Last night, I unwittingly (or perhaps not so unwittingly?) started a conflagration in certain parts of Nigerian Twitter. Matthew Blaise, a young LGBTQ+ rights activist who recently got the #EndSARS movement to reckon with anti-queer police brutality in Nigeria, posted this: "Quote this with what doesn’t seem homophobic but is homophobic?"
In response, I tweeted "Vilifying gay/bisexual men for dating/marrying cisgender heterosexual women without disclosing their sexual orientation."
This might come as a surprise to you, but Nigeria is a patriarchal country. As such, it is very misogynistic – and also very homophobic. In the past few years, as feminism has taken root on social media, women and queer people have begun to have conversations online that would be nigh impossible in public spaces offline. But as women’s voices have gained hard-won ground, queer people’s voices have often been missing from the conversation – or even actively silenced.
It is in this context of almost nonexistent anti-patriarchal solidarity between women and queer people that I posted that tweet. Before long, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I was being called bigoted and misogynistic for talking about the dignity of queer men in a situation where, in many people’s minds, the intuitive (and only) victim is women.
But what if it’s both?
Being a woman who is queer and who relies very heavily on feminism to make sense of the world, I’m always looking for the places where the politics of gender and sexuality intersect. It seems obvious to me that, since Nigeria is an unapologetically homophobic country, homophobia overwhelmingly informs how Nigerians respond to queer people’s choices no matter what those choices may be, but especially if those choices objectively cause pain.
As I watched the conversation degenerate into the oppression olympics – as even I started to compare the gravity of homophobia to that of misogyny in order to explain my position – it all started to feel counterproductive. Part of the problem is the format in which Twitter presents "conversations", which is not at all conversational. But a bigger part of it is that the topic touched on things that most of us are not very well-equipped to discuss even in the most conducive settings: unconscious bias, interpersonal harm, and structural dehumanisation.
Each of these things might as well be a powder keg by itself, speak much less of when they are all present in one conversation. Even when we truly want to be more compassionate towards people who are unlike us and whose choices feel alien, it’s uncomfortable to confront the possibility that we haven’t fully escaped our conditioning.
Also, in a world where women generally get little or no redress for being exploited or abused, many feminists legitimately feel like they have to prioritise women and women only. Some of them take this position even if it means that they have to hold on to ultimately limiting ideas of womanhood. When it feels like there isn’t enough safety, rights or humanity to go around, the idea of expanding one’s focus to be more inclusive can feel like shooting oneself in the foot.
The upside of growing up in the era of globalised capitalism is that many of us have access to resources and technologies that wouldn’t exist otherwise. The downside is that we internalise capitalism’s central tenets of scarcity, competition and exploitative individualism. From childhood, we’re conditioned to think of our survival as being dependent on accumulating resources and status for ourselves, at the expense of others. We’re also conditioned to measure our humanity as being relative: some of us are more human than others, so it’s okay to "increase" our access to humanity by inflicting harm on those who are somehow "beneath" us.
However, safety, rights and humanity aren’t like pie – or fossil fuels. They’re some of the only things that you can get more of by making sure that more people have access to them.
This is why solidarity is so powerful.
During the #EndSARS movement (which is still ongoing and evolving, despite my government’s best intimidation tactics), young Nigerians created a system of collective welfare and safety that transcended many of the identity-based divisions that shape our lives. Most of us had never experienced or witnessed anything even remotely similar – I certainly hadn’t.
It wasn’t perfect. In fact, there were significant (and painful) fault lines that showed up whenever queer Nigerians openly added our voices to the calls for justice. For a few days, however, we were all buoyed up by the realisation that we are not just stronger together, but we can transform our communities when we choose collective care and compassion instead of scrambling for individualistic survival.
I worry that I risk sounding like a broken record on a soapbox. Still, it bears repeating – even if only for the sake of reminding myself – that it is only when we divest from these systems that pit us against one another that we approach true freedom. These frameworks of domination and exploitation harm all of us: when queer men use marriage as a way to navigate homophobia, they often do so at the expense of women who they can’t love and whose needs they won’t meet. But in a society that treats women as unlovable and our needs as irrelevant, they can very easily get away with that.
On the flip side, when cis-het women uncritically demonise queer men in these cyclical, often hypothetical conversations about such marriages, they minimise and even erase how our society denies queer folks the chance to just live. And perhaps unsurprisingly, queer and trans women, as well as other people whose genders and sexualities are even more minoritised in the LGBTQ+ community, are rendered just as invisible in these online debates as in real life.
In all of this back and forth, and in the struggle for survival, it can become difficult to see that we all have a common enemy. It is Nigeria’s patriarchy that puts women of all sexual orientations, people of varying gender identities, and men who are queer in the position where heterosexual marriage is the most effective route to dignity, safety and social acceptance.
In this situation, everyone gets so much less than they deserve. Unfortunately, we’re too preoccupied with assigning blame to one another to remember that the only way to defeat a common enemy is to build solidarity. This is easier said than done, I know, and Twitter is absolutely not the place to achieve it. That’s one lesson that I myself need to learn: after a while, it becomes truly irresponsible to even attempt such conversations in spaces where there is no possibility of meaningful dialogue or relationship-building.
The work of building solidarity to transform harm is hard. It is also slow enough that it can sometimes feel futile. We need better tools, better teachers, and braver imaginations. But above all that, and when it comes down to it, what we truly need is one another. In a system that perpetuates itself by getting marginalised people to turn our backs on each other, there can be nothing more powerful than banding together through listening, learning and leaning into love.
Like I tweeted the other day, we’re all impacted by the fact that we’ve grown up in societies that frame everything – including love – as exploitative domination. The effects of this conditioning transcend gender, sexuality, class, or any other social paradigm. Most of us have a dysfunctional relationship to power. All of us have been harmed by others’ dysfunctional relationship to power.
I truly believe that the way we end this cycle is by divesting from domination and leaning into love. We build solidarity by practising the kind of radical love that is based on abundance rather than scarcity. We transform harm by learning interpersonal accountability and courageous compassion. And we defeat our collective enemies by creating meaningful community through harm reduction. This is how we get free: by choosing love, rather than exploitation or domination, as the source of our power.
Till next time,