The following is an excerpt from ‘She Called Me Woman — Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak.’ The book, published by Cassava Republic Press, will be released in the U.S. on September 12, 2018.
HA, age 30, Abuja
“I had to remember to change the pronoun of my lover so nobody could tell she was female … making up pictures and stories of how we met and why I couldn’t introduce ‘him’ to any of my friends. It was exhausting.”
I grew up in a normal northern-Muslim household in Jos. My parents were well educated and worked government jobs. We spoke Hausa and English interchangeably in a five-bedroom house with my three siblings and four cousins. Each room had a double bunk and people running in and out, so we learned early in life to share everything, especially personal space. We woke up every morning at 5 a.m., we ate lunch at 2:30 p.m. and dinner at 7 p.m. and were in bed at 8 p.m. I attended an Islamic primary school, returned home to extra lessons, then attended evening Islamiyya school to learn to read the Qur’an and write in Arabic. Our lives had a comfortable routine and life was easy.
I attended the same school as my siblings and I remember having a crush on my teacher Ms. S___ when I was in Primary 3. She was pretty. She was female. She was political. I don’t think she did anything different or special, I just enjoyed being in class and watching her while she taught. I loved going to school. I excelled because I was super attentive and always trying to please her. As an adult, I learned that my reaction wasn’t unique as most people have a crush on their teacher at some point. Mine just turned out to be female. This was mildly disappointing; I thought we had something special.
As much as I loved school, I was severely bullied because I was young, small and generally easy to pick on. People knew what was going on. There was this tall girl who had a little clique. I can’t remember her hitting me but I was deeply afraid of her and if she ordered me to do anything, I quickly obeyed. When we had a test in class, I would crawl under the tables and my classmates would make space for me. I would give her my paper to copy off, then crawl back to my own seat. She would ask what I’d brought for lunch today and if she liked it, she would say, ‘Okay, I’ll have that one. You have mine.’ She told me that if I ever saw her carrying anything, I should come take it. So, if she had a bag on her, I would take it to her desk.Most people have a crush on their teacher at some point. Mine just turned out to be female. Click To Tweet
One day in Primary 4, when I was about 8 or 9, I was sitting on the windowsill in class. She was late. Her car drove into the school compound. I could see it from where I was sitting. She got out with her bag so I jumped out the window and went to take it for her. Unknown to me, the teacher was there and wondering what the fuck was going on.
All hell broke loose. There was a whole lot of trouble for everybody — most of the people in class, her and her gang, and other teachers — for not having said anything. They started watching me and it became annoying. I became that person that everybody knew was being bullied so I convinced my parents to let me stay home and write the Common Entrance exam. They bought me the form and put me in extra lessons. I wrote the exam and got admission into the same secondary school as my sisters. I was very excited!
I really loved secondary school as everybody was friendly. After being brought up in such a regimented household, I was used to going to bed early. In school, I would get punished often for sleeping during prep. The punishment was to jump for thirty minutes or so to wipe the sleep from your eyes. But I was so notorious that I perfected the art of sleeping while jumping. So many nights were spent in front of class, jumping and sleeping. After prep, I would not even remember walking from class to the hostel. Immediately I got to the hostel, I would sleep, half the time in the clothes I wore because I was so tired.
I can’t point to the first time I liked a girl. I have memories of so many women who drew a strong reaction from me. From Ms S___ to these older girls who took care of me and whom I was attracted to. There was a rotating number of women whom I had a thing for.
In boarding schools in Nigeria, women are allowed to show affection and love. There was a kind of coupling up that was generally allowed. It wasn’t a big deal. A chokkor or a lifey was just someone special to you. Sometimes the person was in the same class as you and sometimes they were in a higher class. And the relationship was romantic in nature. There was even a whole economy around Valentine’s and buying gifts for your chokkor.
So, we grew up accepting that it was okay to love another girl. It was even celebrated. In our uniform, there was a code. If you tied your belt backwards, it meant you were in the market for a chokkor. A person would be like, ‘Okay, I like this girl.’ Her friends would go and talk to you or your friends and ask if you had a chokkor. You would say, no and they would reply, ‘Okay, we’re going to connect you with someone. Thursday night, you’re going to wear your best outfit, and we’re going to come take you from your room to your chokkor’s room.’
Sometimes, you would have no clue who she was. Other times, you knew because she was sort of picking on you or gave you extra food or said hello to you one too many times during assembly. They would take you to your chokkor’s place and leave you there for the night. That was totally normal. There was drama when some girls were snatched from their chokkors. We would hear things like ‘Amira was just going steady with Nneka and the next thing, Bola came into the picture and now Amira no longer hangs out with Nneka. They stopped going for break together and now she goes for breaks with Bola.’ We would all be scandalised that such a thing had taken place.We grew up accepting that it was okay to love another girl. Click To Tweet
Throughout secondary school, almost everybody had a lifey but there were only four people who had girlfriends. They were not just in love but had kissed, made out or had sex. They were all known of course. You’re teenagers, you talk to your friends and nobody can keep a secret. When I was in JS3, there was this huge outrage about two girls being lesbians. One was in SS2 and the other was in JS3. They spent all their time together. At some point, they kissed and someone found out. They told somebody who told somebody who told the school administration. They were both suspended.
I thought it was weird that people were allowed to be in love, but never to take it to the next stage. Years later, people who knew me in school would tell me how homophobic I was. I wasn’t homophobic but people around me were and I didn’t do anything to speak up. At school, I was so sure that I was not a lesbian. To be a lesbian, you needed to have held a girl’s hand, kissed a girl, made out with her or had sex with her. I had done none of those things. Then secondary school finished.
My childhood passed really quickly — one day I was a kid and the next, I wasn’t. University was fun. I found studying a breeze. But socially, few girls played any kind of sport at that level so I kind of stood out. It also didn’t help that I liked to wear men’s clothes. Everyone I knew became super feminine and conversations became about clothes, parties and boyfriends. I wasn’t into clothes nor did I like any boy but in my bid to fit in, I decided I needed a boyfriend.
H___ was the first boy I kissed. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was almost exciting, but not quite. I would talk about the fact that we were not really compatible and he always told me that my expectations were built around watching too many Bollywood movies and that, actually, we were fine. I had doubts but I didn’t want to rock the boat because I was very comfortable in the relationship. He was a good friend, he lived and schooled in another city, and we saw each other once or twice a year. We relied on writing each other letters as no one had cellphones then. After about three years of this, we broke up when he started dating another girl in his school. I was relieved and moved on quickly.
Around that time, I was coming into myself and trying to figure out what was different about me. I knew I liked girls but I was still convinced I wasn’t a lesbian. I concluded that there must have been something wrong with H___ and I just needed to find the right boy.
This led to the beginning of my wild stage. I started partying every weekend, hanging out with a lot of boys and I had no problem kissing anyone and everyone. I was determined to find the right person with just the right chemistry. I made out with a ton of boys. There was tons of heavy petting and that was it. And my friends were fascinated. They would joke about it and help me keep score.
We only stopped counting after about a hundred. In all those hundreds of boys and men, I never found anyone mildly exciting and I never dated. But it made me feel normal to have a boyfriend and be out there kissing everyone. I was slowly realising that I was only attracted to women, but I was in deep denial!
It was around this time that my family went on hajj. I remember trying so hard to pray away the gay. It might have even been my sole aim in hajj. I would include it in salat, during tawaf around the Kaaba, during my walks on Safa to Marwa, and it was my consistent prayer when I stood on Mount Arafat. I prayed every day, deeply, sincerely, that I would no longer be in love with girls, that I would no longer be a lesbian. I wanted nothing more than to be straight, to meet a man, fall in love with him, get married and have a family. I just wanted to fit in, to be a good daughter, to be a good Muslim.
Then I met this girl on the website Hi5. My status had ‘interested in girls’ and hers had the same thing so we started talking and flirting. She told me she had a boyfriend, she had dated girls before, she was fascinated by northern girls and she would like to meet me. I told her I would definitely like to meet her too.
Her name was N___. She was schooling and living in Ghana. We decided to meet when she was in the country. I went to Lagos because she was there for one night before flying to Kumasi. We hung out that night and the next morning I flew back to Abuja. I was so excited: Oh my God, I can’t tell anybody. I met this girl and she’s cute and she’s also into women and she likes me and I like her and we are going to date. When she got back to Ghana, we had a conversation and decided to date.
We would talk on the phone all the time. I told my friends I had met this boy named Nathan. After about three months, I bought a ticket to Ghana to visit her. We had agreed we were going to take everything slowly but after three hours at her place, she asked me, ‘So, can I kiss you?’
The world stopped. If I said yes, I was going to be committing a sin. If I said no, all of this was kind of useless. I would never find out if I really like girls like that. She kept on asking, ‘Can I kiss you?’ I told her, ‘If you keep asking, I’m never going to answer you.’ So she reached over and kissed me — then we had sex.
And … the sex was awful. It was awkward and very weird. I was too into my head and watching myself have sex with her. I was overthinking everything, and I was riddled with guilt. We had sex a second time and just cooled it off. We would write long emails to each other and talk all the time but that was it. I went to Ghana on three different occasions. We would kiss but we never had sex again.
Then Facebook came along and destroyed Hi5. We all moved to Facebook and stopped meeting people who could put ‘interested in girls’ as their description. Internally, I was settling into self-acceptance. I had already had sex with a girl. I knew I was completely into women and no man was going to change that.
At the age of 26, I fell in love. I was sooo in love, I wanted her to meet everyone. I wanted to shout from the top of every building how much I was in love with her. She was the first person I could walk with on the streets holding hands. We would talk about everything, anything and nothing; honest, frank conversations. We were friends and we were lovers. For the longest time, it was perfect.I knew I was completely into women and no man was going to change that. Click To Tweet
I experienced the awesome freedom that was the ability to love myself, to love another person and be okay with it. I didn’t know where it was going but it felt good. I wanted to keep going and figure it out whenever. Shortly after she and I became official, I moved out of home and started living with a flatmate. I knew in my heart that I could not live in the closet. I was flirting with the idea of coming out, and I knew that I was likely to lose friends and family if that happened.
I was already living a double life: free and out when I was with my girlfriend, hidden and sad when I was back home or at work. I felt like I was choking. I couldn’t take the pretence any more so I started to cut ties with a lot of people. I stopped spending time with friends and buried myself in work. I would tell them I was too busy. I would travel without telling anyone and spend weeks away. I had decided that I would shut out everybody before anybody alienated me. I even stopped communicating with my family and told them I needed to be an adult.
One day in 2012, I sent a message to my mom saying, ‘I want to introduce you to my girlfriend and don’t you dare act surprised.’
With my heart in my mouth, I waited for her reaction. Deep down I was ready for the absolute worst. She replied saying, ‘Where’s she from? And are you girls getting married?’
I said, ‘Slow down woman. I said girlfriend not fiancée. Do not try to U-haul us.’ I was flabbergasted. I took a screenshot and sent it to all my queer friends. I was shocked, relieved, happy and convinced that my mum was the most amazing person on the planet.I had decided that I would shut out everybody before anybody alienated me. Click To Tweet
Then fast forward to 2014 after the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill passed. I was so angry that it had passed into law that I wrote an article about being lesbian in Nigeria, stating how the law couldn’t criminalise sexuality. Immediately I published it, everything changed. There was a lot of abuse, a lot of online bullying and a lot of threats. Some type of stupid semi-hisbah board from my state put out an APB to find and prosecute me.
My mum went crazy on me. ‘How could you? How dare you? How could you say you’re a lesbian?’
‘Why are you acting this way?’ I asked her. ‘We had this conversation years ago and you were fine with it.’
‘I regret the day I had you,’ she told me. ‘You’re a disappointment to me. In fact, you’re not my daughter.’
My sisters said, ‘Why are you doing this thing to her? Are you trying to kill her?’
I asked them, ‘What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to take it back? Lie? Just say what you guys want to hear? Because it’s not going to change anything.’
The entire family went ga-ga. Everyone was calling me, trying to ‘talk sense into me’. All they wanted me to do was take it back and tell them what they wanted to hear. They sent me all these preachings and scriptures to get me to change.
I stopped picking up their calls and replying to their messages. But to put their minds at ease, I told them I was a lesbian but I had never dated anyone. I thought it would be easier for them if they thought I had never had sex with a girl.
Throughout all of this, it was just my baby sister who was supportive. She asked, ‘What does this mean? What has this meant for you all this while?’ I told her, ‘Well, that’s it. All these lies, the pretending and faking. I’m tired. I am a lesbian and that isn’t going to change.’ She asked me why I never told her, and then just listened to all my experiences as I ranted about how hard it was. She stayed on the phone and cried with me and I felt very guilty. She was barely 21, all her friends were talking about it and there was nothing I could do to protect her from the outpouring of hatred that also came her way.