Queer community in Nigeria: "My feminism is queer feminism"

Interview

We must resist the patriarchal system. But as long as it persists and continues to exist, queer people in Nigeria are seeking ways to simultaneously resist the system all the while not putting their own lives, joy, and happiness at the center. Queer feminism allows for the development and testing of new ways of existing - new ways of living in community with others, new ways of organising and distributing resources, new ways of making sure that people’s needs are met. Hbs in conversation with OluTimehin Adegbeye, on the meaning and opportunities of queer feminism.

OluTimehin Adegbeye

The interview was conducted by Claudia Simons, Senior Programme Manager in the Africa Division at Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.

Claudia: How was your journey into feminism?

OluTimehin: My introduction to feminism was through womanism, which is a Black, African-American feminist ideology. I tried womanism on for a little while, but I came back to feminism in the broader sense. Not because it didn’t fit, but because I didn’t feel like I could claim it since it came from a very specific African-American place. And then over time, as I deepened my feminist consciousness, as I studied more, and as I paid closer attention to the workings of the capitalist patriarchy, I started to realise how it’s not enough to think of feminism as the struggle for women’s rights, which was my entry point. It is important to think about feminism as a struggle against any and all manifestations of patriarchy, which also include homophobia and queer-phobia, and to resist capitalist patriarchy in particular, also ableism and transphobia and misogynoir, and all of these intersecting oppressions. So feminism for me is definitely queer feminism. 

Claudia: So your feminism is necessarily intersectional…

OluTimehin: Coming upon Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, I realised that oppression isn’t additive. You don’t add your Blackness to your queerness, or to your womanhood. They all reconstitute your experience into a completely different type of oppression. It became really apparent to me that it wasn’t enough to think about feminism as a struggle for women’s rights, and so queer feminism is the place that feels most expansive in describing and providing tools for addressing capitalist cisheteropatriarchy, if you want to go into the specifics of it. But basically it means addressing intersecting oppressions that make it so that certain people are denied rights and resources, and other people have unequal access to those same things.

Claudia: How do you balance the fight for equal access with your own life as a queer person?

OluTimehin: Queer feminism to me is a politic of liberation, because I don’t just want rights. I want to be free. We’re not going to achieve radical transformation of the entire world in my lifetime. So what is it that makes it worthwhile for me to continue in this struggle? The thing that makes it worthwhile is that queer feminism gives me the tools to be free as an individual, alongside my community, regardless of whether the world changes in a radical way. Queer feminism allows me to conceptualise new ways of existing, new ways of being in community with other people, new ways of organising and distributing resources, new ways of making sure that people’s needs are met, regardless of what the system is doing. Because the system is going to continue, the system is going to persist. We’re in a moment where the system is pushing back very aggressively against resistance. So my core existence cannot be about resistance. I exist not only for resistance, I exist also for joy, I exist also for wholeness, I exist also for love. And queer feminism allows me to resist and live at the same time, knowing that the system must be resisted but my life is also extremely precious, and the two can coexist. That is what queer feminism means to me. It is a space for fashioning freedom.

Claudia: How would you describe the queer feminist community you refer to. Is it more of a global movement or more localised, family-like?

OluTimehin: It’s both. I draw my energy, my knowledge, and my inspiration and hope from a huge community of people who embrace these politics – people who are still alive, people who are not. So I am able to think of people that I will never meet as my community, because I use their understanding of the world and their vision and their radical imagination to frame my life. But when I say “my community”, I’m also thinking very specifically about the people that I am in struggle with and the people that I am doing life with. People whose values and politics and goals align with mine, and whose intimate and relational desires and living align with mine as well. So there is the broader global legacy, I would say, of queer feminist thought and queer feminist action that I draw on. And then there is the more specific local community of young African queer feminists primarily, with whom I think through things and do my work. And then there are the people who I choose as my family, as people that I am navigating life with.

Claudia: Tell me a little bit about the political context you are situated in. Is your reference point the global patriarchal system or the localised version of it that you experience in Lagos, Nigeria?

OluTimehin: I’m preoccupied with systems rather than individual lives or randomness. There is no way to divorce the workings of the global cisheteropatriarchy – as bell hooks describes it – from Lagos. There is a reason why private developments like Eko Atlantic can exist in Lagos:that’s a very local manifestation of a very global problem. There is a reason why the way that we go about policing here mirrors policing in pretty much every democracy in the world. The local is not divorced from the global. And as important as it is to be specific, we must also think about the sources of these systems, and we must think about what sustains them outside of the specific. On the other hand it’s also crucial that you know how the system manifests in your specific context – not just in your local context, but also in your life. For me as a queer woman living in Nigeria, I understand that my queerness sets me at a structural disadvantage. My class status offsets that disadvantage in tangible ways. So I know the sources of these things on a global and systemic level, but I also know how that manifests in my life – that is what gives me the tools to then be able to come up with ways of imagining an alternative reality for myself and for the people who are impacted by my life in real time.

Claudia: You mentioned that your class privileges offsets other disadvantages. Looking at a transnational intellectual and financial elite, it often seems that you could be anything, even openly queer, as long as your class status allows it. Would you say that class tops race, gender, sexuality, and other intersecting categories? 

OluTimehin: Class is a hugely important factor for queer people. When we talk about the queer community in Nigeria, for instance, the implication is almost invariably people who do not have high-class status. Because people who have high-class status don’t need community in that way. They have mobility, so they don’t need to come together and pool resources and pool knowledge to be able to survive. There are also things that don’t come up in conversations among lower-class queer people, such as disability or mental illness. Those things don’t come up in the Nigerian context as much because of class. I feel like in Nigeria, we will get to have wider conversations about disability when we’ve gone past conversations about class advantages. You can talk about mental illness when you’re no longer in survival mode. So class is absolutely, absolutely the biggest thing. It impacts everything.

Financial means, therefore, are an aspiration that so many people in the queer community in Nigeria have, but also an aspiration that shapes so much of the work that is done by LGBT rights organisations here. Much of the work, like doing workshops and skills-building and vocational training, is very much engineered towards giving people access to economic opportunity, because economic opportunity opens up so many other possibilities. Obviously, if you have class status, then you’re more desirable, and at the same time you don’t need that desirability as much. However, when you are of lower class, you might need to be desirable in order to get out of certain situations. You see, a lot of queer people want to leave Nigeria, they want to go elsewhere. If you don’t have the means to leave yourself, you need to count on your desirability. For example, if people can tell for sure that you’re queer, then you can seek asylum and go somewhere else. But even if you don’t seek asylum, maybe you can meet someone on Facebook who lives in Canada who can get you your papers. This power imbalance produces abusive dynamics towards people who don’t have either class or desirability. These things don’t come up as much in our conversations because we’re still struggling with the economics of survival.

Claudia: Talking about desirability… a certain form of lookism in the queer scene in many European countries seems to reproduce all kinds of exclusions that we fight against. So a person is desirable if they are white, skinny, androgynous… quite misogynoir…

OluTimehin: This is so interesting. I was having this particular conversation about how masculinity is prized in the Nigerian queer scene. I went into that conversation with preconceptions about how masculinity is absolutely the zenith of desirability for queer women in this part of the world. And the person that I was talking to was reminding me that masculinity is prized, but it is prized in a dehumanising way, because nobody ever sees any real possibilities with you. Because of homophobia, you’re a stop on the way to marriage to a man, so everything that you experience is timed. There’s an expiry date for every relationship. There is that tension between hyper-visibility and erasure. If your androgynous, you’re the ‘purest’ and therefore the most wanted, but at the same time you’re not allowed to exist really.

Claudia: Do you identify as a queer feminist activist?

OluTimehin: I don’t identify as an activist anymore. Part of that is because I don’t get the sense that there is space for my ideologies in their fullness in many of the spaces that I would naturally occupy.

Another reason why I am sceptical about the activist label is that an activist too easily becomes dependent on the oppression that they state that they actually are opposed to. If your existence, your entire career, your source of sustenance, your livelihood would not exist if the oppression that you say you’re opposed to did not exist, can you really be opposed to it? If you need it to continue to survive, then are you really fighting it? So I really struggle with what activism tends to look like.

One of the big reasons for my stepping away from that label was because, after I gave my TED Talk, that activist label was slapped on me everywhere. But what led up to that talk was all the class-based social capital that I had, and what made it possible for the talk to be received in that way was class-based social capital and the politics of desirability, combining to produce more opportunities for me, as an activist, so that people are now aware of my intellectual ability, etc.

But the thing that I am opposing has been in court for the last three years. The ruling has been made, the state government appealed it, and they’re basically filing bullshit papers to keep the appeal in court forever. So I’m an activist, and as an activist I have succeeded, but my cause has not. People are still being evicted every day. So what does it mean therefore to be an activist?

I cannot continue to think of myself as a person who is an activist when the primary beneficiary of my work is me. So now… I’m a writer. If I must use a sort of cause-related label, then I’ll say I’m an advocate.

Claudia: Would you say the label “activist” or “activism” is important for young people who become aware of and fight against injustices? A lot of people do fight against systems long before they call themselves – or anybody calls them – activists.

OluTimehin: I think the label can be validating and also can sharpen your commitment to the work, because when you have this label, then you have to live up to it in a certain way. For many people, the label “activist” can be energising. For young people in particular, who already have all this energy and who have this zeal and want to see change, calling themselves activists allows them to create communities around the causes that they believe in. I say that as if I’m not young myself! But I feel like I have aged out of that identity, personally.

Claudia: Is your writing a form of mobilising people?

OluTimehin: Yes, it is. My writing is very much designed to activate people. So I’m not going to be an activist, but you take this stuff and you go be an activist, right? Part of why I’m comfortable in the label of advocate is that it allows me to be solitary. My ideas are too tightly wrapped around one another to be separated out into feminist or queer or other particular spaces. And it makes it difficult for me to be able to really be in community with people as my whole self. So my preference is to remain kind of solitary, which means that being a writer and/or advocate is a natural fit for me.

Claudia: Who are the authors who inspire you in your own feminism?

OluTimehin: Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi, who wrote “The Invention of Women” and “What Gender is Motherhood?” Her mind is astonishing. I was introduced to her years ago, and every time I encounter her, I still act like somebody seeing Beyoncé for the first time (laughing). Her work is definitely deeply inspiring to me. Then there’s also bell hooks, who I’ve recently started reading. Believe it or not, until quite recently, I wasn’t a feminist who read feminist theory. Not in the traditional sense. So, most of the feminist theory that I read was actually womanist theory, and it was written by this woman called Trudy, who ran a website called Gradient Lair. She wrote several essays unpacking “misogynoir”, which is a term coined by a professor named Moya Bailey. It was very illuminating. It was through her work that I discovered intersectionality, the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Audre Lorde and a lot of other Black feminist and African-American feminist thought.

Beyond that, it was important for me to be learning from transfeminine people – Tourmaline, for example, who made the film “Happy Birthday, Marsha!”, which is about Marsha P. Johnson, whose work has also been very transformative for me. I’m currently reading Ifi Amadiume’s “Male Daughters, Female Husbands”. Oh and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Minna Salami’s book “Sensuous Knowledge”, because her theory of exousiance is so delicious.

And then there’s Toni Morrison. You wouldn’t necessarily think of her as a feminist scholar. But her work is very deeply situated in her existence as a Black woman in a white supremacist world, and she relocates the centre to her own experience. You don’t know that that sort of thing is possible until you see it done – the centre doesn’t have to be the centre that I’ve been told is the centre. I can put my centre wherever. And that audacity – if you want to describe it like that – is central to the work that I attempt to do.

Claudia: Being an openly queer female author, do you experience a lot of hurdles in your work, or even dangers? Or does your class status actually top the rest, also here?

OluTimehin: Yes, class definitely tops the rest. And I think also the fact that I’m such a brilliant person helps, because, like you said, I am part of a financial and an intellectual elite. And that sort of insulates me in some ways from the direct impact of my work. I know, for instance, that if I had been a cisgender heterosexual white man, I would be immensely more successful in the world, but I also wouldn’t be me, so…

I can’t imagine any cisgender heterosexual white man even beginning to approach the way that my mind works. So I understand the sort of indirect impact on my reach and my visibility and the rewards that I get from my work, but those things are not fundamental to my wellbeing or my thriving. I know when I publish a book that I will get a smaller advance and I will make fewer sales, but so what? I don’t exist in the world to accumulate wealth. That’s not why I’m here, and that could never be the thing that motivates me. But as far as direct danger or harm goes, I haven’t experienced that.

Claudia: What would you recommend to young queer feminist people, be they activists or not, or not yet, or not anymore?

OluTimehin: I would say… the world that was not designed for you is not the only world that can exist. You can build a world for yourself where you’re at the centre. And I think if I had known this earlier… Well, I learnt it when I learnt it. But you can build a world where you’re at the centre, and it changes everything once you choose that and you live like that. And it’s not always possible to hold or sustain that choice, but you can always come back to it. I think that’s how we get free.

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