There is often a direct correlation between the subjugation of women in any given society and that society’s intolerance for gay people. In such societies where women are generally repressed, there is often a socio-cultural assignment of gender roles, and such assignments would, accordingly, require men to dominate the environment and “their women” to be subservient while negating any allowance for people who fit neither cultural mould.
As a gay man growing up in a very heteronormative environment like Nigeria, life can be worse than mere imprisonment. There are things men must do which I cannot fit into. There are ways men must talk. There are professions not meant for men. There are clothes men cannot wear. There are certain ways men must eat, sit, and pee. In fact, to put it very crudely, there are ways men must shit.
Looking back, I see now that the rites of passage to this glorified manhood is littered with memories of gender abuse disguised as cultural celebrations. Women, for the most part, are still seen as the lesser sex.
Take my father and my maternal uncles, for example. My mom was once beaten so violently by father that she had to be hospitalized; but when my maternal uncles were informed, not only did they blame my mom for disrespecting her husband, they travelled all the way from Lagos to Ondo town to plead for my dad’s forgiveness. It wasn’t considered that he ought to apologize for injuring her. She was the one who should apologize for injuring his ego. It was and still is the custom. Men command; women follow. And when women lead, which is rarely, they must honour the men in the followership.
Hence, when you say you are gay in Nigeria, you are relinquishing that enormous privilege that comes with being a ‘man’. Women are meant to cook for you, serve you on their knees, fetch you water and go wait for you in the bedroom to make babies.
And that’s just the cultural perception. Religious dogma is equally bad, if not worse.
On Sunday, if you happen to be a Christian, this male privilege follows you to church. As being practiced by the majority of Pauline churches, a woman is meant to keep quiet while men are talking in the church of God. Physically, also, she must adorn herself in a way that respects the men in the room.
On Fridays, as Moslems, women cannot pray to God in the same room where men pray. And if they do, they have to go to the end of the congregation. If they pray from the front, they may be distracting the men who have come to serve God. It is all about the men.
Now, that is the Nigeria I know. Being gay for this reason in this context gives you no room for identity. That kind of identity is an aberration. A man is meant to be a man (that is, someone who rules over women in marriage and the society.) Being the third identity is not allowed. You cannot be gay. It’s against the majority worldview that you want to share your life with another man. The biggest concern among families and friends is: who then is the woman among both of you? This query is particularly worse for you if you happen to be an effeminate gay man. The system has no space for you. You can be tolerated as their Hairdresser, Makeup artist or an Entertainer if you don’t make a big show about your sexuality. The women in our society will empathize with you if you are effeminate, but the men will hate you for hurting their pride. If you are very masculine and you are gay, you have a lot of hiding to do. Lies. Deceits. Shame.
By being physically masculine, you have already earned your place—a place of leadership—in the society. You can lounge with the men as women cook for you to eat. And when you are done eating, these women come to clean up after you. So, being gay in this instance is a big betrayal to your cohort of men. It’s a shame. You need to hide it. You need to ‘man’ it up. And it is just as bad even if you work in a corporate environment. Thanks to some womanists and feminists who have made giant strides in balancing gender roles in our corporate Nigeria, but the road to gender equality is still a far cry.
In this vein, there is also no place for a third identity. Men rule, women follow. Where should we put gay folks? Prison? That is the current position of the law.
For me, I spoke up as soon as I knew I was gay but the two phenomena, culture, and church, silenced that voice as quickly as possible. So, I had to trudge along the pathway of heteronormativity.
Shamefully, I got married to a woman I wasn’t in love with. And just like other men I was served and waited upon. In unconscious self-abasement, my wife called me ‘olowo ori mi’. Owner of my maidenhead. ‘My slave owner’. It wasn’t her fault. She too had been brought up by a system that indoctrinates our girls that they must be bought by a man when they grow up. That a man must come and pay a price to own them. And so, she ceased to belong to her family, and entirely became mine from the day I paid her bride price. She was certainly a victim of the system. Forget formal education: for she was as educated as I was. The day I told my wife we should work out an amicable separation, she resisted nonstop. ‘Olowo ori mi, you cannot leave me alone. I am meant to be yours for life. Do me as you want….’ This is the socio-cultural requirement and she had to hold on to it. Forget earnings: for she was earning as much as I earned. Nevertheless, she was still my socio-cultural ‘slave’. Isn’t this a very shameful culture of ours?
And so, show me how a society treats their women, and I will show you how they will treat their gay folks.
Coming out of it all was my way of breaking this cycle of shame.
We can no longer live in the shadows of a society that has no respect for its women. To say we are gay, and still stay in the closet is like saying we support gender inequities. It is better to be the outlier than live as oppressors of women. More importantly, it is liberating to break free from living a lie. I am not a stereotype of what a man should be. I am Kehinde, I love humanity and I am in love with a man.