“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” – Warsan Shire
Nothing captures the position of young Nigerians forced to leave the country in droves like the first two lines of the popular poem ‘Home’ by British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire. For queer Nigerians who have to deal with the violence of queerphobia alongside the economic and political issues home is mired in, home is not just the mouth of some random shark, home is the mouth of the great white shark.
When most queer people leave their queerphobic home countries for school, work, or business, one of the hopes they have is that they would finally be somewhere they can live without shrinking themselves. This is because hate, othering, and discrimination are parts of the African reality queer Africans have. For E and Chibuike who experienced this hate, othering and discrimination, leaving home has not entirely been escaping the shark as they may have expected.
E did not feel like he was different until he left home and came to the University of Nigeria Nsukka for his undergraduate degree. In his first year, he had a roommate who did not want to be seen in public with him because they were concerned people would assume they were gay if they were ever seen walking together. “He did not even know my sexuality. He just assumed I was gay because I was femme.” E said as we revisited those days.
His life at home was happy. He had two loving parents, an elder brother and two younger siblings in whose eyes he was nothing but a picture of perfection. His primary and secondary education went by smoothly. It took coming to UNN to find out that there was a particular way to be a man.
“One time, while walking home from lectures with my friends, a group of guys catcalled me.” Even after all these years, you can hear the distress in E’s otherwise gleeful voice as he retold this story. “We passed them and they started calling after us ‘hey, the babe on white shirt! Hey, you wey dey catwalk! Why you dey waka like woman?’ I was so embarrassed. I wished the ground would open up and swallow me.”
These acts were not limited to strangers who catcalled people on their way back from lectures. In his undergraduate days, E briefly dated someone who did not want to be seen in public with him. For E, it was understandable that this partner was in the closet. Who wasn’t? E was not asking to walk the streets of Nsukka holding hands with them or to be seen publicly displaying affection indiscriminately. But E would have wished he was not treated like a shameful thing by someone who claimed they liked him.
A day before his Japa to the United States for his Masters, E had a get-together with his friends who were in Abuja. He wanted it to be a lovely memory, something beautiful to take with him as he left home for a foreign land. But all that was nearly ruined before the hang out even began. The waitress who waited on E and his friends in an eatery in the mall at Lugbe laughed at E.
E stood up to receive some friends who could not locate them in the swarm of people who had come to the mall that hot Sunday afternoon, and the waitress, watching him strut away in his beautiful jindei-inspired ash-coloured silk top, matching pearls, headscarf and purse, laughed. It was this scornful scoff you fight to suppress so that it is not cackle or a full-blown guffaw. It was a silly little laugh, the kind heavy with something between pity, condescension and disgust. E did not see it because his back was turned to her, but one of his friends did, and she insisted the group would leave the establishment. She could not justify how they could give money to an establishment where the staff disrespected their customers so violently.
That afternoon, more than one friend said “at least after today you won’t have to experience something like this again. In America, you should be who you are and dress as you wish, without someone laughing at you.”
In America, E quickly learned that there was very little wholesome space for femme men who are not willing to pander to socio-cultural norms of how a guy should dress, walk, talk, or gesticulate in the black community. “There is a problem with the Africans you find here” E said “Once, at a birthday party, this African girl wore the most disgusted look I have ever seen as she watched me play Charade. I knew why she looked at me that way, it was because, to her, I did not give out the clues in a masculine enough way.” Even though she did not utter a word, E knew exactly what was locked behind her eyes because it was not the first time he was getting that look. “The (African) guys don’t even talk to me, they don’t want to have anything to do with me, which is okay, because I cannot suffer homophobia in Nigeria and come here and suffer homophobia again from them. You cannot come here and clip my wings.”
“The Black American men are bad DLs. Even when they want to hook up with you, they ask questions that show that they do not want anyone knowing that they are gay on the down low. They want to know if you have a roommate, and if your roommate is around, and things like that.” E explained a scenario where a straight black American girl stopped talking to his straight friend who is Nigerian after this friend mentioned to her that he went to a gay bar with him. “She assumed he was gay and stopped talking to him. She even got some other girls to stop talking to him too.” E noticed that the straight Black American girls’ relationship with femme men is even more acute. “They subscribe to a rigid definition of masculinity that if you do not participate in, they would not want to have anything to do with you.
While he has not been catcalled on the streets, laughed at or openly disrespected, E has experienced homophobia in subtle ways and in ways that are rather passive-aggressive. “Some white Christian conservative republicans who you would meet in churches have homophobic views and rhetoric.” Between that and Black American men mostly only wanting to sleep with you strictly on the downlow, straight Black American girls avoiding you if you are femme or masc but ‘goes to gay bars’, and Africans being just as homophobic as the law would allow them to be, E does not think the Southern atmosphere is properly adjusted to accept gay people.
Like E, Chibuike was never made to feel like there was anything different in the way they are until they left their home in Calabar for an undergraduate degree at UNN. They began studying at Nsukka in early 2014, the same year the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) was signed into law. “I think one thing people do not speak enough about is how the SSMPA skyrocketed the rate of homophobia in Nigeria.” Chibuike pointed out, revisiting memories of their early days in UNN. “For the first few weeks, the stares were too much and I knew why they were looking. Tensions were high and for the first time in my life, I felt so self-conscious about being femme.”
But Chibuike found their community. A friend introduced them to a Christian fellowship on campus called Christian Union (CU). Here, everyone looked at them the same way their family at home looks at them – like a person. “At Christian Union I was not made to feel like I was different. I was welcomed with open arms and that gave me the community I needed.” Chibuike remained a member of CU until they left UNN.
The goodwill of finding a home among strangers in Nigeria where people are not very welcoming of Queer people followed Chibuike from CU to their days at the mandatory National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) camp. “I was just lucky, at NYSC camp, everyone liked me. They referred to me as ‘Sexy’. After participating in a cultural dance presentation, people were so impressed they wanted to be friends with me.” In the community where they served, people were generally kind and decent to them. “It was while serving in Port Harcourt I first began dressing in traditionally female clothes and growing out my hair.”
Before Chibuike completed his NYSC, they were catcalled in a market in Port Harcourt. “A trader had called out to me, inviting me to buy things from his shop but I declined because he did not sell what I wanted. This pissed him off and he started calling me names.” It was the only time Chibuike experienced any act of hate during his stay in Port Harcourt.
“Here in the US, few times I have had a bad stare, or a reaction that showed someone was not comfortable having me around, it came from Africans.” Chibuike had seen this in the all-African gatherings. This was a look they had known for years and would recognise easily. “Once I notice that my presence irks you simply because of my clothes and my hair and my lipstick, I make every effort to see that I am never away from your view.”
Home or abroad, there is no ‘off’ switch for homophobia for the homophobic. The laws may rein in what homophobes can do with their hate, but it does not make it go away. In the same vein, a subtler show of hate or a ‘benevolent’ hate is still very much hate. The pain and damage caused hurt as much whether or not these acts happened at home or abroad. The only way out is through nuanced laws that actually protect members of the LGBTQ+ community better.
In place of laws that allow some people to hate, disrespect and hurt other people, we need laws that create a cultural conditioning different from what is already existing globally. We need laws that change the narrative, that do not endorse maleness, masculinity, and proximity to both as prize and currency. We need rounded laws that recognise that all humans are equal and important and deserve full agency.
Writer: Ernest Nweke
Editors: Chimee Adioha; Amaka Obioji
Art: Lexx Abbey