Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The blessings of a ‘Blessed Body’

Dear Africa,
You know how crazy we all got this year when the Akinfessi photos splashed everywhere. Everyone suddenly became ‘Akinfessi’. And then the Orlando shootings happened! Oh God! 2016 seemed a dark year. Who did not cry? Who was not angry? But coming from this we also stepped into a miracle, the gay conversation. More than any time in Nigeria’s history, same-sex affection has been written about, spoken of, mentioned, and dreamt about. More people were attacked and arrested. More people are being harassed in their homes and on social media. But as opposed to it just being the unfair ratio of Nigeria against the sexual and gender minority community, it has become a growing and substantial fraction of Nigeria at an amala table with the rest of it. Some of the homegrown incidents of this conversation are the  star-studded Nollywood film Hell or High Water(which I’m still dying to see) and the breath-taking anthology Blessed Body.
I got a copy of Blessed Body a few months ago, and it shared my bedside with school work and extracurriculars. But yesterday, I finished it! Africa, Blessed Body is a fierce one!
Its birth has Unoma Azuah and Queer Alliance(a Nigerian LGBTI non-governmental organisation) in the mix. Its pages are bedazzled with fabulous contributors from all over the world with one thing in common, Nigeria. Aze Ebira to Kennedy T.Chidi, Godwin Sodi, Kenny Bademosi, Pamela Adie to Gamal Turawa, the list goes on. From lips that are so ordinary and among us, it is hard to ignore. From hearts that beat so within us, it is difficult to walk away from. 37 unapologetically and fiercely written auto-biographies!
Africa, they are telling stories. Stories of us. They write that we were here from the beginning and are still here. They write that we sat and still sit in the class rooms of primary and secondary schools, to learn. That we got drenched in the rain. They write that we prayed, cried and travelled both the dusty and glazed paths of healing homes, churches, shrines and airports. That we got raped and disowned. That we bore the pregnancy of our children and our dreams loathing in faith and self-hate. We made mistakes. Mistakes that leave scars that may hurt for ever. Who knows? But they write of victories that are so imminent that faithlessness is foolish. They also write of the sweet journey that being you has cursed us with.

What I find most striking about Blessed Body is that it goes beyond the clichés of ‘the community’. The clichés that those who are most like us are the safest. They are presumed to understand the most and will be the first source of protection. From where I am standing it, Blessed Body seems to warn that not everything or everyone that is familiar is a safe space, not even if there is a common sexual orientation or gender identity. This anthology exposes that even within the community there are predators to be weary of.
But also, the stories acknowledge the gift and curse of strangers. People and things on the other side of our phones, towns, faiths, realities and world. People whose affection can either poison or nourish us. People and things into whose arms our life as minority forces us. In some hilarious light, we see that heart’s tendency to flirt is universal. And that even in the most dire of circumstances, it still finds the stamina to love, trust and desire. Breath-taking is what Blessed Body is, it is difficult to say what gay story stands out the most, because they are all valid facets of the big one.
Blessed Body isn’t so much an ‘Akinfessi tale’ but it has given the Nigerian ‘gay conversation’ more weight and texture than it has ever had. Africa, this book is a smack of most of the things Nigeria, and even you, should know about our minority children, travellers, preachers, parents, and lovers. I guess it is safe to say that this is our point of departure, and it only gets better as to be understood one must be heard, then listened to; seen, then read. More importantly, to be understood, we must ourselves understand.
As always, I love you. Even while you scar me, I haven’t a reason to be scared of you. This is my painful truth.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Queer and Powerful

Simon Nkoli (image sourced from: https://nonstopagainstapartheid.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/the-power-of-sissies-simon-nkoli-and-international-lesbian-and-gay-solidarity/)
Dear Africa,
In a few weeks my brothers shall be called to the Nigerian Bar. Wigs and gowns are flying around at the Bwari market. Bank accounts are being drained and trips are being planned from all over the world for the biggest party in Abuja 2016. The ‘Call to the Nigerian Bar’ ceremony. Slowly, we are drawing closer to the last set of news wigs that were inspired by Justice League, Suits and Legally Blonde. Perhaps Boston Legal, or the old Nigerian soap, the Firm. Perhaps even by the ancient décor that escorted the presence of Nigerian lawyers and judges. Our dreams battered into shape by academic test after academic test. Our confidence squeezed into a pulp by structures and labels that eternally struggle to make us clones of those before and those after us. Whether or not we can help this is not the issue. The issue is whether we have taken all this bull shit, and are going to get called to bar, to join the league of extra-ordinary freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Madea! Yep.
Sorry. That’s the biggest lie we ever told ourselves. Not that it makes any difference, given that what is false or true is quite relative. Nonetheless, this is my objectivity. There is a big difference between lawyering and freedom fighting. While lawyering comes with thick volumes, long nights and days, travels, inexplicably long jurisprudence and court room sessions- nothing like Suits by way- the art of freedom fighting comes with toxic stories. This cannot be programmed into DNAs like the fear of silks and Bar final. The art of freedom of fighting cannot be learned in the classroom either, not even if all the cotton and wool are invited from their stations to address it. Terribly, I also know nothing about this art.
In a spirited debate a few months back, my blog and its effect on human rights in Nigeria was put on the spot. Was I doing anything worthwhile? Was I wasting my time? Did I have an audience? Did I have any impact at all? I expected these questions. The main question being what power does my writing have on the everyday life of the average Nigeria?  I gave anything but the right answer to the debater and to myself.
Going back a few months before that, I had thrown on some corn rows, and published a letter on Olumide Akinfessi’s alleged death(still not formally addressed by Nigerian civil society and state agents). I had gone all out with homo-inclined posts on my facebook wall, and the world fought back. Long lost friends arrived with spears and confetti. While some applauded and encouraged me and my art, others used rather unsettling words. Ex-lovers, brothers and enstranged ‘sisters’attacked openly. Family called from home. The big question, ‘Nnanna are you gay?!’ must have recurred in my inbox only a gazzilion times.  My facebook wall was a war-torn zone for a long-stretch of time. I’d hate to address the effects it had on me, my academics and my life.  But it was important for me to withdraw not because I was out of words or thoughts. I owed to myself to be stable and in control of the situation. Perhaps, storytelling and blogging are only a few sparks of  the  flame that burns within. So, I took a chill pill, reclined and was entertained by the racket the world has always been. Especially as regards the things that draw me in the most, Queer Politics.
There has been a plethora of mind blowing events that has haunted my facebook LGBTI circle and those beyond. Phenomenal things. Of course, you’ve been watching as well . So you know. While enjoying the brief tranquillity of not being a target for hate, hostility and homophobia, because  I still have that luxury, others have put up the middle finger and are fighting these battles every day of their lives. I respect these ones, they have given up this luxury for a life of eternal visibility and conquest.
However, in my watching, something has struck me. Queer !
That one word that used to mean just being ‘unwelcome because one is homosexual’. That one toxic term for strangeness, such a strangeness that should never be experienced or acknowledged. This word was safe. Things were better when it was just this. The streets, homes and churches were as hostile. But at least, the targets knew that they were targets. So they owed to themselves to be mentally and physically prepared for whatever.
It’s different now Africa, so different. I haven’t been out there in a while. But if social media is the new street and church and school, then things are a lot worse. Three stories have struck me in this light. Four stories that seem in some light to address the question ‘what is Queer?’
Bisi Alimi, the spirited Nigerian son from Mushin that has taken the world by storm with his human rights activism and visibility, is one of such stories. He is presently counting down to his wedding day, each day publically celebrating a part of his past and present . Similarly, being Bisi all the same, relentlessly fierce and unapologetic for being homosexual and having very firm views on the subject, he constantly a target for hostility.  He is queer and African, and no one dares contest this! He came out quite voluntarily on national television early in the millenium and has held the world’s attention since then.
Mr. D, whose name, I shall not write in full to avoid re-victimisation, took Nigeria by storm when he got married to his male partner, and Linda Ikeji published his wedding photos. It spread like wild fire. I’m equally guilty of adding to this as I shared one of such posts on my wall. I was particularly ecstatic when I saw those photos. They were remarkable. They seemed to say ‘fuck this! Its my life!’. And I thought ‘what guts!’ Of course, in the way that a brother cheers his own when he accomplishes a feat. But! Things were not as I thought. He was not saying ‘fuck this!’ . In fact, he was not saying anything at all. He was just a regular Nigerian in diaspora leading a regular life. He had no intentions of making a point, or participating in the discussion and sure as hell did not enjoy being the discussion. How Linda got the photos, only God knows! As much as I enjoy the affirmation of diversity as equally valid, I forgot that I owed it to the human community to respect. This often means keeping quiet, listening closely and praying, not acting, being supportive, being silent and learning. Mr. D, another Nigerian, getting into a same-sex marriage caught the world’s attention too. He is queer and African, but its no one’s business to contest or discuss it. About the world’s attention? To blazes!
Quite recently there is the incident of Bobrisky. He has caught Nigeria’s attention. The beautiful Nigerian man with the astute mastery of snap chat and skin alteration, gashing fiercely at the Nigerian gender boundaries and rising supersonically to fame,  was deemed a ‘sensationalisation’ of an event. It was alleged that some folks pulled out of a panel discussion at the event simply because Bobrisky would be participating. In spite of all the drama that surrounded the event, the young man arrived town, slayed as a panellist and walked away. The Nigerian media has addressed the issue of his sexual orientation severally. Is he gay because he gives make up artists and Nigerian girls a run for their money as regards make-up? Is he gay because he loves sequins and selfies? He has severally identified as heterosexual. But nope! It’s not enough, folks still had to pull out of the panel. But then, what if he is not as he claims? Should it matter? Should it be anybody’s business? Well, given that he is quite public, a lot cannot be avoided.  He is deemed queer, because of people’s perception of his dress sense and appearance. Did he ever embroid ‘Im gay’ on the butt of any of his skinny jeans? Or does his tattoo spell,’ h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l’? It does not have to because the Nigeria I see on social media has become a place where being queer is no longer a question of who you love, who you are getting married to or if you come-out on national tv. It has become a question of whether or not there is something attention worthy about you, something that should be watched, policed and as soon as proven, put back in its place for good!
Last month, a 19 year old beauty queen, C, was hit on social media by a still-anonymous joker . He /she released videos of C indulging in self-stimulation and same-sex intercourse.  This joker, seems to have this video in snippets and feeds the public episode after episode of a toxicity that is aimed at shaming C.  Her name has high google search ratings, and has become a  trending issue. Take note, this video has caught the world’s attention. In the Nigeria I grew up in, there is surely no question of whether or not it is humiliating to be branded a lesbian. The main issue, is how to punish her enough and teach her how-not-to-be-a-lesbian.  C, has risen up to defend herself on social media and in person saying that her face was electronically tailored into the video and that she is too decent to indulge in such acts. The vibe that I am getting is that she feels humiliated not because she is in a sex video, but because she is in a lesbian sex video. As though lesbianism makes an exposed sex video more of a test that it already is. In Naija?! It does oh jareee! In a place where girls who wear boys clothing are threatened with 14 years.  In a country where everything sexual is a synonym for taboo . Nonetheless, C now has the world’s attention in some light. Is she queer? Despite her identifying as non-lesbian? I dare argue in the affirmative. She does not have to be lesbian to be queer in today’s Nigeria, all she needs is a video online or gossip trends, public insinuations, and of course bad press!
It seems to me that being queer in Nigerian now is more than the conversation that one has in the privacy of his/her room. It is more than the phenomenal wedding, secret or broadcasted in distant lands. Being queer now is more than the affirmation of equality and human rights. It’s no longer as simple because the lines are muddled up. But it all comes down to being different or perceived as such. Of course there are the United Nations treaty body General  Comments, Joint Statements and the Yogyakarta Principles, things that the average lesbian student or gay employee may never know about or understand.  Things that simply say, being lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender , intersex , cross-dresser or being perceived as one of them does not make you any more messed up than you are already. In fact, it gives you a leverage,  because stealing the show is a lot easier if people think or know for sure that there is something queer about you, something that is frightful , and stage worthy. Difference does not ask for attention, it snatches it!
Resolved, actually being or suspected to be queer makes you different, slams so many doors in your face. But it gets them to peep out of the windows to see what you’ll do next. This is a chance. And this chance is power! I am learning not to take this chance for granted, the chance to be peeped at. The chance to be watched, ridiculed, spoken or written about, the chance to be criticised. This is the chance to say  and be the most and make your mark, ride on the waves. Use the attention for good. Be heard, seen and, with any luck, chronicled in history . And in all this never forget that no one can contest the validity of authenticity. This chance is what men study all their lives for, preparing in the best classrooms, libraries and conferences of the world. To be different, to be queer, to be watched, peeped at. Unfortunately, every time has its chosen hero, and every story chooses its writer. Skill, pedigree, class or stature often has nothing to do with it. You have it on a platter of gold, but there is no rule that says you must use it.  it’s a shame to misuse or be ignorant of this power. It has a shelf life, and it’s extraordinary to have it twice or for a prolonged time.
Simple men like Mahatma, Nelson, Shakespeare, and the Simon Nkoli’s of the world saw this, snatched it and won. This is not to say that people haven’t died in the heat of trying, but why do nothing when there are rays of hope, opportunity, power ? It’s here for us in the simple things that surround us: the huge wedding that is coming up; the leaked wedding photos that made you unsettled; the sensation you have become; the sex scandal that is a big deal but not big enough to define you.  I know my justice league but I read about Simon Nkoli I was blown away. His queerness put South Africa, add to being independent, on the first page of the coloured chronicles. And the opportunity to do that was in a split second, in a broken powerless place. It could have been simply and safely been ignored. His power, hidden, and his queerness hushed. His context: prison, apartheid, being political, gay and having the world’s attention. If there is one commonality it is their having the uncanny capacity to, through the simplest, most trivial things, capture and use the world’s attention in marking their time in their own handwriting. More than half the time this is achieved in the heat of opportunity but in the absence of status, position and skill. There have always been fairer and better placed men for the job. But God, for some reason, enjoys conferring such powers on the maligned, the nameless, the ‘out-of-where’s, the queer, the forbidden, the targeted. Is Nature’s compensation for vulnerability ? Is she trying to make a point? Or is it one of her jokes?
In a few weeks, Abuja , Nigeria shall host thousands of ground breaking students whose minds have been scripted by culture and norms, and the fear of bar final. The new wigs. Amongst them are men with whom I have eaten and prayed. Among them is a lady that I once loved, and several other people who have mastered the art of lawyering. And who may genuinely not be interested in the art of freedom fighting. Among them are people who will be choked to know that training informs you of what to say, it does not give you the opportunity to say it. Queerness does, being African, Nigerian and being different do? As a Nigerian lawyer with a stormy mind, my blog, what I say and how I say it have earned me some sort of queerness, dare I ask for more? Sharing from time to time in the hostility  for being perceived as queer, flowing from my writing; learning the limits of my still nascent stamina, I slowly embrace this place , whatever the impact of my blog is on human rights. Whatever the impact is at all!


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