Last year, a policeman tried to put his hand under my shirt to confirm if I had breasts and was indeed a woman. It was the most unsettling disregard of personal space and boundary I had experienced but it is not the only form of violence I have endured as a masculine-presenting lesbian living in Nigeria.
Nigeria is one of the most unsafe places for women to live as there are barely any enforceable laws protecting us from the sexual harassment, physical violence, harmful traditional practices or socio-economic discrimination we encounter daily. Nigeria has also been ranked as the worst place for the safety of LGBTQ persons as a result of anti-LGBTQ laws which promises fourteen years in prison and in some states, the death penalty for homosexuality. It, therefore, goes without saying that Nigeria is especially unsafe for women like me —who do not conform to societal expectations of sexuality and gender presentation. Consequently, we face an increased risk of violence and discrimination because of our perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
In my experience, acts of violence and discrimination could come from family, friends or strangers and could happen anywhere at any time even in spaces that preach love. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and members who indulged in grievous ‘sin’ like homosexuality faced what was called disfellowshipping. This meant that other members of the church including the family and friends of a disfellowshipped individual were not allowed to talk to them. This was one of my fears when I started to embrace my sexuality – losing my friends and family.
Most of my friends were Jehovah’s Witnesses, we had been raised in this faith and I knew their beliefs. I had heard them voice it out frequently —either about homosexual characters in tv series or about people around them they perceived to be queer. In 2018, I went to one of the church conventions with my friends and they played a video clip of a Jehovah’s Witness woman in the United States narrating how she lost her job for refusing to sell movie tickets to a lesbian couple because it was against her faith. Everyone including my friends celebrated and commended her for enduring persecution for her faith. I walked out of church that day and never went back. I never came out to these friends, but they grew distant when they finally realized I was a lesbian. Eventually, their only form of interaction became occasional likes on my Instagram posts.
It took a while, but I eventually found community with other queer folks. Social media became a place I could be free and openly homosexual without reprisal. Unfortunately, even in virtual spaces, I am not free from harassment. Every other day, there were messages from homophobic heterosexual men hiding behind anonymous accounts threatening me with corrective rape. Another extreme form of violence I experienced was people outing me to my family and employer. I describe this as extreme because in a country as homophobic as Nigeria, people who out queer folks know we are at risk of getting disowned, losing housing or financial support from our families and losing jobs, but they do it anyway because they simply despise our existence. It was not surprising to me when people I used to go to school and church with started sending screenshots of my tweets and pictures from my Instagram to my family in a bid to out me. It was also not surprising when work colleagues started stalking my social media accounts to confirm whether I was a lesbian or not. What followed after was office gossip in hushed tones and debates about what my presentation and ‘liberal’ views could mean. Occasionally, there were loud comments on how members of the LGBTQ community deserved the fourteen years prison term for engaging in unnatural behaviour in a bid to get me enraged enough to out myself. I remember one time I was to get an apartment with a female colleague, but another colleague told her I was a lesbian and since she was a Christian, she should not be associating with me; she went on to get an apartment by herself without telling me.
Eventually, my work environment became so toxic, the only reasonable course of action when news of my sexual orientation got to my supervisor was to hand in my letter of resignation. It was at this point I decided to control the people who had access to me on social media. I made my Twitter account private, deactivated my main Instagram account and opened a new private account.
It may be relatively easy to shield yourself from harassment and violence in virtual spaces, but what happens when you step out of your house into a world that is waiting to kill you?
Most of the harassment I encounter on the streets comes from state actors. Policemen are all too happy to keep me hostage at the roadside whilst interrogating me and my choice of clothing. “Why you dress like man?” “You be Tomboy?” “You be lesbian?” Somehow it became part of my daily routine to have little conversations with myself before I left my house as a way to mentally prepare for police harassment; often asking myself if I looked gay enough to draw police attention.
During the peak of the Covid pandemic and amidst calls for the disbandment of the section of the Nigerian police force known as SARS, four armed policemen pointed their loaded guns at my friends and I not so far away from my friend’s house. I assume because a bunch of women with dreadlocks, bleached hair, tattoos and piercings did not look like they were meant to be in a high-priced estate. After this, I became too traumatized to leave my house because I was tired of dealing with police harassment. On the occasions I went out, I was very paranoid about staying out late because I did not want to encounter policemen. I was more terrified of the police than I was of getting robbed in Lagos. Seeing any type of security uniform had me in a state of intense panic and evoked feelings of danger. When the policeman tried to put his hands under my shirt while threatening to kill me and leave my body at the roadside without any consequence, I imagined all he had to say to justify my death was that I was a lesbian.
There is not enough paper in the world to detail every form of violence queer women in Nigeria experience daily in virtual spaces and the real world especially when the state is complicit. It does not matter whether I am in church, on the internet, in a secular space or on the streets. I live in a country that criminalizes my existence; a country that compels me, a lesbian, to pretend that my sexual orientation does not exist, or that the behaviours by which it manifests itself can be suppressed; a country that forces me to deny my identity to avoid being persecuted, a country that denies me the fundamental right to be who I am and that in itself is state-sanctioned violence.