It is a few minutes shy of 9:00pm and I am in a Bolt ride home from Johannesburg Park Station. The driver is Eritrean and we are talking about African immigrants. He seems not to trust Malawians and Zimbabweans; the ones he has met so far are trouble. He likes Nigerians very much. He almost swears that he can tell them apart from other Africans once they open their mouths to speak. I reply that I can tell Eritreans apart, too – they sound a bit like Ethiopians. Ethiopians! Oh, he does not like Ethiopians; he was brought up not to like them. He cannot escape his upbringing, he says. Just before we reach my home in downtown Johannesburg, he confesses that he cannot place me. ‘I’m Nigerian,’ I say. ‘What?’ he says. ‘You sound nothing like them.’
Not sounding like them has been quite the aspiration since I got here. It has emerged from a lifetime of trying to blend in and not be picked out. I feel such an unsettledness in the close presence of my people that I need to make myself unrecognizable, at least until I feel safe enough to reveal myself. There is a part of me that’s aware of the ‘safety’ that the ‘Big City’ can offer to migrants, particularly queer people. I need every inch of it; homophobia is everywhere.
To be recognized is to be judged, I learned from those closest to me, the Igbos, when I was growing up in Nigeria. They were the ones to judge my boyhood, always telling me how much catching up I had to do to become my dad, implying that, until then, I would be nothing.
I recall my navy-run high school in Borikiri, a neighbourhood of the sprawling southern city of Port Harcourt, where almost everyone comes from a military background. From a distance, our school uniforms and the classroom blocks made everything seem like a blur of white and navy blue. No-one could be told apart. We seemed like clones of each other to people from the outside and I enjoyed that feeling – but among us we knew who was who, and what was what.
For university, I moved to Okija, the largest town of Anambra State in eastern Nigeria. I would pursue a law degree for five years. Here it was not extraordinary to be Igbo, something I enjoyed. But some boys could tell that I tended to look at them ‘strangely’. Someone had spotted a slight sashay in my step. I stayed out late, all by myself, studying. I felt the less I spoke or was seen, the more invisible I would be.
I struggled with my unyielding interest in boys and would reject it for most of my time on campus. I’d cringe when others, especially more effeminate boys, looked at me knowingly. I avoided them because they flocked and did not care about being seen or heard. Some would even adopt alter-egos like ‘Beyoncé’ and ‘Shakira’. One of them, who knew me, would occasionally call me ‘aunty’. I would flash a look of calculated disgust masking my fear and storm off. Although I was deeply inspired by our Shakira and Beyoncé, it would be years before I would phone Shakira on New Year’s Eve to say so. All I wanted was to be a regular law student, invisible at every other level.
But with academic success, this became difficult. I would hold my breath at student events where I had to sit at high tables, judge competitions, give speeches or deliver awards. It would be three years of holding my breath until I got admitted to the Nigerian Bar and was subsequently awarded a scholarship to further my studies in South Africa.
Before I left Nigeria, the 2014 law criminalizing same-sex relationships passed. The news and social media churned with images of men being arrested for being homosexuals. I left the country without saying the right goodbyes.
Opening up to difference
I first settled in Pretoria’s Hatfield suburb, the hub of student life. In Hatfield, I would attend a human rights course with openly queer people in the room. I would get my first public kiss from a Zulu man who lifted me from the ground as passersby applauded. I became a member of the student LGBTI support group on campus. It was great to meet without the threat of a police raid. But I missed a queer migrant dimension, and would face rejection for loving ‘too seriously’ and believing ‘too strongly’.
There is a magical place in downtown Pretoria, called the Union Pub, christened ‘La Cantina’, that queers from all over the country flood to. Over the weekend nights, it is packed, tight, intense, unsafe but fiercely sexual, dark and lit up all at once. I love it. There you can be anyone or anything. There, people tend to be slippery and rarely show up with the intention to find long-term alliances.
In Pretoria, I meet several queer migrants. But we are very different. Sometimes, our difference makes us prefer not to be in each other’s lives. I also meet a few Nigerian queer men and this is the best part of my being here. But I soon realize that we also think very differently. We love very differently, too. I would prefer that we explore all that the safety of being out here affords, at as many levels as possible.
In South Africa, I celebrate my ‘Nigerianness’. But I am wary of being recognized, by heterosexual Nigerians, as Nigerian. My mind does this maths: without recognition there can be no rejection. Being recognized as Nigerian or queer or Igbo – there are infinite possibilities as to the consequences. I continually negotiate how much of my precious anonymity to trade in.
In South Africa, I venture to write about the worsening state of LGBTI rights in Nigeria on my blog and grant an interview to a Nigerian podcast, and watch my inbox flood with messages of support and hostility. In South Africa, I get called black and begin to notice the implications. I learn that identity is a catastrophic mess everyone is stuck with and that sometimes there is no hiding place. But also I have great, openly queer role models whose lives show that although identity cannot be deleted, it can be recalibrated; that success can bring a degree of acceptance. In South Africa, I come out to my family via an email and open a new chapter in my life. One where I am often conflicted and often alone.
I have just moved to Marshalltown, downtown Johannesburg. Life here is worlds apart from Hatfield, Pretoria, a lot less insulated. There are more La Cantinas here but they are unfortunately more highbrow, less well-attended, less intense. Johannesburg, historically the site of queer rights activism, feels more like a queer museum, frozen in time.
As I get out of my night-time Bolt ride and into my building, I feel gratitude wash through me that, after four years, my visible identity has become such a blur even without me trying. That I no longer have to hold my breath. And yet I go to bed unsettled by my desire to vanish.
I have queer role models whose lives show that although identity cannot be deleted, it can be recalibrated