Browse Tag: coming out

Laura, "Boi" character from the film, Pariah

Inspired by Pariah: My Personal Story about Coming Out as a Nigerian “Boi”

Originally written for and published at Autostraddle.com

“Oh, what you think you’re a boy now?

My cargo shorts and graphic tees weren’t exactly what my mother had in mind when she envisioned showing off her daughter who’d “just returned from America with an MIT degree!” to her friends at church.

The prodigal daughter, I’d returned home to Nigeria for my high school bestie’s wedding. We hadn’t seen each other in five years; during that time I’d not only come out as queer, but founded an organization for immigrant and/or queer women of color (QWOC+ Boston), cut my hair into a frohawk, and started dressing as a boy. I’d pretty much gone from a lip-gloss-wearing straight girl to the gayest person ever, but nobody had witnessed the transition, not even my friend who was getting married. I hadn’t reached out to her for fear that I wouldn’t be able to lie about who I was, and that soon after she’d tell her mom, who would tell other moms, and eventually the rest of Lagos where my parents lived, forcing my mother to endure becoming the center of gossip and ostracizing her from the very social networks she needed to make ends meet. My mother relied heavily on referrals from her religious community about various contract jobs — event planning, hotel management etc; the last thing she needed was a taboo subject like “lesbianism” turning off potential clients.

Needless to say, I hesitated when my friend invited me to be part of her bridal train, but I couldn’t refuse an invitation to be part of my girl’s wedding, even if it meant wearing a bridesmaid dress. I tried to get out of it but she firmly insisted that the dress wasn’t up for negotiation. “Well, what then if you don’t wear a dress?” she’d asked laughing, “So, you’re going to wear a suit and stand with the boys?” It hurt my feelings, but I laughed along with her and rhetorted, “Obviously not. That would be ridiculous.” That was just the beginning.

I spent the entire two weeks of my first visit home since my queer transformation absorbing my mother’s daily jabs at my clothing (and eventually, anything I said): “So you’re earning all this money and can’t even afford some nice tops?”, “You really should dress your age”, “What, you think you’re a boy now?” Gender binaries. If there was ever a place for them to thrive unchecked, it would be Lagos, Nigeria, a place where being gay is not just viewed as a choice, but a crime, and — pending the new anti-LGBT bill being deliberated — holding hands with your best friend or choosing same-sex roommates could be made punishable for up to 14 years in prison. But while I was plenty aware of the political debate around my identity as a queer African, I couldn’t have cared less about the law; I was still trying to survive within the confines of my own home.

The night before the wedding, my mother was chaperoning me through the bridesmaid dress fitting. As the strapless lilac dress found its awkward place on my body, the delicate layer of my personal confidence dropped mercilessly to the floor. I felt naked and invisible at the same time. As the zipper went up, I felt increasingly suffocated. The silver, high-heeled shoes my mother had purchased for me earlier that afternoon didn’t help either. The entire ensemble felt like a ridiculous costume.

Long before that moment, it had been easy to “dress up like a girl.” I even had a nickname/alter ego for that person “dressed up like a girl” — “The Empress.” But now, being forced to wear drooping earrings and high-heeled stillettos felt less like “performative drag” and more like the real me didn’t matter.

When my father said I looked “pretty,” I immediately went on a dramatic tirade (more dramatic than usual) to assert that this wasn’t who I was. “You only compliment me when I’m wearing clothes I don’t want to wear,” I complained, “I don’t feel pretty. I feel stupid.”

He laughed then, dismissing my gender non-conformity as me being “a rebel.” He’d been a “rebel” too, he told me (although I can’t recall seeing any pictures of him in dresses). My mother, on the other hand, was on to me. She eyed the dress silently; it was a fitting disguise and I could tell she was relieved I was wearing it.

Throughout my stay in Nigeria, the micro-aggressions continued: from things as silly to being called “feminist” (as an explanation as to why I had a puzzled look on my face when some girl said that all women should cook for their husbands to avoid making them angry), to my mother dragging me through stores to purchase large, obnoxious earrings, and to straight up homophobic rants, which I suspect were directed at me — “We don’t have that rubbish here in Nigeria — all those gay people in America, why should we be copying them? This is Africa!” Thanks to America’s media, my friends’ perceptions of gay people were limited to comic relief — white gay men dancing glittery and half-naked down the streets, lipstick on, “dressing like women.”

When I vented to my friends in the US, I was met with well-meaning — albeit privileged and individualist sentiments — “Who cares what they think? You should be able to wear what you want and be yourself. Fuck ’em.”

Except, I did care what Nigerians thought of gay people; I cared that I had no proof to show them that “gay people” could include Africans. I cared that I had no proof to show them that “gay people” included me.

Admittedly, even I had my doubts that I was who I said I was — a gay Nigerian? After all, just after I’d come out and I’d filled my Netflix queue with every recommended film from the Gay and Lesbian section in search of narratives that aligned with my experience. But I could barely find any films that included women of color, let alone African lesbians.

I realize now that I was searching for affirmation of who I was because a part of me was still internalizing homophobia; “I’m Nigerian, we’re not gay. I must be the only gay Nigerian in the world.” And even when I finally met another queer Nigerian, I dismissed her because she “hadn’t been raised at home.” If I was so quick to dismiss queer Nigerians, what chance did I have that my Nigerian family would ever come around?

 

But then I saw Pariah, and I knew instantly that this was the film I’d been searching for. Pariah could save me from endless arguments over laws, policies, and tradition currently in Nigeria’s media. Pariah could humanize me — turn me from “issue” to “person — and earn me empathy instead of judgement.

For the group film screening I’d helped put together for QWOC+ Boston, I’d dragged a whole crew of people: my partner, a few friends, and my straight Nigerian, Christian brother, who’d always been supportive of me, yet still had moments when he dismissed my masculinity and/or gender presentation without knowing it; like the time my mother had forced me to wear our traditional attire for his graduation (I wanted to wear the men’s kaftan, but she’d put me in the elaborately feminine women’s counterpart — the iro and buba), and he’d told me to get over it, saying flippantly, “It’s not like you never wore this stuff before.”

I remember holding my breath during pivotal scenes in the movie — like when Alike was forced to put her earrings back on before she returned home in an effort to hide her gender identity from her parents. I wondered nervously if my brother saw then the direct parallels to his own sister’s life, if he could finally understand that my protesting the outfit my mother had brought with her from Nigeria wasn’t just about defying norms for the sake of being a rebel; I really did feel more like a boy than a girl.

During the Q&A portion of the screening, Adepero Oduye (the Nigerian actress who plays Alike in the film) told us, “When my mother first saw the film, she said, ‘People here [Nigeria] need to watch that movie. You wouldn’t believe all the things they are always saying. They need to see it. They need to understand.’” 

After I emerged from the theater, deliriously happy after seeing a gay character whose experience I could finally relate to, my brother relayed that the film’s exploration of masculinity within the women’s community was similar enough to his own experience that he too deeply connected with Alike. And therein lies the power of Pariah: whether or not you are part of the LGBT community, expect to “aww” and cringe several times per scene, as both the acting and directing create a winning combination for unlocking the most powerful tool in social change: empathy.

The world is watching Nigeria right now, turning their noses up at our senators who proudly proclaim that “homosexuality is unAfrican”. Nearly every other day I read a new press release from a human rights organization that condemns the latest version of the anti-gay bill. Hilary Clinton’s riveting speech about protecting human rights around the world may have brought temporary solace to many of us who are directly impacted by the move to criminalize homosexuality in various African countries, but I know firsthand that rhetoric alone will not change the world. I know from experience that my happiness will not come from winning legislative battles, but winning hearts, and films like Pariah have the power to do just that; it is films like Pariah that can and will change the world.

For Nigerians to accept its LGBT citizens as Nigerian, they need to experience queer stories as part of our own cultural landscape (as opposed to an American sitcom on Showtime) and framed within every day issues Nigerians like my parents can relate to: lack of electricity, overbearing mothers bickering over whose daughter will get married first, and simultaneous deep-rooted disdain and yearning for modernization. Pariah may not be about LGBT Nigerians or Africans, but Dee Rees’ bold narrative has certainly opened up the possibilities for such films, at least for people like me.

So as my country deliberates the new anti-LGBT bill, I pray for LGBT Africans to find their own Pariah, and I look forward to my mother finally seeing the film so that, just like my brother, she will finally be able to hear me when I say “I am Alike:” a proud queer, Nigerian boi, but more importantly, still her daughter.

We Will Always Love Each Other :)

My Straight African Brother’s Reflections on a Very Queer Christmas: “Two Couples and a Sibling”

My Dear Readers!

Sibling love forever...

This post — written from my straight, Christian brother — is what I got for Christmas, and I am so thrilled to share it with all of you! My brother spent the holidays with me, my partner, and our two very good friends and, it seems, felt so moved by how much of a great time he had that he announced he would be writing about it. We didn’t believe he would — maybe he’d been caught up in the moment (after several glasses of wine, and so much turkey!) — but then this afternoon, I received his post in my inbox.

I’m in tears as I write this; both my siblings have now contributed to my queer afrofeminist blog. It’s surreal — first my sister in Confessions of a Straight Girl: How to Be an Ally, and now my brother.

I can’t say this any plainer: I never would have imagined this possible. But look at this… look what happens when you stay holding on to hope.

For any of you feeling hopeless about your families coming around, I want you to read this post and see this as your future, see this as where your own family members can arrive after going through their own journeys of self-reflection. They will get there. You will get there. We will all find happiness.

Love,
Spectra

“Two Couples and a Sibling” (guest post by Spectra’s Brother)

For quite some time now my sister has been wanting me to either read at least one of her blog posts (I know, it’s shameful that I haven’t been as engaged), or write something for her that she could put on her blog. I can’t say why I haven’t been paying closer attention to her writing up until this point but at least I’m finally doing it. I think for whatever reason I always felt that she was writing for the masses and not for me; that I wouldn’t learn that much from her writing as I would from the many conversations we have, one on one. I know … crazy, especially from someone who prides himself on how much he learns from reading books! But anyway, let’s move on.

A few days before Christmas, my sister (spectra) woke me up at 7am to ask me a huge favor: she wanted us to spend Christmas with a couple — we’ll call them Sukky and Shana — that she and her partner were very good friends with. She explained that they were both still struggling to find acceptance within their respective families, and would appreciate being among friends. I had met these particular friends briefly at a birthday celebration and they seemed nice enough, so I figured why not. The visit seemed very important to my sister or she (not being the warmest fuzziest person in the world) wouldn’t have given me a puppy dog face as well and a huge hug after realizing that I’d actually be up for an 8-hr roundtrip drive to New York. So on Christmas morning, we set off early, really excited at the idea of spending time with what Spectra described as “intentional family.”

The ride down to the city was great! I’m a speed demon so leaving early on Christmas day meant no cops. Saweet! (If any cops are reading this post I apologize for doing an average of 95mph which is why we got to Brooklyn in just under three hours — hey, wasn’t like I was the only one).

On reaching the couple’s apartment we were immediately greeted with a shriek from one of the girls (Shana) because her partner (Sukky) had kept it a secret we were coming. It’s a very nice feeling to be able to surprise good friends especially on a day like Christmas. And you must understand this too, any friends of my sisters are automatically friends of mine so I was equally as thrilled with the response. The entire day was spent cooking, laughing, cracking jokes, playing cards, taking naps, and for me specifically watching five basketball games back to back … ! Absolute heaven. Plus, I also had a few double Blacks on ice to take the edge off.

I don’t know if I’ve had such a good time quite like I did with these four girls. But in reality it had nothing to do with any of the things we did but everything to do with the people that were in that apartment. And I guess here is the message I wanted to communicate to whoever may be reading this: I’m a straight guy, a straight black guy, a straight black conservative guy, a straight black conservative guy from Nigeria, a straight black conservative guy from Nigeria who happens to have a queer black sister, who is in love with a queer Latina from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic! My world got turned upside down when my sister came out to me a number of years ago, but I can’t say I was surprised.

I’m the middle child, and only boy. I never had a brother who I could borrow or steal stuff from. I never had any hand-me-downs either. My dad is 5’5 and I’m a little over 6 feet tall so that definitely wasn’t happening. But for as long as I can remember my younger sister was always stealing stuff from my older sister (Spectra), and Spectra in turn was always stealing stuff from me! I remember out of all the items of clothing she had she was always more excited about the more masculine items: the jerseys, the large T-shirts, the boots, etc. All this never quite made sense until she came out to me.

But, please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here. Just because I had a feeling I knew what she was going to tell me doesn’t mean that when she finally told me it didn’t put my life on pause. My personality didn’t allow me to act alarmed. In fact, my reaction was the total opposite. I was extremely calm and told her that I’d known for a while, which was true. What I didn’t know was how I really felt about it.

It has taken me years of getting to know my sister again, years of getting to know her new community of friends, years of challenging my own beliefs (pay attention to this people), not for some “greater good”, or because it’s “politically correct”, but for the sake of having a real relationship with my sister. I went through years of self-reflection, years of pushing myself towards personal growth, and of course years of asking the question, “Why?” And here’s what I have concluded:

When you really love someone, when your sister or brother or whomever tells you they’re queer or gay or whatever (I’m still learning there are many different ways gay people describe themselves), it simply shouldn’t matter.

I’m so glad I had enough wisdom to realize that love isn’t love if it’s conditional. If you’re ashamed to affiliate yourself with someone because of how you think other people are going to perceive YOU … I feel very sorry for you and you need to go into whatever wound you have that is keeping you from experiencing life to the fullest. If there are two things I know for a fact it’s this: the quality of your life will be directly related to the quality of the relationships in it, and you will be miserable until you get over worrying about what other people think about you.

This Christmas was the most amazing Christmas I’ve EVER had. I was a single straight guy with two queer couples, and I had a blast. Why? Not because I spent time learning about an “issue”, but because I was with real people, who were really in love; who had real problems and real challenges, real arguments and real fears about the future, real hopes and dreams, and, quite frankly, that’s way more important to me than the fact that they identified as “queer.”

After this experience, I find myself hoping even more that people are braver; that they find the courage to engage themselves in learning more about how to love, and less about how to control. Because any question of “why” that comes from your own small sphere of beliefs — which by definition is egocentric — is absolutely a question of control. For me, slowing down my beliefs and just simply getting to know Spectra’s friends led to a bittersweet realization: I had way more in common with them than I do with a lot of people I have known for years.

For instance (and don’t laugh), the highlight of my visit was bonding with Sukky (a tomboy like my sister) over the film 300 about the Spartan army that stood up to the Persian empire in ancient Greece! I was pleasantly surprised to find that she shared my passion for the raw, over-the-top masculinity of the men portrayed in the movie. It was such an eye-opening moment for me because I always felt that the movie in itself could only be really appreciated in that way if you happened to be a straight guy! But, once again, my belief-system was challenged and I am all the better for it.

I urge you this coming year if you have been closed-minded about anything in your life, dare to think and dare to love. If the human race did more of those two things there’s no doubt in my mind the world will be a better place for our children, their children, and generations to come.

... and ever :)

I titled this entry, “Two Couples and a Sibling,” simply because that is exactly what was most important about our time together, the memories I created with Spectra, her partner, Sukky, and Shana. This Christmas, for me, wasn’t about “two interracial gay couples and a straight black guy.” None of those things are as important. Two couples and a sibling — two families coming together to celebrate life and the future together; that’s important.

I hope other guys get this message. It’s really not that complicated. 

Happy Holidays!


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