Queer Family Relations

Posted on April 9, 2012


 What to do about tensions that have been caused by automatically assuming that your Nigerian extended family will be hostile to you for being queer? 

  A lot of people talk about the terrible things that they have suffered at the hands of family members for being queer or same-sex loving. This article is not intended to undermine any of that. Rather, it presents a different situation whereby there is a premature reaction from the queer person because of the expectation that being queer automatically comes with being met with hostility from unwelcoming family members.

In the last couple of years I’ve created some distance between members of my extended family and myself because I assumed that they would naturally be unwelcoming of my queerness. In my experience, Nigerian family members love to get involved in the nitty-gritty details of your life. They also love to share those details with any other family member who care to listen.

I remember in High school when I was about 12 and had returned from boarding school with a second set of ear piercings. News about this had travelled to all my aunts in various parts of Nigeria even before I set down my bags to unpack. Months later when I thought the hype had died down I was spending time with the family and my grandma called me into her bedroom for a heart to heart. Guess the topic? Those piercings!

Same thing when I got my tattoo at age 15, family members I hadn’t seen in years were ringing me left, right and centre. I could give more examples but my point is that the trend seemed to be that people who deviated from the norm were not only talked about a lot but also grilled as to why they were trying to be different and lectured back onto the straight and narrow. I have a large family so hearing similar messages repeatedly can get on the nerves of even the most accommodating person.

As I grew older and explored and outwardly expressed my sexuality and gender presentation, I was eager to avoid the family melodrama so I did my best to stay away from family functions. I called less, visited fewer times and generally got less involved. This was easy since I lived in a different country than the majority of them. I also knew that if someone out-rightly asked if I was queer and I would not be able to say no so I thought it would be best to avoid being the next topic of family discussion.

Last week, I happened to stumble upon a photo of my gran and cousin that had been uploaded on Facebook by my aunt. I wanted to ‘Like’ it but didn’t because I did not want to bring attention to some of the ‘gay’ things on my Facebook wall. After a day or two, I returned to Facebook and noticed that this same aunt had put up a few other photos and had proceeded to tag every other family member in our Facebook circles(i.e. her siblings, my cousins, my siblings) except ME.

I felt left out and wondered if there was any particular reason other than simple forgetfulness. This aunt and I aren’t exceptionally close. I never call, text or write her. I do not even as much as ‘poke’ her so it does make sense if she forgot. However, the incident and my reaction to it made me do some larger-level thinking surrounding my distance-keeping.

I came to the conclusion that I was staying away for several reasons; the biggest one being the fear of rejection. Since I refuse to hide my queerness or tone it down, I removed myself from a situation where I might be under pressure to do so. My extended family is quite conservative and religious. Although, I have never specifically discussed same-sex love or attraction, or cross-gender representation with any of them, I decided for myself that they wouldn’t be supportive of such things so why approach them with something they would most likely shut down?

Another issue I thought about is resolve. By that I mean being totally comfortable with who I am and not feeling like I can’t be part of a community or its values because I don’t exhibit every single characteristic that is expected.

Having been through(I am still going through this journey, in fact I don’t think it can ever be completed) phases of trying to figure out who I am. I feel as though I am at a point where I am OK with who I am at whatever phase I am at. I also feel I am confident enough to invite people- be they extended family that I have assumed to be strictly conservative- to know me and to be involved in my life to the extent that they wish to and that I allow them to. I also think it would great to learn more about how they think and indeed what it is they truly expect, if at all they have expectations!

[A friend of mine simply told me that they don’t care about what I dress like and who I screw. I feel that I want them to care and actively express that they are interested as these things are important to me(this is a whole different story, one about being given the platform to put forward what you need acknowledged from those who are present in your life)]

Obviously, there is a good chance that I will experience backlash such as homophobia, being talked about behind my back, people asking my parents or my siblings silly questions and the possibility of this affecting my relationships with them or all our relationships.

All that being said, I do feel that it’s unfair to have written-off relationships with many of my family members based on my conceptions of how strict conservative Nigerian extended family members are supposed to react to queer people. I would love to get a bit more involved in the extended family action and I would love for them to know me in all my queer glory(if they want to!)

End note: I have gone ahead and ‘Liked’ the Facebook photo I mentioned! I might even have a go at sending around a couple hello messages in the coming weeks.

Also published on SOGI NAIJA, a space dedicated to sexual and gender minority Nigerians.