For Us By Us: Living as a non-binary person in Nigeria

Three is now living in Canada where they are able to embrace their true selves

In today’s world, citizens of countries from New Zealand, to Australia, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Germany and US states including Nevada, Arkansas and Colorado can legally register to identify as “X” gender or existing outside of the confines of the male or female binary tickbox. Over here in these parts, however, gender is approached as strictly either/or male and female, erasing and othering the experiences of many other Nigerians who are discovering their true selves: a self that exists outside the gender binaries and expectations that rule our patriarchal and misogynistic society.

Here in Nigeria, the idea that a person can choose to exist outside the two widely recognised and accepted genders is treated as  foreign from the Nigerian experience. You need only think back to the vitriol that influencers such as Bobrisky and James Brown have received endlessly over the years for maintaining visible social media profiles as they audaciously flout expected gender norms. But for all their visibility, these two only represent one side of a multilayered experience that also encompasses but oftentimes leaves out transmen. Writer Vincent Desmond succinctly stated in NewsWire NGR a few months back that  ‘…for many Nigerians, trans-ness is usually equated to being a transwoman, and…the concept of being non-binary typically exists outside the mental reality of many Nigerians.’ There’s no one right way to be transgender or nonbinary and it’s extremely harmful purporting such ideals.

Earlier in the year, Netflix rolled out a new documentary titled ‘Disclosure’, a deep look at the history of transgender representation in American media spanning from the beginning of film history to present-day portrayal in media. The documentary took into account the real-life experiences of trans and non-binary persons including Laverne Cox, Indya Moore, and many more, drawing out the ways in which media has been complicit in the erasure of trans and non-binary identities. But for all it’s honest portrayal of these identities on a global streaming platform, trans and non-binary representation has never been a more topical issue than today – at a time where authors like J.K Rowling and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are able to pass off transphobic comments without facing any repercussions.

Back in 2018, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under heat for comments she had made on Britain’s Channel 4 News regarding trans identities and their experiences. Adichie had said, “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.” But she later clarified that she wasn’t saying that transwomen weren’t women, only that there are “real differences between transgender women and women who are not transgender without suggesting that one experience is more important or valid than the other”. Though she later apologised for the ways in which her comments invalidated the experiences of transwomen, the writer came under heat again this year when she referred to an essay by Rowling on gender as “perfectly reasonable”. To Adichie, “JK Rowling is a woman who is progressive, who clearly stands for and believes in diversity” and who should not be scrutinised for the transphobic rhetoric that she shares online and in essays.

But what Adichie’s comments fail to realise is that she is not the voice for transness and non-binary experiences when she has been privileged to live her life as a cisgender heterosexual woman. Transgender and non-binary people face discrimination in bathrooms, in housing, in employment, in dating, and in almost every other sphere of human life. They have alarmingly high rates of poverty and suicide, and often fall victim to violent and targeted hate crimes. And when narrowed down to Africa, they are imprisoned or worse killed for simply living their lives. This is most often because society thinks that transgender and non-binary people aren’t “really” the gender they claim to be and enforcing hateful ideas that they should be forced to conform to their born sex.

In the three years since Adichie’s first transphobic comments, it became increasingly clear that the writer had failed to learn and listen to people from the community who are better placed to speak on their experiences. Though Adichie is well versed to speak out against feminist issues, she is by no means the voice to speak out against trans and non-binary issues and she may very well never be. What needs to happen is that we need to bring to the forefront of conversations those who have lived their entire lives being hated and vilified simply for existing, those who are constantly denied their rights because it is illegal for them to exist, and those who just want to be respected as people like you and I. More education, more understanding, more acceptance, and more willingness to constantly grow and challenge ourselves are what’s needed for protecting and safeguarding trans and non-binary rights.

To this end, the NATIVE spoke with Three (she/they), a non-binary Nigerian who has now relocated to Canada where she/they are able to live freely without judgment or fear of violence as an identifying non-binary person. Our chat, which follows below, has been lightly edited for clarity.

NATIVE: How did you discover/know that you were queer and non-binary? 

THREE: I guess I’ve always kind of known. I knew, but I was always terrified about it and I always said there’s no way I could be queer because if I am then that’s a sin. I come from a very religious Christian background and though I would see women and have crushes on them, I never acted on it. I always questioned who I was because I struggled with body dysmorphia and what my place in this world was, and it wasn’t until I had been in a relationship with a non-binary person and made some friends within the community that I realised that I don’t navigate the world thinking I’m a man or woman, I navigate the world thinking I am this genderless being existing in between all of these states. This is when I realised that I am not female, and so I changed my name to Three.

I am still scared of identifying as non-binary because my family is super religious and so, on the one hand, I want to do it as soon as possible. But on the other hand, I am worried if my parents find out and how that would affect my life. Even though I am more financially stable than I was before, I still depend on them for certain things so I’d have to make sure I am totally independent of them.

NATIVE: How was dealing with that realisation while living in Nigeria with Nigerian parents? 

THREE: I only came out when I left Nigeria but I remember being so scared of my parents, I still kind of am but when I came to Canada and I started talking to queer people. I had a crush on this queer person and I was just scared. I can’t even explain it but the fear was consuming even to the point that when I was in Nigeria and in a relationship with a queer person, I was literally deleting my texts like every couple of minutes. It’s not just that my parents are Nigerian parents but they are Nigerian parents who are pastors. So it’s so layered for me in the sense that I literally fear for my life. There was a time someone threatened to out me to my family and I went into shock because of the fact that someone did that because I knew the repercussions I would face and I knew I would not be able to make it back from that. Even now, talking about it, the anxiety is a lot and scary. 

NATIVE: What are your pronouns and how do you enforce them with friends or people you meet?

THREE: My pronouns are she/her, they/them. But I think for me, the most important thing is my name. I feel like even if people don’t use the right pronouns, not using my name correctly really hurts me and so I tend to let my friends know. Sometimes, I just let it go and not hold people to it but other times, my old name doesn’t even feel like mine anymore. T* is the pastor’s kid, the one who does good and Three is the non-binary queer person trying to struggle with depression and living her life and deal with all of this without drowning in everything happening. It’s so hard to reconcile those two parts of me. I do appreciate that I have a ton of queer friends who are able to enforce these boundaries for me and if I am not able to enforce it, I am glad I have spaces like this where my people come through for me if people are misgendering me and protect me from that. It’s really hard to navigate the world and putting your foot down when you’ve gone around not having this identity and not knowing who you are. 

NATIVE: Do people ever refer to you as they? Or is that often sidelined like so many non-binary people complain about?

THREE: At a point in time, people kept calling me she/her when I insisted on they/them so I just said okay both work when addressing me. And it’s not a defeatist attitude, we have to do what we have to do to survive and if that’s by going as she/her then I will go by that. At the end of the day, putting yourself in situations where you can be open to discrimination is not a path that everybody is willing to take. There are times when I feel more strengthened and I correct people but there are times where I am so exhausted because I am a black immigrant who is queer and non-binary and I am doing all these things while online and hypher visible so I cannot muster the strength to deal with extra shit. But I do feel like I am able to be myself outside Nigeria although my community is mainly online. I think knowing people who were in Toronto for instance really helped me settle into myself when I moved here. They allow you to be yourself and it’s so easy here because more people respect pronouns and it’s not hard to enforce rules or step into your truth here. 

NATIVE: How did you feel about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent transphobic comments?

THREE: In 2017, before I even realised who I was, I realised that Chimamanda was not the person I wanted to associate with as a feminist. I realised that what she was teaching was not feminism to me and I kind of just dissociated from her. People always try to make excuses for her and say that she’s not educated enough and this is what she knows being an older African woman but it’s like there are African trans people and non-binary people like myself and this is what I know. Everyone is always trying to invalidate trans identities and people love her because they feel like she is speakng her mind but she doesn’t represent queer voices. For the past three years, Chimamanda has been on this platform and she’s been repeating the same harmful ideas during this time. She called transpeople complaining about what she’d said ‘trans noise’ and this is clearly not someone that is trying to be a better person or trying to show growth. This is someone who has made up her mind that she is not going to acknowledge trans people or non-binary people as people who deserve the kind of respect or rights that they have been demanding for.

One of the things I always remember is that viral video of Dominique Jackson receiving an award at the 23rd annual Human Rights Commission dinner. She’s addressing the crowd and she said something that has always stuck with me. She said where I am not asking for your acceptance or tolerance, I am here and you will respect me and that’s literally how I have gone through life. Once I remember this video, I am just like this is how I want it to be, I’m not asking people for their acceptance, I am here and you will respect me.

NATIVE: You do a lot of work for members of the LGBTQIA+ community who are struggling or homeless online. Why is it important to you to amplify the voices of marginalised people?

THREE: Before I realised I was queer, I always wanted to be sure that all my queer friends were good. It’s so important to me that everyone is able to live a full life and when I realised that people are really being maligned in this world and not able to be themselves while having to struggle financially, it woke something up in me. I knew that I could not just sit down and watch. I have enough privilege that I have a good-paying job but a lot of people are not able to experience this life and the fact that I am, then I can make things better for other people. I need to be able to stand up for people in the community who are struggling. I am in Canada, I have the option to stay here forever and not come back to Nigeria but there are people back home who have their lives threatened and in danger every day, it’s so important when you realise the amount of privilege you have ahead of others.

NATIVE: Finally, what does identifying as a non-binary person mean to you?

THREE: It’s a lot of things. On the one hand, it means dealing with a lot of gender dysmorphia because you have things that happen to your body that don’t necessarily align with the idea of who you are. But on the other hand, I can navigate the world in a way that is not hinged on gender and I don’t feel the need to adhere to gender norms or do certain things to prove that I am a man or woman or non-binary. I just exist and move through the world every day being who I am and that’s just it for me.

When I realised I was non-binary, the amount of peace that washed over me was immense. That’s just it for me. Before, I was trying to figure out who am I, what am I doing, and what is my place in this world but now that I know who I am, I am just okay and existing. Sometimes, it is hard to navigate but a lot of times, I am just existing and moving through the phases of the world, I wear whatever I want to wear and shop in the men’s department and I don’t really care. It’s so freeing to just be able to exist.

Featured image credits/Parents

.@tamimak_ is just trying to make it to the end of the year

ICYMI: Queer lives matter as we all fight to End SARS