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Open Letter to LGBT Nigerians and Diaspora: Stand Fast, Change is Coming

First off, Nigeria’s new Same Gender Marriage Prohibition bill that has just passed through the senate is not just cruel, it is impractical.

The government is not thinking beyond the sentence itself. 10-14 years imprisonment of all LGBT Nigerias, and supporting organizations and allies? If the government were to move ahead with prosecutions, there really would be no space in the prisons to hold us all.

But this bill isn’t just about targeting LGBT people, is it? There’s already existing language in the constitution prohibiting same sex relationships (with harsh prison punishments, and under Sharia Law, death).

And as for marriage? Who’s trying to get married? Outside of the major cities, LGBT Nigerians live in fear and isolation. They can barely meet each other without being stalked for blackmail, let alone plan gay weddings.

Don’t let the name of this new bill mislead you from the senate’s real intent: quelling the uprising against oppression that they sense happening all across Africa, and the world. From Egypt to Libya to Wall Street, people’s attitudes are changing, their perspective shifting to a new world — corrupt laws are being broken, and hearts are being won. So now, Nigeria’s government is using fear as a tactic to silence anyone (in this case, in Nigeria) from “daring” to raise the issue of discrimination and maltreatment of an entire group of people.

Despite push-back from a lone senator on the redundancy of this bill, there are debates already happening in Nigeria as to how to expand the reach of the bill to criminalize anyone who supports LGBT people; this includes individuals or organizations that engage in activities that express (or directly relate to providing)  support of Nigeria’s large, yet mainly underground queer community.

Here’s the goal: to be able to prosecute human rights organizations who have been long time advocates for LGBT and gender equality in Nigeria. By signing a witch-hunt into law, the bigots in power are attempting to strip LGBT Nigerians of their allies as well, and that is what is most troubling. It is one thing to persecute a group of people — it’s morally reprehensible to cut them off completely from their support networks, and blackmail them by threatening the livelihood of their families and friends who would stand up for them.

Yet, despite the unspeakable cruelty of such a strategy, this blatant human rights violation by the Nigerian senate is just a sign that our corrupt leaders in power — political opportunists disguised as “cultural guardians” — are afraid. 

Yes — they are afraid, of our voices, of our power, of our resiliency. They are afraid of a younger generation of citizens, activists, and diaspora, and our collective belief in a more progressive Nigeria. They are afraid of our growing influence as we gather allies not just from the west, but from our fellow countrymen. They don’t want to see it happen — our liberation — but they will. They want to maintain the status quo — even to our country’s detriment — but they will not succeed. Stand fast, change is coming.

Nigerian LGBT activists — both in the country and outside of it — are standing up and fighting tirelessly for our liberation. They are bravely sharing their stories, organizing political protests to engage Nigeria’s policy makers, building inter-organization coalitions to provide support West Africa’s LGBT youth, advocating for the safety of Nigerian lesbians from sexual assault, and doing much more in their various capacities.

Do not let the applause from naysayers deafen your senses to the stampede of Nigerian activists — both straight and gay — marching onward despite resistance. Do not let the western media’s romanticized pity stories manipulate you into thinking that you are alone. You most certainly are not, and will never be — not while Diaspora and allies around the world are watching. Remember that, and do not abandon hope for fear.

Today, the Nigerian senate drew a line in the sand and seemingly pushed us back, but as sure as the sun rises, we stand on the right side of progress; it is they that are ostracizing themselves from an inevitable future — a Nigeria that doesn’t make scapegoats of its citizens for the sake of snubbing western threats, a Nigeria that doesn’t condone sexual violence against women as punishment for not conforming to gender roles, a Nigeria that is free of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, a Nigeria that we can all be proud of.

Remember this day in history: Tuesday November 29th, 2011. The senate rang a bell when they passed that bill. Now, let us answer, resolved. Let us prepare our spirits for battle. Let us make sure that change heeds their call.

Not Your Ordinary Thanksgiving: Reflections on Nigeria’s Anti-LGBT Bill (from a Gay Nigerian)

Today, as many of my friends await for their family members to gather in communal love and celebration for Thanksgiving, I’m sitting alone in my room, glued to my near dying laptop, awaiting some very important news. I’m monitoring Twitter, Facebook, and obsessively trolling the web for information. The scenario is eerily familiar; the last holiday I celebrated like this happened almost exactly two months ago.

As a queer Nigerian, October marks two very important occasions: Nigeria’s Independence Day (October 1st) and LGBT History month.So, on the first day of October this year, I found myself searching all morning for content on the web that celebrated both of these occasions. After just a few minutes, I got my wish. But it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped it would be. Glaring at me from a Google search page was the link to an article that read, “Nigeria Celebrates 50 Years of Independence with New Anti-Homosexuality Bill”.

Flash forward almost two months later, and I am on the edge of my seat: The Nigerian Senate is voting on this bill today.

Nigeria’s Criminal Code already criminalizes homosexuality, punishing offenders by imprisonment of up to 14 years (and under Sharia Law, death by stoning) for acts that go “against the order of nature.” But this new bill, officially named the “Same Gender Marriage Prohibition Bill”, proposes further criminalization by targeting same gender marriages; punishment of an additional three years imprisonment for anyone (including friends, family, churches and supportive organizational entities) that takes part in the marriage of two people of the same gender.

Will this new bill be the final proof that Nigeria has joined the ranks of Ghana, Uganda, Malawi, and other African countries to silence and/or purge its LGBT citizens? Is my country really taking steps to make it impossible for LGBT Nigerians (including me) to live peacefully by now threatening the lives of our families and friends as well? Nigeria isn’t a culture of individualists. Self-sufficiency is encouraged to the extent that it doesn’t turn into  obstinate independence unlike in many other western cultures.

In the United States, for instance, I often hear LGBT people talk about dissociating from their families, becoming financially independent, and thus being capable of living their lives as “out and proud” gay people with relatively minimal consequence. This is not the case in places like Nigeria, where the culture is inherently community-centric. People rely very heavily on their relationships with other people to access even the most basic of resources. No one exists in a silo; someone must vouch for you. Hence, a bill that threatens an individuals’ personal relationships will immediately lead to social ostracization, and reduce their capacity for survival by limiting their access to crucial support networks.

We’ve seen some of the effects of this with so many homeless LGBT youth forced to live in the streets, and are especially impacted during the holidays. Think of this plight replicated in Africa, under way harsher environmental and economical conditions. For LGBT people living in Nigeria — young and adult alike — this bill is no less harsh than a death sentence.

Because it’s Thanksgiving,  my American friends keep telling me to be grateful that I live here, in the land of the free… sure, where LGBT asylum seekers are treated like pet projects for donor hungry non-profits looking to up their diversity quotient.

My friends who live in Nigeria continually send me references to out gay celebrities in Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry to placate me — as though we should assume that the perceived eccentricities of the entertainment industry and/or privilege of upper class gay people to “be themselves” is a luxury that is also readily granted to poorer and more marginalized populations.

Despite these well-intentioned messages, I’m just really finding it hard to deal with the reality of what this bill could mean if it should come to pass — not just for some distant, far away community of women in South Africa, or group of activists in Uganda, but for me. Not a “hashtag” on Twitter, or tag on BBC —  me, my partner, my parents, my family, my friends. This bill will permanently exile me from my home.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, can I say to you all that I am indeed Thankful to be here? That I am Thankful to be far away from harm, from the threat of violence and imprisonment just for being who I am? I would like to, but today, I can’t.

Today, as I await further news, I feel like an abandoned child who belongs nowhere — it has nothing to do with not having a place to eat Turkey.

Today, I feel like a foreigner in my own apartment, though this is as close to home as the American Dream has granted me.

Today, I remember that I do not live here on this land by choice. I was not part of the genocide of the people of North America; I do not wish to watch genocide be signed into action from the safe harbor of my colonizers. I do not wish to occupy a land that is not my own. I do not wish to be turned into a refugee. I cannot be thankful for circumstances that permanently exile me from my country. I wish to return home. I just wish to return home.

So, at your tables today, I ask that you please pray for me — for all of us. And be thankful that you have a safe space to love, on behalf of so many who cannot.

Happy Thanksgiving.

PSA For Transgender Awareness Week: Transgender Doesn’t (Always) Equal Transitioning

About a month ago, I wrote a write on my tumblr account in response to numerous inquiries from people right after I disclosed that I was gradually accepting a shift in my gender identity (i.e. feeling way more masculine than I do feminine) about when I would be transitioning. Na wa oh.

So here it is for those of you who didn’t get to read my Rant — Transgender Doesn’t Always Equal Transitioning:

I don’t even feel like I have to explain myself further than this. If I do, I’m talking to you, and I leave you to google, wikipedia, investigate, get some god damn perspective on class privilege.

Not everyone has the means to transition — that includes dollars, family support, community etc. And even beyond means, not every transgender person wants to medically transition.

No one’s trans* identity should be called into question simply because the path laid before them has been dominated and dictated by white trans male coddling media.

Just like not all people of color, lesbians, muslims, immigrants, women etc look the same, not all transgender people look the same.

And just so I’m clear, not every transgender person looks like Chaz Bono.

If one more person asks me ‘when’ I plan to transition, or asks me how I can affirm my gender without having transitioned, or suggests that I’m confused simply because I don’t go by ‘he’ pronouns all the time (as if femininity hasn’t always been badass enough to hold and birth masculinity in the first place), I will explode / burst into flames.

How’s that for hormonal.

I was obviously feeling quite angry and frustrated when I wrote that post. It lasted only a while, and have since then been replaced by a nagging obsession to answer the question: what would transitioning look like for me — a queer Nigerian (who still has fantasies of moving back home permanently)? I promise to attempt to address this more fully in a blog post very soon.

To be continued…

An Immigrant’s Halloween: Blackface, Ghetto Parties, and Disney Princesses

Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make. But before I tell you my secret, you have to promise not to laugh at me. Okay? Alright, good. Here it goes:

I’m thirty years old and I’ve never once dressed up for Halloween.

There, I said it. Is that a big deal? Apparently, it is. I had someone go “Aww, you must have had a rough childhood!” and pout at me the other day. I felt so immigrant, in the way I’m sure many immigrants would understand. Kinda like the way you mispronounced words until someone finally corrected you, and you wondered how long you’d been mispronouncing them and why no one had ever said anything. Poor African. Funny accent. How unfortunate. Don’t laugh. Let her keep talking… and no Halloween? Oy. But I digress.

I’m from a place in the world (Nigeria) where black magic isn’t just found in the movies; stories of husbands attempting to poison their wives in order to sacrifice them to some Babalawo that promised riches in return aren’t told around a campfire; they’re relayed with the seriousness of a child kidnapping (which happened often for similar reasons) and a firm warning for everyone to keep praying for protection because you never know what spells, juju, or whatever else someone may be chanting about you.

Where I come from, Halloween only happened in the classrooms of white/foreign-run primary schools in which little white girls in swinging ponytails dressed up as sparkling fairies, bright-colored caterpillars, wealthy blond princesses, and an occasional culturally appropriated icon — Nefertiti, Cleopatra, a Geisha. Their mothers would sometimes bronze their faces with brown makeup — bought specially for the occasion? —  to make the costume appear more “authentic”. I remember wishing that I could be Nefertiti, or Cleopatra… they were beautiful African goddess, but usually portrayed as light-skinned (which both the cute mixed heritage boys and dark-skinned Nigerian boys at my primary school seemed to like).

I was one of the darkest skinned girls in my classroom, and though I had really long hair, I knew that I would never be able to get it to fall (or sway) like the swinging ponytail leads that dominated our school plays. I also knew that my parents would never have spent money on shiny gold material and Egyptian arm bracelets for a holiday they believed was just about “white people celebrating witchcraft”, so I looked forward to attending school in the United States, where I could fully immerse myself in Halloween, just like in the movies; I’d actually get to see, touch, and carve a real pumpkin, trick or treat without worrying about being kidnapped and sold for parts to juju people, and finally wear a witch costume — complete with a tall hat, green face, and yellow teeth — without teachers accusing me of selling my soul to the devil. I had such simple aspirations.

But during my first semester of prep school in the US, the costumes I saw were less childhood coloring book and a little more… R-Rated. My first Halloween weekend was freezing cold. Okay, it was just 60 degrees, but it felt like the Himalayas to me back then. So, there I was wrapped unfashionably and unfestively in heavy fleece layers of brown and black that resembled a moving laundry heap, while my classmates pranced around in adult-sized furry onesies and hormonal teenager garb. I remember the long line that stretched like a Noah’s arc procession of adult fairytale creatures from the the student assembly hall into the common grounds outside.

I recall the familiarity of the swinging blond ponytails — it seemed they ruled playgrounds even tens of thousands of miles away from my home across the Atlantic. I remember noting, however, that the innocence of their white privilege had re-branded itself post-puberty as intentionally provocative personas — naughty school girls, beauty queens, and virgin cheerleaders. The “pretty girls” of the world who once flit around small classrooms in bright pink Disney princess frocks, now strut down hallways in crimson lipstick and black fingernails, wearing ultra short booty shorts, pleated mini skirts that exposed un-aged butt cheeks, and baby Ts that said things like “Cherry Pop” and “Eat me, I’m Sweet”. Needless to say, to an African immigrant who was still trying to make sense of her surroundings, I was pretty sure that my parents would have placed Halloween on their Things That Will Destroy Us with Shame list, right at the top with drugs, prostitution, and MTV’s Spring Break.

So I searched to find space for myself on the flip-side of risque; the kids who fell outside the “cool” crowd — the politically inclined, the art geeks, the emo goths — all seemed to embrace Halloween as an excuse to make bold statements (usually against the dominant vanilla school culture) about who they were. I could have been down with this idea, but the only costume themes I surmised warranted presenting oneself as alien and/or depressed: dead presidents, political revolutionaries, witty takes on vegetables and/or fruit, and apathetic versions of “just myself since I’m always weird and scary anyway”. In college, however, costumes did more than make statements, they pushed buttons, and at times, caused so much controversy, the dean needed to send an email to quell the uprising of a student protest.

For instance, in my freshman year of college, a group of white (and queer) kids thought it would be funny to throw a “ghetto” party for Halloween, for which people were required to dress up as pimps, hos, drug dealers, and crackheads. Even “gangstuh” rap music was promised (by a white hipster DJ no less — Boston, don’t you dare act surprised).

That same weekend, a white friend of mine turned heads when he dressed up as Bob Marley, in full on brown body paint. I looked up the meaning of “blackface” after being the only person of color at the party in which he debuted the outfit, and having to smile as white people kept stealing glances at me for a reaction. But that experience doesn’t even compare to the party I attended the following day (80s themed) that included a room full of tall white guys wearing black Afro with pick combs in them, an even more R-Rated version of the swinging ponytails (now barenaked playboy bunnies), and an obnoxious prick that kept following me around all evening, demanding to know what I was supposed to be and drunkenly proclaiming that his Afro was bigger than mine. That experience wasn’t awkward — it was downright infuriating.

So, I vowed to wash my hands of the political farce that had become Halloween, and avoid the entire fiasco like the plague each year, because quite frankly, I had plenty of opportunities to remain angry at the stupid shit that ignorant white people said to me throughout the year — whether about my accent, my blackness, my African-ness, etc.  Too much of the other 364 days of the year contained insensitive, xenophobic, culturally appropriating, and downright racist incidents; I deserved at least one day off.

Incidentally, whenever I did entertain the idea of venturing out on Halloween weekend, I would fantasize about being reverse-offensive, culturally subversive, and extremely political — the angry fucking black woman that showed up with a blond wig and all white body paint talking in a valley girl accent, chewing gum with my mouth open, and humping the bar stool for attention (cause that’s how offensive it becomes when Halloween costumes insult entire cultures). One year, I actually thought of a black T-shirt for myself that said, “All the Bob Marley Costumes Were Taken by White People.” But plotting my reverse-offensiveness tactics for Halloween weekend didn’t make dealing with it any easier — it just kept making me angry. And who wants to spend a weekend that is supposed to be fun, angry? I don’t know what’s gotten into me this year (oh right, I just turned thirty), but I find myself yearning for the experiences I almost had in my youth.

For the first time in my life, for Halloween, I want to dress up, go trick or treating, and pose with a wicked pumpkin. I want to buy a sword and defend my woman’s honor like the dashing prince I always pretended to be when I was a kid and my siblings were asleep; I’d beg my girl to dress up as Xena Warrior princess so she can continually reject my grandiose displays of machismo, but make out with me in the car train when no one is looking.

I want to be Elphaba from Wicked, and represent the experience of every black girl that was called ugly by their white school teachers, who felt green with envy over the fact that they weren’t pretty white princesses with glittered wings and minions, yet who discovered their inner magic, their inner will to defy gravity and lead uprisings that made the world better, and less vanilla. And goddamnit, I want to be Storm. Yes, Storm. I know ti’s cliche — a black girl wanting to be Storm, but I don’t care. Storm was the one African superhero I had as a child. I woke up every Saturday to watch her kick ass in the X-men cartoon series. I still pretend Angela Basset played her (and that Halle Berry didn’t completely destroy my favorite afrofeminist heroine with her weak ass performance — ugh, I can’t even talk about it). I should be able to want to be a black female character on Halloween without worrying that I’m being ‘typical’, because goddamnit, Storm kicks ass!

But now what? After thirty years of getting no practice being creative for Halloween, I am stumped for ideas for a costume. Moreover, I’m no longer limited to the middle class earnings of my parents, but to the emptiness of my do-gooder wallet; purchasing a costume isn’t an option. And even if it were, there’s no way I could pull off a costume a la carte e.g. the latest, Nathalie Portman’s Black Swan, the classic Marilyn Monroe, or sexy swinging ponytail school girl. And yes, yes, I know Disney finally gave us poor little black girls a princess (and a racially ambiguous frog, I mean prince), but I’m not twelve anymore so I’m not sure that’s going to work for me.

Am I the only person of color and/or immigrant in this predicament? I’m still doing some research, but in the meantime, I’d really like to know: What costume choices are available to people of color on Halloween (besides Barack and Michelle Obama)?

[box type=”shadow”]Is race still a hot button issue during Halloween? Or is everyone just being way too sensitive? I’d love to hear what you think. Meanwhile, I am thinking about compiling a list of Top 10 Halloween Costume Ideas for POC, so please comment with your suggestions, both for the post, and for me, ‘cause this immigrant African girl is on a mission to get some candy this year.


For Suicide Prevention Day, I am Calling for A Self-Care Revolution

When I first realized it was Suicide Prevention Day, I was excited about having an excuse to create this post. I feel very strongly about mental health, particularly as it goes unaddressed in school systems and affects younger people. But, more recently, as I reflect on my own personal experiences, I’ve become very concerned with mental health (and suicide prevention) as it affects community leaders too.

Around this time last year, an NYC-based LGBT activist and youth leader,  Joseph Jefferson committed suicide. I remember the feeling of shock many people expressed at this news. The media and accompanying community response had been so focused on addressing the surge of youth suicides that had been occuring; almost overnight, it seemed people had forgotten that young people aren’t the only ones who struggle with coming out, depression, and the challenges of reconciling one’s identity with the world around them. That an adult, who was also a community leader and youth worker, would take his own life was a hard reality for people to swallow.

The news of Joseph’s suicide hit close to home. I thought about the past five years of my life as a community organizer, and all those moments, nights, months that I’d “gone under” and no one knew about it. That was no one’s fault but my own; it’s often much easier to avoid internal problems by staying busy helping everyone else. Community organizing had become my way of avoiding the deep feelings of isolation I’ve felt on and off for most of my childhood and adult life. But then again, it’s not like the culture of the community I was a part of encouraged this kind of disclosure. How many Nigerians or people of color do you see talking openly about depression? The very thought of posing the topic activates the middle-aged African woman’s voice inside my head: “Depression? What’s that? Ojare, there are people with real problems — starving on the street, no where to live, and you, you’re talking about depression??” *insert teeth-sucking here*

I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I can remember, but had never really learned to talk about it. But when the country’s focus shifted to creating safer (LGBT-friendly) spaces for our youth, I realized I had a responsibility to speak, and finally break my silence. I wrote about my coming out and attempted suicide in a piece that was published last year.

However, as I was reflecting on Suicide Prevention Day this morning, I came to the realization that I’ve only ever written and talked about my experience with depression and mental health in the past tense; like it was no longer a reality for me to whisper under my breath ten times a day, “one day at a time”; like every – single – winter, I don’t spend weeks in my pajamas, without the energy or will to eat or even shower, to the point that I lose track of what day it is; like I still don’t have mornings when I wake up and think “I just can’t do it today.”

Food for Thought: In the US, suicide takes the lives of over 30,000 people each year. For young people 15-24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death. The strongest risk factor for suicide is depression. There are twice as many deaths due to suicide as there are for HIV/AIDS. And men, are at a higher risk than women. You would think that the LGBT community (in particular, communities of color) would make it a priority to address the stigma around mental health. But so far, the silence remains.

I myself was inspired by a brave activist’s vulnerable speech about her personal struggle with drug addiction at a dyke march several years ago. Since then, I’ve made it a point to project that kind of transparency, openness — humanness — into every part of my life in which I have influence. For instance, I believe it’s extremely important for someone in my position to talk frequently and openly about mental health (and how to practice self-care). I intentionally refrain from romanticizing community leadership to others who have been inspired by my work and make it clear that this seemingly endless supply of energy I have is only possible because I’ve learned how to really take care of myself. Nevertheless, the fact is, as a collective group, activists simply do not talk about mental health enough. We spend so much time trying to maintain our images as pillars of strength and resiliency, “empowering” other people, that I think we ourselves often forget that we are not superhuman.

So here’s a reminder: Life as a leader can be very rewarding, but it can also be very lonely and taxing on your spirit. We’re sponges for inspiration, awe, disdain, envy, disrespect, all of it. In fact, just by being visible, people automatically think they have full access to who you are, the right to comment on your personal life, spit at your values and beliefs. A good friend of mine once said to me, “We’re not paid nearly enough to be treated like celebrities.” I laughed but the statement has stayed with me; it haunts me anytime I read a tabloid about Britney Spears, when a politician’s quotes are taken out of context, when people say really mean things about Obama… They forget that these leaders — these people are human beings, who feel and have emotions just as they do. For some reason, when you’re in the spotlight, people can’t see the blood flowing through your veins illuminated; you become a symbol of something, an issue they support or rally against, an obstacle, an institution. And when they want to take you down, it is no fun.

My way of dealing with the ups and downs that occur in this path has been to set up very clear boundaries for myself. I practice self-care religiously and have adopted other long-term strategies for maintaining a healthy mindset during both the standing ovation and the onslaught of criticism. They don’t work all the time, and they won’t work for everybody, but they work often and well enough for me. And just like with every other type of health care, every little bit counts.

Warning, PSA to follow:

Maintaining good mental health is key to continuing our work (and not constantly burning out); so even if you’re a martyr that would rather care for a community before yourself; just think of it this way, you in bad shape means your community is in bad shape.

Over the next few weeks, as my way of contributing to the discussion about mental health, I will be sharing my own personal tips, strategies, and philosophies with you, my readers. My hope is that some of what I share will resonate enough with you that you pick and choose which tips and practices to apply to your own life. I doubt that this post — or the ones to come — will make even a small dent in the work we have to do as a community to combat the stigma around mental health. But just as with any kind of daily health care routine, I am positive that these tips, practiced often enough, will turn into the long-term healthy behaviors our community needs to heal itself.

So join me in the self-care revolution. I encourage you to share/post your own tips as well, so that we can all support each other as we strive for collective community health. Let us say no to the martyr complexes that plague activist communities. Let us say no to setting a bad example for others through unhealthy workaholic tendencies. We can change the face of activism from being a worn-out, on-the-verge-of-burnout humble activist that complains all the time to an energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic armor of healthy mind, body, and spirit! We would all be better able to support each other if we could learn to better take care of ourselves. It won’t happen overnight, but we can get there…  as long as we take it one day at a time.

[box type=”shadow”] Questions for You, Readers: — Please Comment Below: What self-care practices are currently part of your daily routine? When and how did you come up with them? If you don’t have a routine (yet), how often do you schedule time to check in with your mental health? Are there current stigmas around mental health in your circle, network, community? What are they? How have they influenced your mental health care overall? [/box]

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