Browse Tag: transgender

Love and Afrofeminism: Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing

This post is part of my guest blog series called Love and Afrofeminism for BITCH magazine.

One night my friends and I went salsa dancing at a straight club. It doesn’t get any more gendered than that. My girl had been asking me to go dancing with her for months. I had finally acquiesced, and was really looking forward to it. But the minute we got to the club, my confidence made for the door, leaving me stranded, feeling weird and freakish. I became very aware of myself as a woman in men’s clothing, not short, not tall, black girl, poor girl, what are you doing here?

In my mind, I knew it was silly. I’m a great dancer. But something about that hall filled with really straight-looking people triggered my discomfort in a major way. I felt my girl pull my hand as she began leading the way, her straight friends following closely behind us, taking off their coats as they glided through the busy dance floor in that way some women do when they know they have eyes on them. I felt awkward shuffling along behind them, straining to keep my shoulders back and my face blank to feign disinterest, a cover for how insecure I felt in my ill-fitting clothing (at least compared to what everyone else was wearing). We hung our coats, and began looking for our friends. A song came on that everyone seemed to like, and I dug it. I was beginning to relax and settle into myself as we approached our friend’s table. I figured I’d dance with my girl and soon forget about where we were. She always had that effect on me, so our dance was something to look forward to.

silhouettes of people salsa dancing

But before I knew it, I felt her drop my hand. I turned to my left, and saw that a slick haired older Latino guy had taken her other hand and pulled her unto the dance floor for the current number. She’d innocently obliged, 1-2-stepping away and swaying her hips to let her know that she was down, and twirling away from me as I stood there feeling more awkward than ever, abandoned, and embarrassed. My eyes darted around in search of familiarity, a safe harbor to crawl into. But I realized that our party had dispersed into the night and I was the only one not dancing. All three ladies had found male partners, so what did that mean for me? I wasn’t nearly comfortable going up to any of the straight women to ask for a dance and face high school humiliation. I wasn’t pretty enough to fare as competition, nor was I macho enough to warrant any other kind of attention. So they completely ignored me (but for the few that blatantly stared in pity or disdain).

Eventually, I found the friends we’d intended to meet. Relieved, I grabbed a beer, and found my station in the corner, where I planned to remain for the rest of the night. Eventually, my girl came back to me, sweat beads all along her forehead from at least three rounds of salsa, and the familiar glow of being around her people that I recognized. She was smiling when she approached me, but my face held stern. She gestured to me to dance with her and I abruptly refused, taking another sip from my beer so that she couldn’t read me. Yet, even I couldn’t understand the way I felt at that point.

It wasn’t jealousy. My girl and I were in love and I didn’t have any insecurities about her dancing with straight men. It wasn’t even that Slick had gotten the first dance—I wasn’t that kind of macho. No, it was something more. And it took me several hours, long after we’d left the club and were safely in bed, to articulate, even to myself.

I had felt unsafe in that space. The night had represented every micro aggression I’d ever experienced from straight people: cab drivers that kicked me out in the middle of the night because they wouldn’t tolerate “that” at the back of their cabs, store managers who kept insisting I’d find better clothing in the women’s section, every gay boy that looked me up and down with disdain because I wasn’t conforming to their inherited fucked up view on what a woman should look like or wear to be “fabulous,” straight women who blatantly ignored me because I didn’t fit in the coop, and femme girls that ranted on and on about masculine privilege, but hardly ever acknowledged that their pretty privilege made their worlds so much bigger than mine. That my girl could mindlessly shimmy onto a dance floor even as a gay woman and enjoy the simple pleasure of a dance, go out with her straight friends to bars and not be stared at or called names, etc., while everything about the landscape, from the “Ladies free before 11PM” sign to the man-woman dance partner pairings made me so angry all of a sudden. And, I didn’t know how to handle it.

All the memories I’d retained of my life as a straight girl, or even as a heteronormative queer femme (as I explored my gender shortly after coming out) came rushing back to me. I remember when people smiled brightly at me when I walked into restaurants—”How can I help you, miss?”—and I would smile back, knowing that I could get whatever I wanted simply because I was pretty. I remember being able to play up the damsel in distress card whenever I arrived late at the airport, scuttling along in heels and designer hand luggage, and the two or three guards would help me cut the line to make my flight, with an upgrade just because. I’d given all that up for the sake of being authentically me. I didn’t regret it, or take it back. But becoming so aware of my lack of privilege, now, in those spaces, made me upset that it didn’t occur to anyone else to be more considerate of how I felt.

What I’d like to share with you isn’t about who has more privilege or who can pass, etc. I’m not interested in setting up an hierarchy of oppression. Life is fucked for a lot of us in more ways than we can calibrate, so instead, I’d like to share something else with you all, a few tips about how to be more supportive of people like me.

As a gender non-conforming (most of the time) boi who is dating a femme-identified woman, I have my responsibilities to her that I take seriously. I don’t tolerate stupid misogynist jokes at her expense, I don’t belittle her in front of anyone to validate my masculinity, when people assume that we stick to gendered roles in our household, I let her respond / answer honestly. I treat her with respect, always—as we should each other, regardless of how we identify—and I celebrate how powerful, and how protected I feel in spite of how scary the world can be sometimes, and I ask that she does the same. What we discovered that night is that there is more that she could do to make sure I feel seen, respected, and advocated for in gendered spaces.

So, here are a few tips we’ve discussed as a couple that I’d like to share with you, in case it resonates, and most especially, if you ever go salsa dancing:

1) Recognize you have “pretty privilege”: As a cisgender, female-bodied person, you are able to move in and out of spaces because of your perceived heteronormativity—i.e., you are “a girl who still looks like a girl” to regular folk, you have passing privilege, and not everyone’s gender presentation grants them that much ease of access to straight spaces. So please don’t talk badly about those “queers who only hang out with queers” especially as a femme woman. It hurts. I have so many kinds of friends, that know and trust me. But I can’t be dumped in the middle of blond highlight, Aldo stilettos Boston without warning. It’s ME they’ll stare and jeer at, not you.

2) Check the temperature of a space to ensure safety of your gender non-conforming friends: Similarly, as you can move in and out of spaces, check the pulse of a room before you invite your partner to enter it. If you are both invited to a straight friend’s gathering, give them warning. If you are frolicking downtown and just want to choose a bar to go to, it may be good for you to walk in and assess the environment, rather than go through the humiliation of entering a place and then having to leave because people are assholes / staring / your partner is not comfortable.

3) Please do NOT use emasculation as a way to put me down, make fun of me, or belittle me. I can’t tell you how much it infuriates me to hear femmes go, “Oh I can be a butch / stud / insertwhatevermasculinelabelhere, all I need to do is put on some baggy jeans and wear a hat.” My identity isn’t reduced to what I wear. I would never trivialize who you are by reducing your femininity down to some lipstick and earrings. This is not to say that I donít appreciate people who play with fashion / gender expression—I do. So I’m specifically referring to situations in which it’s used to belittle / emasculate someone / put them down by suggesting that their gender / how they feel about themselves is a cheap performance, and doesn’t go any deeper. As I’m sure you can imagine, for gender non-conforming / transgender people who choose not to / don’t have the funds to be able to transition (via surgery / hormone therapy), this is extremely hurtful.

4) Don’t use boilerplate rhetoric about sexism against me. If I don’t mistreat you or put you down, please don’t automatically pathologize me as such. I’ve always advocated for women; I’m a staunch feminist. Let’s not inherit stereotypes about masculinity from straight people and naturally assume that I’m a misogynist asshole simply because I present more masculine. Innocent until proven guilty, okay? Then I definitely want you to call me out on it. In fact, please do. The last thing I want is to turn into the kind of person whose masculinity can only be affirmed by putting down other women.

These suggestions have obviously been very personalized to fit my own relationship. My partner identifies as femme, and I’m more masculine presenting; the dynamic between us in public spaces may be slightly different (or even perceived as such) based on gender roles and societal expectations. However, even if this doesn’t apply to you—you’re a straight, cis couple, two butches dating each other, two femmes, multiple partners, etc.—I do think keeping this in mind as a way to be more considerate and caring of gender non-conforming people can’t hurt.

Have you had similar experiences? How did you handle it? What other suggestions/tips would you add for supporting people who don’t conform to society’s dogmatic gender norms when out in public (and other typically gendered) spaces?

Oh, and for the record, my partner and I have been practicing our Latin dancing (I’ve gotten so much better), and we are determined to learn how to dance like this. Who’s with us?

Previously: Gender Roles and First Date, Who Pays?, Introducing a New Series on Love and Afrofeminism!

Image: onlinsalsa via Flickr

Happy Mother’s Day from a Queer African Daughter to Her Mama

I recently found a poemthing in my journal from about 2 or 3 years ago; I’d written just before mother’s day.

I hadn’t officially come out to my mother, then, but suspected that she’d known for a while that I was dating women; she’d been acting all weird and funny, speeding through our conversations with trivialities, idle gossip, and placing a suspicious emphasis on work/career updates (whereas she’d previously spent 80% of the call alluding to the lack of a boyfriend, and thus, the likelihood of her future grandchildren).

But as I was now spending so much time “saving the world” (too dangerously close to LGBT advocacy), she’d stopped asking about that, too. At one point we were literally only talking about the weather, what her and my father were eating for dinner, and Oprah. Our conversations had become filled with so much pain, so much we weren’t saying; I literally felt like I was choking each time I called home.

However, since deciding to be honest with my family about my life — my beautiful queer partnership, and my pursuit of a career around the arts and philanthropy (vs. the traditional route — doctor, lawyer, banker) — the relationship between my mother and I has slowly been improving.

She’s now at the point of constantly asking about my partner’s well-being, intentionally including her in conversations — even asking her to join in on Skype! My father has had his hiccups, but he too seems to be more at ease; he was going on and on the other day about how pretty my partner looked (since I’d sent them pictures from our France vacation). Okay, Dad. I get the point. We can now share a joke about both having good taste.

After coming out to my parents, I never would have imagined a good relationship with them would be possible. There’s always still so far to go — as I’m sure many of you know — but staying with hope has made the journey, so far, a rewarding one.

I’m sharing this poemthing I wrote, not because we haven’t moved beyond the place from which it was written (we have), but because I feel for everyone who’s ever had to feel estranged from their parents because of who they are, especially on a day like this. So much love going around about Mothers, while I know many Mothers and Daughters are sad they’re not more connected, closer to each other to enjoy the day.

If you are one of those people, know that you are not alone, love. I am thinking of you today. And praying for stregth and courage for the BOTH of you to reconnect soon… someday very soon. Happy Mothers (Who’ll Eventually Get It Together) Day :)

Oh, that’s right.. the poem thing. Here it is:

Happy Mother’s Day from a Queer African Daughter to Her Mama

On this day
when children, grown
call their homes
to  remind the women who raised them
they still remember:

the birthday parties,
school recitals,
and warm bosoms that welcomed the aftermath of puppy love,
mean English teachers,
playground fights,
hot baths after ballet,
proud smiles at As, Bs, and sometimes Cs,
words of wisdom by burning stoves,
the weight of the words “I love you”

on this day,
I am afraid
to be reminded of
the pain,
the regret,
the shame,
in your voice
that’s prevalent these days
— the hello that reminds me,
“I have failed you.”

On this day,
when children, grown
are calling their homes
with good intentions,
I’m making preparations for my defense:
the silent backlash of my “choices”
and your alleged “mistakes.”

Exhibit A)
I was gay before I went away,
America isn’t to blame for my choosing,
every single day,
to love the woman I now call home

Exhibit B)
I still believe in God,
the voice that stayed my toes
on a night I chose to believe
my life wasn’t worth living,
the voice that whispered gently,
you could still love me.

Exhibit C)
I do want children, eventually
Though I may not carry the three I promised you
I’d never shun motherhood,
or the chance to love unconditionally,
and outshine you.

Exhibit D)
I never dreamed you would question this love
Mother, after all that you’ve done,
the rings and pretty chainlinks you’ve sold,
the pride you’ve put aside to claim me,
in the face of ridiculue,
I, your daughter,
“the rogue lesbian”
never believed I would be the reason you bowed your head to mongrels

Exhibit E)…?

On this day,
as I prepare my defense,
against the silent conversation
we have over our phony mother-daughter role play,
I’m desperately hoping,
that in the event
either of us is caught off guard
by the white elephant,
I won’t have to use it.

On this day,
as I tell myself
over and over again
“I don’t care”
I’m desperately longing to hear
“I love you”
yet anxiously fearing the bareness
of “It’s you…”
followed by the nothingness I’ve grown used to
ever since you learned the meaning of “queer”

On this day,
I remember your lessons:
to stand strong,
always say the truth,
and remember,
even those who love you,
will do you wrong.

And when they do:

Remember love.
Remember love.
Remember love.

I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.


Spectra is an award-winning Nigerian writer, women’s rights activist, and the voice behind the African feminist media blog, Spectra Speaks, which publishes global news and opinions about all things gender, media, diversity, and the Diaspora.

She is also the founding director of Queer Women of Color Media Wire (, a publishing and media advocacy organization that amplifies the voices of lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender women of color, diaspora, and ethnic and racial minorities across the globe.

Follow her tweets on diversity, movement-building, and love as a revolution on Twitter @spectraspeaks.

Challenging Gender Binaries in the Motherland: Could Transgender and Intersex Activism Unite Africa’s Movements?

About a year ago, I hosted my first Kitchen Table Conversations podcast on Media, Culture, and Identity. 

The podcast featured four LGBT Africans in the Diaspora, a few of which described themselves as gender non-conforming. Shortly afterwards, I received a really sweet message from someone who had listened to the podcast. It read as follows:

For a long time I have been trying to get involved in the LGBT arena and be a voice to my community but have not been able to find such a space or create one. It takes a lot to actually be in such a position to do so with limited resources.  I listened to the Kitchen Table Conversation with a lot of admiration to the Passionate Voices of My Queer Sisters and felt so empowered. I  am a sincere admirer of all your effort in highlighting these serious issues that affect us as African LGBT Community.  These are the voices I have been waiting to hear for a very long time addressing such issues other than someone else speaking for us. How can I also participate as a transman in diaspora?

I remember feeling touched by the message, but sad, too; it stood out to me that a fellow queer African had waited till the very end of his message to come out to me about being transgender.

I thought to myself, did he really think that I would care if he told me that he was transgender? I’d been working within a small coalition to connect the straight and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer and/or Transgender African diaspora within the US (and to my peers leading the queer African movement at home). My vision of the LGBT African movement certainly included transgender, intersex, and other gender non-conforming Africans. But did everyone else’s?

The delayed disclosure has stayed with me since then; the last thing I want is for Africa to repeat the same mistakes as the LGBT movement in the US and UK, which has historically (both intentionally and unintentionally) excluded transgender, bisexual, and intersex people from gay spaces in order to push forth a “less complicated” agenda i.e. one that doesn’t necessarily aim to challenge society’s oppressive binary perceptions of gender to create more tolerance, but reframe our alignment with the status quo so that we may “fit in.”

Incidentally, when I came out, my parents were surprisingly okay with my dating women; it was the “dressing like a boy” part that made them very uncomfortable. They worried that I’d be drawing too much attention to myself, that I’d stand out and cause unnecessary controversy, and that I’d be saddled with the very complicated question of which “role” to play at my wedding (bride or groom? seriously). Up until then I hadn’t really considered my gender presentation as a deal breaker. I mean, homophobia stems from an intolerance of gay people, right?  But where does the intolerance itself come from?

A quick rehash of comments from Africans about their opinions on gay people suggest quite a bit about their unwavering stance on gender roles:  “Men are not supposed to dress like women…,” “Two people of the same sex should never lie together…,” “If there are two women, which one is the husband?…,” and (my favorite, from Christian extremists), “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” The existence of LGBT Africans ultimately challenges the view that Africans are naturally attracted to people of the opposite sex (i.e. the Homosexuality is UnAfrican mantra). However, this pigeon-holes the entire continent — straight and LGBT Africans alike — into addressing homophobia from just one angle: sexual orientation.

The danger in this approach is that it leaves out transgender people (who have a different gender presentation from that which they were assigned at birth), intersex people (whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female), and a whole slew of people — including straight Africans — who do not conform to traditional gender roles. For instance, at a forum I hosted last year, human rights defender and religious leader, Reverend Kapya Kaoma, shared a heart-breaking story about a woman whose husband was beating her, but — due to her traditional duty to remain a wife — was not permitted to leave, and was unfortunately killed. That woman was his sister. She was not gay.

To me, it seems clear: we should consider thinking about homophobia as a fear of people not conforming to traditional gender roles, and the direct correlation between that fear and the same fear that fuels sexism, and transphobia. By addressing homophobia in this way i.e. through the lens of gender justice, Africa could not only avoid repeating the mistakes of the west re: inclusion of transgender people, but achieve what the west has not been able to (at least, until very recently) — achieve unity across its many disparate social movements. Luckily for this idealist, I don’t have to wish, pray, pine away hoping that someone will take this on; a press release I read yesterday has presented Africa with a very timely gift.

According to Behind the Mask, three African transgender and intersex rights advocacy organizations have formed an alliance to enhance the trans and intersex movement on the continent. They include South African based Gender DynamiX (GDX), the first organization in South Africa (and Africa) to specifically advocate for transgender people, Uganda’s Support Initiative for People with atypical Sexual Development (SIPD) , the only intersex health and rights human rights advocacy organization in the East African region, and Transgender and Intersex Africa (TIA), an organization which focuses on black transgender and intersex issues in the rural areas and black townships of South Africa.

In a press statement issued yesterday,  Julius Kaggwa, the SIPD director, states:

“The main focus of this new entity is to support a growing transgender and intersex movement and to engage regionally in advocacy for the human rights of transgender and intersex people.

Following his statement is an overview of the new organization’s strategy:

The vision of Transitioning Africa is to see a strong transgender and intersex movement in sub-Saharan Africa, based on human rights principles, while the mission is to strive for gender recognition within social movements in Africa.

The three organizations’ collective issues of focus, regional positioning, and programmatic expertise not only make for a very powerful collaboration, but a unique opportunity for Africa to test this gender liberation theory. The question remains: will Africans be more willing to address their homophobia if more intentionally framed under the umbrella of gender justice?

When I consider my personal experience with various African movements thus far, I think about how often I’ve been ignored in male-dominated spaces because (even though they’re gay) they’re not used to outspoken women like myself speaking up taking the lead, how rare it is for me to find solidarity with many straight African women because my sexuality and gender presentation are a point of contention due to their cultural beliefs — I can’t think of a more timely and critical undertaking to create a better shared understanding (and respect) of our varied experiences as Africans. It is critical that Africans recognize how gender binaries oppress us all — LGBT or not, transgender or not — so that we can become unified in tackling our oppression(s) from as many angles and frameworks as possible.

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.

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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