Gender nonconforming Nigerians balance identity and safety concerns

LAGOS -- Facing human rights abuses, gender nonconforming Nigerians want the chance to live and express themselves safely.

Creative Commons Nigeria flag image courtesy of Nicolas Raymond via Flickr

This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2017 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

LAGOS – Local internet celebrity Bobrisky’s memes, quotes and videos have familiarized many Nigerians with notions of gender nonconformity. The performer, who identifies as male but uses he and she pronouns interchangeably, has gained loyal fans in recent years while also generating controversy among conservative Nigerians who bristle at his glamorous looks and feminine gender expression.

As Bobrisky seeks fame, other gender nonconforming Nigerians just want the chance to live and express themselves safely.

Destiny, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, always knew she was different. Assigned male at birth, she came out as gender nonconforming in 2008, fearing the loss of her parents’ approval but worried they would discover her truth from the larger community.

“I didn’t want mummy and daddy to find out who their child is, but there came a time that I couldn’t bear it anymore. I had to come out to my family first,” she said.

She picked up the phone. Their reactions were mixed.

“My mum said, ‘I gave birth to you, I already know who you are,’ but my dad was so angry. We didn’t talk for a year plus.”

Destiny’s father eventually came around, and her parents’ approval gave her the confidence boost she needed to live and express herself in ways that more accurately represented her identity.

Neighbors and friends praised her new feminine attire and encouraged her to wear clothes that felt true to her identity. The result was a strong sense of empowerment.

“I have that power, that boldness to come out. I am out to my family, my own community. They know me. They accept me,” Destiny said

Daphne Donor, the nickname of a different gender nonconforming source, has not been so fortunate.

“Family reacted bitterly when they got to know who I was, especially when I didn’t deny it. Since then, I have been living on my own,” she said.

This estrangement has taken a toll.

“I wanted to visit an uncle. He also wanted to see me, but he started trying to avoid me after the family talked to him. The same thing happened with my sister. They poisoned her mind,” Donor said.

Donor has filled her family’s absence with neighbors and work colleagues that accept her without question.

“Because of the way I carry and position myself, I don’t get stigmatized. Even where I work, they are very friendly,” she said. “If where I stay and where I work accept me, why is my family rejecting me?”

Donor has also found acceptance at church.

“I come from a Muslim background, but I became a Christian. I’m well accepted in church. If they notice me, they just think, ‘okay, he’s gay,’ but they’re free with me.”

Donor thinks religion-based discrimination against gender nonconforming people often stems from a lack of understanding.

“God created everyone. In his mercy, he changed it so that a man can act like a woman or a woman like a man. What does anyone have to do about that?” Donor said, essentially meaning “mind your own business.”

Kerrybabe, the nickname of a different source, identifies as a transgender woman.

“I started out Catholic and became Pentecostal, but I want to work on my faith to believe in nothing – that there is no God, there is just me,” she said. “I just want to be what I want to be. If it doesn’t work, I’ll go back to being Pentecostal.”

Kerrybabe’s decision to walk away from Christianity came after years of mental health issues when she realized her transgender identity.

“I think I was going mentally insane. I was talking to myself. It was very traumatic for me. I did many things in secret away from my family,” she said.

Unable to confide in her religious family, she searched for a community that would accept her and studied sexuality and gender theory. Taking these steps helped her find peace.

Kerrybabe is proud of her identity and grateful for her immediate community’s affirmation but is not yet ready to speak to her family or share her gender identity and expression with the rest of the world.

“When I look like myself, I feel like it is the only time I am fully recognized, personally and emotionally. I wish every day could be like that, but there are so many circumstances. We have a globally uneducated mindset about sexuality and human rights and owning the power of who you are. People are not ready yet. I don’t think it’s the perfect time (to come out publicly),” she said.

For Emerald, a transgender woman whose name has been changed to protect her identity, being her full true self in public is the ultimate dream.

“I would trade everything for just one day to walk on the streets of Nigeria and be myself, to be the way I am and not have anyone discriminate, to go shopping with my hair swept to the side, walking in heels. I can actually see it, and I want to get there. I just hope and pray to get there,” she said.

Emerald became aware of her transgender identity during puberty.

“I was going through so many changes in my body. That period was a stage of anxiety and confusion. I had so many female friends, and we walked together as girls. I saw myself as a girl, too. But then stuff was happening, I was wondering if the other girls had the same organs I had. It was confusing, until I met different people, and they explained to me who I was,” she said.

This realization led to depression. Facing stigma and violence, Emerald considered suicide until she realized there were other people in the world just like her.

Today, a strong support network, a thriving business and her Christian faith keep Emerald grounded. Her strongest desire is to help other transgender people of faith come to accept themselves in a safe place.

“Accepting who you are as a person–your gender identity and your faith–and jamming them together can be quite a roadblock, but you just have to find a way to merge them together and it can work,” she said.

Emerald wishes more Christians would extend the Bible’s inclusive and affirming teachings and principles to the LGBTQI+ community.

“Your neighbors are not just anybody – trans people, gay people, lesbian people, so many people can be your neighbors too, and you’re supposed to love everyone equally because that is what the Bible says you should do,” she said.

Abayomi Aka is human rights officer at The Initiative for Equal Rights, a Lagos-based NGO that advocates for the sexual health and rights of LGBT people. She describes a grim reality for gender nonconforming people in Nigeria.

“With the passing of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act 2014, the current situation of gender nonconforming persons has been escalated, with constant reports of violence and breach of their civic rights based on their real or perceived sexual orientation as an extension of their mode of expression. These persons often experience a variety of human rights abuse ranging from blackmail and extortion to invasion of privacy, arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention by both individuals and security agents alike,” Aka said.

Emerald says her desire to freely and fully express her gender identity is restricted by the constant threat of such repercussions.

“I think you should learn to be who you are and accept who you are, but you might not want to tell the world about it, especially in a country like this,” she said.

Arit Okpo is a journalist in Nigeria.

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