My thoughts on She Called Me Woman
“In all of this, I wanted to ask myself why I felt so bad, so guilty. Had I done anything wrong?”
This book was not only fascinating to read, it was eye-opening. There were 25 stories from queer women, put together by three editors who traveled around Nigeria to ask questions that a lot of us ask about homosexuality. I won’t be able to write my thoughts on each person that participated, so what I’ll do here is a sort of collective summary on what I gathered.
Firstly, this is not fiction, so it’s not about plot or characters; neither is it a critic or review. It’s about real women telling us their stories about being gay in Nigeria. I can relate to them, not because I am gay, but because I am a woman who lives in the same patriarchal society they live in. I understand what it means to be feminine and to face certain types of treatment and have people expect so and so from you just because of your gender. To attain puberty is to fall into shame about your body, to see yourself as a sexual being that is there solely for the pleasure of men. Everything you are taught from that moment centers around men – not letting them take advantage of you sexually, and then preparing yourself for marriage and childbearing, which is termed your ultimate goal in life. It’s all about your body, your shame, and the pleasure you give to a man.
The gay women in these stories relate with this. And I think being a woman in a male-controlled society where you are taught that you should be seen and not heard or not even to be seen at all, it makes you understand gay people better.
A friend once asked on Facebook why women are more accepting of gays and I had an honest reaction to that. For one, women are sexually fluid. I have always known this. And this book proved it to me. Secondly, women do not have that fear or discomfort of being hit upon or seen as sex objects by gay people, and even though we have a few lesbians who objectify women, it isn’t the norm. Thirdly, gay people are expressive when it comes to their emotions. Straight men are not wired to do that around here, even with people they are close to. Fourthly, women find themselves in a place where they are seen as less, just as gay people do. This makes them connect on some level.
Knowing the above already, it helped me understand this book more. But like I said, it was eye-opening. I found out that gay relationships go the exact way straight relationships go. As much as they have their peculiarities, they fall in love and show affection the same way a man and a woman do. Heterosexuals don’t always want to accept this. They believe gay relationships are all about sex. Not long ago, I used to be one of those people that would say, “Remove the sex and they will no longer be gay.” Reading stories from the book like ‘This Is What I’ve Been Missing’, ‘Focusing On Joy’, ‘I Want To Be Around People I Care About’, and others, shows you how complicated lesbian relationships can get; and how they have the same feelings and fights and issues the rest of us grapple with. It was interesting to learn that some femme lesbians expect their stud girlfriends to pick up the bills and spoil them silly like some entitled females do in a heterosexual relationship. Some of the femmes suffer physical abuse from their partners. Generally, they do not appreciated being cheated on. Faithfulness is important, as are long-term relationships. They also care about safe sex as regards to STD’s. And their sex lives are as intriguing or boring as ours.
Lesbian also have their distinctiveness, like the representation of gender roles. Who acts the man and the woman when they are dating, who is more dominant, and who is more caring. Some of them like taking the role of men. Some are dominant sexually and physically to submissive partners. Some do not want to be penetrated, but will initiate penetration as men do. But for others, they do not want roles because roles are indicative of a heterosexual relationship.
Quoting from ‘My Sexuality Is Just The Icing On The Cake’… ‘She asks, “You are the dude, right?” I reply, “No, there is no dude. I’m the girl and she’s the girl.”’
That actually made me laugh. Then there was the one where a lady pointed out that some bi-lesbians claimed they were virgins because they were yet to have penetrative sex, even though they are fine with doing everything else. Some of such ladies usually keep themselves for men. And this is not something certain lesbians appreciate. A number of them do not date bisexuals. They do not want women that have been or could be with men. It is not an intolerance thing. It’s just preference.
Another thing you pick up is that not all gay people are nice. For us straight people who may be fascinated with them from afar, we might have this colorful, happy picture that they are all sweet and kind, but it’s not true of a few of them. Some of these women have been hurt by lesbian lovers, betrayed and abused. It’s simply a human thing, gay or straight.
One of the strongest realities you’ll come to accept when reading She Called Me Woman is that lesbians had always been the way they are. I think the editors who compiled these stories pretty much asked the same questions when interviewing the ladies. So after reading a few of the accounts, you get to see a pattern where the ladies tell how it started for them. And almost all of them say the same thing – I have always been this way. For those who aren’t bisexual, they never felt anything for boys. And when they tried to have relationships with boys because it was expected of them, nothing clicked. No fireworks or tummy butterflies. I had questioned if they had tried enough, because us straight women have also had those moments where we felt nothing for the boys we hooked up with. Could they have given up on straight love so quickly? Or were they just gay? Those questions were not answered by some of them. But for the majority, you could see the outright disconnect and sometimes disgust when describing sex with the opposite sex. Even for those who tried to do it to ‘fuck away the gay’ couldn’t connect. They were just who they were.
Now this takes you to another question – are people born gay or is being gay a choice? One of the respondents had this to say, “To say I am born gay is to accept the empathy of naïve homophobes. So, no. I am not born gay. I choose to be gay.”
I saw a post the other day on Facebook and some people held strongly that all gay people are born that way. But I don’t believe all are. I believe some choose to be gay. Being gay is as much an identity as it is a choice, especially in a homophobic society. You can be what you are and still choose to be or not be that person. It’s like saying I am a certain way because I was born that way, but refusing to be that way because I have the choice to; I have the power to be something or someone else. Of course, this argument may not apply to everything we choose to do. For example, your race, your skin color. Can you choose not to be black? What then is your blackness? Just a skin color? What is your sexuality? Is it part of your biological make-up? Or can you run away from it and become a different person?
We’ll always have these conversations, whether we agree on them or not. The good thing is that we’re having the conversations and understanding that which we have been taught to misunderstand and hate.
I have also always known that a lot of lesbian initiations (if I should put it that way) started in secondary schools. The stories in She Called Me Woman affirm this. As a sociologist, I am aware of how collective behavior can affect the individual. In a general form, it is described as peer pressure. But it is beyond that. We have cases where senior girls, using either force, seduction or manipulation, get junior girls to become their ‘chokkors’ or ‘lifeys’. And in an environment where you have teenagers with hormones and emotions they can’t control or comprehend, this breeds intimacy and a coming into acceptance of who they are. Some of them grow out of it, but for some, it becomes their life. What is certain, though, is that a lot of lesbian activities happens in secondary schools, and both straight and gay women find themselves connected in the web of it. And this is interesting in our society that is largely homophobic. A lot of parents do not know what their children are up to in schools. The type of influence they receive. The manner in which that pliable period in their lives can affect them or make them accept who they are.
There are a lot of women living on ‘the down low’ in Nigeria. More than the men. Many married women who sleep with other women or have relationships with them. They have their lives divided. One is to please society and the other is to follow their desire. There’s also fear. It’s a huge reason for wanting to live a double life. One of the ladies in the book speaks about finding it hard to talk about the way you feel as a lesbian. The fear of coming out to your family and friends. How the society would react and treat you afterwards. How you tend to fall into self-hate because you feel you’re so wrong. And how you may live in denial for so long. Another lady is bold enough to even admit that she will marry a man, just to fit into the norm, have kids by him, and then divorce him to live as she wants to. I think people are least likely to pressure you into any kind of relationship when you’re divorced. At that point, it’s about reconnecting and not about growing old and not having a man or children. Divorce gives a woman some sort of power that not being married at all takes away from you.
In the story ‘To Anyone Hated, Be Strong’, you find how hateful we can be as people towards the gay community. Even to family. The lady sharing her experience told of how her father aimed a gun at her and shot. He missed because she ducked. Just for the reason that she came out of the closet. He could have killed her right there for being different. There’s also the story of the Northern lady from Zamfara who was married off early and suffered abuse and maltreatment from her family and husband. She had to run away eventually to be free. The husband traced her to where she was, but she was done with him. How about those who got raped by men to ‘straighten’ them or faced non-consensual deliverance sessions in churches or got beaten by the ones that were supposed to love them? Who wants to face that type of treatment? Who wants to lose their life because of their sexuality?
This is why they stay closeted. It is hell to be a homosexual in Nigeria. The majority of them want to leave the country.
A couple of stories from ladies who had the privilege of being born outside Africa tell of a more accepting society out there, but they still had to struggle with the inner turmoil of being different and the fear of coming out to their families. It was interesting to learn that mothers were more accepting of their lesbian daughters. Some of them had that intuition thing of knowing before the girls came out to them. There was one instance where a lady talked about telling her mother about her sexuality and the conversation went thus, “Mum, I think I need to tell you because you have to know at some point. I am not getting married to any guy. I am not planning to… I am a lesbian. I love women. You know this person you have been talking to over the phone? She is my girlfriend and I have made up my mind that if it works out, we will get married…”
Her mother was cool with it as long as she had kids. But she dared not tell her father. Same as the other ladies. They were scared of what their fathers might do to them or afraid of losing their relationship with them. With friends, it was a lot easier. They accepted them. Some even tried to hook them up with other people that were gay. Certainly, the younger generation is more accepting of homosexuality. They are not completely there yet, but the generation to come would be more open about it and tolerant of conversations that surround it. I have had time to sit with young adults and trust me, homosexuality is not a big deal for them. They don’t even understand why older people are homophobic.
Religion is a major issue when it comes to same-sex relationships. These women don’t want to be identified as religious, but as spiritual. Religion connotes intolerance, hate and hypocrisy. Spirituality is a one-on-one thing with their creator. Most of them believe in God and don’t want to let go of what they have been taught, but they do not want to be associated with their worship centers or communities because of the hate they face in such places.
Every one of these women expressed their need to be left alone just so that they can be the women they want to be. They are independent, having learned to take care of themselves, some of them at an early age. Some had to leave home to get their freedom.
They hope for a world where they can be accepted as they are, not a place where everyone is obsessed with everyone else’s sex life and relationship. They know it’s going to take quite a while for the gay community to be established around here. They wish they could do more to make that happen, but fear of being criminalized and ostracized drives a lot of them to stay in the shadows.
To sum up, my take from this is that it’s hard being a woman in Nigeria, but harder being a queer woman. Once in a while we’re always faced with someone asking ‘what would you do if your child was gay?’ Would you push them away as many do? Or would you accept them as they are, knowing that no matter what you say or do, they would continue to be what they want to be? I’ve learned from these women that you cannot pray, bind or cast the gay away. You cannot fuck it out, either. Asides being who they are, they have also chosen to be so. And there’s not much a lot of us can do about it.
In the end, queer women want you to know that they are no different from you when it boils down to existence. Homosexual or heterosexual, we are all human beneath it all. That’s as straight as it can get.
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