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In a Traditional Confessional

Posted on 29/09/2016
By Commonwealth Foundation


Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It’s been four years since my last confession.

In a traditional confessional, the priest doesn’t see your face. I feel secure in my own compartment of the booth as I kneel. That way I am able to give a true and complete account of my sins.

I am in my early twenties. Nigerian. And gay.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, ‘the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.’

One Saturday afternoon, while we are washing my father’s clothes, my mother laughs and turns to me and says, “Do you remember when you used to take my head-tie and wear it on your head?”

Later that evening, when we are done with all the house chores, I am alone in the bedroom I usually share with my elder brother and I remember that when I was about six years old I used to sneak into the master bedroom to take my mother’s geles and chiffon scarves and high heels and pose with them before her full-length mirror, feeling like a model and smiling at my own reflection. I relished the slippery feel of the geles, the silky texture of the chiffon scarves. Once my mother caught me dressed up in all the ridiculous oversized attire. She brought me to the sitting room so that my father could see what I’d done and we all ended up laughing.

Those transvestite desires are gone and I consider myself lucky that they let me be because life would never have been easy for a little African boy who liked dressing up in his mother’s clothes. But other things have stuck: I still love watching fashion shows, reading. I still don’t watch football and I still cry watching touching documentaries or movies or even reading tragic novels…

… and I still wonder why God created me like this.

May the Lord be in your heart and help you to confess your sins with true sorrow.

In Nigeria, where the vast majority (if not all) of the gay community remains firmly in the closet – mind you, I speak mainly from a male perspective – there are two beliefs: you are either born gay or ‘acclimatized’ into homosexuality. For example, my friend Richardson (not his real name) tells me that his earliest memories of homosexual inclinations are from his university days and that since then he has been more queer than straight. But he is married to a woman and has a child.

I believe I was born gay. For as far back as I can remember, I have been attracted to men.

I leaf through our family photo albums but I don’t find anything obviously peculiar. Not even an awkward pose before the camera.

My mother says I was born a big baby, 4.2kg and that I grew up a stubborn child. Just like all the other boys. But then, there is her comment about the headscarf thing and about posing before the mirror. Now, I also vaguely remember that in my primary school days I had a friend about whom I fantasised. I would walk everywhere in the school with him, hoping he would think of me in the same way. Sadly, nothing ever happened.

My friends think that having attended a boarding school for six years contributed largely to my orientation.

I come from a religious family. My father is an Eckist, though he isn’t really a devout one. My mother is a staunch Catholic. Our home is full of symbols from these two religions – we have an altar in the sitting room where we hold devotions every morning. Our neighbours call my mother ‘Madam Church’ because, even with all the positions she holds in the Catholic church, she still makes time to attend other, Pentecostal, churches in search of the face of God. I’m not trying to mock her. In fact, I admire her quest for the divine, just as I admire any person who is devout and conscious of the Afterlife.

My father was once Catholic. He was an altar boy and is godfather to two Catholic boys. But all my life he has been worshipping in the Eck Temple. He probably doesn’t even know that Eckankar is tolerant to same-sex marriages. All my father’s attempts to make me and my siblings Eckists have failed, the most he could manage was to baptise my elder brother in their temple. The same brother was also baptised in a Catholic church.

My mother insisted that we all be Catholics. On several occasions, my mother has denounced homosexuality. She sometimes says it is a sin against the Holy Spirit, an unforgivable sin. Other times she recalls the warning of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the destruction God caused on them.

Another conversation with my mother. This one, about two years ago. It is evening and there is a power outage in our neighbourhood so there is nothing to do and it is still too early to go to bed. I am home from university, completing an internship. My brothers are away at university themselves and my father has not yet returned from work. It’s the perfect time for a chat.

I think it was Pope Francis’s statement regarding homosexuals that sparked our dialogue that night. My mother says she doesn’t agree with the Pope saying that the Church should welcome gays. ‘His Holiness was only being political,’ she says. ‘It’s unnecessary’. I laugh. As if politics hasn’t been in the Church since its inception. I can’t remember what prompts her to say that she would report to the police if she found out that any of her children was gay, I only remember that she says it with such clarity and gravity, with such certainty, that after she says it, a heavy silence hangs between us like a blanket of smoky incense.

That night, I am messaging an openly gay African-American friend, a poet and lecturer, and he is incredulous. My mother’s response is not unusual, I tell him. But I wonder if she would be so certain, so eager to see homosexuals persecuted, if she knew about me.

Religion is a uniting formula in the progression of homophobia in Nigeria. The two major religions – Islam and Christianity – blatantly abhor homosexuality. This was why the bill that mandates a fourteen-year jail sentence for gay people and twelve years for anyone who in any way supports or is conspicuously active in carrying out functions that favour rights for gays, was unanimously welcome. This was why it didn’t take long to be implemented. Nothing has brought Nigerians together as much as the condemnation of an already suppressed, isolated set of people who have never even stood up to ask for something as small as the right to remain visible. Polls that were carried out by reputable newspapers and NGOs showed that a large number of Nigerians were in total support of the bill, as expected. The Nigerian government, a government that can rightly be blamed for neglecting its primary functions of governing and protecting her people, was praised for implementing a bill that would bring about progress and stave off the impending wrath of God.

I read the statistics and declarations of support and wonder how consideration of the rights of gays would bring about the regression of the Nigerian economy. Some straight Nigerians actually think that if gay people are given their basic rights, it will affect the population of the country and also affect the workforce.

There have always been gay people in Africa, in Nigeria, so I don’t think it is too much to ask that we be allowed to live our lives without hiding, without fear of harm.

Tribe, religion, maybe even football – these are things that people can easily gather around. That, and a disdain for homosexuals. A friend, a straight guy, tells me it’s ‘not natural’ for a ‘real guy’ to listen to Adele. I throw out the CD, although I love her music. Most times I envy my straight friends their freedom. I see women and wish I could work up a desire to have them as my lovers. I wonder what part of my brain went wrong.

My father warns me to mind where I air my feminist ideas because some people are easily irritated by ideas that are against their religions. I live in the northern part of Nigerian, a volatile area where tiny issues have sparked riots that have claimed the lives of thousands. In a country where a Muslim biology teacher refused to teach her students about family planning (even though it was in the curriculum) because it was against her Islamic faith, you have to be careful how you talk concerning birth control, use of contraceptives, things I believe give rights to women. In a country where a Christian woman named Bridget Agbaheme was beheaded by Muslims because it was said she had ‘blasphemed’, you have to be careful where you air your so-called anti-religious philosophies.

I think perhaps it’s not their fault. Religious indoctrination is a powerful thing. It makes people like me seem like malignant spirits. For a long time, I thought I was possessed.  For a long time I carried this thought with me like a shadow. It has pushed me to go online looking for cures.

Finally, three years ago, I decided to accept myself and stopped searching for a miracle cure that would make me ‘normal’.

My self-acceptance is largely thanks to a fierce female Israeli writer who, not long after we meet on Facebook, takes her time to deconstruct previous ideas I had in my head about being gay. Sometimes our conversations end up in unresolved debates. But then she is patient as she explains to me that it is normal to adore Adele in just as I do Kendrick Lamar, to enjoy reading novels, to desire another man as a partner.

But even after the efforts of the Israeli writer, I don’t think I have fully accepted myself.

Friends tell me that there is a gay bar in my neighbourhood. My friend Richardson says that he knows one located in a serene, discrete area and that it will be good for me to visit the place even though I don’t take alcohol. But I still don’t know where it is because bars are not my thing. And even though the possibility of a gay bar is as exhilarating as it is disturbing, in the end, the idea of meeting an ‘inordinate’ number of gays is just too intimidating for me.

I have a friend, a seasoned banker, who is very popular in gay circles although he is a married man. He is one of the first gay men I meet who is older. I admire how he seems to have put a clear demarcation between his married life and his gay life. His wife is a university lecturer and they have one child. My friend seems to have planned everything neatly so that one lifestyle doesn’t disturb the other. He and his family live in different states but he doesn’t fail to visit them on a weekly basis, regardless of his situation. Most of my gay friends (including Richardson) have come from his connections, his recommendations and I have gotten a lot of advice from him, mostly in the form of warnings: about being careful about who I meet, where I meet, making sure I only meet someone who someone else knows. “You can never be too careful,” he tells me often.

As I write this, I am a teacher at a high school. I started writing, trying to hide this confession from my colleagues who eagerly and repeatedly ask me what I’m writing about. I politely decline to give specifics. “I am working on a memoir,” I tell them.

I want this to be personal. I wonder about the wider trends and associations that have woven themselves into the fabric of our small, closeted community. How we have begun to even hate ourselves and the features that are common (even prominent) amongst many of us. You are either top, bottom, or versatile. Tops penetrate the bottoms. ‘Versatiles’ can play both top and bottom roles.

One night, I am with an unmarried barrister friend at his apartment. Our conversation is hushed. I complain that almost every gay man I encounter wants to be a top or they claim to be tops because it is the dominant role. We laugh over the instances he narrated when men he’s been with insist that they ‘top’ him once he admits that he’s versatile. We discuss a lot of things: he tells me that bottoms easily contract venereal diseases.

I have my own stories, too. Some time later, while I am recovering from a case of piles and trying to find a cure online, I find confirmation that bottoms are prone to piles and other anal infections, or, more seriously, anal cancer.

And then I remember my final year at university. I have suffered an attack of piles after having sex with a guy who, when I tell him, denies responsibility. “Are you sure you didn’t have sex with another guy?” he accuses. For days I feel insulted, ridiculed, even as I pretend not to be hurt. I recollect the stories my mother tells of boys who deny having to do anything with the girls they impregnated. I find kinship with these women who have been denied by their very male sex partners.

It seems clear to me that age almost always determines who plays the dominant role. Either that, or social and financial status. Several friends have explained to me how white men in Abuja who, with their foreign currency, lure young boys for sex, often injuring them in the process. The first time a friend tells me this, it doesn’t come off as true. But then another friend I meet at Richardson’s home, tells us that this has happened to him. The men had forced bottle necks through his and his friend’s anuses to make them wider before having sex, he says. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that the assaulted boys can’t report the cases to the police because they won’t even be protected. A vicious circle is created.

Our community is not all full of ‘disenfranchised’ people who are blameless as we can sometimes portray ourselves to be. In northern Nigeria, it is believed that some men, seeking riches in the temples of fetish ritual ‘doctors’, are told not to have sex with women, and so they turn to homosexuality. People do unimaginable things to make money, to control people.

For a time I only have sex with older men. They are easy to connect with online. I have brief relationships with the banker, then with Richardson … with the lawyer. For a while I see another man – Richardson gets married, the lawyer moves away. All of these men are older, and in each relationship I am the ‘bottom’. Then I decide I will be versatile. Suddenly the idea of sticking to top/bottom role seems restricting, too binary for me. I realise I am fulfilling a prescribed role and will never truly discover myself if I continue like this. My social life comes to a standstill. For more than six months, I meet no one. At most I chat on Facebook. I almost go back to the last older man I had been seeing. The atmosphere of homophobia and the closet makes it difficult to find someone who suits me. It feels like every man in my life has been there because I didn’t really have a choice. I see now that choice is that thing I am still desperate for.

‘Guess it’s true I ‘m not good at a one-night stand’, Sam Smith sings.

All around me are men – gay and straight – who are unrepentantly promiscuous. Then, at a point, it seems like all the queer men around me are all getting married, succumbing to family pressure. I decline to attend their weddings. But I end up questioning myself. Can there be anything like love for someone like me? I mean real love – a committed, monogamous relationship – and not something hinged just on sex. Maybe I am just being naive. Maybe love is just a bargain dependent on what scale you put it on? A simple trade. Like sex.

I love Nigeria, the multi-tribal people, the splendour of the landscape in almost every state I have lived in, the energy contained in this country, but I’d also love to leave it. After trying so hard to gain acceptance (I mean acceptance, not rights) and then failing to get any in your homeland, surely the only reasonable thing is to leave?

I say all of this to a friend, let’s call him K, a former banker who now works at UNICEF. As I reach the end of my ramblings, he bursts out laughing. He tells me to live the life and that when the ‘time’ will come – time, by which he meant time for me to get married – I will join the train. He means it as a joke but that future he imagines for me still looms like an ominous cloud in the distance.

K has a pretty girlfriend he plans to marry. She is about eighteen, a ripe age for a Muslim in the northern part of the country. I meet her when I am visiting K’s home for a week. I see how perfectly they fit each other like complementary parts of a dovetail joint and find myself thinking that perhaps their marriage won’t be such a bad idea.

People like me are invisible in Nigeria. Strident laws and customs keep us that way – to the extent that folk can claim, in all honesty, that ‘being gay is un-African’. As I write, I find myself wondering if, perhaps, we have enjoyed that invisibility. After all, fighting for visibility takes time and effort. And it can be dangerous.

I am a lukewarm Catholic at best. I’ve stopped taking Holy Communion. It is probably three years or more since I last confessed to a priest. I have stopped fasting during Lent. I’m not a member of any societal group in the Church. In my final year at college, I can count how many times I went to church on my two hands. I had decided that since Christianity – at least, as it is practised in Nigeria – wasn’t flexible in its belief concerning homosexuality, wouldn’t it be fair I chose the time I went to church and not out of a sense of duty? If I can, I would stop going to church altogether. But while I am still living under my parents’ roof, I cannot see how that is possible. I have to pretend as if I love God more than I love myself.

In his poem ‘I’m not a Religious Person But’, the brilliant American poet Chen Chen writes: … I am not a religious person. I thought I’d made this clear to God by reading Harry Potter & not attending church except for gay weddings.

I think about how much I would love to go to a gay wedding. In fact, wishing for a gay wedding in Nigeria becomes another of those fancies I indulge in idle – and sometimes not so idle – moments. After all, as my fellow Christians would say: ‘Everything is possible’.

And so … Father, forgive me for these sins and the ones I cannot recall.

Hapuya Ononime

Hapuya Ononime is a pseudonym. He is a Nigerian writer who is working on a novel.