Published in April this year, “She Called Me Woman: Nigerian Queer Women Speak” (Cassava Republic Press) is a compendium of 25 personal accounts by individuals from Nigeria’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities. The trio of editors – Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan and Rafeeat Aliyu – have done the laudable work of collecting first hand narratives from every political zone in Nigeria with a measured but clear objective not to “provide a comprehensive picture but rather snapshots of histories, experiences and realities” of being a queer woman in Nigeria.
“She Called Me Woman” also works as a strong rebuttal to the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act which the country’s parliament passed in 2013 and was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014.
Same sex has been illegal under federal law, imposed by British colonial rule, since 1901. Same sex relationships has since been decriminalised in the UK in 1967 but rather than follow suit, sexual and individual freedom has regressed in Nigerian lawmaking and among its populace.
Neither the adopted British law nor its Nigerian incarnation over 100 years later specify against sex between “women”. Instead, the word used is “persons” which could suggest relations within women was and is less threatening or more conceivable, though when enforced, women suffer as much from the law as do men.
One common denominator in “She Called Me Woman” is the “Nigeria problem” which is to mean the real and perceived way the country does not support, in material or existential terms, the dreams and ambitions of its citizens, regardless of sexual orientation:
“Somebody my age in another country would have masters, PhD and subsidised school fees…somebody my age would be planning retirement but in Nigeria life is just starting” (KZ, age 40, Lagos in This Is Not Our World).
The many Nigerians who celebrated the country’s law makers for passing the Same Sex Prohibition bill and President Jonathan for signing it into law will, in the next breath, condemn vehemently other poorly conceived laws and abysmal security apparatuses founded in ignorance and a lack of compassion, incompetence and corruption, as well as the myopia shown by the same set of people – when it is these same factors that have led to the “anti-gay bill” being passed into law.
It’s 2018. If the educated and ruling elite do not, by now, know that attraction between same sex persons is as natural and biological as it is in opposite sex couples, what hope is there for the masses who are subjected to largely substandard education and unscrutinised interpretations of imported religions.
This also presents a missed opportunity for “She Called Me Woman” which would have gained even more authority from foregrounding, for the reader, proofs that scientists (religion’s chief foe) do not know the precise reason why any one individual is heterosexual or homosexual, and are only surer of sexual orientation as a genetic fact.
Another set of problems many individuals face is rejection from their immediate families:
“I can never tell my mother that I like girls, I can never tell that I fantasised about marrying a woman, I can never tell that all her wishes for me – a good man, 2.5 kids and a ‘good civil service job’ – are my biggest nightmares”. (HA, age 30, Abuja, I Convinced Myself I Wasn’t A Lesbian)
Individuals are rejected by their immediate families who, sometimes subject them to beatings before ostracising them (while others choose to ostracise themselves to preempt such a move). Away from the emotional and financial support of a family – in a country without a welfare system – individuals endure hardship and mental breakdown, added to the real fear of being killed or raped by homophobes and the suffocating hostility many face everyday.
In the editor’s note, the trio forewarn the absence of contributions from LGBT women above the age of 40 and regret the experience and richness this demographic would have brought. The few they have included show a marked shift in concerns, some of which are directed towards the young and queer who apparently care less for their safety or the image they portray to the heterosexual majority:
“Before, you wouldn’t see a gay person. You would have to call your people to be at a gathering, but now you go to Shoprite and you see everybody…you see tomboys sagging, you see them wearing jellabia, sometimes looking dirty. You know how guys wear slippers halfway and drag their legs? Some tomboys are just like that” (KZ, age 40, Lagos, This Is Not Our World).
The same-sex prohibition law has not made Nigeria an upright and moral society as was said to be the aim. All it has done is further doomed hopes for a fuller and freer life for its own citizens. More so, discriminating against an individual’s natural sexual orientation, for whatever reasons, is the real act against nature.