A Queer African Tale: On Trauma, Gender Transitions and Acceptance

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When I first embarked on this journey of queerness I was a woman. I went to lesbian bars because that’s what non-hetero women did, while ignoring that nagging voice in me that spoke of an identity more complicated than gay. In these bars I was usually the most femme presenting person in sight and, in retrospect, the prettiest thing around — my black body sticking out like a flagpole in a sea of weather-beaten white faces. I didn’t think myself pretty then, blinded as I was by ideologies that maintained people like me — dark-skinned African women like me — could never be beautiful. With my long braided hair extensions and dark brown lipstick-ed lips, in my form fitting clothes and my undulations on the dance floor, I rarely got the attention that I longed dearly for because, then as it often is now, a high femme expression of femininity was reviled in lesbian spaces.

My friend Candy – the tall and husky white butch dyke I used to hang with who had a thing for fucking femme cis boys – called the lesbian bar I frequented “the chicken rotisserie room,” because “every dyke in there is over fried and over done.” She was referring to the way all the mullet-bearing and flannel-wearing white dykes in there repeated the same pick-up lines and carried on the same tragically doomed relationships with each other. I went there often because I thought that’s where you go to find love. What I found instead were the empty expressions and foolish acts of betrayal at the arms of forlorn dykes, many of them white, many of them confused out of their minds about what this life was supposed to give them.

There was Star, a stout stonebutch with a shaved smooth dome, who had the shaded blue image of a star carved into her left hand, right between the thumb and forefinger. Everyone called her the resident “wigger” and it took me a while to fully understand the awfulness of such a term or the depths of confusion that would lead a white person to mimic a mode of blackness they think they understand. She talked with a Southern black drawl, peppering her language with tired sayings America liked to call ebonics, making college-educated me feel like I’d gone white. And she called me as much when she was trying to pick me up. On that night I strolled into the club with newly done braids, wearing a tight black on black button-up and jeans combo. I walked in there imbuing my steps with a confidence that I didn’t even halfheartedly possess. Through my thick glasses I stared into the cavernous hall of the club. A few disco balls dangled from the ceiling, buckled here and there by water da mage. Disco lights flashed red, blue, yellow, and purple while something resembling techno music droned on overhead through speakers precariously nailed into the walls high above the dance floor. People swayed, moving in dreamlike motions. I took all this in then eyed the bar where the bartender stared into space, boredom a more prominent feature on her face than her actual facial features.

Why am I here, I asked myself. I’d left the comfort of my warm apartment on the outskirts of Charlotte near the college I attended. I’d driven through the unusually cold January night and here I was, for what? I sauntered to the bar, ignoring that internal voice that teased me for daring to venture out alone, daring to be in this lesbian meat market alone. Was I looking to get laid? I couldn’t figure it out so I got a tequila shot. “And you’re the prettiest thing in here,” Star said, leaning towards me from her perch on the barstool. I was so desperate for acknowledgement that I leaned right in, gobbling her attention right up. On the dance floor she moved in a way that let me know I was supposed to respond rather than initiate, I was supposed to let myself be dominated. She grabbed my hips and slid her hands down the back of my jeans as she pulled me closer to her, but I wrenched myself free because I didn’t want to give in, or at least not in the way she demanded. After a few run-ins at the club, Star stopped coming to the bar for some unknown reason. Did we make out? No. I was too disturbed by the stereotype she was performing. As confused as I was by my black identity, her performance of swagger and ebonics both intimidated and repulsed me.

I moved on to Angel, another butch white dyke I met through an online lesbian dating site. She was everything I was supposed to stay away from: newly out of prison and on parole, drinker of Robitussin like it was water, passionate about alcohol, weed, cocaine and ecstasy. She had a mother long dead and a rich father who wanted nothing to do with her “because I’m a druggie bulldagger,” she laughingly revealed. I wondered what he reacted the strongest to — the drugging ways or her gender nonconformity. The latter I was inexplicably drawn to, wanted to try on in my own way but didn’t yet have a lexicon to capture and understand, trans not being a word or identity I was familiar with at the time.

At night, steeped in herb and alcohol, we’d fuck relentlessly, exploring each other’s bodies and surfing our mutual highs when the drugs in our systems crested, then devolving into grouchy teeth grinding trolls when their effect wore of. I was so feverish with desire for everything her body was about and weed took that feverishness to a ferocity I didn’t recognize. One night, Peter, her drug dealer friend came over to her apartment and all three of us occupied her brown threadbare precariously tilted couch, passing the pipe from hand to hand, smoking and watching crappy TV. I climbed onto her lap, took her face in my hands and stuck my tongue in her mouth. She in turn clasped me closer to her warm cough syrup smelling body and the make-out was epic. We looked up after what felt like hours later to discover Peter had quietly slinked out.

The first time I smoked bud, it was with Sam, a thirty-something slim-framed white man in his 30s. We spent so much time together that everyone at Gray’s bookstore, where we both worked, thought there was something going on. I can’t tell you why I chose Sam as my friend. Maybe it was because in a way we were both outsiders, him the oldest in the group and me the sole immigrant, African for that matter — an exotic species to the staff who’d known nothing but bible belt America their entire lives. “You need to get back to your roots,” one black man in his early 20s said to me, befuddled by my musical excursions into the worlds of Fela and Nine Inch Nails; by “roots” he meant Hip Hop, not Afrobeat.

One night, sitting on the steps of a co-worker’s house, a ruckus party was happening around us. Sam, his easygoing nature creating an isle of calm around us, was as perplexed as I was by the drunken college kids — many of them screaming at nothing but just sheer air, fueled by a chemically induced joyousness. Sam and I chatted about nothing special. He passed me what I thought was a rolled cigarette. I took a hit, after he told me what it was. I choked, spat in mild disgust. “That’s disgusting,” I said handing the burning spliff back to him. The end glowed deep orange suddenly; smoke trailing off it curling into a blue haze. I noted that. Noted also the feel of seeing something as mundane as smoke anew. As the curiously jubilant people around me came into sharp focus, I noted the hidden truths seemingly unearthed by this thing that charred my throat and smelled like skunk. That was the beginning of my belief in the church of weed and my dependence on it for connection with others. Thanks, Sam, wherever you fucking are.

My two-month affair with Angel brought a sexual freedom, the likes of which I’d never seen. The weed, drugs and booze probably had a lot to do with that, but just as crucial was the absence of gender when we were in bed. I didn’t feel like a girl or any gender in particular. We were just two warm soft bodies — one black, the other white — fitting together in ways that made sense for us. I remember sitting up in her bed one night my hands still sticky from her, letting my eyes roam over her body in the dim light of her bedside lamp, settling on her flat chest and square shoulders, wanting her again, wanting a body like hers.

In spite of these self-discoveries that led me to question a gender I’d assumed was unquestionable, we were dysfunctional. For we traversed the terrains of coy sex to reckless sex to passionate sex, but we never had sober sex. And how unready was I to be out about being queer. I couldn’t dare come out to my very traditional Nigerian family, most of who were either back home, in the case of my parents and extended family, or in the case of my sister, had escaped the oppressive 2nd class status of Nigerian womanhood for the UK. The only relative who lived in the same town as me at the time was my older brother and, given that year in the early 80s when we were both still in Nigeria and he did those strange unwanted things to my 7-year old body, I didn’t like to be around him much and didn’t like to reveal any details of my personal life to him. I remember clearly the day I tried to introduce Angel to a co-worker we’d run into at the local Hollywood Video. Anxiety over being seen with my gay lover by a straight co-worker forced me to momentarily forget her name. High as she was at the time, she laughed it off like it was nothing, like she didn’t expect anyone to remember her name — least of all her lovers.

When she later dumped me for the love of her life who was getting out of prison, I too swallowed the heartbreak like it was my lot in life to be left for someone else. What never came into our relationship were the realities of our lives outside our drug-fueled fuckfests. I never told her about the lifetime of physical and sexual abuse at the hand of my family I was doing my damndest to flee. Nor did she know about the ways I was hustling for under the table jobs or lying about my immigration status to claim jobs that paid me a pittance and called it wages. Or how every other Saturday I drove my Dodge hooptie to the other side town to sell plasma for $25 a pop. During intake at those vampiric clinics, right after the blurb about gay men not being eligible to sell their fluids, the form would ask me if I was Nigerian, because apparently Nigerian blood, like gay men’s blood, is tainted by AIDS. I needed the $25 something fierce so I decided to shirk my Nigerian identity, all hundreds of years of Yoruba and Edo history, all 19 years of my born-and-bred-in-Port-Harcourt life, to lay in a stupor for the hour or two or three it took to drain the requisite amount of blood out and pump the plasma-less gruel back into me. “Make sure you eat,” the attendant would say to me as I stumbled out of there disoriented and ashamed.

Driven by deep feelings of unworthiness, I spent my early queer years chasing broken white women like Angel. I surrounded myself with people, white people in particular, that so ardently invested in a vision of me that was anything but me. Dating broken white women became a way to reprise a powerlessness that years of sexual abuse and generations of blackphobia had tricked me into believing in. I drowned this feeling of powerlessness in weed and seeking out relationships in which I could engage in yet remain completely hidden from view. Neither did I really want to know these lovers either, because that required a deeper level of engagement that I was unprepared for. This is what happens when you can’t bear to look yourself in the eye in the mirror: you can’t bear to look at anyone else either.

As I write this essay, I’m well into my 30s, no longer that twenty-something who wandered wide-eyed into the chicken rotisserie room. I am now living full time in a body that’s beefy and slim in the places I want, square shouldered and hairy in the places I like. People call me “sir” and “man” and throw a male-gendered “dude” my way in salute. I tell the ones that will listen that I’m neither a man nor male-privilege-seeking. I’m starting to occupy the complicated transgender space I spent years carving out for myself.

And yet. Why am I staring at the ruins of another weed-soaked and silence-filled relationship? Why am I once again looking at that confused twenty-something, the me who tried to escape childhood trauma by drowning in invisibilizing relationships?

Rather than cast that confused twenty-something aside, I’m realizing I have to take her hand. I’m learning she still has much to teach me.

Ola Osaze is a transfag feminist of Edo and Yoruba descent, who's grew up in Nigeria. As a community activist, Ola been involved with the Audre Lorde Project in NYC, Uhuru Wazobia, one of the first LGBT groups for African immigrants in New York, Queers for Economic Justice and Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Ola is a 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow. Ola's writings have appeared in Black Public Media, Black Girl Dangerous, and anthologies, including Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art and Thought, Queer African Reader, and the soon to be released Outside the XY: Queer, Brown Masculinity. From a very young age Ola has had quite a sweet tooth and harbors a serious obsession for all things pie.

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23 Comments

  1. Thank you for your story. Your writing touches me and reminds me of my younger days, coming out & stumbling around in women’s bars, trying to fit my broken places into other women’s broken places, some how make – believing it could make us both be whole.

  2. You’re a great storyteller! Like Dale, this reminded me of my younger days of trying to find a space, but it was at Black lesion parties (I’m a mixed/Black queer woman, who started coming out in 1999 and didn’t start to have full language for my orientation untill 2010). We of course, have different experiences but this made me feel nostalgic. It somehow made me feel sad about how low my self-esteem was back then, how sad I was about not fitting in, but also made me long for those more innocent days. I guess a part of me wishes I could do them over. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself. This is making me think about my identity, my worthiness, and my heart.

  3. Thank you for sharing this experience and with such artistry and honesty. I can truly relate to what you say about pursuing invisibilizing relationships to escape past traumas – powerful articulations.

  4. Ola, it’s always impossible to describe what it means to find other out, engaged queers from continental Africa. Particularly ones vested in the creation of a visible community and who write/create so beautifully. Thank you for this wonderful read and for all the other amazing roles you’re playing in creating spaces for voices like ours. I also fully intend to find you on social media and insist on making you my friend.

  5. We live in a world where femininity is the norm and where androgynous and masculine women are continually policed, punished and ridiculed. Your observations on the supposed disinterest in high femme women in lesbian circles are in this broader context both short-sighted and self-centered. To complain when a subculture doesn’t abide by the mainstream rule is to betray privilege – feminine privilege one enjoys and takes for granted in a gender policing society to the point where the lack of admiration begins to feel like a slight.
    The mockery and condescension you then visit on the women which showed little sexual or romantic interest in you is rather sad… I assumed this article would be about reclaiming one’s power in the face of adversity, not taking a dig at those who failed to recognize your specialness. Reclaiming your own power doesn’t have to include robbing others of their own – that’s not how it works.

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