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Queer and Nigerian: from Catholic celibacy to secret lesbian marriage

June 13, 2024
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#gay marriage, #Nigeria, #freedom of expression, #LGBTQ+ rights
located:Nigeria, USA
by:Ernest Nweke
As a teenager, Awele was convinced of her calling to a life of holy celibacy in line with the teachings of Opus Dei. But her life took an unexpected turn when she moved to the United States for her master’s degree and eventually married another woman.

Editor's note: This story was published in collaboration with Minority Africa as part of the Dual Life Project, which showcases how LGBTQIA individuals in Africa are often compelled by society to lead dual lives.

Childhood and the Struggle with Self

When asked about her childhood, Awele responds cheerfully. 

“I had a very happy childhood. I had a very protected childhood. I had a very soft childhood. I think you might say anything you want to say about my parents, but one thing I will always give them accolades for is the kind of life they gave my siblings and me, both in terms of the schools we attended and the life they afforded us.

"Saying this does not mean we went for summer holiday every summer, but if any of us told our parents they wanted a rolling school bag, my parents would get it for them. It never mattered what issues they had between them; they always put us first.” 

As she speaks, it is easy to envision the beautiful memories of her childhood that she still cherishes. Awele experienced what many Nigerians would consider a “normal life.”

Eleven years ago, Awele was in her second year of studying finance at a university in southeastern Nigeria. Her goals were clear: to graduate with a top result, move to the United States for a master’s degree, work at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and follow in the footsteps of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the current Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Okonjo-Iweala was renowned for graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, working at the World Bank for 25 years, and serving as Nigeria’s finance minister. Awele even dreamed of becoming friends with her one day.

And while Awele did not meet or become best friends with Okonjo-Iweala, she did find her way to the United States; she currently holds a master’s from a prestigious university and works at the IMF as planned. 

Love was not part of the plan while completing her postgraduate programme.

Awele’s worries were limited to schoolwork and chores in her very sheltered childhood. She would run around the compound, her shirt billowing in the wind, a sponge tucked into her shorts as a pretend penis. To her, this was just a part of being herself.

“I did not think anything of it. I thought everyone was allowed to be who they wanted to be,” she recalls.

Growing up, Awele did not have any queer icons because she didn’t feel the need for them.

“The first time I heard of any queer person was Ellen DeGeneres, and that was well into secondary school. Nobody around me - no aunties, no cousins - was ostracised for being queer. That’s why, when people ask, ‘When did you turn gay?’ I laugh because - no.” 

“Na follow come,” adds Awele, a phrase which means, “I was born this way” in Nigerian Pidgin English.

Awele’s upbringing was strictly Catholic. At 17, in her first year as a university student, she had a deep conviction of a calling to a life of celibacy. At first, she felt she had experienced religion differently: She understood God and religion from a place of love, not vengeance or suffering. This new view on religion came from the teachings and doctrinal classes she received from a university centre managed by the Opus Dei.

Her parents and siblings introduced her to Opus Dei when she was younger. This Catholic group taught laypeople that they could attain sainthood by loving God and dedicating the most mundane, ordinary aspects of their lives to him. To Awele, it sounded ideal: a life of living, loving God, working hard and ultimately attaining sainthood. It embodied everything her Catholic upbringing had instilled in her.

The hunger to serve God and navigate her sexuality as best she could at this point was primarily informed by a fresh wave of flagrant homophobia that had swept through Nigeria in the wake of the signing of the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA), Nigeria’s anti-gay bill, into law by the then president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Despite her enjoyable childhood, Awele experienced immense depression in her late teenage years. As she became increasingly aware of her sexuality and heard the negative comments from those around her, each homophobic remark and passing year chipped away at her spirit. She did not want to bring shame to her family or disappoint them, so she did everything possible to keep her true self hidden.

“I realised that I was gay after I had decided to live a life of celibacy at 17 because of this new-learnt feeling of God’s love for me. I was afraid of what this could mean for me when I died if I were to act on it. So out of fear of sinning against God, either because of my sexuality or because of sexual kinks, I was beginning to see that I may have, I held even more tightly to what I thought was my vocation,” she says.

“I would not even say I left it on the backseat, no. I locked it in the trunk and tied heavy boulders on the trunk to make sure it never showed. I could not afford to disappoint my family in any way.” 

Eventually, Awele did not stick to celibacy. Even though her parents had introduced her and her siblings to Opus Dei, Awele’s mother demanded she become a reverend sister instead, as the celibacy they practised was more traditionally catholic than what was obtainable in the Opus Dei. Among other things, reverend sisters are identifiably different from lay Catholics because they wear a habit.

A celibate member of the Opus Dei, on the other hand, wore no differentiating habit, took no vows and was ultimately a lay catholic who had decided they would not get married.

Awele had questions. She wanted to know what would happen if she changed her mind and wanted to leave the organisation.

“If I was going to promise in a letter to the prelate that I would live a life of celibacy, surrendering my freedom and finances completely to them, I needed to know what would happen if I changed my mind at any point down the line.” 

Awele did not get clear answers, which did not sit well with her. The director of her centre, with whom she had shared her concerns, dismissed them, simply saying, “You don’t think about divorce when you are getting married.” 

In the end, she walked away from the Opus Dei. 

Emigration, Postgrad and Self-discovery

“Before leaving Nigeria, I was already exploring my sexuality, in a manner of speaking,” Awele says. “I didn’t get sexual with anyone because I still was not bold [enough to embrace] who I knew I was. I was afraid. I had a burner account on Twitter because I was too afraid to tweet anything remotely gay.”

Despite knowing she would end up with a woman, the strife she witnessed in her parents’ relationship made her hesitant about marriage. She only knew that if she ever had a long-term partner, it would be a woman.

Still, Awele admits, “[In the early days of discovering myself], if someone had pressured me, I would have married a man [just to keep the peace].”

One thing Awele learnt when she began exploring her sexuality was where one could meet other queer people. “Book clubs, Sip and Paint, or through direct introduction from people you already know were some of the ways I was able to meet people.” 

Leaving Nigeria for a master’s degree in the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a leading figure in global finance opened up more options for Awele. She deleted her burner account and resolved not to live a double life in her new environment.

Affording her tuition drained her parents’ savings, and they sold properties and almost went into debt, but they were more than happy to do it. “When I tell you that my parents would move the world for their children, I mean it,” adds Awele.

In America, Awele looked at herself in the mirror and called herself a lesbian for the first time. 

“The year was 2020. I was 25, there was a pandemic, and it dawned on me that I had lived 25 years of my life for my family and none of those years for myself. I looked at myself and called myself what I was by name,” she says.

“I told myself I was a lesbian, and that was neither a slur nor a bad thing - but just what I was. I knew I had incredible humour and that I was talented. I am what you call a multipotentialite, and I am – just like every Nigerian or even African queer person I know – creative beyond imagination. So I had to tell myself, ‘You are a lesbian, the most brilliant lesbian I know, and you have to rock that.’

"Admitting that to myself was powerful, and it helped settle me. I moved into this new place with this self-awareness that called me to love myself more.”

Acknowledging her sexuality might have settled Awele, but it did not undo years of homophobic retorts she heard growing up in Enugu, Nigeria, where most people were Catholic and lived conservative lives. It was some time before Awele became accustomed to public displays of affection – even when platonic – from other girls. She was always well-aware of how self-conscious such acts left her, and she struggled to pull her psyche out of that discomfort.

When Awele met Ruby (an alias), the woman who would become her wife, things played out differently from her plans and what she was used to. Ru’s family loved her. They loved her for herself, and they loved Awele the same way, she shares. There was a gentleness in the love Ru’s family showed Ru, and the love Ru showed her family led to Awele changing her mind about marriage. 

“Two years into my relationship with Ru, I knew it would be an utterly wicked thing to do to myself if I did not marry someone who loved me like this,” Awele says.

Navigating Queer Love against the Backdrop of Homophobia

Awele believes that neither the SSMPA nor the general homophobia in Nigeria had a direct impact on her growing up. 

“I know I speak from a place of privilege because, to a very large extent, my life was sheltered, and my immediate family was largely enlightened, but there were still comments about other people, comments about openly gay people or about women who wear leg chains (some Nigerians once believed that only lesbians wore leg chains), and these comments had an impact - they made me see that people thought of gay people in a certain way.” 

The homophobia Awele witnessed from close relatives and friends directed at openly gay people in Nigeria meant that, despite leaving the country, she had to navigate being in love alone. She understood that discussing her sexuality with her Catholic parents was out of the question. There was never a right time to broach the topic. Her lesbian experience involved a journey of self-discovery, self-love and falling in love, all while being terrified of what would happen if her parents found out she was lesbian.

“Before I married my wife, I experienced two gut-wrenching breakups that left me heartbroken for some time, and I had to find a way to deal with that by myself. I could not tell anyone in my family what was wrong with me, which is hard because my family is very close-knit; we tell each other everything,” she says.

“The one time I summoned the courage to share my pain with one of my sisters, I had to switch the gender of the person who hurt me. That is not a way to live. I do not want to censor myself in my hurt because when my people come to me for comfort, I do not want them censoring themselves.” 

At this point, Awele breaks down in tears. “Even when I wanted to get married, I could not tell anyone. I did not know any gay person who was married. I only told one of my sisters because others would have tried to scatter everything. I had to do it all by myself. I was marrying into a loving family that loved themselves and loved me, and I could not even get my mum or dad to share this special day with me.” 

Awele speaks with her parents every other day, but has yet to tell any of them that Ru is more than a housemate and a friend to her. She told her sisters about being married to Ru, and one of them stopped speaking to her because she believed Awele was living in sin.

“On one hand, it breaks my heart - but then also I know that she is wrong, so I let her be,” Awele says with a resigned sigh.

Asked if she has made peace with not telling her parents about her marriage, she responds, “I have never come to terms with not telling them. I could never. I will tell them as soon as possible because I do not believe the kind of love I have with my wife should stay a secret. Moreover, if I can be okay with them being straight and if I can entertain stories of family members who do not have perfect marriages or families, I am sure they will find a way to entertain my superbly lovely marriage.”

For Awele, the worst part about not telling her parents is pretending that the love of her life is just a roommate. Something always gets in the way whenever she tries to bring it up, and her sisters plead with her to wait for a better time. While she is willing to wait a little longer, Awele has resolved that if any of her relatives ever bring up the question on their own, she will not deny it.

“I am lucky to be married to a wonderful woman who understands that there are cultural, religious and institutional undertones that make African homophobia different, and that she does not press me to tell my family about us,” Awele says.

“My wanting to tell them is just me. It stems from the fact that I deeply believe that the love I share with Ru should not be hidden. It is too beautiful to be hidden.”

The journey to self-acceptance has been arduous - but worthwhile for Awele. She may not yet be where she wants to be - out to everyone who knows her in Nigeria as she is in America - but she has come a long way from the girl who tried to hide away in an Opus Dei centre out of fear of living her truth.

Edited and reviewed by Samuel Banjoko, Yair Oded, Uzoma Ihejirika, Nour Ghantous and Caleb Okereke.

Image by Melanie Wasser.

Article written by:
WhatsApp Image 2024-06-12 at 9.28.13 AM
Ernest Nweke
Nigeria USA
Embed from Getty Images
At 17, in her first year as a university student, Awele had a deep conviction of a calling to a life of celibacy.
Embed from Getty Images
The hunger to serve God and navigate her sexuality as best she could at this point was primarily informed by a fresh wave of flagrant homophobia that had swept through Nigeria in the wake of the signing of the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA), Nigeria’s anti-gay bill, into law by the then president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.
Embed from Getty Images
The journey to self-acceptance has been arduous - but worthwhile for Awele.