Essay: A Non–binary Perspective
In a country where the human rights of LGBTQIA+ people are not prioritized due to the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (2014), traditional and religious beliefs, being queer, non-binary or a transgender person is considered civil disobedience by patriarchal standards in Nigeria. Women’s groups and religious bodies advocating against sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria are mostly centered on cisgender women, with a few human rights organizations focused on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender and intersex community. Queer women in Nigeria like other women are faced with violence including forced marriages, coerced sex in marriages and intimate relationships, unemployment and underemployment, rape by strangers and organised rape in war, financial abuse at home, emotional and mental violence, and forced exposure to pornography. Queer women’s rights are still constantly debated and trampled upon due to personal beliefs and sentiments which form the basis for which ignorance is upheld. While we are united by a defined struggle and movement, it is disheartening to see that many queer people in the Nigerian LGBTQIA+ community who look down on non-binary and transgender folks, do not want to live a life of relearning old and harmful cis-sexist ideas thereby fostering a never-ending cycle of abuse at the detriment of our collective queer liberation.
On friendships and relationships
Friends and partners of non-binary people often do not put much effort into the usage of correct pronouns when speaking to and about non-binary folks. It is expected that there may be some difficulty in adjustment at first but even after a year or two, we often find that those who are closest to us still misgender non-binary folks when speaking to and about us. I find that when strangers do this, it does not cut as deep as when friends and acquaintances continuously misgender non-binary people. Everyone reacts strongly to being called the wrong names; even when the right names are mispronounced, they go out of their way to demand their names be pronounced right but they fail to extend the same courtesy to non-binary folks who constantly have to remind people to not misgender them, which sometimes push non-binary people to adopt easier binary pronouns for the comfort of others. Some friends and acquaintances of non-binary folks have made a habit of questioning experiences of non-binary queer persons which leaves me beyond shocked. Some non-binary queer folks are also in the business of discounting and dismissing people’s truths simply because they do not have the same experience. In my experience, when speaking of violence meted out on queer womxn in Nigeria, masculine of centre non-binary people are made to feel like they need to bring evidence to defend themselves or explain their emotional experiences. On occasions when I have spoken about violence against queer womxn using my lived experiences such as sexual harassment and assault, evidence of truth for my feelings has been demanded from me. I have encountered so many people who know the right words, who know how to navigate with the progressive presentation and allyship but in their interpersonal relationships, they are missing it. I have also grown to understand that if you need to bring evidence for your feelings and traumas, then you are being gaslighted.
To this day, trans and non-binary persons who need to fill intake forms are made to pick a compulsory option between the binary genders – female and male, no in-betweens. Some non-binary persons keep their birth names while others do not. Those who do not share a connection with their birth names are still forced to input these names on government-issued identifications, intake forms and applications online and offline, even in queer-affirming spaces. I recently filled a form from a queer-focused organisation looking to mobilize queer womxn, trans, and non-binary folks; rather than make full names optional or provided with an option of nicknames, organisations catering to LGBTQIA+ youths still make the option of birth names compulsory on registration forms. It is not enough to employ non-binary people in queer-affirming organisations and spaces, doing the extra work of listening to these employees matters especially during the Needs assessment and analysis phases of projects. The sensitivity of the issue of names is equally as important as that of gender on forms. A vital step like this, often termed little and unimportant and constantly brushed off by the cisgender community, may mean the world to some non-cisgender people and goes a long way in affirming folks who interact with these spaces in any capacity. To foster inclusion, adequate care should be taken to prevent avoidable issues like demanding old/dead names from some non-binary and trans persons who may or may not be willing to give out such information.
On workplace ethics
Oftentimes, we tend to excuse and ignore abhorrent and discriminatory practices at work because we live in a capitalist society where livelihood and sustenance largely depends on saviours and demigods like some Nigerian employers – respectfully. Job security and Work-Life balance have become fairy tales where queer women, non-binary and trans folks who work in predominantly heteronormative work environments and even queer spaces have to work twice as hard to constantly prove several points to colleagues and management that they are equally deserving of job retention as others. I used to work with colleagues who took pleasure in performing trans allyship to visitors but will never affirm me outside the watchful eyes of strangers. It was difficult to talk to people who knew them of the transphobia that abound in a supposedly inclusive queer-focused work environment. I worked with colleagues whose favourite pastime was correcting people outside the organisation on the usage of my pronouns, but they never kept the energy during work hours when addressing me. It was almost a fetish for them to interrupt conversations just to inform people of my non-binary pronouns when they do not care to affirm my gender in the absence of office guests or when the cameras were off. I got purposefully misgendered every waking morning from champions of transgender inclusion and only got affirmed when I was being reported for alleged unacceptable behaviour so it would be on record that my actual pronouns were used. I often got misgendered out of spite when tempers were high or when my performances were not up to expectation, mostly during staff gatherings and meetings as if I was being punished in their very little way because they understood how much my pronouns mattered to me. When they were in better moods, I got jokes about my pronouns and how it was somewhat difficult to use but was assured they were all trying their best as though their benevolent transphobia struck out all the bigotry I constantly had to shoulder. I witnessed a situation where a former transgender colleague complained about being deliberately misgendered, got waved off, and sternly warned to quit overreacting, after all, it was something everyone was trying to get used to. She however resigned because she said she never felt safe from the get-go and could not continue with the pretense. This nonchalance was very exasperating and was responsible for several bouts of anxiety because the disregard for transness was very invalidating and bordered on trans-erasure. Seeing the sadness in the eyes of some workshop participants especially trans women and hearing them recount their ordeal about being told to stop acting like little girls by facilitators while getting cisgender-heterosexist bile thrown at them at events and workshops designed for queer and trans women in a supposedly progressive queer space was reason enough for sleep deprivation. It is as if cisgender folks respect transness only at their discretion. When it is not convenient to do so, when it does not serve them, they completely denigrate and seek to weaponize our vulnerabilities to invoke pains and anguish against our personhood. Having worked with cisgender queer folks for the longest time, I know how much they embrace domineering language against non-binary folks and use this to harm the transgender community, but they do not care about that because they understand the lingo and terminologies and can use it to appear trustworthy. For trans and non-binary persons, no matter how much we say these behaviours do not surprise or affect us, the memory of these abuses creeps up in the most unexpected times because our body has a way of remembering trauma. What is most painful is that you do not get a say on how people choose to treat you as a person, no matter how much you try to convince them you are deserving of respect, they do not change. It is important to let such people go.
One major significant challenge LGBTQIA+ people face is discrimination and exclusion in the healthcare sector. Barriers in the system can take many forms including an inadequate understanding of individual-specific conditions, trauma-related health issues, denial of care based on individual and religious bias, inadequate or substandard care, lack of patient confidentiality by providers, and avoidance of treatment due to fear of discrimination. Some medical professionals look at queer, non-binary, and trans bodies as something of an anomaly. They see it as an error to be repaired/corrected with medicine. Non-binary people and transgender women already have less access to healthcare, are less likely to have health insurance, less likely to refill prescriptions, more likely to use the emergency room due to delay in getting care, more likely to refuse healthcare services, and are more likely to be harassed by health-care providers. There have been instances where queer womxn and trans men seeking diagnosis for illnesses have been asked to feminize themselves with medication and do that which is of the will of God. Every medical consultation has been turned into an avenue for proselytization by some licensed medical professionals in Nigeria who still think gender is set in stone. This is one of the reasons why many queer womxn and non-binary people self-medicate, have a higher rate of depression and anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, suicide, and suicide ideation as a result of chronic stress, social isolation, and disconnectedness from a range of health and supportive services. I was once told by a male doctor to come back when I was ready to be pregnant when I took my endometriosis diagnosis to his office. He completely ignored the fact that I was a menopausal twenty-six years old and asked me to find a man to impregnate me to cure my debilitating illness. A gynaecologist told me to get pregnant and see how the physical changes will make me “a happy and fulfilled woman”. A doctor wanted to pump me with oestrogen medication to make me fertile to the best of his abilities in a bid to cure my PCOS because according to him, it will cancel out all hormonal abnormalities as shown in my hormone profile. One doctor while smiling, called my body lazy and unwilling to heal as typical of most women’s he has encountered when I presented with a diagnosis for fibromyalgia. A doctor took it upon himself to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to me when I told him I was sexually active – the non-heterosexual way. He went further to ask if he could prescribe me over-the-counter aphrodisiacs that could be found in any pharmacy to correct my sexual inclinations because the medication will make me willingly “give it up to anyone readily available.” For the longest time after that encounter, I thought about the definition and purpose of aphrodisiacs and wondered how the prescription would lead me straight towards men and supposedly fix my homosexuality. I once went to a hospital for a bad cold which made my voice deep and hoarse and had the doctor tell me to do a voice training by joining a church choir to compensate for me looking like a teenage boy so I could retain some femininity. On one of my bad endometriosis flare days, a gynaecologist asked if he could prescribe me medications to make my breasts more supple and visible while asking if I was happy with my body when I looked at my naked self in the mirror. Reverse psychology has been tried, body dysmorphia has been weaponised, ancient medical texts have been cited, worst-case scenarios have been emphasized, eternal damnation has been preached and the fear of God has been employed but not once have people thought to treat others who do not look or act in societal acceptable standards with the respect and dignity that we all deserve. When licensed healthcare providers fail to understand the dangers of health violation and its relation to physical/mental health and social exclusion, there is bound to be a loss of confidence in the healthcare system by LGBTQIA+ people in Nigeria.
Queer womxn in Nigeria including trans women and non-binary persons need not be infantilised or pathologized. Trans women and non-binary folks often receive harsh treatment and care under the diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” but the trans identity is not a mental disorder. Friends, partners, and colleagues of non-binary folks should adopt a gender-neutral language when speaking to and about non-binary people except stated otherwise by said individuals.
As a person assigned female at birth, having worked in several different establishments over the years and having had superiors of all sexes, every work situation I have found myself in has been a den for abusers to thrive. Empowered by their position of authority, the near-non-existent policies on professional ethics and code of conduct, and also the complacent attitude of their fellow superiors, harassment in the workplace has become an all-too-familiar sore thumb in my professional adult life. The rights of women in the workplace include being protected from a rather hostile work environment where womxn are made the subject of unwelcome sexual comments and advances that put them in fear of losing their jobs if they do not comply or feign ignorance of these practices perpetrated by colleagues and superiors who should know better but continue to act with impunity. These create a work environment that is intimidating, hostile, and offensive to reasonable people, so the issue at hand begs the question of whether there is total accountability for everyone or if top management of established workplaces is utterly accountable to no one. To ensure offenders are held accountable for the use of power as a tool for oppression in today’s Nigeria, there should be a functional body that holds colleagues and management accountable for their discriminatory attitudes and practices towards queer womxn including trans and non-binary folks in every work environment. This way everyone is made to take full responsibility for their actions when called upon.
LGBTQIA+ people in Nigeria receive healthcare services that can only be fully accessed in organisations advocating for the rights of queer people under the umbrella of human rights. While that is good considering the circumstance, this puts a strain and increases the health risks for queer womxn and non-binary folks who need healthcare and cannot easily or readily access them due to unavailability and unwillingness from healthcare providers. We can push for advocacy that says all hospitals should publish their privacy statement and confidentiality rights of patients because we need to have medical privileges protecting all queer womxn against unethical medical practices and language. Advocacy should be taken to medical regulatory bodies to address the issue of personal biases by medical professionals and push for the inclusion of core components of rights to health including sufficient quantity of healthcare facilities, respect for medical ethics, and sensitivity to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE), healthcare that is available to everyone, and quality health services which should be safe, effective, people-centered, timely, equitable, integrated and efficient. These discriminatory practices have a long-term negative impact on every realm of life, causing deep, lasting trauma, which contributes to internalized homophobia, depression, anxiety, suicide and suicide ideation, and substance abuse as a coping mechanism. In many instances, individuals have taken their lives. The LGBTQIA+ community should continue to work together to dismantle the patriarchy which fuels misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. Queer womxn as a sexual and gender minority group, must also remember that abusers do not need an excuse to abuse. They abuse because that is who they are and not because of something you said/did not say or did/did not do.