Browse Tag: naija

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

Originally written for and published at

“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.

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.

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