Read, Debate: Engage.

Trans in Nigeria: "I never let my guard down"

July 06, 2024
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Nigeria, #LGBTQ+ rights, #trans rights
by:Ernest Nweke
In April, Liber, a trans woman from Nigeria, attended a women-only event in Lagos. Online, her attendance was met with harassment and abuse, something Liber notes isn’t new to her. "I never let my guard down, not even in my room."

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

At Hertitude, an all-female event organised for women by women, Liber, a 21-year-old trans student, participated in a beauty pageant and was met with violent transphobia online when pictures from the event were posted on Twitter (now X).

When asked to reflect on this experience, Liber said, "I remember going through the comments confused, wondering who they were saying all those things about." She continued, "Like, you don't even know me. You saw me walk on stage, and you're projecting all sorts of things." 

Both online and in person, flagrant transphobia is something she is not a stranger to. Liber is not hard to miss. She stands over six feet and three inches tall, and actively comments online about social issues that concern and affect her. But beyond all this, Liber acknowledges that the general experience of being trans in Nigeria leaves her exhausted.

Liber grew up in an evangelical Christian household. Once a week, devout families like hers hosted cell fellowships. These gatherings, which included praise and worship singing, prayer and Bible study, typically had one or two other church members in attendance.

"I had a very conservative family. We had a nuclear family structure, but not the typical kind, because I had foster parents who lived with my biological mom, my siblings and I," Liber said. "Besides this, my family pretty much had the Nigerian standard of the nuclear to [the] extended family dynamic." 

While Liber felt normal at home, she sensed that 'something was off' in the way society socialised boys and girls.

"I always felt much more different. I always felt left out. I always felt like I could not pick up on a lot of things that people my age around me were doing, especially the boys," she said.  

Liber credits the safety of her childhood home with making it easy for her to accept herself. But as other kids picked on her in secondary school, Liber became aware of her differences and started moving with a newfound self-consciousness.

"They would ask, 'Why do you walk like that?' 'Why do you talk like that?' 'Why are your hands like this?' 'Why do you do this, why do you do that?' Which is funny and ridiculous, because that was something I never faced in my parents' house." 

She then began trying to tone down her femininity to present as everyone in her school expected her to.

It was not until her penultimate year, when she won head prefect and her classmates mocked her by insisting they had two head girls, that Liber decided to stop performing masculinity for the public.

"At this point, I was like, 'You know what? I'm tired.' I needed to release myself."

Prioritising her own identity

After surviving the taunts of her secondary school classmates, she decided to 'find her people' at university. 

"I was 15 and had just gotten into university. I was ready to explore," she recalled. "I felt like I was finally in a place where people saw the world as I did and experienced the same things I experienced, so it felt really comforting. I was tired of battling so much." 

For Liber, being in a university where everyone was free to be themselves and there were no teachers wielding the same authority as secondary school teachers, embracing herself felt natural and unforced.

Remembering those days, she recounted that her major concerns were her parents, financial security and safety in the country. It helped that she had a supportive group of friends in her circle.

Liber's understanding and acceptance of herself was an incremental journey. This gradual process, she said, helped her friends make the necessary adjustments to accommodate her.

"I first came out to my friends as queer, non-binary and then, with time, I transitioned back into the binary, and they have been so supportive and cool." 

It was easier for Liber to make her friends understand her. What was more difficult was getting her biological family on board.

"As for my parents, they ignored [me]. And honestly, I don't owe them anything. I have nothing to say to them. I'm even at a point where I don't care what they say about this. The worst that could happen has happened, and it is not really a problem for me." 

When asked what she meant by these comments, Liber explained that she has processed her life's choices and her uphill battle with herself and has chosen to prioritise her own identity.

For Liber, she knows she will not win a battle against Christianity and her parents' core beliefs, so she has chosen herself over fighting that strife.

Navigating transness in Nigeria

Living as a trans woman in Nigeria comes with significant challenges, and the relative freedom she encountered at university has its limits.

"I never let my guard down, not even in my own room. I am always conscious of my environment," Liber said. 

To move through spaces and situations where she has to present as the gender assigned to her at birth, Liber, who is still a student, pointed out, "I generally have my hoodies and pants I wear to school, and I use my face mask, too. I also do not interact much and try to leave as soon as I can. Luckily, it helps that I have not been to the hospital in over a year." 

Apart from going to school, the only other place Liber goes where she is forced to interact with members of the public outside her circle of friends is the market. Even then, Liber tries to get in and out as quickly as possible. The catcalls and comments can be very traumatising, she shared, but she finds the easiest way to cope is to ignore them.

"When I go to the market, I never explicitly confirm my gender," she said. "I do not argue; I neither confirm nor deny when they catcall or say things to me. It also helps that I work in fashion, so I get to buy a vast variety of things on most visits to the market. If it comes to the nitty-gritty of things, I pretend like I am buying for a sibling." 

Liber also pointed out the general financial cost of being trans in Nigeria.

"It's one thing to be an adult as a cis Nigerian, but when you're further marginalised, it becomes more complex; medication is expensive, [and] you cannot risk falling sick, because you cannot go to the hospital. You are watching out for security because of the police and other people.

"On the Internet, people say the vilest gnarly things. You do not have access to jobs like every other person." 

But despite these remarkable difficulties, Liber pointed out that there are silver linings to being a trans woman in Nigeria.

"The best part of being a doll in Nigeria is how much easier it is to walk around documentation here. It is easier, but also more expensive. This comes from the loopholes in the laws. The ease with which you can move across Nigerian institutions if you have the right contacts and the money is a big part of this."

While Nigeria’s anti-gay law prohibits same-sex marriage, it makes no specific reference to transness, thus creating a loophole that benefits certain members of the LGBTQ+ community.

This loophole, however, does not indicate that the country is accepting of trans people or the concept of transness. Instead, it highlights that queerphobia, often considered an alien concept in Nigeria, is not as nuanced or deeply enshrined in the laws as it is in other parts of the world.

The closest Nigeria comes to having laws against trans people is in Kano State, where Sharia law is practiced. There, men who dress as women or vice versa can be punished with up to one year of imprisonment, a fine of 10,000 naira or both.

"Another part of being myself in Nigeria that I have come to really be thankful for is the community you get to have. The communities are not so many but they are strong and can be counted on." 

'The life I have to live'

Among lay Nigerians, it is common to hear arguments suggesting that the increased visibility of LGBTQ+ persons in Nigeria is a result of the interconnectedness promoted by social media, and that people are more accepting on these platforms. However, Liber says this is far from her experience so far.

"It's not easier on social media. I feel like I have enough experience of what it is like being visible on social media, and it's not cute," Liber, who was active on Stan Twitter as early as age 11, said.

"Any time I post, I get anxiety, but I still post because - fuck them."

She continued, "I think the more upsetting part of social media is that you see people project. A good example is what happened at Hertitude." 

One cannot discuss the vitriol that followed Liber's presence at Hertitude without considering the role of "allies" in that discourse.  

"I feel like a lot of allies need to sit down and really evaluate and have open conversations with marginalised people to understand better how to ally with them," she said. "A lot of allies run with the idea that because they are supporting a cause, they know what is best, and they sometimes lose the plot because they don't look back to check if the way they are trying to support the people in question is the support those people need. If they truly care, they would have to constantly re-evaluate their position." 

So far, while thriving in the space she creates with her chosen family and circles, Liber largely exists in a vacuum of measured silence with her biological family.

"Last I was home was on New Year’s Day and I do not plan on going back," she said. The question of her identity is one she does not bring up with her biological family, and distance helps maintain this silence. 

When asked if she would one day have this conversation with her parents, Liber said, "Honestly, I don't care. I am indifferent about it. If the opportunity presents itself, I will; if it does not, I will die happy. I have spent enough time dissociating from my parents and my family because I know their thoughts and ideas [about] my identity, so I would rather not.

"I remember how, after the entire Hertitude debacle, my brother sent me one of the pictures that was posted and said to me, 'Please stop this thing that you are doing; I don't like how people are messaging me; it is tiring.' 

To navigate her family dynamics, Liber keeps her interactions with them minimal and maintains a distance. She survived school by wearing large androgynous clothes like hoodies and baggies and relying on the protective circle of loyal friends. During her mandated internship, Liber worked remotely at a firm with mostly Germans and other expats who, according to her, were more accommodating than Nigerians.

In most cases, the permutations necessary for Liber to get by are emotionally and financially costly. To make things easier for herself, she blurs the line between the world she is creating for herself and the world she is expected to live in. She does this with baggy clothes, silences and an intentionally chosen circle of friends who provide her with a sense of community.

"It can be very traumatising. It can be very weird. It can be very uncomfortable. But it is just the life I have to live."

Edited and reviewed by Samuel Banjoko, Yair Oded, Uzoma Ihejirika, PK Cross and Caleb Okereke. 

Image by Dennis Irorere.

Article written by:
WhatsApp Image 2024-06-12 at 9.28.13 AM
Ernest Nweke
Embed from Getty Images
Both online and in person, flagrant transphobia is something Liber is not a stranger to.
Embed from Getty Images
The experience of being trans in Nigeria leaves Liber exhausted.
Embed from Getty Images
"I always felt like I could not pick up on a lot of things that people my age around me were doing, especially the boys."