LIVING AS A QUEER WOMAN IN NIGERIA
As soon as my girlfriend and I got off the yellow bus, one of those buses that shuttled between campus and a stop on the outskirts of the city, we were accosted by a fat man.
We were at the edge of the express road, just where a long line of traders and bus drivers removed grime from their fingernails and drank sachets of cold water.
He squeezed himself between us, linked his oily fingers in ours and made kissy faces at us.
No one seemed bothered by this intrusion; one man cheered him, encouraging him to “go for it”.
His breath was a generous mix of Orijin and Star.
He seemed drunk.
We struggled, but he would not let go of our hands.
Frustrated, we cussed at him, still he was undeterred.
He laughed, licking his lips. He told us we were beautiful and offered us a ‘good time’.
Somehow we managed to lose his grip and walk hastily, almost running towards the garage where we were supposed to board another bus. He hurled insults at us, telling us we were ashewo (Prostitutes), good for nothing.
His words stung our ears until he was completely out of earshot. Getting away from him felt like a victory.
What we did not know was that it would be the first of several brushes with sexual harassment, as a couple.
We were headed to dinner at a friend’s house for the Id el Kabir celebration. We both wore lace dresses and had henna drawn on our hands. To save cost, we navigated without a car, through a historically dangerous part of the city.
As we usually did, we held hands without giving it a thought.
“Can I come and join my hand too,”
Several men asked as we walked past, with emphasis on too.
The sun was setting above us but we did not miss the flush on their dark skins, the twinkling in their eyes, the smug smile that toyed at their lips. Some pursed their lips; others folded it, shaking their heads, visibly irritated at our display of affection.
The obvious and undeniable reason for their reaction was that we were what they suspected—two women who did not care about expressing their affection by publicly holding hands.
Two queer women.
At dinner, I told my friend curtly that I would not be returning to his part of the city. If he was annoyed by this, he did a good job of not showing it. He told us he understood how things could be, and should have warned us.
The rest of the evening was mostly quiet until we loosened up with beer in red cups.
At night as my friend called us an uber, I typed on my browser “gay people holding hands in public,” just as a way to understand if the problem was unique to this part of the city. Instead, I uncovered a new world, a conundrum, a deep well of people who had experienced and were experiencing similar problems.
Some of the stories were from outside Africa, and in places where homosexuality was legal. The universality of the problem was incredible. I spent the whole drive reading essays and news articles.
On one essay published on globe and mail Zosia Bielski writes that heterosexual couples have long taken their public displays of affection for granted. Reading this, I realized that if I had been with a man, I may have gotten no reaction from spectators for a number of reasons ranging from chivalry: the misogynistic belief that the man was my guardian, and inherently, said spectators respected him, to the natural assumption that we—this man and I—were in a heterosexual relationship, a relationship that fit into the box of familiarity.
I use the word “may” as often there is nothing stopping men from the whims and caprices of vileness.
Months later, I am out with a male lover at night. We are touring the island parts of the city. Though we do not hold hands, there is a measure of affection standing in the tiny space between us.
We spend hours talking and walking, only stopping to grab a bite at an all-night café before we proceed to another part of the island to sit at the beach and watch the waves. The men around do not say anything to us, there is no unusually curious and lingering stare as to cause apprehension.
Bias against queer women in Nigeria is rooted in deeply held cultural and religious values. By queer women, I refer to women whose identities may be placed anywhere in the entire spectrum of sexuality be it lesbians, bisexuals or transwomen.
From kissing or holding hands in public, to the ability to apply for a marriage certificate at the Registry and be legally married, to posting pictures of my girlfriend and I on social media, Nigeria has proven to not be a safe for me.
It is both limiting of my rights in its inactions and proactive in its steps to strip me of these rights.
According to NOIPOLLS 91% of Nigerians do not believe that people are born homosexual, 83% said they will not accept a family member who is homosexual and 56% believe homosexuals should be denied access to public services like healthcare and education.
When I ask my friend M her experiences as a lesbian woman living in Nigeria, she gives me the most relatable answer:
I can almost feel the fumes unfurl from her fingertips as she types and retypes the words.
Hell, Hell, Hell.
She later tells me specifically that Nigerian men feel entitled to her existence and that she cannot wait for her mother to stop asking: “Is this how you will treat your husband?” as if her life was created to revolve around a man.
When we share our experiences about being out in public on dates, and how Nigerians react to this, she tells me of a time she went for a dinner date with her girlfriend.
They were at an exclusive restaurant, holding hands, feeding each other, laughing, and demonstrating other forms of affection only acceptable and permissible in Heterosexual relationships.
“It was all fun,” she says, “until a guy out of nowhere pulls out a chair and sits down beside us.”
“I was mad because he would not have tried that if I was on a date with a man. But because I was with a woman, whatever it was we were doing was not valid.”
These limitations are constrained still, by the fact that cultures around Nigeria find a woman’s liberating sexuality to be intimidating. Women who talk about sex, using the words vagina and penis, and flirt openly are considered loose and sexually promiscuous.
From the time I was a child, I was warned to sit with my legs together, and to mind my language. I was taught not to go after men, to allow men make the first move—which he would do if he really liked me.
Meanwhile men and boys who shared the exact same characteristics and exhibited such traits were deemed to be cool and had “game”. There is no unwritten law limiting these men from expressing their sexual prowess. We all know how this has culminated into a history of sexual abuse and harassment.
It is being said that as a queer woman, I have it better than fellow queer men who are abused and shunned, who face institutionalized discrimination and violence from state actors owing to the fact that they are gay.
The recent kidnapping of writer and gay activist, Chibuihe Obi, and hate comments and attacks targeted towards famous queer pseudo-celebrity, Bobrisky, are ready examples of the plight queer men face in Nigeria.
In August 2017, Vanguard Nigeria reported the arraignment of 28 adults and 12 minors for engaging in homosexuality, all male.
The lack of legal protection and consistent and continuous violence against actual and perceived queer persons, particularly men has gained limelight in recent times due to these cases. However, queer women do not enjoy the alleged “privilege” of being romanticized and held as objects of fascination.
Queer women do not have it better, contrary to popular opinion.
Though, Nigerian men and millennials view our sexuality, and what we do in our bedrooms, as intriguing, queer women still lack human rights and suffer corrective rape and other acts of sexual violence in order to “convert” them into heterosexual beings.
Kruger writes that corrective rape is used to demonstrate that women are subjected to the power of men over their lives and is motivated by the belief that lesbian women pretend to be men, and is designed to prove they are women.
Patriarchy with its enshrinement of male dominance and the stereotype role of women in Africa is a primary cause of such crimes. Perpetrators and supporters of corrective rape relate being queer to just sex. But being queer is not just about what happens in the bedroom.
“The immediate conflation of the gay community with sex is dangerous. It puts us on a primitive level beneath our heterosexual peers,” Marissa Higgins writes in Huff Post.
She continues that the sexualization of lesbians is a cultural phenomenon. “Perhaps it is society’s glorification of the penis and masculinity in sex that causes people both heterosexual and within the queer community, to marvel over what two women can possibly do in the bedroom.”
Nigerian cultures in their archaic nature and repugnance to natural justice, still deem women and queer women, to be unruly things to be tamed, abominations of sorts.
Religion fuels this fire, warning us that we are hell-bound, while Politicians use our sexuality to distract Nigerians from real issues.
Queer women face a two-fold problem – the problem of being queer and the problem of being a woman, the problem of being a part of two marginalized communities.
Ines Gonteck writes “Generally speaking violence against queer women cannot be considered as a separate entity from violence against women but should be considered on expression of such.”
In addition, queer women face a number of stereotypes: we hate men, we have daddy issues, we are more masculine than heterosexual women, we were molested as children, we haven’t met the right men yet, we dress like men.
The Initiative for Equal rights reports yearly on human rights violations based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity in Nigeria. It reports stories of corrective rape and brutalities against queer men and women. In one case a 19 year old woman – a woman only three years younger than me, and a student, of which I was one until recently, was raped by five men in Oshodi – a place that is only a few kilometers from my apartment.
According to these men, the offence that she committed, that was so grievous warranting them to take justice into their hands was that she was attracted to women.
The men felt that if strong men like them, had sex with her, her sexual orientation would change.
While reading, my mind went to the several men who had told me they would give me “bomb dick” and I would never ever think of pussy again.
There are several accounts of women being sexually harassed, blackmailed, kidnapped, unlawfully arrested, threatened and assaulted on account of their sexual orientation. Yet, these stories are only heard by a fraction of our society. Where they are made public, the general public says: “Yes, they deserved it.”
The truth is this: we are not safe, we lack security even on online spaces. For the first time after my experience with the fat man, it dawned on me that there are dangerous men out in the world, targeting me and women like, hoping to redeem us from our sexual orientation.
During the days preceding the 2016 American elections, I had an argument with a pastor friend on who was the ideal Presidential candidate. Never mind that Hillary Clinton believed that climate change was real, that she had impressive qualifications and experience, or that she had a high health care mandate and was a staunch supporter of the affordable care act or that her policies were generally better and beneficial to the diverse citizenship of America or that Trump was a certified sexual predator with proven viral cases of harassing women and was planning to build a great wall around America.
To my friend, Trump was the ideal candidate as he was going to criminalize gay marriage in America and “Make America great again.”
It made me wonder about the selective studying of holy books which religious people are so fond of: “gay marriage is a sacrilege to God,” even though you would find them lying, fornicating and stealing acts which are just as contrary to their holy books and beliefs.
Despite the continued harassment and oppression of queer persons in Nigeria, public debate on the matter is disallowed. Human rights defenders who speak out on the issue are routinely harassed and may be arrested and charged to court for “promoting homosexuality” or for “inciting” the public to take part in “immoral activities”. This occurs despite the Nigerian Constitution's guarantee of freedom of expression.
The Nigerian Law does not grant queer women any opportunities to realize and define their political, cultural, social and individual place in the society.
Nigerian Citizens are guaranteed rights and freedoms enshrined as fundamental rights in the 1999 Constitution. Chapter 4 of the Constitution guarantees right to life, freedom from discrimination, right to dignity of human person, freedom of movement, right to free association, freedom of expression etc.
The provisions in this chapter do not in any way exclude people based on gender identity and sexual orientation from benefiting from these rights.
The African Charter and International Covenant on Civil and Political rights further reiterate the principle that violence and discrimination against persons is unacceptable irrespective of their gender identity and sexual orientation. As a party to these conventions, Nigeria has an obligation to respect, promote and protect human rights not excluding the rights of queer persons.
However, in 2013 the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was enacted under the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. This law stipulates a sanction of 14 years for same sex marriage and 10 years imprisonment for human right activists and people who aid and abet same sex relationships. It further prohibits registration of gay clubs, societies and organization.
This law encourages and breeds a culture of discrimination against queer women and fosters hostility towards queer persons. It also legitimizes human rights violation as it contradicts the constitution's provisions on fundamental rights.
What this law does is pave the way for homophobes to exercise their hate and violence toward homosexuals without fear of legal consequence.
The maximum punishment in the twelve northern states that have adopted Sharia law is death by stoning. While some other African countries like Sierra Leone criminalize only male same sex activity, Nigeria’s Criminal Code criminalizes both male and female same-sex sexual activity.
Political leaders are constantly claiming that homosexuality is Un-African, and using this as a basis to criminalize it.
President Robert Mugabe, Ex-President Goodluck Jonathan and President Yowen Museveni amongst other African leaders, past and present, have this in common: their use of the alleged “un-africanness” of homosexuality to criminalize it.
The Media throughout Africa does not help matters as it continues to portray homosexuality in stereotypical light and as evil.
Queer women are being harassed, blackmailed, kidnapped and raped. The streets, our homes and even online spaces are not safe for us. We are invisible and have next to no rights in Nigeria, and still, no one is saying anything.
As the Uber slowed down to a stop in front of my apartment, a building that had belonged to my grandfather for several years before his death, I stared around in the darkness, at the Hausa men who fried potatoes and chicken for sale, at the woman who sold Loaves of bread on a tray, and the young children playing jump ropes in the front of their houses.
Everyone suddenly seemed to be in on a grand scheme to hurt my girlfriend and I.
My mind was working overtime, seeing things that were not there, menace in the eyes of the Uber driver when he looked at me through the rearview mirror. I let go of my girlfriend’s hand, and gently nudged her to lift her head from my shoulder.
In that moment, the world stopped for me.
I decided to lock all my social media accounts, as a way to protect us, to be careful.
Words by Ope Adedeji