By Mariam Sule
2015 was the year everything changed. I had just turned 19. I was supposed to graduate with my degree in education along with my mates who also did four-year courses at the university. Whenever my friends and I gathered, they talked about their plans after graduation — getting jobs at media companies, travelling, etc. I couldn’t tell them that talking about the future made me anxious, so I avoided them. I stayed in my room most of that year.
2015 was also the year I started dating my first girlfriend, Isoken. I had known I was a lesbian since I was about 6 years old but 2015 was the year that I named my attraction towards women as lesbian. She gave me the first book I read where queer characters were portrayed positively. I was happy to spend my time escaping my real life to fall into a world where women loved women, and everything was okay.
Before then, I had been with women, but it wasn’t the sort of thing you talked about. I had a friend I would have sex with all night but the next day, we would be unable to look each other in the eye. Reading those books opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. I started to learn that I wasn’t supposed to be ashamed of being myself.
While I was in the university, I lived in the same apartment with a group of four of my friends — Yemisi, Ese, Nsikak and me. We spent our days together and shared almost everything we had amongst ourselves — clothes, shoes, and money. Sometimes we didn’t want to sleep apart, so we’d join our beds together and spend the night talking. We loved playing Rihanna’s music on blast and dancing to it. On most days, Ese cooked and Yemisi dished it out but Nsikak and I always felt cheated, so we fought over food portions a lot. We called each other family. We would often paint scenarios of our friendship lasting till we were all married and had kids. Even though I knew then that I couldn’t get married to a man or have kids, I agreed with them because I didn’t want to be different.
But I had always been different. I grew up always being the youngest person in my class every year. My mates would avoid interacting with me because I was the teacher’s pet — nobody wanted to get in trouble for mistreating me. This meant I was often alone.
Boarding school was hard. I spent the first few months walking to class and back alone because on my first day, the headmistress announced that I was the youngest and so everybody was tasked with the responsibility of tending to me. The opposite happened because, in boarding school, it’s every person for themselves. The stories I told about my life came easy to me. One of the perks of being alone is falling into books. I pulled out stories I had read, made them bigger or smaller to fit a narrative of myself I assumed people would want to be friends with. I told anyone who cared to listen that I had a boyfriend back home and his family was friends with mine, even though the first time a boy asked me out, I immediately declined because I was repulsed. I told them my parents were richer than they really were, and we travelled often for holidays. I learned that otherness was often punished with exclusion and likeness would most likely be rewarded with companionship.
I played the script for a while. In university, it’s easy to be cool when you smoke and are sexually active. My personality trait stopped being my age. I started being the girl that always had weed. Yemisi often described me as someone that has mind. I wanted to be liked and I wanted the people that liked me to never stop. I did anything my friends asked and sometimes, things they didn’t ask for.
I had a boyfriend when I met Isoken. I knew I liked her, but it took a while to admit that the pull I felt towards her was because I was a lesbian. Before her, I thought my sexuality was just another contrarian feature of mine, one that men would appreciate me for. I described myself as a wild cat. I told my boyfriend about the other women I had sex with while I dated him. He didn’t have a problem with it as long as I told him. But meeting her was different because before her, I had never considered dating a woman. 2015 started a ripple of events that caused me to define myself and review my value system.
Yemisi was the first person I told I was a lesbian. She echoed it; ‘you are now a lesbian’, like I wasn’t sure of what I had just said. When I said yes, she asked how we had sex. As I began to explain it to her, something else drowned the conversation. Another day, as we were walking back from school with Ese, she blurted out, “Do you know Mariam is now a lesbian?” Ese made a sound with her tongue and asked me how girls had sex with other girls. Yemisi laughed and said that was the same question she asked me. I laughed too even though I didn’t find it funny. Later, Ese said she watched lesbian porn and she still doesn’t understand how tribbing was supposed to give pleasure. I explained it to her the best way I could, but she scoffed and said, “Nothing like penis.”
It was the first time I realized that ignoring how different I was from them meant trying to fit my life into a context they could understand. For me, this meant self-erasure. I laughed about it with her because I didn’t want to be the friend that couldn’t take a joke but soon enough, I had to draw a line.
Naming myself as a lesbian changed a lot of things. It was a revealing experience. One time, Ese complained about not being able to reach her boyfriend during certain hours of the day and she didn’t trust that he wasn’t cheating. I asked her if she had spoken to him about the distrust. She said, “I can’t talk to him about it. Our relationship is not like lesbian relationships — this is a serious relationship.” I asked myself what made a relationship a serious one? The presence of a man and woman or the presence of people willing to make it work? Since when, did our relationships have to be serious before we talk about it? I was hurt but I couldn’t tell her because I didn’t want to have a long conversation where she would dismiss the things that make my existence because it didn’t look like hers. I stopped volunteering my opinions after that.
As the first daughter of a small family from an ethnic minority group, I was expected to be a good girl who believed in the infinite grace of God, who would marry a man from our tribe, handpicked by my parents and recommended by my extended family members. I had never felt that urgency to worship a god I could not connect with, so I gave up a long time ago. The person I was at school was a sharp contrast to the person I was at home. When the awakening happened in 2015, it dawned on me that I had long failed their dreams. I stopped going home and when I did, I kept the visits short. I evaded questions about school or flat out lied about it.
At the end of the year, when my mates had graduated and my rent was due, I came clean — I told my parents I had dropped out of school and I intended to chase a career in writing. To my surprise, they were supportive and reassured me of their love. I sat in my room that night crying from relief and anxiety, with Isoken at the other end of the call. I wondered if their willingness to love me would falter if I told them that I am a lesbian. I cried my eyes red that night.
I moved shortly after. My new city gave me a chance to define myself as I pleased. I rented a small room with a bathroom and a kitchen. I painted the room shades of yellow with the leftover paint my neighbour offered me. As we painted the room, covering the brown stains on the wall, he asked if my boyfriend was okay with the fact that I smoked. I said, “I am a lesbian.” He nodded, letting my words sink before asking if I had a girlfriend. I said I did. “I hope I get to meet her sometime.” I was grateful for the questions he did not ask.
A few months, after I moved, Yemisi got engaged to a man she had been dating for a while. He was a Christian and she often talked about how he wanted to improve her life. I was happy she found love, even though she had started to send bible verses to our group chat and stopped indulging us in conversations about things like sex or smoking. I found out about the engagement from Ese. She called to check on me. It was an attempt to salvage our friendship which I appreciated. We went through the pleasantries and in filling up the awkward silence, she asked me if I was coming for Yemisi’s engagement party. I told her I wasn’t invited, she pleaded with me to not tell Yemisi she told me. I waited for Yemisi to tell me herself, but she never did. I saw the pictures from the wedding on social media. I cried as I typed congratulations to her — a message she never replied to.
I tried to seek comfort with Isoken but one thing I did not account for was how naming myself meant naming her too. With everything that had happened, I couldn’t understand why she would be averse to it. Her presence in my life led me to myself. How could she not see that? In our private space, she cuddled me and talked about our future together — a small brick house at the side of town with no kids racing the hallways but when we were in public, she was different. She would laugh with her friends at me about things like me double texting her or me expecting her to say ‘I love you’ at the end of every call. They thought I was too soft, and she agreed, often saying that I was too emotional to be logical. One time, we were hanging out at her house with her friends and family — all of whom at the time knew we were together. Someone made a joke about weddings and somehow, everyone was painting possible scenarios that could happen at Isoken’s wedding — who would be doing what and when. They talked about her husband like I wasn’t in the room. I tried to talk about it afterwards — point out that her girlfriend was present, yet they were talking about her getting married to a man. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t find it funny. “It’s just a joke”, she said, but why did it hurt? It took both of us a couple more emotional scars to see that our journeys were different, and we needed to part.
I put the rainbow sign in my bio on social media and engaged in conversations about queer people. I was curious about all things that we couldn’t talk about with the people in our lives and in a bid to connect the experiences of queer people living in Nigeria and build community, I started a podcast. It was liberating to introduce myself as a lesbian for a group of listeners who were queer like me. Every day, the desire to tuck parts of myself in for another person’s comfort wilted.
Naming myself also meant naming the trauma that came with. As a queer person living in Nigeria, navigating discrimination sanctioned by the state, enabled by the church and endorsed by the streets, trauma is ingrained in our collective experience. Therapy helped me define trauma as it applied to me. I learned late that it takes the precision of self-awareness to not spill trauma on everything you touch. My healing came in waves that threatened to drown me. One time, I opened my eyes and people were holding me up, reminding me that I am not a burden. Not a projection of dreams or something to endure. These people saw me as I am and accepted me. With them, I am unfolding to discover parts of myself I never knew. They teach me that though naming myself came with the price of solitude, it also gave me community, a world of people like me who had shunned the outside, who know it’s okay to be us. I call them my family christened with love, bound by truth.