It was just after the 2019 New Year celebration, on a Sunday typical of a quiet and slow morning. I laid on the couch in the living room reading Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun when my mother asked, her voice so soft it slurred, “Ke ihe mere achoghi futa na ezi? Mgbe ibu nwatakiri, ina futa ezi okam? Ke ihe mere?”
I watched my mother, faintly distracted. Her body aged from the partial stroke that affected her right side, her face creased with wrinkles. I thought about her questions and I wanted to say, “You grow up, you make changes.” Instead I smiled and returned to the novel. But I could not concentrate. The sentences blurred. Her questions hovered. “Why don’t you like to go out? When you were a child, you enjoyed going out. What changed?”
I closed the book and turned to her. She sat on the couch opposite me, brushing off lint from her purple silk gown. She looked calm and still, as though she had not uttered a word earlier on. When our eyes met, she rolled hers in a way that made me laugh. Still, I couldn’t shake her questions off.
They troubled me. Sat heavy on my chest, made my body torpid, the day overcast. “Why don’t I enjoy going out like I did when I was a child?” I asked myself over and over again. I consoled myself by saying, “You’re a writer now. When you’re not spending hours working on your manuscript, you’re reading.” But when I woke up the following morning, the questions continued to probe me. So pressing I could not get out of bed. I stared at the pitch darkness of my room, wondering how this change came about. It was not my love for writing or reading that altered my life, it was something else.
I grew up in a small community in southern Nigeria. It was a peaceful place with scattered bungalow houses separated by interlinked pathways where the neighborhood kids played and built sand houses. The air smelled of the firewood that smoked from people’s kitchens. Life was unhurried. Perhaps because the major occupations were farming and trading. We woke up each morning to the voices of neighbors greeting each other as they set out early to tend to their farms before sunrise.
I was known in my neighborhood as a dancer and singer. My childhood was when Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” was popular in Nigeria, alongside Awilo Longomba’s “Cache Cache” and Gozie Okeke’s “Akanchawa”. It was common for neighbors who planned celebrations for their children’s birthdays to ask, “Is the boy who behaves like a girl coming?” Birthdays did not come with cake. For us, a heap of cooked rice and stewed meat, with bottles of Coke and Fanta placed beside the tray was our celebration staple. For one’s birthday to be declared successful, there must have been a tense dancing competition. The MC would group us by age, then call each age group to come and dance before the crowd.
I always dressed in baggy clothes whenever I attended these parties, thanks to my mother who feared I would outgrow my clothes too quickly and insisted on buying clothes that were too big for me. Before the MC called my age group, I would tie the end of my shirt around my stomach to make my waist movements visible. While boys my age performed breakdance routines, I twisted my waist and shook my butt to the up-tempo beats, just like the girls. The MC would go on eliminating weak dancers until he was left with the top three, which I was always part of. Whenever Shakira’s chart-topping hit came through the loudspeakers, I became transported, my femininity sparkling as my hands dangled in the air and hips moved up and down, side-to-side. It was at moments like this, when the best and last dancers competed, that a hush snaked through the crowd.
Everyone would get up from their seats as if they could no longer see. They would gather around us dancers and watch with wild eyes as I twisted this way and that. “Is this the winner?” the MC would ask at the end of the competition, carrying each participant’s hand up as parents and other kids shouted “Yes!” or “No!” The person with the loudest “Yes!” won. I always won, and in the days that followed the competitions, whenever I walked past a compound, one neighbor or another would call for me to demonstrate my Shakira moves. After I did, they would give me a sweet or small amount of money.
By the time I moved to Lagos to live with my uncle and his family, I had grown to become a tall teenager whose hips swayed and hands fluttered in the air when he spoke. One afternoon as I sashayed to my school’s restroom, a junior student, light-skinned with brown eyes, stopped and hurled, “Gay!” in the same accusatory tone someone would shout, “Thief!” I felt a sharp lump in my stomach, and I almost spat out the gum I chewed. I felt he was insulting me, even though I didn’t know what the word meant. “I will slap you if you say that again,” I said. He scurried down the stairs.
Later that week, when I returned home from the market, three boys who lived on my street shouted “Faggot!” as soon as they saw me. I did not know what faggot meant, but the scorn on their faces made my heart beat fast. I raced home and, that evening, picked up the old dictionary on the living room’s shelf. I sat on the floor and searched for faggot and gay. I was happy, relieved even, despite the disrespectful intent of the boys I encountered, when I realized there were words to describe people like me—people who were attracted to the same gender. I felt seen, my existence acknowledged.
In the days that followed, my excitement was quelled. The constant way my classmates and friends shouted “gay” and “faggot” and “homo” so openly, like children who wanted to try out a word they just learned, frightened me. Soon, people began to question my identity. In public places, I was relegated suspicious. That my femininity suddenly became a threat surprised me. The only time my identity was ever questioned before I came to hear the word “gay” was during junior high school, when a senior student asked if I were a “hermaphrodite” because I “behaved like a girl.” Later in my twenties, I came to learn why the word gay had become so popular in my teen years—Barrack Obama’s US foreign policy to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQ people around the world had caused controversy among Nigerians, and exposed me to verbal insults.
Whenever my femme friends share stories of how the word gay threatened their identity or forced them to twist their bodies so they would not become objects of ridicule in public places, I tell them I’ve never twisted myself to please anyone. But this is a lie. Of course, I was hurt when my classmates called me gay. It was not the word that hurt me, but the way the boys ostracized me from their circles and never allowed me to join their conversations. It was the way some boys muttered “fag” beneath their breaths and pressed their bodies against nearby walls when I passed, as though I stunk. Ever since my childhood, my femininity was a magical sparkle adored by many. But this new abuse and rejection by friends who I once shared gossip, food and laughter with, broke me. There were days I thought about jumping from my class window and crashing onto the school’s concrete grounds. There was a Saturday afternoon when, after doing the dishes, I wanted to stab myself with a kitchen knife because I was scared to return to school the next day.
My freshman year at university, a few days after I had settled in one of the boy’s hostels, I returned from the canteen, singing. As I walked down the long corridor, students opened their doors shouting, “What’s a girl doing in a boy’s hostel at this time?” It was frightening, the opening of the doors that lined the hallway, heads popping out, the questioning, and the laughter that came when they realized I was a boy.
I shrank myself when I stepped out the next day because of the stares I got. Questioning stares. Suspicious stares. Stares that spoke what the mouth did not say. I withdrew from people, saying little when someone I didn’t know visited my room. I became filled with anxiety each time I wanted to visit someone in any of the other rooms. If I had to interact with others in a social setting, I rehearsed what I would need to say and how to say it. I even used a deeper voice. I became self-conscious when I walked on the campus streets lined with trees, or easily agitated when passersby laughed because I felt I was the butt of the joke.
It became worse when I met my first queer friend in the university. We lived in the same hostel, our rooms not too far from each other. Ashamed that I was feminine, he visited only after the sun set. We would sit on the iron seats beside the hostels late into the night, talking. He dressed in hoods to shield himself from being recognized as “having a conversation with the gay guy.” If a fellow gay man could be ashamed to be seen with me because of my femininity, I knew something was wrong with me.
My boisterous and highly spirited-nature slowly seeped out of me. In its stead came anxiety and self-doubt. Although I was known as a feminist for speaking against misogyny, I became mute during discussions on homosexuality. Once, when I defended homosexuality, a roommate said, “I’m beginning to suspect you.” I learned that day not to talk too much about sexuality. I did not want to become the roommate whom everyone ran away from at night because they perceived gay men as “anus busters”.
During the second semester of my second year, I took a course on American Literature and was introduced to Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. I would have never read this book if I hadn’t been assigned a term paper on postmodernism using Lorde’s work. I was so captivated by the book and its lucidity—word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph detailing Lorde’s early and young adult years—that when my department declared a “lecture-free day” so students could attend an inaugural lecture, I did not go. Instead, I read Lorde.
The hostel was silent except for the occasional greeting of students in the hallway and cleaners who were sweeping. My eyes grew wet with tears when I read, “In a paradoxical sense, once I accepted my positions as different from the larger society as well as from any single-sub-society—black or gay—I felt I didn’t have to try so hard. To be accepted. To look femme. To be straight. To look straight. To be proper. To look “nice.” To be liked. To be loved. To be approved. What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try merely to stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.”
Reread it, again.
“Oh my God!” I screamed. “Oh my God!”
I laughed. Screamed. Slid to the floor, head to my knees, and cried. This quote spoke so much to my situation, how I was navigating the world with a body that was deemed different, wanting to be loved and accepted. I never knew there was anything called queer literature, or that people wrote queer books. Although, before I encountered Lorde, I wrote stories with only female protagonists, after Zami, my narratives changed. It seemed the ordinary words of Lorde’s book melted my tongue, strengthened it, and created a new persona. I began writing stories with feminine gay men as major characters. I started speaking about LGBTQ rights to roommates and course mates, unapologetic to their questioning stares.
Audre Lorde once said, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.” Perhaps this is true of our personal experiences. As individual and particular as they are, we are linked and connected with a voice—a defense against future recurrence. With everything that has happened, and my intense longing for that child I was, I told myself, “I might never be that child again, but I can make use of what time has given me, and through these new personae, I can touch lives.”