Browse Category: Special Series

Love and Afrofeminism: Gender Roles and First Dates, Who Pays?

This post is part of my guest blog series, Love and Afrofeminism, for BITCH Magazine.

glasses and a check on a restaurant tableThe other day, my girlfriend and I went out to dinner. In case you didn’t know, I’m currently traveling through Southern Africa for six months volunteering my social media training to African women and LGBT organizations. The anticipation of such a long separation had thrown us into a date night binge; we picked a new bar, restaurant, and cheesy romantic comedy nearly every single night ’till I finally left last weekend. On this particular evening, we’d opted for dinner and drinks at one of our favorite restaurants, and had about three margaritas each.

I’m going to pause here—you need a little bit of background.

I’ve been a do-gooder for as long as I can remember, but started doing it full time just a few years ago after the recession (yes, I’m one of the lucky folk who gladly used the recession as an excuse to my parents whenever they asked me how I’d planned to use my MIT degree; save the world instead). Embracing my passion for carving out a career for myself in philanthropy meant some serious lifestyle changes; I had to cut back on impromptu (read: expensive) date nights “just because,” I couldn’t decide to walk into a store and buy my girlfriend some earrings, and at one point, she actually started giving me “lunch money” so I wouldn’t dip into my savings. Even better, at one point, I had no savings and was completely depending on my partner in crisis.

Here’s the thing—I felt humbled and grateful for every minute of that experience, even when it got hard; one time I locked myself in my room and sobbed for hours after learning that she’d skipped out on getting her hair cut—the ONE way she treats herself each month—because she’d been trying to save money. On top of that, at the back of my mind was this nagging truth that my parents had sent me all the way to the US, given me everything they had so we could “make it,” and here I was bootstrapping as an entrepreneur, trying to make it in the lucrative field of philanthropy.

You may wonder, at this point, why I’m telling you all of this.

So many people dream about having the kind of partner I have; the kind of person that will support you through thick and thin because they actually believe in you; the kind of woman who will deny herself the right to look and feel “pretty”—skip out on getting her hair cut, even when the ends are sleeping, and you’re too much of a jackass to notice her non-answers when you tease her about it—just so she can support you. In the (many) moments when I doubted if I was choosing the right path/career for myself, and would talk about getting a “real” job, her assurance and unconditional support gave me so much gratitude; she was my rock, the pillar of our household, and our relationship. So, every single time some “boi” makes a sexist joke about bringing in the bacon for “my woman” or a straight dude presumes to know who “wears the pants” in the relationship, or a waiter assumes I’m the one that’s paying the bill (even after she asks for it), I flip the f**k out.

So back to that night…

It’s not like I’d never noticed any of these things before. Maybe it was the margaritas, but for whatever reason, on this particular date I got really pissed off after the waiter handed me the bill by default. I thought of the numerous occasions the same thing had happened, but when I’d been able to pay the bill (or at least split it); I hadn’t gotten upset. What did that say about me? Had I, too, been casually supporting a sexist default—the ridiculous notion that masculinity should always pay the bills unless otherwise stated? Why was this default bothering me so much now? Because I wasn’t in a financial position to cover the cost of a really expensive rib-eye, a greedy ordering of sides, and three margaritas each?

I walked away from the our date night wondering this: Is the issue of “who pays the bill” a question of gender or a question of class (or expectations around money)? And, are there cultural nuances that influence how we each respond to that question?

For instance, I grew up (in Nigeria) with the understanding that if someone asked you out—for a friendly lunch, a dinner date, a concert, etc.—they were going to pay for it. Thus, when I dated men (and I got asked out), I did expect them to pay for it. And, when I started dating women (and got over my awkwardness to actually do some asking), I imagined I would pay for it. However, I’ve often been that my expectations around dating (and who gets the bill) are antifeminist. Apparently, a good feminist never upholds patriarchy by expecting her meal will be paid for. But, would a good feminist not also concede that it’s not only respectful, but considerate of the fact that a friendly ask is still an unplanned line item in someone else’s budget?

What if the issue of paying the bills isn’t an issue of gender at all? Certainly, societal expectations and messages around who’s supposed to be doing the courting, providing, and spending are hinged on gender (with masculinity as the provider, and femininity existing mainly to validate that role), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our approach to discussing or dismantling this notion must take on a similar shade. Ultimately, for me, the question about who “pays the bills” shouldn’t be answered from any framework that’s intended to uphold or subvert patriarchy, but from one that upholds empathy and consideration above all else. I would hope that my (femme) partner would pay the bills not just to subvert gender roles, but because she cares about me.

For me, the issue of dating, of who pays the bills or gets the check, shouldn’t continually be discussed as an issue of masculinity vs. femininity, but about who is able to provide and who isn’t; our relationships shouldn’t (just) be about negotiating dominance and submission, but about care and compromise.

But that’s just me. I was curious about what other feminists thought about this—transposing the conversation about dating from the framework of gender oppression to one of love. So, I posed the question to my Twitter followers via an impromptu #afrofemlove discussion, and got quite a variety of responses.

Well, what do you think? Is the matter of who “pays the bill” or “gets the check” an issue of gender roles or of care and consideration? How can we be more loving—more conscious of the patriarchal systems in which we live—while also not abandoning our empathy for the sake of their subversion?

Previously: Introducing a New Series on Love and Afrofeminism!

Image: sdeborja

It Takes a Village: Fikelela Shelter for Orphans with HIV/AIDS Fosters Community Advocacy

“It takes a village to raise a child” comes to mind when I reflect on my visit to the Children’s Center of the Fikelela Aids Project, a program of the Anglican church that fosters orphaned children living with HIV/AIDS.

Villas of Hope

On the morning of my visit, Rachel, the founder and project leader, picked me up from my residence and drove me to Khayelitsha, where the centre is based. On our way to the site (about a 20 min drive from town), we both chatted about our passion for philanthropy. Rachel shared that a friend of hers, Villa, had been the inspiration behind Fikelela; Villa had always dreamed about opening a home for children who were HIV+, called “Villas of Hope”. Villa passed away from AIDS, and Rachel has since kept that dream alive.

Rachel may be the visionary behind Fikelela, but the centre’s operations are heavily driven and overseen by Kate, a social worker by training. Over some very delicious tea, she outlined the program’s vast operations, of which there are many moving parts: child developmental activities led by Kate, play and care by the staff carers, medical services (TB and HIV/AIDS testsing, general health check ups for which they partner with local clinics), and a variety of art activities and fun outings for the children. What struck me about Kate was her unwavering love and commitment to the children; every bottom line she described, whether fundraising, reporting, hiring new staff, working with other non-profits, social works, and government agencies, were all articulated via impact on the children.

Love Fills These Playgrounds

After speaking with Rachel and Kate for a bit, I received a tour of the facilitites. The girls and boys each have their own separate quarters, rooms with individual bunk beds and cribs with their names on them. I arrived during nap time for the younger ones (2-4 yrs), and the older kids were still away in school. I didn’t want to snap photos of the children as they were sleeping, but I did capture one little girl, Nikkie, who had woken up early and wanted everyone passing by to pick her up! Her smile won me over.

I noticed that the bathrooms have towels and toothbrushes labeled with the children’s names. Kate explained that children naturally want to feel special, and thus, in a group as large as theirs (up to 40 children at a time), Fikelela tries to affirm them as individuals in as many ways as possible. The children have a wonderful playground at the back of the centre. They’re even getting a pool very soon, donated by a supporter of Fikelela. They have bikes to ride around on, and indoors, an assortment of toys and games.

I spoke with a few “carers” (women who tend to the children — bathe them, feed them, play with them etc), too, and was moved by how much love they expressed for their work. One of them, Pindiwe, has four children of her own; she works at the centre three days a week, and on the days when she isnt, tends to her children. I accompanied her as she prepared a daily booster (immune system strengthening drink) for a few of the children. When I asked her how she could love so many children at once, she replied, “I just really love children. I can’t help it. They make me so happy.”

More Than a Shelter, A Dedicated Community

A good number of the kids that come to the centre are HIV+. Yet, the centre is literally bubbling over with love, laughter, and joy. The few children that I saw awake were smiling and happy. The staff were themselves upbeat and positive. And, in fact, Kate explained that they hardly ever disclose which of the children are HIV+. “Everyone is treated the same. If I wear gloves for one, I wear gloves for all. If I kiss one, I kiss them all. Visitors who come in to start mourning are asked to leave. I don’t need them bringing in negative energy. My children are happy.”

“It takes a village to raise a child” comes to mind when I reflect on my visit. From the driver who shuffles the children back and forth from school, picks and drops off ARV meds etc, the carers that tend to the children (change their diapers, feed them, lead playtime activities), the social workers that visit to facilitate developmental activities (so that the children can eventually become better and be reunited with their families, not just physically, but emotionally), and the volunteers who stop by to help (cleaning, painting, projects for the children etc), Fikelela is more than just a centre for orphans; it’s the hub of a truly extraordinary ecosystem of childcare.

Everyone working there spoke frankly about the love and passion they have for the work they do, but were also realistic and forthcoming about challenges; despite having a stellar reputation with the department of social services — who are constantly recommending them — it’s clear that Fikelela is an organization that is constantly pushing themselves to accomplish even more than they have, for the sake of the children fortunate enough to be in their care.

In the words of their founder, Rachel, “… thinking about the millions impacted by HIV/AIDS, it’s easy to get discouraged. Making the differences in the lives of the one or two is what keeps me going.”

Villa would be so proud.

If you’d like to learn more about Fikelela, visit their website, or donate to them via their profile on GlobalGiving.

Africans for Africa Project Update: Outreach Means Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Today, I am off to visit my first non-profit — Fikelela’s Children’s Centre, a rural township short-term shelter which places young orphans (of mothers who have died from AIDS) in foster homes. I was lucky to secure a ride from the project leader, as Khayelitsha, where it’s based, is far from the city.

I’m realizing that many of the non-profits I’m visiting are in some very remote areas and it’s going to take more $$ than I imagined to get to them. For instance, it will cost me $75-100 to get to the MOSAIC Training, Service, and Healing Centre for Women (an NGO with a specific focus on preventing and reducing abuse and domestic violence, particularly for women and youth living in disadvantaged communities) from the city centre by Taxi; I’ve been advised not to take the bus (only a taxi that will wait).

It’s funny, no matter how much you plan and budget, you can never anticipate the true cost of living (or traveling) anywhere until you arrive. Now that I’ve been here for a few days, and have gotten on the phone with folks I’ve been emailing back and forth for the past month, it’s clear that they’re either farther away (or getting to them will be less straight forward) than I’d imagined. Mind you, this isn’t the case for everyone. But it is for enough that I am now being forced to be extra conservative with the funds I do have.

My fundraising campaign has done so well — raised over $9K — but before the campaign is over (by July 30, 6 days from now), I am going to need to reach $10K to be on the safe side. Remember, this trip is costing me well over $15K to plan. I’ll be gone for 6 months; that’s 6 months worth of living expenses outside of your home. I’ll need all the help I can get.

You all are the reason I made it here in the first place. I have my savings, so I’m sure I can manage quite nicely till the funds raised from my campaign are disbursed in mid-August. But given that transportation to rural areas (in which many of the non-profits I’m visiting are based) is more expensive than I imagined, I’ll definitely need more relief funds than I’d originally anticipated.

Most importantly, I do NOT want to have to tell anyone that I can’t make it to visit them based on lack of funds. They are already used to hearing the white people that are based in Cape Town constantly talk about how “dangerous and unsafe” their communities are; I won’t be another voice that echoes that. I’m going where I’ve been invited, even if it costs a little extra to get there.

Would you be able to donate $10-50 more to make sure I can reach all the non-profits I promised I’d visit? With 140 Love Warriors who have contributed already, reaching the $10K mark is definitely a possibility; if everyone donated $20 more dollars, we’d surpass that goal. So let’s make it happen. We’re only $855 away!

Contribute one more time to help finish what we started:

Let’s do this :)

Lessons Learned from a Straight African Woman: Homophobia is UnChristian

Dear Readers,

A few weeks ago, I shared a short photo essay about my best friend, ChiChi. We’d been estranged for four years due to my sexuality and her Christian faith, but then recently reunited to find our friendship changed for the better.

Not only has it been as if we’d never been apart, but she’s now also one of my biggest cheerleaders; she donated over a thousand dollars to support my Africans for Africa project (via which I’m traveling through Southern Africa for 6 months, training African women’s and LGBT organizations in social media, communications, and storytelling).

When I published the piece, ChiChi was very moved, and told me that the only way she felt she could adequately respond was to write something for my blog. Hence, I’m so delighted to share her post with all of you.

All too often, ally voices are regarded with a deep (yet justified) suspicion; either allies are great, or not so great, advocates or saviorists. Due to our fear of being overshadowed, silenced, or having our narratives sidelined by society’s dominant voices, we rarely affirm their own stories. But there are certainly occasions in which we should.

In my experience, stories like “Confessions of a Straight Girl: What It Means to Be an Ally” (written by my Sister) or “My Straight African Brother’s Reflections on a Very Queer Christmas: Two Couples and a Sibling” resonate just as deeply with LGBT people of color who hope to someday experience love and acceptance from their families. I still receive emails from people who have been touched by how much I’ve shared about the ups and downs I’ve experienced with the allies in my life. Yet, we distance ourselves from their narratives, call them “allies” all the time — just to make sure they know their place. But these “allies”, sometimes, are simply the people we love, and hope to be loved by.

Given the ongoing battle between religion and sexuality, what ChiChi has shared below re: her faith, journey to deeper connection with God, her Love of me, and even her own exploration of her sexuality — not in spite of, but because of her faith — is nothing short of brave. This offering of Love from the place of a traditional practice of Christianity is most appreciated given how much oppression of LGBT exists in the name of religion.

I am very proud to share ChiChi’s words here, and encourage all of you — as we often preach — to affirm her own experiences with the Love and respect we expect in our lives. In any case, I hope her words encourage you, heal you, and give you hope that the loved ones you may have shunned you on the basis of religion will eventually come around.




“Anyone Who Loves God Must Also Love Others”

When Spectra published “Keeping the Faith: Religion, Sexuality, and My Best Friend’s Pool Party” her piece about me, our friendship, the pain of 4 years apart, and the beauty and joy in our reconciliation, I was humbled and moved by how many people were touched by our story. The response to it reminded me of the power of stories to inspire, to unite, and to encourage. So I decided to write a response piece to affirm her words, and to tackle the loaded combination of religion and sexuality as I’ve experienced them.

For nearly four years, Spectra and I sought our identities in divergent paths—she as a queer activist, and I in exploring depth in my spiritual Christian faith. Because our paths seemed irreconcilable, I never anticipated that valuable lessons learned during my quest for a deeper relationship with God would bring me full circle back into relationship with my friend. But they did, and I’d like to share a few of the lessons I learned with all of you:

1) In my attempt to practice sexual abstinence, I have come to the conclusion that SEXUALITY is OVER-POLICED in Christian communities.

OK let me back up on this one—

In the 20 years that I have been Christian, the constant rhetoric in the Christian community has been that the sex life of a single, Christian woman should be, well, NON-EXISTENT. Therefore, as I grew in my knowledge and faith in God, I decided that I was not going to cut corners on the sexuality issue. I would practice sexual abstinence. Yes, I would remain abstinent until my wedding bed where with multiple orgasms, my husband will make the wait well worth it, and from thence we will live together in a one-partner, heterosexual marriage till death do us part.

But while this paradigm worked for me, was this the “correct” sexuality for everyone? Is there such a thing as “correct” Christian sexuality? What about those people for whom there is no biblical precedent, e.g. intersex individuals? What does a “heterosexual” marriage look like for them?

If abstinence is always the way to go, why is there an epidemic within the Catholic church of repressed priests unleashing on little boys and girls? Why is masturbation discouraged? Why does the Pope get to have an opinion on how a man and his wife should stem the number of children they would have? And, hmmm… why am I, suddenly, physically unable to insert this tampon???

Yup. In my abstinence practice, I unwittingly programmed the muscles around my vagina to SLAM SHUT when anything approached. And because the contraction was involuntary, gynecological examinations and tampon insertions had suddenly become terribly difficult. Even when I wanted to “open sesame”, it’s was like my vagina never received the override memo. (This is a sexual condition. It’s called vaginismus. If you’ve never heard of it, read about it here.)

Luckily, I don’t have this issue anymore. A couple investments in books and toys, and I was able to RETRAIN my vagina to function correctly. But more importantly, I learned that any sexual practice that undermines YOUR PERSONAL spiritual, mental, emotional, AND/OR physical health cannot be “correct” for you.

2) At the Core of My Faith is LOVE

The more I learned about God, the more I learned to open my heart, to be vulnerable, to be humble, to admit when I have been wrong, to ask for forgiveness, and to LOVE. Why? GOD IS LOVE. From the bible:

(1st book of John, Chapter 4, verses 7-9)–
7- Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8- Whoever does not love does not know God, because GOD IS LOVE. 9- This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

3) Homophobia is UNChristian. (phobia = fear, hate)

Again, the Bible says this is so:

(1st book of John, Chapter 4, verses 18-21)–
18- There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19- We love because he first loved us. 20- Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a Liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21- And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

4) People are PEOPLE, not ISSUES.

When Spectra first came out to me, in an attempt to avoid coming to terms with her new identity, I instantly compartmentalized her being out as “her politics” and “her sexuality” which I placed as separate entities from the Spectra that was my college bestie, my sister. When she realized this, we had the falling out. As painful as the period apart was, it was important that it happened so that I could learn to wrestle with the issues that made me uncomfortable instead of simply sweeping it under its compartment. It was important that I learned to love her COMPLETELY in the way that she deserves to be.

So there you have it: four lessons learned from four years deepening my relationship with God and re-commitment to practicing the core principles of my faith. I hope it offers some guidance to Christians who are still struggling to reconcile their spirituality with the LGBT community. Choose Love. It always wins.

Spectra, I love you.  I am proud that your search for yourself culminated in the unearthing of the earth-changing, ass-kicking, turn-the-universe-up-on-its-head, Nigerian, Igbo, queer, activist tour-de-force that you are. And I pray that as you travel to spread your love, knowledge, and solidarity at home in Africa, God will guide your path, and reveal to you all his plans for you. AMEN.

Love and Afrofeminism: Introducing a New Blog Series and #AfroFemLove Twitter Chat

Dear Readers, I wanted to let you know that I’ll be hosting a brand new guest blog at Bitch Magazine on “Love and Afrofeminism”!

I welcome this break from discussing politics to exploring Love, a topic I’m very passionate about, and the foundation for all my work, so I hope you’ll support me by reading along. You can expect posts (and, as always, vibrant discussions) about the usual suspects: gender roles, queer romance, masculinity/femininity, racism, transphobia, and exoticism in dating preferences, feminism, sex, and BDSM, self-love and martyrdom in activism, and a whole lot more. Check out the full post below.


For the past ten years, my work has focused on using media to facilitate conversations around important feminist issues: gender, sexism, racism, media, etc. So when the editors at Bitch invited me to guest blog this summer, I surprised even myself when I told them I wasn’t interested in writing about any of those things; instead, I wanted to write about Love.

What Is Afrofeminist Love?
The more I thought about the idea of blog series exploring Love and Relationships through an afrofeminist lens, the more it made sense. Here are a few reasons why…

I attempted suicide when I was in college; the culmination of my experiences with bullying, homophobia, sexual assault, racism, not to mention the absence of affirming images of “me” anywhere in the media, eroded my self worth and left me with no hope one night. Even though I recovered and resolved to persist for the sake of my friends and family, my failure to practice self-love kept me in a dark place of depression for years after.

It was ultimately the love I discovered for and from community—friends, fellow immigrants, queers, women of color, Africans, etc.—that saved my life; both the sense of belonging and accountability that came via my role as a community organizer (Founding Director of QWOC Media Wire) were enough to give me the hope and affirmation I needed to better tend to my mental health, and join the ranks of the people who fight every day to make the world a little bit better.

I fell in love, with the wrong woman, and ended up in an emotionally abusive relationship—an “on-again, off-again, perpetual invalidation of my needs, bad sex, and thoughts of purchasing a one-way ticket to an island I couldn’t pronounce” type of relationship, in which I was a survivor who was constantly portrayed as the abuser because of my more masculine gender presentation. Contrary to the overly simplistic narratives in the L Word, being in and out of love as a young queer woman of color, struggling to make ends meet and affirm my identity as masculine of center (without being pigeon-holed into having unsatisfying sex) didn’t turn out to be all that glamorous.

When I finally fell in love with the right woman, and dared to daydream of our queer, afrofeminist, Nigerian-Puertominican wedding, it dawned on me that hate crimes against gender non-conforming people of color, traditionalist anti-gay legislation in African countries, and white-male-led campaigns for equal marriage, weren’t just issues, but very real circumstances in my life; it occurred to me that my political perspective on diamonds would become a personal obstacle as both my partner and I wrestled with ways to validate our future engagement to our immigrant parents (who still think being gay is an “American thing”). We laugh about how we’re caving to societal pressure when we pontificate on the more superficial elements of our life-threatening wedding ceremony in Nigeria: rings or no rings? Should our fathers still “give us away” (provided they don’t disown us for attempting to get married in the first place)? And wouldn’t it be fun to force our brothers to wear bridesmaids dresses? But I digress.

Love, Actually, Is All Around Us
This isn’t just about me, my terrible and awesome relationships, or even just about the politicization of marriage. My definition of love is far more expansive due to my work as an activist; I see very clearly how love in various forms (for self, for others, for community) can influence and drive so many parts of our lives.

I’ve seen queer women of color struggle to find love and acceptance outside of their families, and, despite messages that influence so many people into hinging their finding the “perfect partner’ on serendipitious, accidental, meet-cutes, how the act of “choosing” love can lead to more fuilfilling partnerships, and sex lives! I’ve spoken with teachers who have lost youth to suicide, and seen the love of community birth political leaders from personal tragedy. I’ve watched girls wither away from lack of self-love at the hand of the media’s white, thin, standard of beauty; and I’ve seen girls with so much self-love check them on that BS.

Love is absolutely a feminist issue, a recurring theme in various parts of the political landscape. But we’ve grown so accustomed to framing our discussions and ideas for progress around everything but love—instead, facts, figures, statistics, issues, enlightement or problematicness—that I fear we’ve inadvertently distanced ourselves from the most important part of any of this: our lives and experiences as people.

Hence, this series will be dedicated to discussing and exploring love through a very personal lens, including Love for Self, Love for Others, and Love for Our Community and/or Environment—and the pop culture messages that influence our relationship with Love.

What I’ll Be Writing About
You can expect posts (and hopefully, vibrant discussions) about the usual suspects: gender roles, queer romance, masculinity/femininity and estate management, racism, transmisogyny, exoticism in dating preferences, feminism and BDSM, self-love and martyrdom in activism, and more.

Incidentally, I was recently featured in the Femisphere series at Ms. magazine, during which I talked about love as the propelling force behind all my work. I also discussed afrofeminism, the framework I created for myself to move through the world, and through which I believe that personal relationships—and the love that facilitates them—are the building blocks of progress. So, I encourage you all to read it as this is the “place” from which I’ll be writing.

Join My Twitter Chats on #AfroFemLove 
In addition to my blog posts, I’ll be leading discussions on Love and many peripheral subjects on Twitter! I’ve already started hosting impromptu Twitter chats about Love and Afrofeminism, which I hope will inform and/or complement my posts. I encourage you to follow me @spectraspeaks and join the conversation by also following and using the hashtag #afrofemlove.

What Do You Want to Talk About?
Lastly, I’m open to suggestions for topics to include/tackle in my series, so if you’ve been dying to discuss something, please leave a comment below with your idea. I’m looking forward to exploring, evolving, and learning to love better, with all of you.

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