At 10:14am, Tuesday January 1st 2019, my mother finally picked up my call. I’d been trying to reach her for over five hours to wish her a Happy New Year.
My mum you see, is quite superstitious. She believes what we do on New Year’s Day is a sign of the rest of the year. Ergo, I call; otherwise she would believe that my inability to do so is representative of what would be our incommunicado status for the rest of the year. She also worries. A lot. It’s a gene I inherited from her, and a flaw I’ve since turned into strength, or so I like to tell myself. But, I digress. At 10:14am, my mother finally picked up. As I heard her soft voice pour through my headphones, I felt calm course through my body. There’s just something about how calm she is when she talks to me — half like she is worried I would shatter into tiny pieces and half like she’s behind me, running her hands down my back in the comforting circles I always ask her to do any time I have difficulty sleeping. As is our custom, she fills the silence with chatter, talking about her siblings and my grandparents, catching me up on how everyone is doing. I nod along as I scavenge through my fridge, hoping that the universe and 2018 me were kind enough to have left me something to eat. And then, she utters the words…
“Uncle Stephen called.”
There went the slice of bread and tiny tub of margarine I’d been able to dig out of my fridge. Uncle Stephen was my father’s younger brother and unlike my maternal relatives who I am still kind of close to, my paternal relatives and I have little to no relationship; the perks of having an absentee father and paternal uncles and aunts who rarely gave a shit about me or my well-being growing up.
“Oh…” I drag the word out as I stoop to pick up the food that I’d dropped. The bread got trashed. The margarine I kept as I reached for another slice. I noted my mother’s silence and made it three. Something told me I was not going to like how this conversation would go, which meant I needed to stock up on carbs and brace myself.
“Yes. He called to wish me a Happy New Year.”
“And?” I asked. There is always an “and” when it comes to uncles who call out of the blue to check up on you. It’s all performative, a build up to the exact reason why they’re calling.
“And he mentioned your birthday. Said you were turning 29 this year.”
I nodded even though she couldn’t see me do it. Pointing out that I was going to be 29 this year was as obvious as stating that the sky is blue, water is wet, and chickens can’t fly. Plus, Nigerian relatives only bring up your age just before they dropped the dreaded ‘M’ word. And no, it’s not money. Even though I wish to gay Jesus that it was.
Sure enough, my mother hit me with the rest of it.
“He asked when you are getting married. Or if you’d already gotten married and didn’t let anyone of them know.”
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing, drowning out my mother’s protests of just how serious my uncle was with full-bellied guffaws that had me shaking. Because you see, there was no way in hell that that could have happened. At least not in my corner of the world where getting married as a queer woman — who could only see herself spending the rest of her life with another woman or the enby best friend she’s been in love with for the last three years and counting — would see me getting a 14-year prison sentence as a wedding present.
Being gay in Nigeria is a crime and to the small-minded people who live around me, an “abomination”. That is not a life I’d want to submit the person I love to. A life of hiding in the shadows. Of being terrified of loving them openly and unabashedly when I’m not around friends or in the safety of other like-minded or open-minded folks. Some people are able to make it work. Watching them all around me, happy, radiant and in love makes me happy. But I’ve always been the greedy girl who wants it all. I want to be able to say my vows, love my partner freely and rest comfortably in the knowledge that our union is recognized by the State, even if it’s not by the rest of the citizenry.
So I laugh. Because I knew this conversation was coming. There is a certain expectation that comes with being a cis woman in my family in Nigeria. With every year you add to your age, with every extra birthday that you remain unmarried and visibly unconcerned, you get the looks. Then, the whispers. Then, people grow bold. They work in your possible marriage to every conversation. When you’re cutting the birthday cake, they tell you to ensure you make a husband part of the wish before you blow out your candles. When they give you cards, they write prominently in the upper right corner that they hope “God” sends the right man your way soon.
For the longest time, thoughts of my birthday terrified me. I could hear people’s voices, hear their questions. It was a mirrored reflection of the same questions I was asking myself. Why? Why was I getting older and still unmarried? Why was everyone I knew — my classmates, my colleagues, some ex-friends —getting married and I wasn’t? I asked myself if I was broken.
Every birthday exacerbated the feeling of worthlessness. Although I wanted to marry, I didn’t want to marry any of the men around me. I’d finally dropped my internalized homophobia, but I still subconsciously hadn’t admitted to myself that I am queer or that I had zero interest in spending the rest of my life with a straight cis man.
And then I finally came to terms with my sexuality a couple of months before my 27th birthday. Like a lot of monumental moments in my life, it started with an immersion in pop culture. In this case the labyrinth that was Tumblr and a soapy teen show with awful CGI (at least in the first season), cringe worthy dialogue and less than ideal acting. The show was Shadowhunters and my self-realization was tied more to the fans of the show than the show itself. The Shadowfam on Tumblr was open, honest, and supportive. I’d never been in a space where people were unabashed talking about their attraction to those of the same gender; a space where identity was fluid and same-sex attraction was not a big deal. “Of course you found Samira Wiley gorgeous. Her Poussey was as iconic as she was breathtaking,” they said without batting an eyelash.
I remember the first time I saw a reblog of Lucy Liu’s Alex (from Charlie’s Angels) in that iconic all black skintight outfight, with her glasses and her cane, strutting down the hallway. Someone had reblogged it, forever captured as a slow-mo gif onto my Tumblr feed. I couldn’t breathe. I was once again that 10-year-old who couldn’t look away from the screen, who knew her breath was seizing in her throat and couldn’t place the why. And as I saw the harshtags that followed, so many women unabashedly thirsting over the perfection that is Lucy Liu, I allowed myself to type it out for the first time in my life. I gave myself permission to admit what I’d always felt, to let my true self through. So, I reblogged the gif with #ooohbaracuda #lucyliucangetit #AlexMundaycansteponmythroat #iwanttomarryAlex. It felt like a burden had been lifted.
I hit post, smiled and called my boyfriend who had been in the UK for the last eight months and who I hadn’t missed in the slightest. I told him I liked women. That I’d always liked women. Sure I was most likely bi, but I had zero interest in being in a relationship with a man or marrying one for that matter. He understood, although I’d reached the point in my life where even if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have cared. For the first time in my life, I’d not only accepted the riot of emotions I’d been feeling for the girls I’d met, but I’d also admitted it aloud.
Coming out to my mother was much harder. I’d spent the year kissing as many women as I wanted, fucking and getting fucked in return, flirting when the occasion called for it, and balancing it all in a country where if the wrong person caught a whiff of it, I would be in jail or worse. I’d spent the past year being true to myself, while still keeping such a fundamental part of who I am from my mother who kept bringing up my marriage or if I had any boyfriend in the works. It got so bad — the strain of keeping such a huge part of me away from her — that I started finding excuses for her not to come visit me.
But then, April 2018 (four months to my 28th birthday) arrived. It was the Easter weekend and my mother was insistent on us catching up. She showed up at my house unannounced. Prior to then, I’d been debating if now was the best time to tell her. After all, I paid my own bills. I wasn’t dependent on her for anything. If anything, she was the one dependent on me. You can’t really kick out the girl who stays in her own apartment and pays for the roof over your head. At least that was how I justified things to myself.
That evening, we were watching Empire. Jamal had just broken up with the boyfriend who aided in his spiral into addiction and my mother had once again brought up the question: “When are you getting married?”
I opened my mouth to give her the same spiel that I was waiting for the right man etc., when I stopped and looked her straight in the eye. “Honestly, I’m not sure.”
She paused. Stared back at me. “Why?”
“Because…” my mouth dried. For a brief moment, I felt the sudden rush of panic. This was my mother! The woman who gave birth to me, who loves me. Who wanted only the best for me. How could I share this? How could I afford to break her heart? How would she handle this? How would I survive if she hated me?
“What’s wrong?” She asked again, this time slowly.
I swallowed. Tried to force my courage to rise as I forced the spit down. I opened my mouth. Closed it.
Her look became more concerned. “You know you can tell me anything right? That I would always love you.”
And that was it. What I needed to hear. The reassurance, even if it’s for the brief moment of time before she heard the truth. I braced myself.
“I don’t see myself marrying because I don’t want to marry a man.”
Another beat of silence. “I don’t understand.”
I felt myself start to shake. Dug my nails into my palms to keep going. “I like girls ma. I want to hopefully spend the rest of my life married to a woman.”
Her eyes widened. She paused. A minute became five. Then ten.
I snorted. It surprised us both but I forged on. Why not go for broke? “Why do I like girls? Or why do I want to spend the rest of my life with one? Because they take my breath away, and I want to spend the rest of my life… breathless.”
She sighed. “How long? How long have you known?”
I shrugged. “A couple of years.”
She bowed her head, was silent for another ten minutes and then raised it. “That was why you were crying that night.”
I gave a slow nod, surprised she remembered. She’d visited me almost a year prior and after an entire day of dodging her questions about marriage, I’d gone to bed exhausted but couldn’t sleep. My mum had come to check on me and found me, crying silent tears, lying through my teeth about what happened.
Now she was connecting the dots.
“So you don’t have any interest in marrying a man?”
She sighed, a heartbreaking sound. “It isn’t going to be easy for you.” Her eyes clouded and she reached for me, allowing me to rest my head on her thighs, the sight and smell of her wrapa comforting me. “Promise me you’ll try and be happy. That you’ll find a girl who will make you happy. A girl who will be with you through it all.” She reached for my hand. “That’s what I’ve always wanted for you. For you not to be lonely. For you to be happy.”
I spent hours crying at my mother’s feet. I cried for the little girl who couldn’t put a name to what she was feeling and thought she was odd; I cried for the slightly older girl who knew what she was feeling but was convinced for the longest time that she was alone. I cried for everything that could have been and I cried for my mother: Her love, her acceptance and in a small way, her grief. She was coming to terms with who her baby girl was and I knew she was grieving for who she thought I would have been.
Things are much different now. Now, she just wants me to find the right person, a friend and lover who I want to spend the rest of my life with. She doesn’t want me to be lonely and I smile because that is so sweet and so thoughtful, even though I have learned to be perfectly fine with being alone, and I am in no way lonely. Hers was the best birthday present I could ask for. She’d given me her acceptance and a confirmation that she would always love me, no matter what. Hers is the only opinion and blessing I wanted.
And that sucks for my paternal uncles (yes, uncles. Three of them called her, one after the other, like they’d planned it) who now point out that I am 28, about to turn 29 in seven months, unmarried and seemingly happy about my single status. I still smile as I remember that conversation from two weeks ago. Of course they would never have the guts to call me and have that talk with me directly.
For the last 23 years, they have never called on my birthday, never sent me a happy birthday message, or bought me a present, never baked me a cake, or called to sing me the birthday song. Except for the occasional Facebook messages of course. But everyone knows that Facebook doesn’t count. It’s cheating to be honest. Because nine times out of ten, the reason why you remembered is because Facebook sent you that notification that I exist. Otherwise, it would be just like any other day. For them, but not for me.
Because, holy shit, I am turning 29. I am turning 29, and I am going to spend it gloriously unmarried and magnificently queer — with no prospects of a husband in sight and no interest in finding one. I am going to spend 29 in the arms of a lover, in the company of great friends, eating Catfish Peppersoup, Egusi and Eba, Amala and Abula, Pounded Yam and Banga. And yes, I’m getting wasted out of my damn mind because 29 is a year that must not be wasted. Not when it took me so long to see myself and to accept myself.
Every birthday after I admitted to myself and eventually to the people who matter to me that I am queer, has been a celebration of that. A celebration of the fact that I listened to myself, that I am not currently trapped in a marriage I don’t want, a marriage slowly draining me of life and hope, one filled with lies and pain and discomfort.
29 is proof that I am free. 🎈
edited by carmen.