We went to the same university, my paternal cousin and I. He was a couple of classes ahead of me, older, of course, than me, and treated me with the avuncular affection of a big brother to a younger one. He always gave me money and provisions whenever mine had depleted, and frequently asked me over to his place for sleepovers. He is tall, dark and handsome, and there were moments then, when I nursed a crush on him.
He graduated from school before me, and it wasn’t long before he relocated to the UK to further his studies. We kept in touch, and he continued to look out for me. A year or two after he left Nigeria, he apparently found his calling as a clergyman, and was soon ordained an Anglican priest.
For some illogical reason, I felt as though he had betrayed me.
This was around the period I’d just started getting disillusioned with my faith and the church. I had battled for so long to accept my sexuality, only to suddenly find myself facing the self-righteous indignation of the church. Disapprobation against homosexuality were starting to salt the teachings in my church, with priest after white-garmented priest standing at the altar and shaking his fist in condemnation of the ‘sin’ of man sleeping with his fellow man, and woman sleeping with her fellow woman. I refused to feel guilty about my desires. I refused to be torn up over my libidinous choices. And so, when it came down to a choice of the church and my sexuality, I found myself resenting the compulsory Sunday morning routines and sulking in the face of the crucifix that frowned down at me from the pulpit with sorrow-faced patronization.
And so, with the widening chasm between the church and I came the distance between my cousin and I. I simply couldn’t be bothered to keep in touch with him, this very close relative of mine. Soon after his ordination, he got married and had a kid in quick succession. Expectedly, word of his progress in life filtered back to Nigeria, and my father would gush, “Ah, look at how Henry is doing so well in London – a wife, a son…he’s becoming quite the man.”
The old man never turned to me to ask me the perennial question: “So when are you going to become quite the man yourself?” He never did. But it was implied in the gushing pride he took in my cousin.
I wasn’t bothered. Henry was after all years my senior, I reasoned. He was allowed to get married and have children, first before me. It was his time.
And then, the president signed into existence the anti-gay law, the move that kicked the Nigerian internet hemisphere into an uproar. The blogosphere and social media were split into the multitudinous right wing conservatives who lauded the president’s decision and the defensive pro-gay minority who preached the violation of human rights. At first I was afraid, and my fear brought about my silence. I cowered from arguments that rehashed the law. And then, I slowly began to get indignant, outraged. And when the vitriol came pouring, I lashed back. I got antagonistic, I unfriended contacts, I cut off acquaintances. When a friend queried my passion with a thinly-veiled insinuation about the true nature of my sexuality, I shut him up with a scathing rejoinder about the fight for human rights.
And then Henry called. There was a financial matter he wanted to discuss with me. Somehow, we went from that fiscal issue to him asking about my pro-gay stance, something he’d been silently observing from my social media activity.
I was instantly guarded, wondering where our conversation was going. If he however had any suspicions, I didn’t think he would give voice to them. Because no matter how passionately we may feel for or against the controversy of sexuality, when it hits close to home, when it becomes an elephant in the room, everyone likes not to talk about it.
But Henry surprised me. He hit me with the question point-blank. “I’m saying this thing because I’m wondering,” he said. “I’m wondering…are you gay?”
I reeled. I was speechless. How dare he ask me such a question? In a matter of seconds, I had battled with different instincts, anxiety with suggested I lie, and defiance which prompted for the truth.
“I hope you are not,” he continued. “But if you are, talk to me at once.”
I was still speechless.
“Talk to me, I’m waiting,” he urged.
Feeling suddenly resentful, I snapped, “How did we get from the money issue to my sexuality?”
“Related, I suppose,” he replied. “But you know you can confide in me. I’d never judge you. But I don’t want you living a lie and in denial. Just be honest with me. I won’t judge.”
Thing is, I’d heard someone once say: The ironic thing is, it’s those who say they won’t judge that are quick to pick up the gavel.
So, no, dear cousin, I can’t be honest with you. I won’t be honest with you.
“Come on, kid brother, if it’s any help,” he continued, “I have gay people in my church, and they are my best friends.”
I couldn’t lie to him, not out of any obligation to him, but out of respect to myself. So, I said as coldly as I could manage, “Whatever my sexuality is is no one’s business. Please, let’s drop this issue.”
He let a heavy silence pass, one which underscored my remark, one which was heavy with his conviction about my sexuality. I didn’t care what he knew or thought. I didn’t bother to try to convince him otherwise. As long as I was concerned, his thoughts were his, and had nothing to do with me.
What if he tells your parents, a little voice nagged inside me, what then?
Well then, that would be that.
But Henry didn’t tell my parents. Nothing got back to me. Life went on. Months passed. He had another baby. His life was expanding in the UK. Mine was still just about me in Nigeria.
And then, last week, he buzzed me on Facebook. An inbox chat. I replied. And in his characteristic point-blank attitude, he asked: So, how’s the sexuality exploration coming along?
ME: Um, sexuality exploration?
HIM: Yes, you exploring your sexuality…
ME: When did we talk about me exploring my sexuality?
HIM: You told me something a long time ago about your sexuality. I was wondering if you are still feeling the same way.
ME: (thinking: I did, huh? I remember that conversation differently. But what da heck…) Well, it’s going good, the exploration.
HIM: Have you been able to tell anyone else?
(Note how we were now suddenly sure about me being gay. How did that happen?)
ME: No, but my brother found out earlier this year from my phone. We had a quarrel over it. Then he stopped talking to me. And then he started talking to me, but not about it. So now, we’re basically ignoring that issue.
(Yes, my immediate younger brother is the one family member who has been confronted by the reality of my sexuality. But that’s a story for another time)
HIM: You know it’s going to be a very hard road, right? But you’re a person with so much love. So I’m sure all will be well. You must be careful because of the law in Nigeria. I wish I can get you over here ASAP. That way you are at least safe.
In that instant, I felt a suffocating feeling in my chest, an emotion that was starting to squeeze the cavity tight. I could not believe his response, my cousin, the Reverend, was sounding like . . . like . . . he was accepting of who I am. My brother had called me names when he found out. He had told me how disgusted he was of me. And then, he had made me feel like I was being a failure to our family, and a disgrace to my birthright. My brother . . . if I didn’t feel an obligation to love him, I’d have hated him for the things he said to me.
But this, this tolerance from my cousin, it was entirely new to me. I tried to give voice to my feelings.
ME: You have no idea how much these things you’ve just said to me means to me. This has been a very lonely living. But gone are the days when I was in denial or afraid to accept myself. I’m quite okay with my life now. I manage myself fine. I try to stay out of trouble. I know the worst yet lies ahead. So I’m basically taking it one day at a time.
HIM: Jisi ike, inu? I’ll be home in a few weeks time. And we’ll think of a strategy to get you out of that country to someplace where you can live your life to its fullest potential.
In that moment, I thought I would cry. I didn’t. Instead, I typed: If nothing, I’m happy you have not condemned me.
HIM: Condemn you?
And then, as though digital print was not enough to convey the wealth of his next words, he called me.
I answered his call.
And then he said to me: “You are my sweetest cousin. You are a man of so much love and I’m blessed to be related to you. Your sexuality is a blessing and your ability to recognise it is a gift. You are much loved. Never doubt my devotion to you for a second.”
That was all he said to me before he disconnected the call and came back to Facebook. We carried on with other issues, but his words stayed with me. All that he said to me – they stayed with me, they filled my heart, and they gave me hope.
Written by Pink Panther