A few years ago, rights activist, poet and the novelist behind Sky-High Flames and Edible Bones, Unoma Azuah began what seemed like a daunting project: to gather the stories of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual persons in Nigeria into a book. In June 2016, the anthology, Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, was launched in Nigeria. Azuah, who is also a college professor in the United States has contributed research to pop-cultural depiction of and attitudes towards LGBT persons in Nigeria. She spoke to Absalom about the stories in Blessed Body and LGBT activism in Nigeria.
Absalom: Please walk me through the journey of Blessed Body. How did it all begin?
Unoma: I had focused on texts—and not movies—for my research, as per creating queer scholarship, as a way of responding to anti-gay policies and sentiments exemplified in the Nigerian parliamentary policing of the body. Including movies as part of my appraisal of anti-gay laws came to me by accident: I had visited a friend one lazy Saturday evening and met her watching a Nollywood movie. I don’t particularly pay much attention to Nollywood movies. However, my eye caught a scene that seemed out of the ordinary: two women lovers. I think the name of the movie is Emotional Crack. Consequently, my eyes were glued to the TV screen. I wanted to see the end of it, which, of course, was predictable. Nevertheless, the positive side was that I started studying Nollywood movies to track the number of same-sex themed movies they produce, and to see how the movies depict same-sex-loving people. This led to the comprehensive article I wrote with Lindsey Green Simms called “The Video Closet: Nollywood’s Gay-themed Movies.” The fates of LGBT persons in Nollywood movies are sealed: always vilified as evil. This is very much consistent with the homophobic and hostile environment they find themselves in. So I see Blessed Body: The True Life Stories of LGBT Nigerians as a continuation of refuting the lopsided narratives Nollywood presents on the Nigerian lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themed scripts. Thus, to gain any form of audience that might empathize with LGBT stories and LGBT people in Nigeria, I decided to collect their lived experiences. Perhaps, if the Nigerian society can see the detailed lives of LGBT Nigerians, they would be less adverse.
Absalom: A friend of mine read the anthology and wondered if its title, Blessed Body, in any way alludes to the Holy Eucharist in the Catholic Church: he was worried that this might pose a problem.
Unoma: No. The title does not allude to the Holy Eucharist, even though in a broad sense, for Christians, we are all part of the Body of Christ. The title actually defies the notion that, as a sexual group that does not tow the heteronormative line, gay people are cursed. Most anti-gay Nigerians will defend their stance based on what they understand the concept of homosexuality to imply in the [Bible] books of Genesis, Romans or Leviticus, etc. Hence, the point is to dismantle that negative Biblical impression which many fundamentalist Christians use as a weapon of hate. In other words, LGBT bodies are not cursed; they are blessed.
Absalom: Violence—emotional, physical, mental—is a running theme throughout the anthology. I sometimes had to set the book aside to catch my breath; it was like holding so much pain in my hands. Did you deliberately seek out stories that were harrowing?
Unoma: Don’t forget that the anthology chronicles the lives of the Nigerian LGBT community. Their stories are not without violence, emotional and mental abuse. It’s unfortunate. I have faith that bringing awareness to these sorts of abuse and injustice would help curtail the unfairness directed at this minority group. At least, it is my hope that giving the issue some kind of attention will stir some to act in their own way to stop hate and homophobia. The larger picture though, per “broken bodies” is that in spite of the attacks, hate and death inflicted on this body, it stays strong and resilient. It continues to survive and thrive.
Absalom: Stories like “Wait for Life to be Perfect”, “Deliverance” and “Purple Square” reaffirm a theory we have in the LGBT community that our families often know or sense our ‘difference’; yet they live in denial, afraid to confront the elephant in the room—perhaps because of social stigma. Is there an easy way to get the average Nigerian family to have this uncomfortable conversation?
Unoma: I think the best approach to this issue is to come out. The process does not necessarily have to be aired on live TV. Coming out to family and close-knit friends, for instance, gives a face to the word “LGBT”. I think that through such small steps, quiet and even aggressive LGBT allies and advocates would begin to gradually emerge. The more we put a face to sexualities, the more people will begin to take the reality that people have different sexual orientations seriously. Invisibility gives teeth to the stigma and the loathing. In this context, when the idea is not seen or attached to the possibility that our loved ones and family members or anyone can be gay, then it does not exist. However, when it hits close to home, it would be taken more seriously. The initial reactions of kicking against it, doling out threats, screaming, cursing and even disowning are expected. But it does not change the reality at hand. Gradually, I believe, families will learn how to accept it, and become advocates at some point.
Absalom: Of the 37 stories in this anthology, it seems there are only two stories from transgender persons (“Beyond My Skin as the Butterfly” and “Stephanie’s Fears”)—both of them women; and in the section titled “Unwanted Marriage”, there are just three stories—all, again, from lesbian women. Were there segments of our community that weren’t forthcoming with their stories?
Unoma: There are actually three stories from transgender persons. The third one is entitled, “Aduro: The Journey of a Thousand Heels”. Its focus is on being trans, and the exploitations that not just trans people but LGBT persons face when they migrate to another country. Perhaps, you were looking at the stories from a tapered perspective. There are also stories like Kite’s “Blur” that speak to the turmoil and struggles a gay man deals with up to the point of psychosis because he did mostly what was expected of him. He married a woman he never loved just because he needed to fulfill familial and societal expectations. With regards to women transitioning to men, I did find a trans man who agreed to share her struggles with gender identity, starting her female-to-male transition to the point where she panicked. This was at the stage where she was almost fully transitioned. She realised that if she was going to return to Nigeria as a man and not a woman, she would not be able to face her family. Therefore, the whole process had to be “undone”. I started working with her on drafting all these experiences, but half way through working with her, she stopped and changed her mind.
Absalom: Sad. There must have been other challenges you faced while putting the anthology together.
Unoma: The gathering and editing processes were quite daunting. But I believed in the project right from the start, so I was determined to face all challenges with patience and courage. For example, some contributors were not too willing to relive traumatic emotions. I kept prodding them to dare to relive it and to face it because it can be part therapy and ultimately a healing progression and victory. On the other hand, some could not verbalize their experiences. They had erased it from their memory banks as a survival technique. But I encouraged them to walk through those dark tunnels and shine some light on the “grit”. There were those that felt ill equipped to write. They felt they needed to be professional writers before they could tell their stories. I had to convince them that they needn’t be expert writers to have a voice. Additionally, for some who didn’t want to write, I resorted to interviews and recreating their stories with both a broad to a detailed brush. Inserting the intricacies took me a while because I had to run the stories by them as many times as it took us to ensure that I was representing their lives and stories genuinely. All these were time – and labour –intensive. I also worked with a lot of patience. There were those who got emotional and withdrew. I waited and returned time and time again. Also, to have an extensive and diverse representation, I took risks by travelling to remote areas of Nigeria where I knew no one; I was working based on recommendations and second-to-third person points of contact. Some were suspicious of the project and refused to talk to me until I reached out to those who made the connection between us to assure them that I was not working to “out” or blackmail them. Additionally, this is the most intense project I have ever done. I found myself shedding tears right in the middle of editing. Though at some point, some of the stories made me laugh out loud. In all, often, I got angry and wanted to lash out at the world for hate, for hypocrisy and for wanting to play God. At the end, it was quite fulfilling.
Absalom: Looking at LGBT rights and politics in Africa, in August 2014, Uganda overturned her antigay law—within just six months of passing it; Mozambique and the Seychelles have done away with their colonial sodomy laws; and even Malawi almost held a referendum on gay rights until she backed out in 2015. Yet, Nigeria’s “Jail the Gays” law remains one of the most stubborn pieces of legislation on the continent. Is there something we are not doing right in Nigeria as regards this clamour for LGBT rights?
Unoma: Part of the problem may have something to do with the fact that coordinating a huge populace is a daunting task. Additionally, I think our policymakers are some of the most corrupt, hypocritical and hyper religious in the world. Imagine using the Bible and the Quran as the basis to create and enact civil policies. So, we do need to step back and re-strategize. We are, nevertheless, doing the best we can under these strenuous circumstances.
Absalom: You spoke at the book launch about the need to re-educate children on matters of sexuality and gender. How is it possible to orientate a child in a way that deviates from what his/her parents teach him/her at home? Isn’t this the kind of thing that would infuriate any parent? I don’t think an adult should have this talk with a child without their parents’ permission.
Unoma: The idea is not to impose sexual education on unsuspecting children and parents. Frequently, teens or growing boys and girls get curious about sex and the development of one’s body. They may approach one with questions about sex/sexuality. It is at these moments that they need to be educated on the human physiology, sex and sexual orientation. As a brother, a cousin, an uncle, an aunt, a mentor, a teacher, such opportunities usually present themselves.
Absalom: Now that our anthology is here live, how do we get it out to millions of Nigerians out there—those who are, as it were, not members of the “LGBT-choir”.
Unoma Azuah: The book is sold online, as well as from distributors from countries across the world. The e-version of the book both in the Kindle and NOOK format makes it very accessible to Nigerians and anybody else who might want a copy or copies. Most importantly, Queer Alliance, the LGBT advocacy organization I collaborated with to get the book done, distributes loads of free copies in Nigeria.