signs that I would turn out to be queer. I hated dresses and wished I could be a boy, true, but I also hated sports and loved Barbies. It was in college that I first felt an attraction to women, yet I retained my straight identity even after kissing a girl (or two/three) because I wasn’t ready to accept that part of myself, especially considering the culture I was raised in. I was also sure that my closest friends would dismiss my attractions as a ‘phase’ or not take them seriously. I dismissed the attractions easily, preferring to remain in a state of firm denial.

Ironically, it was my ex-husband who supported me enough for me to have the courage to come out as bisexual, and later, queer (even though my preferences led to us parting ways). One of the most frequent (and annoying) questions I get is people wanting to know why I bothered to get married when I was identifying as bisexual at the time. That question confuses me to no end. Why wouldn’t I get married to the man I loved? Is marriage forbidden unless you’re 100% straight? I was out to my ex before we even got engaged, so he was completely aware of my orientation and it didn’t change a thing about how he felt about me. He also knew that there was a risk that I would stop being attracted to men at some point (in the same way there’s a risk that you’ll fall off an okada or get hit by a bus, etc etc) and he still had tears of joy in his eyes when we exchanged vows. He was one of my best friends for years, one of the first people I turned to when I first acknowledged I was attracted to women, one of the first to hear about when I kissed a girl, you get the idea.

When the time came for us to separate, it was difficult for him to lose me, but at the same time he acknowledged that there was really nothing we could do. He told me, “I can’t ask you not to be queer, that would be like asking you not to be black.” Both families were very taken aback by my coming out and the break-up, but he was one of the most supportive people during the transition, for as long as he could.

The other person was my best friend, who’s both Nigerian and queer-friendly. She constantly pushed me to be happy and helped me realize that there’s nothing wrong in being who I am- having her as a support system has been crucial in every step of my journey in coming out as queer. I occasionally identify as gay, but I generally call myself queer, never a lesbian. The reason is because I’m attracted to not just women, but also transgender and genderqueer individuals (Google can be your friend in this)- basically, people who don’t see themselves as being female. In fact, I identify as genderqueer myself, which is even harder to explain than being queer and Nigerian, so the term ‘lesbian’ just doesn’t fit me.

I came out to my close friends, my siblings and my mother earlier this year when my ex-husband and I separated, and I’m on my way to coming out to my father. It was actually my second coming-out- I had come out as bisexual to them several months before. My sister’s reaction the first time was hilarious, she said “Oh, you’re bisexual? I thought you were a lesbian.” My brother proceeded to give me tips on how to pick up women. My mother read my old blog where I talked about my feelings for women and sent me emails trying to get me to stop talking so much, concerned and uncomfortable. The second time around, the wahala was mostly because my queer identity ended my marriage, and those two facts combined were quite upsetting. My siblings didn’t really care who I was attracted to as long as I was happy, and my mother felt it was a choice (which it’s not, by the way), so she had a harder time adjusting.

My father’s reaction will probably be intense, but hopefully, will calm down with time (even if ‘time’ in this case is a couple of years). I’ve heard drastic stories from other queer Nigerians about their family’s reaction to their coming out- from being called an abomination to being kicked out of their homes, to being disowned for the next decade. It’s understandable why a lot of queer Nigerian choose to remain unseen and on the down low, really. In my case, I chose the opposite route. I’m blatantly out online, choosing to blog and talk about my experience as a queer and genderqueer Nigerian. I perform in male drag under the stage name Eke, and I don’t bother to hide my identity. I also happen to have a relatively understanding family, for the most part, although I’m not entirely sure how many members of my extended family are aware of my identity.

Honestly, it can be a little unnerving to be so open about who I am, but it’s important to me to be visible because then other queer Nigerians can come across something I wrote or performed and know that they are not alone. There’s a lot of rampant homophobia in the Naija community, and knowing that there are other Nigerians like me has given me immense comfort and strength, which I hope others can share in. Hopefully, people’s attitudes towards LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) individuals, especially in the Naija community, will become more accepting and less negative. As it stands now, I can’t even envision myself going back to my motherland and living openly as I do now, for fear of what repercussions that might have. I like being alive and not in a prison, thank you very much. Hearing accounts of what’s being done to LGBTQ folk in Africa (eg, in Uganda and Malawi) hurts my heart, to be honest- to know that some of my people would gladly see me dead is a chilling thought.

I’ve chosen to be open and honest about who I am, instead of hiding aspects of my identity in order to make other people comfortable. I was born in Umuahia and raised in Aba. My preferred pronouns are she/he/they. I have an addiction to orange Nutri-C. I’m a drag king. I wear eye-liner. I bind my chest and wear men’s clothes. I prefer pounded yam to eba or amala. I prefer to not date men. I am not ashamed to be who I am, regardless of whether others approve of it. I am blessed and loved, and I eat my roasted plantain with salted palm oil and pepper.

My passport is green and my lover’s a woman.


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