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My lovely transgender friend, struggling to survive in Nigeria

Saturday, April 27, 2013
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I have a lovely friend. She is a transgender woman who lives in Nigeria. Her dream, at present denied her, is to be a professional dancer and actress. In her heart and in her spirit, she is both.

As I think about her, I imagine the words and music from the song “Mirror and the Music” from the show A Chorus Line encompassing her as she goes to sleep each night:

“Let me wake up in the morning to find, I have somewhere exciting to go.
To have something that I can believe in. To have something to be…
God, I’m a dancer, A dancer dances!
Give me somebody to dance with. Give me a place to fit in.
Help me return to the world of the living…”

For the purposes of this article, I will call her Cassie after the character in A Chorus Line.

The reason for this level of anonymity should be obvious. In certain regions of her country, she is already considered a criminal for being who she is.

Nigeria is waiting to see if their president will sign a bill already passed their Congress that condemns any in a same-sex relationship to 14 years in prison. The same sentence would be authorized for LGBT activists of any orientation. The country is also attacking privacy and spying on its citizens.

In Nigeria, I would be a criminal. Chances are you, reading this, would be as well.

Cassie was born in Lagos, Nigeria, the oldest of three children. Her parents divorced when she was nine, and her mother became a pastor—an irony on two fronts: the Bible, which L’s mother claims as her ultimate authority, prohibits both divorce and female ministers.

From Cassie’s earliest recollections, she felt out of place.

“I felt trapped in the male body early,” she told me. “So many things were beautiful, I was doing great with my grades, my teachers loved the fact that i was a beautiful ‘boy’ and that I could dance like a female. My dad was wonderful on his part but I dared not even let him know the conflict that I felt inside.”

As she grew older, she stayed feminine, pretty, and soft spoken. This increasingly earned aggression and physical abuse from her military father, although it attracted several female friends who understood her instantly.

When Cassie neared her twentieth birthday, she decided to tell her mother about who she was, a decision she regrets. “It marked the beginning of the persecution.” It was undeniably going to be a risk. Her mother had already let her know on a previous occasion that she “detested gays.”

Cassie tells about that night:

“We were in her bedroom, just me and her. I told her the pain I had been going through for years, the sexual urges, the emotional and the psychological aspect, how I was transgender and if I didn’t do the surgery that I would still want to live my life with a guy not a girl. I could see the rage and hate written on her face. She snarled ‘So it was true.’ She didn’t say anything else but told me that she would ‘get back to me .’ I was saying to myself, ‘Is that it?, get back to me?’”

The house went quiet for hours. Cassie sat in torment not knowing what would come next.

In the wee hours of the morning, her mother and her brothers summoned her to the back of the house where she was confronted. She would go first to a mental hospital they told her, and then to a church ward for rituals. They castigated and verbally abused her, and then beat her until she lay on the floor, bloodied and bruised. She fled the house, but did not get far.

They did not hold their shame privately within the family. It was communicated out to the full church roster, and she was held captive. The church members berated and abused her and she was subjected to an exorcism ritual for freedom from the “demon of homosexuality.”

Her life continued in this way for three years. Friendless and trusting no one, she contemplated suicide constantly. She finally found a different escape and entered a university a great distance away, in Ibadan, Oyo.

There she tried to find other LGBT but even many of them had internalized homophobic issues and her femininity made them unfriendly. She was in a relationship briefly, but that was too dangerous; one evening a car attempted to run her and her boyfriend down and kill them.

She moved to her own apartment, and decided to dress and identify fully as a woman. She was terrified, but felt compelled to be fully herself. Some who knew her before thought she had actually had her surgery, but she had not. She had the support of her dance professor, an incredible woman named Ify, who became the most important parent figure in Cassie’s life. Ify understood everything without being told. She taught Cassie how to dress, how to conduct herself, and most important, how to find her self-respect.

Cassie worked to fit in and not be suspected. Her efforts to stay inconspicuous and guarded worked for a while. Then one day, she was crossing the major street in town. Two policemen grabbed her arms and dragged her into a side alley.

At first she just feared harassment, but when they started ripping at her clothes she realized that they intended to rape her. The horror of the violation was exceeded only by the deep abiding knowledge that once they tore her garment and revealed her naked body that they would certainly murder her on the spot.

That instantaneous revelation brought forth a super human rush of adrenaline and she fought with strength and desperation. Her screams that she was being raped attracted enough commotion and activity that she was able to escape.

As she ran from her attackers, she found a new resolve and a renaissance of strength from within her. Never again would she place herself in such a vulnerable situation again. She now carries with her everywhere she goes a “highly concentrated insecticide which burns the skin.”

She sought asylum from one of the diplomatic foreign agencies. They did not grant her the protection she asked for, or a way out of the country, but instead put her in touch with an underground agency for whom she would work as an office intern. “We submit discreet reports to a global organization especially when Nigeria comes forward to claim that no LGBTI human violations have happened, when they in fact have, and they also want to claim that Nigeria is a safe place. The report submitted by us is always a conflicting report. We act as watchdogs without their knowledge.”

The agency she works for reports about the government’s statements of homophobia. The church community does not attempt to hide theirs at all. The primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, Nicholas Okoh, boldly stated, “You are already aware of the evil wind blowing across the Western world, by way of the homosexual agenda. They want to push it down everybody’s throat. And as far as they are concerned, it is a matter of human right. But God’s right is not discussed….The Biblical understanding of marriage will continue to be the basis of our teaching; we will not change that position. So… please, resist the Devil and all his works, and he will flee from you.”

“What an interesting choice of words. Not only does it invoke a visceral revulsion, it also ties gay rights to an act of violence. Christian history is a flowing stream of new insight,” answers Jack of Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented. “Our understanding and interpretation of Scripture has changed over time, and continues to change, as our understanding of the world God has made for us expands. We choose to participate in the full life of Christian history, sharing the inspiration the Holy Spirit gives to us. We therefore see God’s embrace of LGBT people as the clear meaning of Scripture and the present culmination of the whole arc of Christian history.”

In the meantime, Cassie thanks her own strength and God’s grace in keeping her safe so far. She does not have a romantic partner because she does not believe she can trust one. Her only hope is a country where “we hope to see where everybody would be respected irrespective of their differences. In Nigeria, over here, it’s Jail the Gays bill while in Uganda, it’s Kill the Gays. If Uganda passes that bill into law, the Nigerian government would be encouraged to pass theirs. And if they do not, there will still be the silent persecution of LGBT in this country, and of me.”

As LGBT communities worldwide gain strength and voice, we need to demand our own governments intervene. We cannot be satisfied with hate crime protections on our own street corners when half a world away there are people like us who are persecuted or driven underground on a daily basis. We need to fight because they need us to.

When I go to sleep each night and think of Cassie, I try to only think of who she really is…the actress and dancer. Not the actress she is forced to be, pretending that she is someone she is not, and not the dancer she needs to be to survive, ducking and weaving to dodge an oppressive and tyrannical state. I think of her as the real her, a luminous Broadway star… cue music…

“One singular sensation, Every little step she takes.
One thrilling combination, every move that she makes.
One smile and suddenly nobody else will do…
One moment in her presence, and you can forget the rest.
For the girl is second best to none, Son. To none, Son….”

She is a hero to her people… and we need to be a nation of heroes to her. We need to step up on her behalf and all LGBT. So we can all sleep well at night.

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