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The city can give somewhere to hide to people who are looking for that. David Nnanna Ikpo writes.
It is a few minutes before 9:00pm and I am in a taxi on my way home from Johannesburg Park Station. The driver is Eritrean and we are talking about African immigrants. He seems not to trust Malawians and Zimbabweans; the ones he has met are trouble. He likes Nigerians very much. He is almost sure that he can tell a Nigerian from other Africans when they start to speak. I say that I can tell Eritreans, too – they sound a bit like Ethiopians. Ethiopians! Oh, he does not like Ethiopians; he was brought up not to like them. He cannot change this, he says. Just before we reach my home in downtown Johannesburg, he says he cannot tell where I am from. ‘I’m Nigerian,’ I say. ‘What?’ he says. ‘You sound nothing like them.’
I did not want to sound Nigerian from the first day I arrived here. All my life I wanted to be with others and not be recognised. I feel uncomfortable when I am close to my people so that I don’t want people to recognise me until I feel safe enough. I understand that Big City can offer safety to migrants, especially queer people. I need the safety; homophobia is everywhere.
Holding my breath
If people recognize me, they judge me. I learned that from the people closest to me, the Igbos, when I was growing up in Nigeria. They were the ones to judge me as a boy. They always told me how much I needed to do to become my dad. And they meant I would be nothing until then.
I remember my high school, run by the navy, in Borikiri, a neighbourhood of the southern city of Port Harcourt, where almost everyone comes from a military background. From a distance, our school uniforms and the classroom blocks made everything seem like a mixture of white and navy blue. Everyone looked the same. And I enjoyed that feeling. But we knew who was who, and what was what.
For university, I moved to Okija, the biggest town of Anambra State in eastern Nigeria. I studied law for five years. Here it was not unusual to be Igbo, and I enjoyed that. But some boys could see that I looked at them ‘strangely’. Someone noticed the different way I walked. I stayed out late, alone, studying. I felt that if I didn’t speak very much and if no one saw me, I would be more invisible.
My interest in boys was difficult for me and I would try to stop it most of my time at the university. I felt uncomfortable when others, especially more effeminate boys, looked at me and seemed to know. I avoided them because they went around together and did not worry if people knew. Some chose other names like ‘Beyoncé’ and ‘Shakira’. One of them, who knew me, sometimes called me ‘aunty’. I would look disgusted and hid my fear and walked away. I liked our Shakira and Beyoncé, but it was years before I phoned Shakira on New Year’s Eve to say so. All I wanted was to be a normal law student and invisible in every other way.
But with academic success, this was difficult. I would hold my breath at student events, when I judged competitions, gave speeches, or gave awards. It was three years of holding my breath before I got admitted to the Nigerian Bar and won a scholarship to continue my studies in South Africa.
Before I left Nigeria, they passed the 2014 law which made same-sex relationships a crime. The news and social media were full of pictures of men arrested for being homosexuals. I left the country and did not say the right goodbyes.
I first lived in Pretoria’s Hatfield suburb, the centre of student life. In Hatfield, I attended a human rights course with openly queer people in the room. I got my first public kiss from a Zulu man who lifted me from the ground as people in the street applauded. I became a member of the student LGBTI support group at university. It was great to meet without the threat of a police raid. But I missed being a queer migrant and was rejected for loving ‘too seriously’ and believing ‘too strongly’.
There is a magical place in downtown Pretoria, called the Union Pub, people named it ‘La Cantina’, that queers from all over the country went to. Over the weekend nights, it is crowded, intense, unsafe but very sexual, dark and lit up at the same time. I love it. There you can be anyone or anything. There people don’t look for serious relationships. In Pretoria, I met several queer migrants. But we were very different. Sometimes, our difference makes us prefer not to be in each other’s lives. I also met a few Nigerian queer men and this was the best part. But I soon realized that we also think very differently. We love very differently, too. I would prefer that we explore all that the safety of being out here offers, in as many ways as possible.
In South Africa, I celebrate being Nigerian. But I am nervous about heterosexual Nigerians recognizing me as Nigerian. In South Africa, I wrote about the bad situation of LGBTI rights in Nigeria on my blog and gave an interview to a Nigerian podcast, and my inbox was full of messages of support and hostility. In South Africa, I get called black and begin to notice the effects. I learn that identity is a terrible problem everyone has and that sometimes there is no place to hide. But also I have great, openly queer role models. Their lives show that you cannot change your identity completely but that success can bring acceptance. In South Africa, I come out to my family in an email and start a new life, where I often have problems and I am often alone.
I have just moved to Marshalltown, downtown Johannesburg. Life here is very different from Hatfield, Pretoria, a lot less isolated. There are more La Cantinas here but they are unfortunately more serious, less intense, fewer people go to them. Johannesburg is historically the place for queer rights activism, but it feels more like a queer museum, frozen in time.
As I get out of my taxi ride and go into my building, I feel thankful that after four years I no longer have to hold my breath. But I go to bed uncomfortable that I still want to be invisible.
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)