Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Enjoy a glass of wine and this extended excerpt from She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak.
I identify as a human being first.
About the book
She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak is a collection of first-hand accounts by a community telling their stories on their own terms.
This engaging and groundbreaking collection of queer women’s narratives includes stories of first time love and curiosity, navigating same-sex feelings and spirituality, growing up gender non-conforming and overcoming family and society’s expectations.
What does it means to be a queer Nigerian? How does one embrace the label of ‘woman’? While some tell of self-acceptance, others talk of friendship and building a home in the midst of the anti-same sex marriage law.
The narrators range from those who knew they were gay from a very early age to those who discovered their attraction to the same sex later in life. The stories challenge the stereotypes of what we assume is lesbian, bisexual, gay, and *trans in Nigeria and they offer us a raw, first-hand look into the lives and realities of our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers who are queer.
Read the excerpt:
She Called Me ‘Woman’
‘Oh jeez, I am beautiful! Even without make-up!’
Content note: sexual violence, physical violence, forced medical treatment, depression
I identify as a human being first. If anybody pushes, I say, ‘Fine, I am a woman, a lady.’ There was a time when someone said, ‘Oh you are a trans woman.’ I said, ‘No, I am not a trans woman, I am a woman.’ And then there was a time when someone was like, ‘A trans woman is a woman, but to me, whatever name you call it, a trans woman is a man.’ Hello! It is not just about your genitalia, please. But let me start from the beginning.
I remember living as a boy. It was fun initially because I was effeminate. I was 5 or 6 and my parents didn’t seem to care that I loved playing with female things. I loved watching movies that included ladies’ stuff and all those things ladies love to do. They were just there but I loved doing them. Then my father, a military man, left us – left me – when I was 9. My mum became a single parent to me and my two brothers, and life got really tough till I graduated from school.
In my teenage years, I was feminine. My trousers were unisex. I was more on the female side. I was always swaying when I walked, swinging my waist with reckless abandon because I didn’t care what people said and because my mum showed me love and didn’t seem to care either. I only started being concerned when she did, when it seemed as if there were external factors from her place of work, from society, saying, Why is your son like this? Why is your son like that? There was a time she would brush them all aside but then they started playing the religious card and all of a sudden it got to her. And she started giving it back to me.
Around that time, my younger brothers became huge, masculine, bearded men with deep voices. I, the first child, the first boy, was all feminine and gracious and my voice changed too. I sang in the choir and my voice went to sopralto, a higher key. When one of my brothers who used to sing that high key became baritone/tenor, all the questions started coming out. What is going on? I would ask myself the same thing. Somewhere along the line, my body and I went through different processes. At the age of 16, I started battling with depression. Even though I knew I was attracted to men, I had not acted on that because we had been taught that homosexuality was a sin. I was still trying to figure myself out.
I was always wishing. I wished I came out as a lady, oh I wished. I wished I was a lady, I wished I was a lady, I wished I was a lady! You know all these kinds of wishes. I wished, I wished, I wished I was a lady. And at times, I would look into the mirror and try to accentuate my looks, then realise, Oh jeez, I am beautiful! Even without make-up!
One day in 2001, while I was in school, a guy walked up to me with an old newspaper. He said, ‘Read it. It is for you,’ and walked away. This person had never spoken to me before. She Called Me ‘Woman’ I picked up the newspaper and what did I see? A man had changed his sex to female. I looked at the date: 1984. And I was like, is what I have been wishing for real? I read through it with excitement, and there was even a picture. I was shocked! As of then, my quest for knowledge began. I went back to the guy who’d given me the paper and he said I should go do my research. I did, and I realised that anything is possible. No more wishful thinking followed by depression because you think it’s impossible. One day while doing research, I saw a book called Middlesex on Oprah. It’s about a trans woman and I was like, Wow, so this is actually real. I continued googling.
I was fighting with external pressure and at the same time, I was trying to know who I was. What was happening with me? Was I gay or was I a woman? I was afraid of acting on my sexual impulses because I knew I was attracted to men. I was trying to know myself and get through the confusion and conflict. My mind was going, No I am not gay, I am a lady … No, you are gay … uh uh, how else? And I thought my case might be more than that, that there must be something else. But at that point, I was always trying to know, trying to understand, trying to find me.
I came out to my mum when I was twenty years old. I just walked up to her in the room and said ‘Mum, I think I want to have a sex change. Not think. I know I want to. I am more like a lady and this is who I am.’ I started talking and talking and talking.
And she said, ‘I think it is a demon speaking through you.’ She tried to change my mind and made my brothers beat me up on the spot. I will never forget that day because it was just before my birthday. I didn’t even have to come out to my brothers. She told them. It was a circle. They brought me there and she was screaming ‘This is what your brother said o, haaay.’ My brother was like, ‘Really? No!’ They were 18 and 16 at that point. They called me all sorts of names: ‘You are a disgrace to us … You are urgh … You are this, you are that.’
The once beautiful mum who was my angel became my demon and my brothers became her bulldogs, her emissaries. They had grown bigger than me, over six feet tall and quite macho. If you looked at them, you would quiver at the sight. There was no day they didn’t beat me, their first-born ‘brother’.
I became less and less comfortable at home. When I wanted to clear my head, I would go to school and hear things like ‘obirin-asuko’, a Yoruba term that means boy-girl. Or ‘obirin-okurin’; those kinds of terms. And they were used in a friendly way. So to me, it seemed as if the people at school were the ones who were okay, treating me like I was okay. But when I got home, I would only get a fight from my family.
When I entered university, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. It wasn’t a nice environment but at least it made me mingle with people. People who seemed to appreciate me as a person. I met people who, if they saw you being harassed, would say, ‘Hey, stop am.’ These people didn’t come up to you and say, ‘Let’s be friends.’ But anytime they had the opportunity to defend you, they would defend you and walk away.
I was staying in Sultan Bello, a male hostel at the University of Ibadan, and it was so adventurous. People often wondered, ‘Is that a boy, or is that a girl?’ ‘Na boy, abi na girl?’ And I just walked without giving a hoot. Sometimes I would wear bum shorts because I loved to flaunt my legs, right from when I was living as a boy. And guys would hit on me. They knew I was a boy and yet they still came to me.
What I loved then was that I was doing what they call ‘shakara’ – show off. I was not interested in a relationship or even sex; I just loved myself. And so a guy would come up and express himself saying, ‘I like you.’ When I said no, he’d hurl insults at me – your papa, your mama – in frustration at being turned down. Some of them would then go to their girlfriends and say, ‘That guy na fag; he approached me.’ A lot of people frown at homosexuality and transsexuality, but so many of them are in their closets.
I didn’t give a hoot. I realised that I had to be strong for myself. You will not touch a small part of me and get away with it. I will retaliate on the spot so that you know I am not weak. They tend to harass the community. When the victim backs down, they keep doing it. They keep harassing us. But when you stand out and face them, they tend to back off. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have enemies at university, but at least everybody knew me as that beautiful boy. Some people would want to connect with me. Some would run from across the street to touch me. I felt like I belonged, contrary to what my family said, that people would stone me. Yes, when I was at home I had such experiences. Even while I was in school, I had such experiences, but they were not much.
Sultan Bello was a male hall but they hosted something called Ms Bello, where men dressed as women, like a drag or something. Macho guys would put up their pictures and everybody would come laugh. Even the Vice Chancellor sometimes attended. It was a very nice social event. They told me that I could do the Ms Bello, so I put up my picture and all the contestants backed off because I was exceptional. They said, ‘No, this is Ms Bello, s/he has the crown.’
That was a beautiful day I will not forget, because it was the first time I expressed myself as a lady to the full glare of everyone. Other halls came: Independence, Idia, Queens, Kuti, Melambi, Tedder. I was the only one competing for the crown. It was the first time I expressed myself with my hair, make-up and outfit, and I glowed. They said the Ms Bello should dance to a song, so I played Crazy in Love by Beyoncé and oh my goodness! I danced freely. I shook my bum, my tiny bum. I did everything. And because the show was within the hall space, it lasted till two in the morning.
When it was over I removed the feminine attire, the make-up and everything I’d used to express my true self, and went back to the life where I couldn’t express myself. I became sad, but that memory lingered. If this kind of thing could happen, then I could see the future. It meant that there would come a time when I could live in that dream, not just enjoy it once, remove it, and drop it on the side.
I was so excited that I called my mum, who I had not spoken to for a long time, and told her, ‘Guess what? I did this thing and it was so exciting …’
But she was antagonistic. Before I could say Jack Robinson I started receiving threatening messages: Oh you have started sleeping with men eh, ooohhhh, you have now sold your star, homosexual, blah blah blah. I said I had not started sleeping with men. I had not even had a boyfriend. I’d just expressed myself. The woman in me was crying for release and she came back! I felt sad. I became depressed. Later, I realised that my mum was communicating with L___, one of my best friends. L___ just turned her back on me and started insulting me.
But I was lucky; some people stood up for me. One of those people was the supervisor in charge of my project, Professor M___. I was scared of her at first, but she made me feel free.
I remember the day L___ stabbed me in the back. She said ‘No, no, no. You can’t take pictures with us cos we are taking a final-year picture. Are you a he, a she or an it? In fact, you are a disgrace to your mother!’ I told Professor M___. When I entered her office, she was combing her gold hair and looking at her reflection on her laptop. I told her what had happened and she said, ‘Nobody has the right to infringe upon your rights!’ Then she looked at me and said, ‘I have heard so much about you. Why don’t you start wearing earrings, necklaces and other jewellery? Please, express your feminine side!’
I looked at her and thought, Shoo, is it this woman who is telling me this? I was impressed. In my final year, I started putting on earrings and strutting my stuff. Professor M___ even made me meet some social workers at school.
Another person who looked out for me was I___. She was a poet and a dancer. She was the mother I never had and she made me super strong. She was a phenomenal person. She taught me dance. She taught me choreography. She taught me to be bold about who I was. She called me ‘Woman’ even before I started to. I could not accept it at the time, but I was always free around her. She was strict and disciplined, yet open. People didn’t understand her, but I did. If she screamed at me, I understood. She used to call me ‘JP’, which means ‘sweet to have’ in Yoruba, and was always telling me, ‘Look, the world is bigger than what you think, JP.’
There was a day in 2009 when my mum used my brothers to beat me. They locked me up inside the room, but at 11pm, I___, who was in Ibadan, rescued me. She called a doctor who was a friend, told him how to get to our place and he got me out of the house.
I had to move on. I didn’t go back home. During the holidays, I stayed at the hostel. They normally didn’t send people away because there were 400-level 1 students who wanted to do projects. My mum would say, ‘Come back home. You’re sleeping with a man,’ but I just ignored it all. Sometimes I received text messages from my friends, from people who were at home. I ignored them too.
Some people at school were transphobic but at least the people who stood up were like, ‘No, uhm uhm, let her be.’ A person who detested me once gathered the whole department for the kind of meeting where students discuss departmental issues, but this time they were castigating, talking rubbish about me. A lecturer came in and annulled the whole thing. He called me and told me what they were saying.
For the most part, though, I was favoured. I am eternally grateful to UI. I doubt if there are other schools like the University of Ibadan. I had one HOD who took a shine to me and other people who cared about me. In fact, all the women who groomed me were powerful and wild in a positive way. The wires in their brains used to touch. They thought outside the box. They were strong and hated injustice. Sometimes they were super aggressive. Somehow, I fell under the tutelage of such women.
When I was finishing university, it was assumed that I wouldn’t do my NYSC. But I served in Kaduna State. Note, I had not had any surgery but I was presenting as female by then and everybody was like, ‘Oh, she has had the surgery.’ I just had to keep it mute. But deep down I was freaked out by the fact that when I went to serve, I would stay in an all-female space. Oh my goodness, I thought. How am I going to do it? Oh my God! But I did. I was lucky because I was given the last hall in the female hostel and there were only ten of us. The halls are spacious with lots of bunks so I could do whatever I had to do.
In the past, I’d acted Ms Bello but now I was living the dream. So when people tried to convince me to contest for Ms NYSC, I refused. They would have to dress me up and we might reach a stage where I’d stand naked before a couple of people. So I said no.
During my service, there was a guy who was pampering me. My clothes were washed. Everything I needed was sorted out. I dared not tell this person that I was trans. To this day, he still doesn’t know, but he was so interested in me, spoiling me with everything I needed. Other men would also make passes at me, but I could not tell them, ‘Look, this is who I am.’ Some of them, I would see them and like them. Some of them would come up to me and say, ‘I love you’ and all I could do was watch with teary eyes and say to myself, I wish I could tell you who I am. They would look at me like I was a heartbreaker, mean or wicked. But all that time, I was thinking, I can’t say anything.
When I finally started working, men were still making passes at me. I knew I was attracted to men. I started accepting myself, understanding myself a little bit. Around that time, I had a two-bedroom flat all to myself, so there was that privacy and that happiness. At least I was no longer acting the dream, even though getting to that stage had not been easy.
To date, my mum still has not accepted me. I am not really bothered about that. One of my brothers turned against her and started protecting me. He said, ‘For goodness sake, nobody wants to be persecuted. Nobody wants to go on the streets and see people stoned. Nobody wants it so don’t make it look like that for my sister.’ He refers to me by the proper pronoun. ‘Please take care of my sister,’ he will tell me. ‘Please be careful of mummy. Mummy is still on your neck. Be careful. If she invites you somewhere, please don’t go.’ When I am financially challenged, he will send money to me. This was someone who was an attacking bulldog, pinning me down with his strength. He said he did his own research and started studying and studying.
When I was still in school, my family told him they wanted to take me to the hospital to have my hormones measured and get female hormones so I could live as a woman. I knew that was a lie but they tricked him. They hired a cab and took me to the psych ward in LASUTH. My brother was like, ‘You people told me we were going to the place where they will check her hormones. What am I seeing here?’
‘I told you,’ I said, but he could not see it. He wanted to give them some benefit of the doubt.
But inside, he noticed that one of the nurses gripped my hand, not with care, but in a tight fist. When they started taking me away, he flared up. ‘This is not the deal. This is not what you told me. Oh my goodness, you wanted to operate on her.’
It wasn’t long before they called the doctor in charge of psychiatry. By the time he came, they had registered me as male, so he asked, ‘Who is Mr. So-and-so?’ When he saw this female-presenting person, he said, ‘Oh, I understand.’ He asked me for my name, I told him, and he accepted it. And the tables turned.
He took me inside his office to talk. He was not trying to change my mind; he was talking to me to make peace. He said, ‘I have come across these cases. From the look of things, it’s your family that needs psychiatric evaluation. I am going to call them in.’
They claimed that they wanted to give me male hormones. The doctor said, ‘Do you know what you are talking about? To give male hormones, you have to obtain consent. Or else she could commit suicide.’
They kept saying, ‘We don’t care, we just want …’
‘Wait, you don’t care?’ he said. ‘You don’t care about her life?’ He printed a document on intersexuality and transsexuality and gave it to them. ‘Go and read,’ he told them. From that moment on, my younger brother started shifting ground. That doctor played a big role.
My mum and brother tried again when a doctor from the UK came to join the discussion. She didn’t know who I was and said, ‘This lady is beautiful. What’s going on?’ My mum and my brother shouted my birth name. The UK doctor said, ‘Oh, we understand. Did we give them anything on intersex and transsexuality?’ They said, ‘We did but they seem to be very stubborn.’
The doctors said that from the look of things, they needed to give me female hormones and take me to Israel to do a sex change. The doctors were talking about doing it free of charge and my mum and brother stopped taking me to the hospital. They continued their persecution but this time they could not go far with it as my younger brother refused to participate. Their bulldog wasn’t there to attack me any more. He said to them, ‘No, you were not straightforward. It seems as if you were wrong all this while. You people don’t want to face the truth.’ Since then he has evolved. He calls me his sister. From the way he talks now, my brother has really changed for the good. My mum is always afraid of laying a hand on me because of him.
I still maintain contact with my mum. I am just careful with her. The last time I saw her was June 2014 but she called me last month. Sometimes she talks to me once a week. It depends. Sometimes she pretends. She refers to me as ‘she’ but I know it is a ‘he’ in her head. I was in a relationship last year. She came and ruined it. She tried to make the guy sabotage me. I got wind of it so the guy and I went our separate ways. We’d been together for a year and he’d abused my mind, always threatening to out me. That was after I went to Belgium.
Everything changed in Belgium. When you change environments, you get some fresh air. You go out and see people who appreciate you. Even looking at you is enough of a compliment. My eyes opened and I tasted the forbidden fruit of freedom. Now I know what is good and bad.