ANI KAYODE SOMTOCHUKWU

The Gift of Being Seen

Or a Monologue in a Novel-in-progress That Was Too Long and Too Personal to Be in a Work of Fiction so I Took It out and Stood It on Its Own Two Feet

A spectre is haunting the neocolonial state. Yes, it is exactly what you are thinking but no, not exactly in the way you are thinking it. The spectre has moved through time and space and it has morphed. The spectre is invisible, it is hanging over the motherland, it is striking fear into the hearts of mothers and fathers, elders and priests, statesmen and Imams.

It is almost laughable. Don’t you think it is laughable how they talk of us, like we too do not have mothers? Like we do not have ancestral homes, like we are not as un/rooted to the land as everyone else? Isn’t it funny how they have reimagined us as scary? How they know we are dangerous even though they have never seen us? I don’t know if I told you the story of how my father’s church told him I was holding meetings here in ESUT and initiating people into homosexuality. Like I am some ancient priest sprinkling blood on naive freshmen who know no better. It would be hilarious if only I did not imagine bloodthirsty mobs when I hear these things. My own comrades, my family, my classmates, my coworkers, those I worry about when they fall sick, scouring the streets in search of me. They do not even know what I look like. All they know is that I am not like them. “Them” being human. They say about people like me, “When we see them we will know.”

The ground is chasing me, and I hate that. I do not want to be on the run. I cannot win the fight of my life if I am running, if I am always conceding space. Every day, I realize more and more how much ground has slipped from beneath my feet, there is nothing left. Now I can no longer see myself in the nation’s image. I look at my passport and my ID, the marks of citizenship, and I cannot recognize my name spelt out in full.

Citizenship functions like space in so many ways. It is a negative (like an empty mark on the floor where something of substance used to stand) and also a positive, like an addition, or a reclamation of territory. For many people, space is a simple question. It is straightforward, a recognition they never had to ask for, a status that is never questioned. For people like me, it is not. I am not a citizen. I do not fit into the casts of cisheteropatriachal manhood, into the shambolic rendition of heterosexuality that is demanded of me. For me, citizenship is the emptiness that drowns. In it, all I find is oppositionality. All I find are denunciations. Even while I loved it, even while I still took pride in it, it denounced me as an abomination, a negation of nature, a transgressor of cultural sanctity, a violator of traditions. In it, all I find are the suffocating claws of a state so convinced that I am its downfall, a state that attacks me like we are ensnared in the dance of war. I have learnt not to be shocked by this.

I am gay. I am queer. I am African. So, naturally, I am the antithesis of the neocolonial African state. I am the spectre, looming, larger than the vessel that is my body, larger than the IMF and the World Bank, larger than AFRICOM, larger than Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, larger than life.

For me, space is contested. I am not allowed to simply be, to simply exist anywhere where society might see me in my true form. I must justify my existence at every turn. I must justify my Igbo-ness. I must justify my Nigerian-ness. I must justify my African-ness.

My father says to me, “Our people did not do such things” but I know it is a lie. When I was little, each time we contradicted each other, he would ask me, “Are you calling me a liar?” as though fathers are incapable of lies. I know now that they are not. But enough about my father’s hypocrisy, this is not about him. It is about the spectre that is our future.

I am excluded from space but I no longer mourn this exclusion, this denial. I no longer desire inclusion into this violent system. I no longer weep because my own people have done nothing but paint over my vibrant colours with spiritless denials. This is the space I occupy within the neocolonial state as a queer African. I am not “just like everyone else.” I know now that it was a mistake to litigate my own freedom on those terms. I am repulsed and enraged that this system taught me that my only claim to humanity was to be just like non-queer people. I feel cheated. Because think about all the time I spent trying to get it to see me when my liberation lay beyond it, when the tools for my freedom lay within me, in communion with all other oppressed people, even those who do not see me yet. This system COULD NEVER make space for me, even if it wanted to. The very last columns of its survival are rooted in cisheteronormativity. It cannot negate cisheteronormativity without collapsing in on itself.

The neocolonial state cannot justify itself to the African people. It cannot justify poverty and dispossession. It cannot justify the brutality of the structural adjustment program. It cannot justify the millions of children who are out of school, who go to bed hungry each night. What it can do is to offer me in sacrifice to the rest of my people. And this is why it exists in a constant state of siege.

Pikin wey say im mama no go sleep….

The neocolonial African state lives in perpetual fear of queer liberation. The spectre is decolonization because the logic of the neocolony is to find consensus in exclusion. It is to nurture ethnic, cultural and religious fundamentalism. It is to push me into the abyss so that the rest of society cannot recognize me. Like Lyn Ossome succinctly penned, “outside the national ‘moral community’ but inside the civic nation.”

This framework is so important for loving myself and understanding why society does not love me. Why the boys I played with on Uscco Street have all grown into men who want to see my blood shed, like a sacrifice to the preservation of the atrocity that is the fourth republic.

I know now not to feel betrayed, not to ask questions like, “Am I not a citizen like you?”

Clearly I am not. Clearly the conceptualization of citizenship within the neocolonial state has no space for queerness, even though on paper I am a citizen. This is the power of my queerness. I am a spectre of colour colonized formations cannot abide.

They want to push me so far that I fall off the Niger Delta into the Atlantic. They want my body to float away and never come back.

They say this to me. This is not our way. Your very existence is opposed to Omenala Igbo.

They say to me, Homosexuality will never be accepted in Nigeria. Because they want me to give in to despair. They want me to concede my home.

They say, It is not African culture. Because now that they have stripped me of my citizenship, they want to strip me of my African-ness too. Ndi ọkachamara of culture.

But it is what they want to do to me that is unAfrican. It is the prisons that are unAfrican. It is the police, armed to the teeth, marching through streets like mercenaries, that is unAfrican. It is the commodification of land, of housing, of water and every other thing we hold sacred, that is unAfrican. It is the billions of dollars white American evangelicals plunge into pushing anti-queer legislation on this continent that is unAfrican.

They scream my otherness from the rooftops as often as the World Bank forces them to gut public services but who do they think they are? Who gave them the audacity to question my life, to question my place? Who told them it was up to them whether I am seen or unseen?

I am so tired of answering questions. I am so tired of non-queers trying to test me to see how abominably they can misdefine me. I am tired of them wanting an explanation for why I exist as myself.

I am. Therefore, I am.

I cannot help but appreciate how much queer liberation is tied to decolonization. Perhaps if I were to give this essay a different name, it would be, Queer Liberation as Decolonization.

The path to queer liberation goes through universal queer-affirming healthcare, it goes through guaranteed public housing, it goes through free education, it goes through land justice, it goes through gender justice, it goes through prison and police abolition, it goes through a refounding of the nation in the people’s image. The path to queer liberation goes through socialist reconstruction. And because of that, because my freedom is an antithesis to the neocolonial African state, it acts as though it is existential for it to give any concessions.

Instead, so much effort is put into policing the public space, even when I am not visible in it. Even when I am not speaking, it is warning about the dangers of my voice.

There is a direct link between this and non-queer Africans thinking I need their permissions to exist. When they are trying to harm me, they are asking, How did you become queer? What will make a man decide to leave women and be chasing his fellow man? Who introduced you to this lifestyle you have chosen?

Apart from the silliness of these questions, I have a serious problem with them thinking they have the right to ask me ANY questions to begin with. A have a problem with them thinking I owe them an explanation for my existence.

In pre-med Genetics class, I was taught that homosexuality was a genetic abnormally. The lecturer went further to clarify that the mind was like a garden. If you keep it clean, only clean things will grow there. But if you clutter it with rubbish, then ugly things will grow there. Inherent in that was that there was something dirty about me, that I was a genetic mistake. It was offered with no substantiation because homophobes think their very words are the canons by which my life must be defined. They think their opinions are as valid as mine, on the subject of my own life. They wield control of space as violently as exclusion could possibly be.

And I am honestly wowed by the impudence because first of all, Who. The. Fuck. Are. You?

I don’t know if you get. Who died and made them chief over my life?

Why? Why? They continue to ask. Not just of my homosexuality but the politics my queerness has made necessary. I am queer because my being, my identity, my desire, my personhood has been constructed in juxtaposition to the state, to society, and to the church. I am queer because I have divested from the reactionary comforts of arguing that I am just like non-queer people. I am queer because I do not agree that my humanity can be measured by how much like non-queer people I can be. And because I seek the abolition of the state that runs on this rule. I am queer because I want decolonization, because I want a sovereign Africa that is unsubdued. I am queer because I will always choose transformation over incorporation.

I have seen myself, and I am beautiful.

ANI KAYODE SOMTOCHUKWU

ANI KAYODE SOMTOCHUKWU