“If you're silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” – Zora Neale Hurston
February 16, 2017, I was privileged to be at a symposium organised by the Bisi Alimi Foundation and brazenly tagged “Not Dancing to Their Music.” True to character and my shameful sense of timing, I was so late I might as well have been at the end of my first trimester, but I did catch the last hour and a half or so of a panel discussion between Bisi Alimi, Pamela Adie, and Ifeanyi Orazulike, steered by interlocutor, Harry Itie.
Their conversation, expectedly, focused on the woes of being queer in Nigeria, the mortal dangers, the susceptibility to exploitation, and the pervasive fear that is a quotidian reality of being in an ill-defined margin of what’s normative. There was talk of police brutality, inaccessibility to proper healthcare for queer Nigerians living with HIV and the dehumanising treatment meted by healthcare professionals, so-called. There was a lot to be angry about, to be worried and sickened by, horrifying figures, but I also found myself puzzled by something else.
I had in my hands a pamphlet with statistics, based on a survey conducted by the Bisi Alimi Foundation, of people who suffered abuse and had been treated inhumanely by co-workers, family, healthcare professionals, and the police, on account of their sexuality; and I came to a realisation: a lot of the things outlined in that pamphlet were remote to my personal sense of possibility. And I suppose the same was true for some others in the audience. In many ways, we were a privileged gathering, but there seemed little awareness of this.
Bisi, Ifeanyi, and Pamela talked at length about the extent of their involvement in championing LGBTQ rights in Nigeria: conferences they had attended, people they had met, in-roads being made. Towards the end of the programme, when it was time for the panelists to take questions from the audience, I found that, collectively, with the questions, there was an underlying transferal of Volksgeist. By implication: a delegation of will and agency by queer people present to the three panelists to represent in vicarious capacity.
I couldn’t help but think: but these are three people. Influential and fierce in their own ways, but three people nonetheless. How do we progress if we keep delegating our agency?
While it is true that queer people in Nigeria are under bombardment, it’s also important to acknowledge that the extent of exposure to adverse conditions for reason of one’s sexual orientation is impacted by such things as class, education, proximity and access to political power etc. While the challenges of being LGBTQ in Nigeria are well-known, it’s hard for me (based on my reality, of course) not to insist there’s a bit of fear-mongering in the way issues peculiar to queer Nigerians are talked about and addressed: weaknesses are constantly outlined, with little to no mapping of (potential) strengths.
To put things in perspective, I am a lawyer from a middle-class background, and this comes to bear in the manner I traverse spaces, what and how I experience as a queer individual. I, for one, cannot conceive of a combination of events that would lead to my being lynched for my sexual or gender identity. I’m not at all suggesting this is impossible, but such an outcome is remote to my immediate reality. This is privilege, and it’s important I’m aware and stretch this to the limits of its ramifications. For myself, principally, and, consequently, for queer people in whose realities the indices of and for power are less pronounced.
Towards the end of the panel discussion, the unlawful trend of members of the Nigerian Police Force accosting random individuals in the streets and going through their phones and personal effects cropped up, with regard to queer Nigerians and the likelihood that a cursory glance through phone galleries and social media accounts could arm such invaders of privacy with evidence of – or at least, grounds for suspecting – a “crime”.
To avoid such a situation, advice from the panelists ranged from password protection to constant deletion of any vaguely incriminating material, and, when shit hits the fan, knowing who to call.
My reaction to some of the anticipatory measures proffered was: Well, can I live?
The panelists, based on the things they’d seen and the experiences of queer Nigerians they were privy to, knew exactly what they were talking about. If some of their recommendations seemed dramatic and over-the-top, then it’s only reflective, I imagine, of the situation on ground. I could afford to thumb my nose at some of their advice, but for some other queer Nigerians, those same things could be the difference between life and death.
Fear is a factor with immense proportions and effects amongst queer Nigerians, and it’s important this is addressed. It’s true; queer Nigerians are endangered and this endangerment has been elevated to policy by an unfortunate piece of legislation, but the extent of endangerment varies from one individual to the next. Some of us have wiggle room, some have crawl spaces, while others have fields.
Without self-effacement, how much room do I have to express, to be? What can I do to make my life easier in the long run?
These are questions we all have to start asking ourselves. We need, as queer individuals, to engage each person with his/her/their own reflection: probe for what privileges you have, what powers are in your grasp, and then use them.
The first gain against a system of oppression is wresting the power to define and initiate narrative from the oppressor. On a whole, we queer Nigerians are too defensive, too reactive, and the problem with reactiveness is its being in response to; by its very nature, stemming from and, inadvertently, feeding the original action or narrative necessitating reaction. Queer Nigerians have to start to steer conversations, move beyond the short lifespan of a hashtag when a queer Nigerian is hurt or killed, only to settle into obscurity until it is expedient to once again, anonymously, take up arms within the white-noise halls of social media. Our approach to the struggle for the sanctity of our lives, rights, and humanity should be more pre-emptive. We should try more to hold the milk jug and oversee its placement than scurry to mop up spilled milk.
It is important to state that this isn’t intended as an indictment but as a wake-up call. Even so, for queer Nigerians, like myself, who can afford to be vocal to the extent to which their individual realities allow, without necessarily putting themselves in harm’s way. This is not a matter of self-indulgence, it is an obligation, and I’m not referring to some altruistic nonsense. Once you’ve made peace with who you are as a queer individual, you owe it to yourself – and yourself alone – to be true to what you know of you, and if that’s not possible, to do the work, however small, to make it so.
Of the 446 LGBTQ Nigerian respondents who took part in the survey conducted by the Bisi Alimi Foundation, 55% had been physically or sexually attacked or threatened with violence in their homes or workplaces, 54% percent had been threatened or harassed online, 64.6% had been abused by a gang; 20.8% by perpetrators acting alone. 12% reported verbal abuse by doctors and nurses telling them their health problems were their own fault. When one considers these statistics on the backdrop of the number of respondents, it becomes clear we are in the middle of a crisis. Queer people are being denied treatment or abused to the point they’ll choose death over having to bear dehumanisation at the hands of healthcare professionals. This is a travesty! More so for its being little-known or dealt with by the general public, a marker of the otherness from what’s human with which LGBTQ Nigerians are branded and choked. We queer Nigerians are being stifled by internalised oppression and its unwitting function as compliance to our own careful erasure into society’s oblivion.
We all have a stake, for ourselves, to refuse audibly and visibly to be recreated and distorted by the fears, the self-hatred, and inadequacies that drive people to want to see themselves in others, and, in cases, seek to destroy the self they find in others (S/O self-starting homophobes a.k.a. latent homosexuals). We have to do a better job of representing and defining ourselves. It’s how we say we are here and we are powerful,
To reclaim our humanity, to define and demystify it in earnest, WE FIRST HAVE TO BE PRESENT, VISIBLE IN THE HERE AND NOW. And it needn’t be as crowd or a parade.
As an individual, I come in contact and am friends with all sorts. Not all my friends share my views on LGBTQ rights, but all my friends and anyone I am constantly in contact with respects my views and position on LGBTQ rights. One, because my position is unequivocal. Two, because I leave them no choice.
I have had a lot of conversations and been in a lot of arguments on said issue, from legal and moralistic tangents, to the effect that anyone who knows me knows that they will not get away with homophobic, biphobic, transphobic, misogynistic, or misandrist remarks around me. It might not seem like much, but the fact that people would be mindful what they say around me is very important and underlines a few things: one, regard for boundaries; two, an understanding that their sense of morality and their world view is not superior to mine. When people censor themselves in deference to me, subconsciously, whether or not they realise it, that deference reflects back on the things I represent within the context of their self-censorship.
I always insist prejudice in and of itself is not problematic – we all have our little prejudices, and work on doing away with them, if we’re sensible. What’s problematic is the prejudice that is not conscious of itself, that takes all it can see through a keyhole to be all there is of the world. The only way to shock such narrow-mindedness into reality is by throwing open the door. And yes, there is no way of anticipating how people react to this, but in the circles in which I roll: of educated and “exposed” people, who have cable TV and have a basic understanding LGBTQ people aren’t aliens (even though they stand with their Pastors and My Book of Bible Stories), I have the luxury of not caring. Of being vocal and honest without being endangered. I’m privileged to be able to make a point of not pandering to anyone’s sensibilities or sense of morality, holding a firm line in saying: you don’t have to agree with me or believe in the things that I believe, but you’re going to have to respect the fact that I believe them, and stay on your side of the fence if you’re not inclined to be neighbourly.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys, girls, and GQs, check your fathers and your mothers, your brothers, sisters and colleagues. That’s how we start to get there: a small voice in an office, a firm tone at dinner table, gentle correction, intense debate where necessary. That’s how we stop being outlined in chalk, by filling the outlines of our persons, complete with cast shadows, silhouettes and souls. That’s how we stop being cardboard and start being human in all its appreciable glory, with all the boundaries humanity affords. We have to say we are here, not only as a rebuttal, but, more importantly, as a statement of fact.
When someone says something homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic at work, perhaps even to you or directed at you, how do you react? Do you let it slide because it’s the easier thing to do?
In the end, easier for whom?
A lot of us have voices that can and do hold attention. We have to decide we are worthy of our own stories, of being the objects of our own self-determined narrative.
Every struggle takes its martyrs, finds its heroes and symbols, but what it needs more than anything else is life-blood: fathers and husbands and wives and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and brethren and colleagues. Not romanticised notions.
We need to be aware of the collective, not as a pooling and giving off of spirit to a select few, but as a complex mechanism made of individual functional parts. Some parts would be more tasked than others, some parts would have lighter roles, but no part is negligible. As a queer person, it’s important to find your power, however small, in privileges where they exist. And more importantly, use it.
“Not Dancing To Their Music” – I loved this tagline for its cheekiness and defiance, but it does have its limitations. “Not dancing” may be bold and, in certain circumstances, fierce; but it is an action that piggybacks on another’s. It doesn’t set its own tone. And herein lies another point of engagement: Is defiance enough?
If we aren’t dancing to their music, are we dancing to ours? What would be the point of not dancing to their music if we aren’t making ours, less to counteract but as a whole number, at once able to compliment and stand on its own?
Questions that need answers.
Written by Chiedozié