“There is something both liberating and scary about this nonbinary gender identity,” I said to a dear friend last month. We are having a swell time over a stream of vodka shots and chain-smoked cigarettes in their hotel bar somewhere in Ikeja.
I have been curious about identity from a very young age. Maybe that is what happens when you grow up surrounded by unchained feminine energy and a masculine energy that is mellow and not choking with toxicity. Yet, I wonder if it is simply what happens when one has always been gender non-conforming but lacks the space, language, and cultural allowance to present in their innate gender identity.
I was curious at 4 about what it means to be a woman. This curiosity was not expressed so much in words as in expression.
By getting dolled up in my mother’s and sisters’ outfits and make-up, I played with identity using fashion and was thankfully not violently shut down the way most nonbinary Nigerian children generally are.
“It is a phase he will get over,” my mother will say in my defense to family friends and acquaintances who by their expressed bewilderment marveled at why I wasn’t punished so what they considered an aberration will be nipped in the bud. The bud, was however the entire plant, and maybe my mother knew that to seek to nip it is seeking to snuff me out completely, so she shielded the whole plant – me.
Before I came to the theoretical understanding of gender in my late teens I knew this truth – my gender is how I feel inside and how I express it through clothing, behavior, and personal appearance. It’s a feeling that came very early in life. The theory confirmed this personal truth.
In my early teens – despite having made anatomical comparisons at 9 with my sisters to be sure what we have down there isn’t the same because I couldn’t understand why not since I felt as much of a girl as I did a boy – I willed my body to experience puberty the way they did.
My endless wait and manifestation of budding breasts came to nothing, but then neither did the expected hoarsening of voice that happens to boys my age.
I wondered about belonging.
If my body refuses to stand on one side or the other of the binary line drawn in the sand by a society determined to fix gender into a binary that nature doesn’t care a hoot about, where do I – a boy who is a boy, a girl, and fully human – belong?
The prerogative of life, however, remains to stay alive long enough to play out existence – in the hopes of perpetuating itself, so I forged on. This non-binary being with no language for who they are. I was an aberration to myself, with no anchor in a shared human experience with others.
I will learn that I am not alone much later in life when I found a small community of non-binary people in Lagos, Nigeria.
When you have heard your entire life that your identity is the result of the infiltration of Western ideas into Africa’s morally pristine, family-value-centric, and ideologically unconfused society, you begin to question everything you know yourself to be. It doesn’t also help when the only language through which you could learn about who you are, unspool a lifelong confusion, and begin to feel settled into yourself, is English – a foreign language from the very same Western world.
Yet here is this community of indisputably Nigerian nonbinary people of all iterations – Trans as well as Cis-gender from different age demography, at varying stages in their journey of settling into their gender identity.
Yewande*, a woman of 50+ who only fully settled into her nonbinary gender identity in her 40s after two divorces and a reckoning that at her age and accomplishments she does not need to perform conformity, was the first nonbinary person I met.
“I have married like society wanted me to. I have brought two beautiful human beings into the world, I have created a ton of magic that will benefit the world for a long time after I am gone from it,” she said, we were lounging in her house, built brick by careful brick by her, “I do not need to perform conformity anymore.”
Yewande uses the pronouns she/they and their experience of gender falls in the in-between. They now express this in their fashion in addition to the mannerism they have always had.
There is something about seeing the self you could be in decades to come in another who has traversed time longer than you. The possibilities become clearer, your hope solidifies.
I understood my nonbinary gender identity even after I met Yewande only to the extent that it is an alternative to cisgender. I saw transness as a separate identity from both. Until I met Somi, who is a nonbinary trans woman. I will read further about gender identity to expand my view thereafter.
Yet, before resorting to reading, I asked Somi, because our friendship allows it. ‘How do you experience your nonbinary identity as a transwoman?’
“Genderflux,” they said simply, “There’s a flux. I closely identify with womanhood but the way I express and present my gender is outside of the traditional binary gender system. My gender is constantly shifting. I’m hyper-feminine sometimes, hyper-masculine sometimes and at other times I blur the lines with androgyny.”
I remember tinkering with fashion as an overly effete teen who wishes they can express more fluidly across the gender binary of my Hausa-Muslim society. Adding a feminine element here and a masculine element there to my clothes. Shaping my kaftans just so, to allow me to feel them hug my waist in the manner of a cinched dress. I remember wishing upon discovering androgynous fashionista, Denrele Edun, that the melding that androgyny allows is at the very least possible for me.
Somi’s experience hasn’t been a smooth ride. Far from it.
“I deal with non-binary dysphoria sometimes,” they said of their experience, “There’s just a conflict of what to wear today or how to present today. It doesn’t also help that people struggle to use my correct pronouns – they/them.”
Does belonging lose its meaning if one is neither here nor there or is belonging like a giant bowl containing everything from here and there, to everything else that could exist within, above, and beyond?
When I first discovered the trans nonbinary author of the acclaimed autobiographical novel, Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi, in 2019, I studied the public unfurling of their identity as beyond human – an Ogbanje, and I sat with the possibility of it all for a long time. There was resistance, but there was also reverence.
I resisted the idea that one who is perceived by others as one thing – a human being, can declare themself something out of it. What does that say about identity?
I revered the steel core it must take, the certainty of self, to know who you are is beyond the conception of others, declare it, draw a line in the sand and stand unwavering in your claiming of yourself.
My understanding will expand as I read more on identity and the world that contains it. We are, all of us, I now deeply believe, finite and infinite. We are human, but we can also be so much more if we allow it.
So when I spoke to the Executive Producer of Queercity Media and Productions, Olaide Kayode Timileyin – who is nonbinary – about their nonbinary identity, their response didn’t unravel me as it would have just 3 years ago.
“I am a Nigerian God who rides with the wind of Oya,” they said firmly, “my gender exists outside the human binary.”
Their journey, like everyone documented in this piece, is years in the making.
They knew from a very young age that they are more than the binarism that parents and society wished to stuff them into.
They grew up in a home where basic etiquette was taught with intent. Every Saturday, their mother – who was a fashion designer – would put them and their siblings through proper walking classes based on their assigned gender, teach them what is and what isn’t acceptable to wear to classes, among other binary-gender-enforcing etiquettes.
Timi knew even as a child that those classes weren’t for them because they did not align with how they exist within themself.
“I remember the day she said to me “oo ki nrin bi okunrin, you walk carefree Timi” meaning “you don’t walk like a man, you walk carefree Timi” and as young they were, Timi muttered to themself “Maybe I’m more than a man.” Which they are.
Despite having arrived at a solidified knowing of self, they still sometimes struggle with body dysmorphia.
“I am in a masculine-presenting body, so when people meet me they assume I’m cis-gendered instantly,” they said, “I hated my body so much that I wouldn’t pull off my shirt even in the privacy of my own home because as a teenager my right nipple was bigger than my left and people would mock me by saying, “You look like a pubescent girl.”
They did extreme things to alter this, like heeding the advice of someone who said if they press preheated stainless steel spoons to the ‘abnormal’ nipple it would shrink. It didn’t. The hot spoon only left Timi with a burn. So they stopped.
“Nowadays I don’t even care anymore,” they said, “I flaunt them anywhere and however I want. I’m still working on my body dysmorphia, and I hope Nigerian Queer folx make the journey easier for me by not boxing me up as cis-gendered because of the body I occupy.”
Coming to terms with a gender identity that is outside the patriarchal binary is a lifetime journey for many, but one thing I understand helps make the journey easier from my interaction with other gender non-conforming folks is community – one that affirms and respects one’s journey.
We can find this in people like ourselves – other nonbinary folks – or in people who aren’t but who nevertheless understand the diversity of being and what nonbinary folk need – respect and affirmation. The important thing is to seek and find the right community.
This day – International Day of Nonbinary People – is a good day to reach out to other nonbinary people and just generally decent human beings who can be allies and begin building these communities.