“Na boy abi na girl be this one.”
The driver muttered in a pidgin—a local Nigerian language. What he said meant “Is this a boy or a girl?” as I was about to board a bus going to the market. I had travelled home from school two days ago to do some shopping. The passengers on the bus and people close by all started staring at me, but I didn’t react. I knew they were talking because of my outfit. I had decided that morning that I wanted to be unapologetic and live my life like the other femme people I saw on Instagram, so I wore tight-fitting ripped jeans with a black T-shirt and a pair of slides. I had blonde-dyed afro tips and earrings, which are commonly only worn by women where I’m from. As a man, I’m expected to wear plain, dull clothes and add a little ashiness to it, because a man being conscious of his appearance, or acting flamboyant makes him gay. I just ignored the chatter, paid for my bus seat (paying for individual bus seats is a common practice in Nigeria) and sat at the front.
Usually, I prefer taking Ubers or private taxis when going out, but I had to capitulate to boarding a bus because there were no taxis in sight. My experiences with public transportation have been quite unpleasant and stressful. People are always making unsolicited remarks about my appearance or mannerisms. Thanks to the severe anxiety disorder and phobias I was diagnosed with when I was fourteen, stressful situations like this trigger me and cause me a great deal of emotional distress—so I keep to myself most of the time, and avoid hostile environments. I even go as far as paying for extra seats close to me on public transportation in order to have and to protect my safe pace.
A few minutes after the bus took off, two passengers started making remarks about Bobrisky (a well-known trans woman socialite and influencer in Nigeria) and started spewing hateful slurs, seemingly set off by me just sitting on that bus. One person went as far as saying the government should start killing gay people in a way to “control and stop homosexuality from destroying the society and the world.”
Nigeria is a very homophobic country, with anti-gay laws. In 2014, the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act took effect, punishing same-sex unions with up to 14 years imprisonment, and making it very difficult for gay men to exist in the country. Even prior to that, gay people were being victimized, hounded and lynched in Nigeria. The signing of the anti-gay bill just fuelled the already existing homophobia in the country. Homophobes murder gay men and brag about it online, and bigoted Nigerians cheer them on. Some people even turn it into a full-time job; they catfish and lure gay men out to rob and publicly humiliate them (known as kito). In more extreme scenarios, they kidnap them and make their families and loved ones pay a huge ransom for their release. Sometimes these men never make it back home, and the police do nothing about it.
As a femme man, growing up in Nigeria has always been very challenging for me. I used to find it difficult to socialize: maybe with girls there was a certain ease and acceptance, but boys always found ways to make me feel inferior. They would degrade me for wearing my masculinity differently; it was clear I didn’t belong. Even while growing up, my parents always beat me when they caught me wearing makeup, heels or wigs, calling me possessed and cursed. I’ve known I liked boys since I was ten and was demonized and abused for it.
Living in a country where being gay is criminalized and every femme man is automatically labelled gay, we’re the pariahs and rejects of society. Harassment and public humiliation is very common. Femme men are treated like a plague here. Any man who associates with a femme man is labelled as gay and accused of having sexual relations with them. So most men avoid association with us; even masculine-presenting gay men resent us and avoid us in public places.
We are called quite derogatory names like omekanwanyi (boygirl) and ndi oji/ndi homo (which means homosexuals, but also sodomites). Although some folks think a man being femme is quite preposterous, they’ll stare at you with a grin and ask something like, “Why are you behaving like a girl; are you a girl?” It’s a question I still don’t have an answer to when I’m asked. Others find us irritating and stare with disgust and condemnation.
Femme men are catcalled, stared at and ridiculed wherever we go. Sometimes these situations get violent, despite being unprovoked. A friend of mine was hit by a random private car in the passenger lane, just because of his feminine mannerisms. Hearing about things like this worries me.
It was almost noon when I got off the bus; I headed to an ATM to make a withdrawal before going into a local beauty supply store, where I purchased some skincare products and fragrance. When I was done paying for my goods I begged the cashier to help me hold on to it so I could rush into the market to go buy some suitcases, which were actually what I had gone to the market for.
The luggage and apparel part of the market was completely different; it was crowded with many people who had come from different parts of the country to trade, and myriad stalls.
I walked briskly through the crowd, trying to locate the suitcase section and asking strangers for directions. It took me quite a while to notice people were beginning to stare at me, which made me quite uncomfortable.
I started getting catcalled. I hastened my steps, avoided eye contact and ignored it. It was terrible. Some people walking past me stopped and turned, just to call me names, like I was wearing a dress or a Halloween costume.
I eventually made it to the suitcase section and entered to go bargain. I had just bought two beautiful suitcases and was about to buy myself a new backpack when a middle-aged woman opposite the stall I was in boldly and loudly called over to me and asked if I was a homosexual. At first I was too stunned to speak, but I most definitely wasn’t surprised at all: I knew it was a matter of time before someone asked me an ignorant question. I turned around to look at her and noticed everyone else was already staring at me with a look on their faces like they all had the same question in mind, but didn’t have the guts to say something. I just rolled my eyes at her and went back to bargaining with the trader selling the backpack.
Then she started going on about how homosexuality is a sin and abomination. I should repent or I’d end up in hell. Her neighbours burst out laughing. I tried as much as I could to ignore it all, but I eventually lost my cool—that happened the moment she asked me if I was wearing diapers. In Nigeria, this is a typical bigoted joke about gay men wearing diapers because of the stereotypes attached to anal sex.
I turned and asked her to shut up and leave me alone. That’s when all hell broke loose. In Nigeria, respect is a big deal when it comes to elders. People believe it’s an entitlement that they should be accorded no matter what. Presumably on account of this, she was stunned. She stood up and started raining abuse on me; her friends joined her. She even went as far as to insult my mother, saying she failed as a mother for birthing an abomination like me. People were beginning to cluster as a result of the commotion.
When bystanders asked her what I did, she just yelled “ONYE HOMO” (a homosexual) at the top of her lungs, and threatened that I should be lynched on the spot. I got really scared and began to panic.
In that moment, my life flashed before my eyes and I wished I had never crawled out of bed that morning to embrace my femininity, or even boarded that bus. I was convinced the absence of cabs was a warning I had ignored. The crowd was beginning to get aggressive and I began to tremble.
Some men charged at me and grabbed me. I struggled and was struck in the face, but I kept on resisting until I eventually broke free. I ran back into the shop of the backpack seller while the lady who had started the whole thing was still shouting and asking the men to come drag me out. The backpack vendor unexpectedly came to my rescue and got into a verbal altercation with the first woman, calling her out for being a bully and scandalmonger and for harassing her customer.
They were going off at each other in front of the crowd, when the man who had sold me the suitcases came to defend me too. I started explaining the situation to him, frightened and misty-eyed, then the market union task force (a unit that maintains orderliness and curb criminal activities in a market) came to intervene. They dispersed the crowd and took me, the sellers—including the lady who verbally attacked me—and some witnesses to the office.
I was made to sit in the corridor while the vendor and the lady who started the furor were being interrogated. I was scared, humiliated and wanted to cry. All that mattered to me at the moment was my safety. I was scared of the police being involved because my phone would expose that I am actually a gay man, and that would get me arrested.
I was held there for almost an hour before I was eventually let go. My suitcases and backpack were brought to me at the office and one of their staff was ordered to drive me to the market park. Luckily, there were cabs at the park I could take home.
All through the ride, I sat in the cab crying profusely, wondering what I had done to offend those people by living my truth as a femme man. The driver kept looking at me through the rearview mirror and asking if I was okay. I was exhausted with a migraine and hungry because I had only had coffee since the morning. I reached out for my AirPods and realized I had lost them. At that same moment I remembered the items I had forgotten to retrieve from the beauty supply store, but my cab was already halfway home. I started crying all over again and cried until I got home. My shirt was ripped and I looked a mess. I went to my room and cried myself to sleep.
Initially, I planned on returning back to school the next day after I purchased those suitcases to prepare for the college quiz I had the following day, but I couldn’t make it because of the big, painful bruise on my face and multiple scratches I sustained on my neck and arms. In fact, I had to stay home for a couple of days before I eventually travelled back to my school and told my lecturers how I got robbed and was beaten up (that’s the only thing that would make my religiously homophobic lecturers sympathize with me and let me take the quiz).
A courier brought my cosmetics from the beauty supply store the next day, after I reached out to the shop on Instagram.
I encountered two receptions in the market that fateful day that showed me different ways how people viewed femme men. The first was the beauty supply shop, how the people there were so welcoming, kind and accepting of me. And then the reception at the suitcase section, where I was ridiculed, attacked and treated like an outcast. But no matter what, I will always be bold and stay true to myself. I just have to keep manifesting good people who are accepting of me and who would love and cherish me. For the rest of the world, they just have to eat my ruffles, colours and all I have to offer the world in this femme body.