A seemingly new word that has taken over worldwide grabbing everyone’s attention more and more each day; this word, ‘queer’. What does it mean, the word, ‘queer’? In the Oxford English Dictionary, it is defined as “strange, odd”; “spoil or ruin (an agreement, event, or situation)”, with its earliest usage occurring around early 16th century. The word ‘queer’ gained negative attention when a certain Marquess discovered that his son was involved in a gay relationship back in 1894 and decided to prosecute the son’s lover. During the court case, a letter penned by the Marquess containing the phrase ‘Snob Queers’ surfaced, in which it was used to refer to gay men in a derogatory manner—thus the first written record of the word as a slur. It was associated with homosexual men in an offensive and insulting light, especially towards the more effeminate gay men. This set the tone to be adopted for many years to come, associating the word with hate, negativity and homophobia directed a certain group of people. Over time, this word ‘queer’ evolved and morphed and assumed more definitions relating it to the gender and sexuality of individuals so much that its initial definition is gradually losing association to the word now.
The late 1980s brought the first usage of the word ‘queer’, in a reclaimed and more positive fashion; if anything it became a word associated with fighting everything anti-LGBTQ+. In the year 1990 in a center in New York, a group of activists came together to form what they called ‘Queer Nation’—a direct action organisation with the goal of reducing anti-gay violence that was at an all time high then partly due to the AIDS epidemic of the late 80s. Records show them as the first people to reclaim the term, making it a positive symbol of self-identification in mainstream society. Since then, the term has grown from just a reclamation, into a full identity within the LGBTQ+ community.
It can be used by individuals who do not fall on either end of the gender binary, or it can refer to people who do not fit into any set sexual orientation. Now it is the Q in the LGBTQ+ acronym (standing for either queer or questioning) and serves as an identity and expression, highlighting the fluidity of genders and sexualities which may not fit into other more defined spaces. It is on this premise that I will refer to everyone in the LGBTQ+ community as ‘queer’, meaning non-heterosexual and/or non-binary in relation to gender.
Such a simple word with so much space for a large group of people.
In Nigeria, being queer has been met with so much negativity and intolerance that lives have been lost as a result of the blind fight for the preservation of heteronormativity. As a people who hold steadfast to tradition, culture and religion, it is easy to understand why the average Nigerian would be opposed to the existence of queer people. The Bible says it is a sin, our culture says husband-wife not husband-husband or wife-wife, and it is the one thing Nigerians refused to ‘collect’ from the West—this homosexual thing is for the white man! Colonial law only prohibited same-sex relations laying a foundation for prejudice and homophobia. And as if that was not enough to warrant violence on LGBTQ+ identifying individuals, the former President went further to pass into law, an Act that criminalises same-sex relations. Established in 2014, the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act now popularly known as SSMPA gave people the power to carry out violence in the name of the law. The SSMPA reads: “This Act prohibits a marriage contract or civil union entered into between persons of same-sex, and provides penalties for the solemnisation and witnessing of same” going further to talk about organisations, clubs, and societies as well, being punishable by law if any are found registered in connection to LGBTQ+ community. The maximum punishment for same-sex civil unions or marriages is fourteen years, and ten years for people who witness any of such unions. For registered gay clubs, societies and organisations, and public display of amorous affection between same sex individuals ten years imprisonment is the punishment. Thanks to this law members of the general public, state and non-state actors perpetrate acts of violence towards individuals they perceive to be gender or sexually queer—without any confirmation. The law empowers them to lead from a place of gross misunderstanding and zero tolerance, harassing, discriminating and meting out punishments they desire. These punishments can come in form of harassment, blackmail, employment discrimination and can lead up to death. Shortly after the law was passed, there was a spike in vicious mob mentality leading to innocent people being beaten and arrested for suspicions of either being gay or engaging in same-sex relations. What is ironic here is that if one goes beyond the title of the Act and delves into the sections of the SSMPA, non-LGBTQ+ members of society fall prey to it. How? ‘Amorous displays’ can occur between two cousins or siblings of the ‘same sex’, no? Two sisters can decide to get a house together, no? Hug in public and peck each other on the cheek, no? Well, the SSMPA by virtue of employing the phrase ‘same sex’ ropes in not only LGBTQ+ members but basically any and everyone in the country. But, that shall be tackled another day. The focus lays on the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act title and people now believe that they can finally get rid of the plague that is the LGBTQ+ community.
Is there any hope for queer people living in Nigeria?
Well recent studies conducted by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), (a non-governmental organisation that works to protect and promote the human rights of sexual minorities) in 2019 showed that there is an increased tolerance for members of the LGBTQ+ community versus 2017 when the first survey was carried out. In 2017 results showed that only 17% of people believed community members deserve the same rights as non-members—which has increased to 27%. In relation to acceptance of a queer family member, it increased from 13% to 30%; those in favour of the SSMPA banning same-sex relationships reduced from 91% to 74%. The study shows a detailed breakdown of the tolerance level of this minority in Nigeria—which although it shows improvement, is still a far cry from total acceptance and zero violence to our existence and fundamental rights.
I have had the privilege of living in Port-Harcourt, Lagos and Abuja in that exact order, as I grew older. I encountered Abuja in my early adulthood and this will forever impact my life because Abuja gave me the keys to access my true selves. In Port-Harcourt I always knew I was part of the LGBTQ+ community but I didn’t know what it meant to be gay, much less bisexual—which was my label then. These weren’t words I came across daily whether from television or radio, neither did I know any other girls who were like me. I recall the first time I heard the word ‘lesbian’ and after I was enlightened as to what the word connoted? I knew it would be taboo to tell anyone of my own—liking both boys AND girls? NO! Lagos showed me that it was okay to have both sides and even though I couldn’t be open about it? I could find outlets and live as freely as my hiding would allow (hello threesomes). Abuja though? Abuja gave me the way IN at last because that is where I met the largest pool of my fellow queer people who were well versed in living ‘openly hidden’ and balancing the fine line between. I learned more about my community, about our struggles, and our history. I grew confidence to not hide as much as I had to in the past, but well enough to not be caught by SSMPA apologists disguised as law-abiding citizens. I found spaces where being queer was the norm, IS the norm and interacted with other queerfolk. I was surrounded by queer persons and I felt the energy in my life change. I started to breathe better, so many things that made me turn into myself to hide dissolved as I increased contact with the community. I have learned old things about myself and been exposed to new parts of myself I was unaware of. The liberation that came with this knowledge has been life altering and now I can dream about a society where the freedom is whole, no more hiding or pretending.
You know how it is said that you never really understand what someone is going through until you are in the exact same position to experience it? That is how you can’t fully comprehend the lived experiences of queer people in Nigeria, or anywhere else in the world. We are beaten and kicked out by our parents, discriminated against by our neighbours and relatives, we are beaten some more in public by strangers, sometimes to our death. These and many more push us to employ coping mechanisms and live lines that are not always healthy or for our benefit. Discrimination filters into housing, employment and health services—preventing us from gaining access to the basic services we need to live. The SSMPA encourages society to deny us its citizens, our basic human rights, we are not even pushing for the marriage that the title proudly prohibits, you know? We just want to be given room to BE. In our dark cloud lies a silver lining in the form of organisations that cater to us queer people. These organisations offer counseling, health, and legal services; organise trainings and workshops for empowerment, security trainings, etc to help us navigate living in a country that refuses to accord us our rights as people. Some of these organisations include Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative (WHERI), The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), International Center for Advocacy and The Right to Health (ICARH), to mention a few. These bodies help us by giving us safe spaces to live, interact and be free, queerly free; giving us support we need to fight for what we deserve as human beings in any society; encouraging us to extend love to everyone even though they won’t do the same to us.
Our freedom will never be complete until the SSMPA is abolished and same-sex relations decriminalised. We will never be truly free until every corner of the country is sensitised to the existence of queer people and heteronormative expectations are destroyed. There is an ongoing fight by queer people globally—for our fundamental human rights—and until there is acceptance, the fight for our freedom will continue.