Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, the very first Pride march commemorating the Stonewall uprising – the historically pivotal civil rights rebellion protesting the raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Part of a wider civil rights movement, the Stonewall uprising was a retaliation to the long-standing police brutality against members of the queer community and also the black community, violence that still persists today.
At the start of this month protests across different Western countries erupted, with black people and our anti-racist allies confronting, once again, the senseless targeting and needless killings of black people by law enforcement. However, whilst fighting against the system of oppression that reproduces the disenfranchisement of black people worldwide, the black community has also been forced to look inward at how these same systems are upheld within our own communities. The murders of black trans women, Dominique Fells and Riah Milton just 24 hours apart occurring within the month dedicated to celebrating LGBTQIAP+ lives, and the month where we are all speaking out against mindless violence based on hatefulness and intolerance, illuminated the injustices existing in black communities and our need to dismantle inequalities propagated both within and without our communities simultaneously.
Given America’s global hegemony and media domination, social upheaval in the United States often translates into uproar worldwide, similarly to how American-born celebrations, such as Pride, are often adopted around the world. Here in Nigeria, both cases are true. But when is come to LGBTQIAP+ celebrations through the month of June, given the local context where queerness is criminalised, persisting struggles for queer liberation come to the fore.
Despite the barriers to individual freedom set in place by the institutions that govern this country – including the hyper-religious culture that faithfully upholds a rather morally bankrupt status quo – many Nigerians are boldly living their truth, battling against the system that posits their reality as a policy point. One of such people is Ola an 18-year-old Lagos resident who only recently affirmed her queerness and is still working towards “a healthy queer evolution”, she tells me.
“I haven’t opened up to my family yet. Last time they coincidentally managed to note my queer side (one of my nosy aunts took note of my vocalness on Whatsapp and reported me to my folks) my mum took it the wrong way, shrugging it off and basically invalidating me. All patched up under fucking religious homophobia alongside silly rigid culture, my mum irreverently tried to guilt me with threats of missing a future paradise (she is a Jehovah’s Witness). My dad on the other [hand] took it teasingly and might have been liberal about it too, but [instead] he waved it in my face like ‘ahh, see bisexual’”
At that point in time, Ola was still in denial that her attraction to women far outweighed her attraction to men. Still working to overcome the guilt that she’s been trained to feel in response to her sensual attraction to women, Ola has finally accepted her sexual orientation but she’s keeping her family out of it (for now), avoiding invalidation and the risk of her sexuality being used as “incriminating evidence against [her] in the future”. The Iron Butterfly [anonymised] is the same, “not that [her family’s] opinion matters though”; as is Muna, whose parents have remained oblivious ever since they took them to ‘deliverance’ upon finding texts to girls on their phone. In other settings, both Muna and The Iron Butterfly, much like 26-year-old Nicole [anonymised] are extremely calculated about what they reveal and to whom.
“I sort of gauge the environment before I feel comfortable enough to disclose my sexuality. Sometimes I’d tell a certain type of person because I know it makes them uncomfortable. I don’t know if that’s weird but for me it’s like ‘why does my existence make you uncomfortable?’ So now I want to make you uncomfortable. I know it’s a bit strange but yeah. When I’m in Lagos I tread a bit more carefully, if I feel like you’re likely to be a threat then I’ll just back away. When I’m outside the country I’m as free as a bird.” – Nicole
Muna is similarly free within their own cultivated social circle here in Lagos – a freedom which they describe to me as a privilege. I too am privileged enough to be part of a community that doesn’t emphasise non-conformity as a ‘deviation’ society must ‘accept’ or even worse consider it sinful. In my neck of the woods, if you don’t conform, that’s cool that’s you, if you do conform, that’s cool, (make sure you’re doing so because) that’s you. Amongst my friends, queerness is celebrated, and one of the ways in which this manifests is through our use of the tongue-in-cheek phrase “na gay dey reign”. I’ve always found it to be empowering, a witty way of affirming that “we move regardless of the obstacles, we matter and we dey”, to quote Nicole, or a way of “putting pride or affirming validation against all the hate expressed in homophobic killings” Ola says.
But Ola goes on to tell me, “It does nothing for my anxious, panicky self though. Worse, it makes me feel slighted. Not until I see a picture depicting all umbrellas of the queer community do I feel reassured (my opinion though).”
Muna and The Iron Butterfly are also critical of the aphorism, both suggesting that it might be used as an invalidating tool to affirm the myth that homosexuality is a mainstream trend. Nicole, Muna, The Iron Butterfly and Ola all had distinct reactions to the phrase and unique interpretations, an imperative illustration of the dangers of single-story representation in media.
No two people have the same experiences, the same perceptions and the same understandings. Whether you’re on the outside looking in or part of a whole, the story you glean or the story you yourself can tell is not representative of everybody but rather a reflection of your own reality. Especially when it comes to LGBTQIAP+ conversations, we must be careful never to conflate bisexual experiences with pansexual experiences or gay experiences with trans experiences or lesbian experiences with intersex experiences or queer questioning experiences with asexual experiences. Though part of a queer community, fighting toward the same end, multiple perspectives exist, and should all be given the same platform and the same visibility. Muna illustrates the nuances of their non-binary experience and how that differs to the physical violence perpetrated against queer men in Nigeria, saying:
“I usually think [with] male allies it’s usually fetishisation that drives them to support the L but never the GBTQIA+. It’s kind of popular for men to be allies, [it’s] like branding... Women are heavily objectified and sexualised, their every action is scrutinised specifically to make sure it conforms to norms of what [is] expected of a “good woman”. So for someone like me to dress or behave in a way that averts the male gaze is almost astounding to a typical Nigerian. It definitely does affect the way I’m treated day to day by people that aren’t knowledgeable, but I’ve never experienced violence at the same level that gay/queer men have in this country. Men that are effeminate or don’t exhibit traits that screams testosterone are usually seen as less than or weaker and I think that’s where the violence comes into play. Although I identify as non-binary, because I’m still biologically a woman, there’s [a sense of] hope for ‘reform’ [to outsiders], so sexual threats, invasive questions are the norm.” – Muna
Being a queer womxn in Nigeria presents a unique set of struggles owing to the intersection of female subjugation and rampant homophobia. This month we have seen how rife sexual based violence is in Nigeria and how it disproportionately affects womxn. Queer womxn are victims of sexual & gender-based violence too, of course, oftentimes explicitly because of their sexuality.
“There’s the normal ‘how do you know you’re gay?’ [which escalates] to ‘when I finish raping you, you’ll thank me.’” – Muna
This extremely brutal suggestion is, distressingly, a commonplace homophobic hate crime where rape is heinously justified as a means of ‘correcting’ someone’s sexuality. Statements such as the one made to Muna or the requests to “watch me and my girl have sex” that The Iron Butterfly received on two different occasions after disclosing her sexual orientation to two different people, exemplify how those who possess the female form are perceived as strictly the objects of male desire, with no purpose beyond appealing to the male gaze. The perfidious proliferation this patriarchal teaching puts all womxn at risk of men, but it also decidedly strips queer womxn of an already heavily contested freedom to live their truth as a queer person.
A specific symptom of male entitlement to the female body is male-on-female rejection violence, another startlingly common phenomenon where men resort to violence upon being rejected sexually or romantically by a womxn. As a lesbian, the risk that comes with rejecting men is unavoidable.
“It’s honestly Russian roulette. Having to smile and be friendly to slowly get them to back down while increasing your guard. It’s scary that even if you do everything ‘right’ – because I as a human being shouldn’t have to fear for my life every time a man wants to talk to me – I can still be harmed.
There was a time that I went out to a 24-hour shop in my estate and it was evening. I’d come out and was about to get into my car and these two men came up to me, I’m usually comfortable enough to wear short shorts in my estate so one of them came up behind me and slapped my ass. I had to laugh it off because I’ve been trained to notice my surroundings and I saw they had two other friends laughing at me from their own car. I laughed, made a jab at them and got into my car. Driving down to my road, the next thing I see is their car speeding towards me, trying to bump and hit my car out of the road. [It] took me about thirty minutes to lose them by hiding in a close that wasn’t even close to my street. I think that’s why I try to be as cooperative as possible to avoid escalation.
I usually stand my ground when I don’t feel outnumbered or if the power dynamic is not a huge difference, but I do feel bad when I don’t [because of] the principle of what I stand for and against. If I’d let it happen to me then it’s definitely going to happen to someone else. There’s this sense of hypocrisy whenever I let these things slide.” – Muna
“I, depending on contextual scenarios, swiftly turn the page (topic or compliment). Or I assert, sometimes awkwardly, that I'm not comfortable with such unwanted advances. In the nearest future, I swear to always take a protective object as a stellar weapon of non-recriminating fear and, as earlier iterated, a goddamn weapon.
Once, I posted a back-camera pic of my butt in shorts, and perhaps it was hot – I have never outwardly called myself 'hot’ or ‘sexy’ (my asexual side in play). This guy supposedly complimented me saying ‘you are hot!’ Heterosexual females might take that as a validation, but I was so fucking uncomfortable, and I told him so. Then he fucking reiterated it, continuously, until I said ‘bitch, stop this shit! Ever heard of being asexual?’ Then he calmed down… In light of the rapid brutal rape incidents, [my] anxiety [and] hate [towards men] inherently tripled… Nobody prepares you for the immense hate propagated by mainstream culture” – Ola
For Nicole, who is “in touch with [her] masc side”, the intersection between gender and sexuality plays out in other frustrating ways.
“You know the biggest interaction between those two things for me are the heteronormative roles people try to put on my various relationships. It’s like because I’m in touch with my masc side then there’s an automatic assumption that I should react in certain ways. It’s frustrating because it spills into my relationships a lot of times. It’s like how am I in a relationship with another woman and there’s still weird ‘roles’ happening – [people] asking annoying questions like ‘who opens the door?’ [Outside of my relationships,] sometimes men want me to be ‘one of the boys’ and I dismiss that as soon as I get a hold of it ‘cause it just leads to nonsense” – Nicole
Heteronormative projections, male entitlement, gender-based crimes, trans violence, police brutality are all fruits of the same toxic capitalistic, patriarchal, oppressive systems which exist to serve certain members of society to the detriment of others – at the cost of others’ lives, in fact. In fighting against one instrument of social injustice and inequality, we must ensure we tackle bigotry in all its forms, and this is what the world is beginning to wise up to (I think). This month, seeing more and more Nigerians strive toward intersectional societal reform has reinforced my faith in the country – just when I was feeling most hopeless and helpless; there is a light at the end of the very long, very dark tunnel, but “it’s key to be patient” Muna suggests.
“I’m so happy whenever I’m in spaces that I wish I had when I was younger. People are a lot more accepting than a decade ago and that’s great but it’s obviously not perfect yet. There should be a lot more queer representation and I’m sure we’re working on it. It’s key to be patient. Our time will come but I can’t help but wish our egalitarian paradise [was] closer than it really is” – Muna
“Yes, more needs to be done, but it’s okay if no one is bold enough – Nigeria and its crazy cultural beliefs” – The Iron Butterfly
“I notice some [advocacy] but it’s mostly advocacy by gay men. Which is okay, they do try. I see the fight and I appreciate it. Nigeria is a very tough climate to be openly gay in and fight for certain rights. People may be on here agreeing with you but also targeting you.
A bit more in recent years, I see more women who look like me and remind me of myself talking about what it means to be a queer woman of colour. I’m envious that they get to live their truths so purely, I’m also really proud but most of all I’m inspired. When I see deep representation in some media outlets, I’m like ‘yeah one day that could be me, one day I’ll be free’? I don’t know… we’ll see. [This isn’t the case] in Nigerian media though. Maybe like once or twice or three times, it’s so rare I can’t even remember” – Nicole
“Whenever I see queer folks putting up pride shit and use the abbreviations ‘LGBTQ’ I feel immensely gaslighted and cheated, for you do know that the [asexual] community is still being seen as fake & all. So, I usually feel acknowledged only when I see the ‘LGBTQIA+’ community. It works like magic Like ‘yaayy! I'm fucking seen!’ I guess that answers the question 'do you feel adequately represented in these [social justice] movements?' No!” – Ola
Unfortunately, despite the fact that black women, black queer womxn are on the front lines fighting against the oppression of all demographics and communities, the tragic death of Oluwatoyin Salau shone a blinding light on the fact that we’re hardly ever afforded the safety we so ardently fight for for everyone else. Black queer womxn are often relegated to the background, our work forming the backbone of society whilst our voices remain stifled. Even within the queer community, as Ola points out, being seen (talk less of heard), is never guaranteed. Take for example how black trans women, who literally invented everything pop culture, have been so violently excluded from the spaces their culture informed in the complete whitewashing of history that wrongfully attributed trans customs to trendy fads helmed by white gay men.
As human rights activism becomes the order of the day for an increasing number of people in Nigeria and beyond, we must ensure that our advocacy is for equality for everyone; that no demographic, no community, no individual be erased from the reform. This social uprising is not a bid to gain the power of the oppressor, but rather a genuine revolution in order to overthrow the dominating systems of oppression. That’s the fight we’re in and that’s the fight we win.
Special thanks go to the wonderful & brilliant quartet I interviewed: The Iron. Butterfly, Muna, Ola & Nicole for sharing their stories with me. Listen to them. Listen to us all.
Photo credits hyperlinked.
Cover Image credits: Film Daily