There was no ceremony involved in how my sister got to know that I’m gay. She asked me the question one day, out of the blue: “Kennedy, are you gay?”
My instinctive reaction was denial. “What! Why would you ask me such a thing? How can you even think that…” I was spluttering, not knowing how else to react but deny, deny, deny, because of the shock I was feeling.
“Calm down, brother,” she said levelly, not in the least bit ruffled by my ire. “You don’t have to lie to me. I know. I’ve always known. I just want you to tell me with your own mouth what you and I know to be the truth.”
Her frankness deflated me, and the turmoil left, creating space inside me for a rush of relief, relief over the realization that I was about to share myself, my truth with someone who loved me.
“Yes,” I said quietly. “I’m gay.”
She smiled at me and said, “And I’m perfectly okay with it.”
That moment redefined my relationship with my sister. She’s one of the three sisters I have, and the knowledge of my truth drew us closer to each other. We could talk about anything and everything pertaining to my life without any awkwardness. It was refreshingly freeing to have someone in my family I could relate to without any covers, any shield, any prevarication.
However, when my mother got to know I am gay, there was drama.
I’d relocated from the town where I grew up to Lagos, and so, my conversations with my sister (let’s call her Esther) were mostly on WhatsApp. Then came the day when she asked if I had a boyfriend. She knew of my last relationship and how badly it’d ended and she wanted to know if I’d moved on, found love someplace else. I answered that there was someone, but it was nothing serious, that we were just talking and taking things slow. She asked to see his picture and I sent it over. She asked about his background and tsk-tsked in disapproval when I mentioned that he’d lived and hustled for awhile in South Africa. Esther doesn’t think much of the hustle of the Nigerian community in South Africa.
We had this chatversation on a Friday. On Sunday afternoon, I was hanging out at the beach with some friends when my mother called.
“Hello?” she said when I picked the call.
“Yes, mom,” I replied, a smile at the sound of her voice already traveling across my face.
“Kennedy, so this is how you want the devil to use you to destroy my family!” she exploded.
The smile froze mid-travel as I paused to make sense of what she was saying. When I couldn’t, I concluded that she was joking and laughed.
“Okay, mom, what’s going on?” I said with a chuckle.
“Shut up your mouth there before I send Holy Ghost fire to destroy you!” she shrieked, apparently incensed by my jocular tone.
But I still wasn’t picking up on her anger. Still thinking she was joking, still chuckling, I said, “Ah-ah! Mommy! What is happening na? What did I do?”
“You have decided to allow the enemy, demons from hell, to use you to destroy my family, eh Kennedy! So this is what you have become! A tool for the enemy!”
Finally, her anger began to communicate its genuineness to me, and my amusement died, to be replaced with confusion. What was this woman talking about? Before I could ask her that, this time more seriously, she hung up.
The call effectively ruined the day for me. My friends and I moved from the beach to Fela’s Shrine, and all the way there, I was besieged with confusion and alarm. I was outwardly sweaty while chills wracked my insides as I contemplated the possibility of her discovery of my sexuality. If that was the case, how did she find out? Who told her? Where did she hear it from? It didn’t occur to me for one second that Esther might have betrayed me; I trusted her that implicitly.
However, I called her, but her phone rang out twice and nobody answered. By this time, I was at my wit’s end.
It was midnight when I finally got a WhatsApp message from Esther. It was a long, rambling apology, about how she was sorry for not keeping my secret, and how I should forgive her for failing me.
Hey, Essie, calm down, I responded. I’m not angry. I don’t even know what’s going on. What is going on?
They know, she typed back. Momsi now knows. Jane and Monica also know.
My heart stopped for a bit as I thought about my vulnerability now it seemed my closet had been shattered apart. The feeling was like that of a cold Harmattan draft rushing over you from outside when someone opens the bathroom door while you’re in it, naked and about to take your bath.
What happened? I typed back.
She gave me a narration of how our mother had seized her phone from her upon suspicion of my sister’s sexual activity, and going through her chats to check for any boyfriends she might be entertaining, only to discover something much more upsetting.
My sister is 21, and this blatant disregard for her privacy angered me more than the thought of my mother’s knowledge of my sexuality upset me.
How did they react? I asked, wanting to know more about my other sisters than my mother.
They were pissed, Esther replied. They were all pissed. Jane and Monica condemned you, said they are disgusted.
I allowed the hurt of knowing how my sisters reacted to go through my heart and settle inside me.
It’s alright, Essie, I typed. I’m not angry with you. These things happen.
Will you be okay? She asked.
Yes, I’ll be fine.
The next day, my mother called again. Before she could get to the point of her call (no doubt to rip me a new one for all the distress I was evidently letting the devil use me to bring to her family), I was confronting her over the violation of Esther’s privacy. Reacting to my censure, she erupted, “Will you shut up! Just shut up your mouth there! I am your mother –”
“Does that give you the right to seize a grown woman’s phone and go through her messages?” Even saying the words vexed me the more.
“I gave birth to her!” she shouted. “And I gave birth to you! I gave birth to all of you! I breastfed all of you! If any of you thinks for one second that you will bring shame to this family, then it is the God of Heaven that will send fire to consume that one!”
Then she disconnected the call.
A cold way ensued between us, between me and my mother and between me and my two sisters. Neither of them even bothered to call to commiserate with me. Instead they stayed aloof, their distance speaking volumes about what they thought about me as a gay man.
As the days passed and became weeks, with Esther serving as my only link to my family, I was grateful that I didn’t have to deal with this, my outing, under the same roof as the lot of them.
Eventually, my sisters were the first to crack. They reached out to me, one then the other, to know how I was doing. Jane adopted a bantering tone to accuse me of forgetting them. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “After you have condemned me, why should I not?” But I could recognize the effort she was making and magnanimously answered, “I didn’t forget anybody. I’ve just been really busy.”
And so, without addressing the elephant in the room, my sisters and I gradually regained our relationship. And all the while, I had it at the back of my mind that one day, I would sit them down and talk to them about their close-mindedness.
I didn’t speak to my mother until it was a full month after she found out I am gay.
She called. When I saw the Caller ID, I was instantly wary. I picked the call and she said in a familiar mild tone, “Hello, son, how are you?”
For a millisecond, I was speechless, unable to believe her opening words.
“Good morning, mom. I’m fine. How was your night?”
“My night was okay. Will you be coming home for your cousin’s wedding? You know you’re among the grooms men, eh?”
“Honestly, no, I don’t know anything of the sort. Rukky hasn’t called me to tell me herself, plus she lives close to me here in Lagos and yet not a word from her. So if she hasn’t told me anything about being part of her wedding or simply informed me that she is wedding, why should I assume the responsibility? Why should I even come for the wedding?”
“But she’s your cousin na –”
“Mom, I’m not coming,” I said with an unmistakable finality.
There was a pause. I was hoping my disagreeableness would provoke her, shake her out of this amicability that I found highly suspect.
Instead, she said, “Okay o. Your sister’s birthday is on Friday. Has she told you?”
That was Monica.
“Yes,” I said. “We chat all the time. I know.”
“This one you don’t want to come for Rukky’s wedding, does it mean you’re not coming home for Christmas? Your sisters really miss you o.”
Will they now? I thought. What about you, will you miss me? Aloud, I said, “I’ve spent all the Christmases that they know with them. They’ll survive this one without me. Tell them to rest biko.”
There was another pause, a ripple of unspoken words, as my mother weighed her next words to me.
“How are you faring in Lagos?” she finally asked. “Hope the guy you’re living with is not stressing you.”
“No, he’s not. He’s quite kind.”
“Is he married?”
“So you’re his wife?”
Startled laughter burst from my mouth before I was even done processing the incredulity of what my mother had just said to me. What had this woman who was threatening me with the Holy Ghost fire four weeks ago just said to me?
“What’s funny here?” she said. “I’m just asking to understand na.”
For a moment, I didn’t say anything. I felt a tightness in my chest, a confluence of love for this woman who was trying to understand. I wondered who had gotten through to her – most likely Esther.
“Mom,” I said gently, “my friend and I are not married.”
“Okay o. I just want you to know that I believe in you and you’ll be a big man someday. Just work hard, you hear? The next one year won’t be really easy, but you’ll be fine, inugo?”
My chest was getting tighter and tighter as emotions, scattered and unidentifiable, crowded inside it. My voice was choked up, it was a miracle I was even able to say, “Yes, mom. Thank you.”
I could imagine her nodding as she said, “Take care, nwa m. Bye.”
And the line clicked dead.
I dropped my phone, reclined on my bed and looked out my window, suddenly noticing a fresh beauty to the morning I’d just woken up into. My emotions were still all over the place; I could even feel a sting behind my eyes. But that was alright. I didn’t fight any of it, because I could recognize the all-encompassing emotion – happiness.
Written by Kennedy