By Ado Aminu Aminu
In exploring love, we often fixate unhealthily on one kind of love – romantic love. It is a fine thing no doubt, having someone to share the burden of existence while sharing as many pleasurable interludes as the two of you can indulge in, but however much momentarily satisfying this kind of love is, it is never enough.
The good book says, “Love thy neighbour as yourself.”
For as long as I have known that bit of scripture it always tinkles some deep-seated note of unease in my chest.
On the surface, it makes sense to me, but it would nevertheless read off every time I come across it until it finally clicked why. It is the unchecked assumption underlined in that bit of scripture that you love yourself at all, to begin with. What if you don’t?
The child that I was knew love. It is what happens when the people in your life embrace your totality of being. When your mother laughs riotously every time you step out of her bedroom fully decked in her too-big outfit hanging over your delicate bones because they are 10x oversized and wobbling in her too-big high heeled shoes. When you know that her response to this expression of self you innocently overload with no more meaning than what it is; something you do because you enjoy doing it, will always be, “Are you competing with me because you definitely wear it better.”
It is a love outside yourself, coming in soothing waves from the people who matter the most to you. It is more than that too because this external love waters the grounds where your capacity for self-love eventually sprouts for you to continue nourishing for the rest of your life. That ground was well watered by my mother, and without realising it then, my capacity for self-love sprouted and bloomed waiting for when I would take charge and feed it care so it comes fully alive and spread the seed of my uninhibited flourishing.
Everything changed when the awareness of my queerness and the world’s response to it caught up with me in my teens.
I know now that one can easily forget who they are in the face of an onslaught of loathing from a world so crooked it sees difference as a threat. I did briefly.
Two contrasting scenarios spanning a considerable chasm of time brought me the realization of the estimated moment when something heavy settled inside me; a dank something that replaced the unabashed child I was with a cynical impostor.
Firstly, my very first friendship ever at 6.
Connecting with other human beings is easy when you aren’t skimming through your being to be sure that nothing you’re disclosing to them runs the risk of jeopardizing the connection you are trying to establish. Connecting with Safiya, a child about my age whose disposition I liked above everyone else’s in my nursery class, was that easy – the easiest it will be for me until my spiritual awakening at 27. She felt right as a playmate and a tantrum buddy – she would break into a wail in tandem each time I cried and I cried often – it doesn’t matter if that tantrum happens in class on the playground or in the parking lot while we waited for our parents to come pick us up, she will match me wail for annoying wail without fail.
Our friendship was so full it overflowed to engulf our parents. No questions asked, “If your child finds my child so worthy of love and wants to be in their company all the time then that’s what is going to happen,” our parents became fast friends. I wondered for a very long time whether if we hadn’t moved, my beautiful friendship with Safiya – the recollection of which always brings back the memory of the taste of Onion Chicken noodles and the smell of decaying neem fruit in damp earth – would have been tested in our teens when I came to the awareness of my queerness.
Secondly, fast forward to 19 years later. My dank and heavy companion that feeds the cynic in me had become a familiar. I made no attempts to make new friends after Secondary School. It is a simple calculation of what it will cost me to continue to pretend to care about things that mean nothing to me – girls; sex with them, loving them romantically and dating them. I had done enough tiptoeing around that subject in Secondary School to last me a lifetime. Whatever friend I must have, I decided, had to be someone familiar enough with my disinterest to not rope me into those things or know me well enough to have no course to do so unless they intend to harm me.
I mostly relied on the former because the cynic wouldn’t trust anyone with the truth about his sexuality. Love built on avoidance of difficult aspects of oneself, I soon discovered, is a fluke strutting around affecting legitimacy when it has none.
I made acquaintances and was okay with that. Who needs friendships to thrive? My parents and siblings had to be enough for me, or so I convinced myself. Never mind that it feels very lonely. I managed to convince myself that loneliness is the road and moments of nourishing human companionship are the pit stops we make to fill up and continue on our lonely journey. Fatimah saved me from that hell.
Some people are like the sun – when it is above your head pelting you with wave after wave of heat you can’t help but bask in her and when you can’t see her in the night sky you remain assured she will be there for you tomorrow and every day thereafter.
Even cynicism nurtured over years can’t stand a love like that. A love that says I am here, and I’ll always be here whether you need me or not.
We didn’t become fast friends after we first met at a meeting of volunteers for TEDx Kano. We knew however that we would from the moment we talked over each other trying to raise the same objection against the injustice of gagging a guest the event was considering inviting. There is something about seeing your fiery passion – be it for justice or collecting rare lingerie – reflected in the eyes of someone who had been a complete stranger just moments prior. Such an experience makes the strongest of human bonds.
“We would meet again,” I told her before we parted that day. ‘We would also work together,’ I thought and left it at that. We did meet again and we worked together – for a full year, and when I felt assured enough with her I brought my full self to a friendship I didn’t know I needed until it happened.
You forget the necessity of human connection when you go through years of arid existence for fear your queerness will be weaponized against you by the very friends you entrust with the knowledge of it.
I still think about Safiya but I have no desire to re-establish connection because I am satisfied with the friendship I have with Fatima. She is what Safiya was to me because I never need to doubt the validity of my being when I am around her. Looking back though, I see how between that first friendship and the next time I’d allow myself to go into human interactions as fully myself with Fatima, shame was a constant spectre that accompanied me wherever I went.
Not any more.
An enduring bit of irony about family is that we know the most about our family and in the end most often we know very little about them. This notwithstanding, perhaps because familial love is the least scrutinized of all forms of love – thanks to the successfully sold half-truth that family will always have your back – we remain firm in our trust in this kind of love.
“Friends are flighty, family is eternal.”
This is an immutable, if relative, truth. It is immutable because it is undeniable that all human beings are eternally linked to their origins – the people who sired them – via blood at least. It is a relative truth because as with all human experiences, this too differs from person to person. Even from time to time.
Take for instance my multiplicity of being over time.
As a young child showered with love and compliments for things earned and unearned it was easy to believe that the love of my family is unconditional.
Years later, driven by a swirl of teenage hormones and confusion I was certain that that love had been a fluke all along. It wasn’t just that it was a conditional kind of love, my teen’s brain raged, it was that it was a lie all along. It had to be because everything I knew I was and all I hoped to become was being chipped away to sculpt the person my parents wanted for a child. It was a failed endeavour, but one that came with the dire consequence of leaving self-doubt lodged in my soul where confidence would otherwise have flourished.
Adulthood brought clarity about all that collected resentment, and with it, the knowledge of all the ways empathy could help me find healing from the hurt accompanied me gently for years as, bit by bit, I extricated myself from needing my parents’ love.
The physical abuse – I told myself till the grain of truth in what I was saying is all I can see – happened because my beloved mother didn’t know better. I forgive her.
The emotional unavailability of my Dad I excused as an inadequacy born not of his doing, but the failure of his parents to model love for him so he could pick it up.
Love – all kinds of it – is work. However, where one can always simply abandon ship when things become unmanageable in platonic or romantic love, we find ourselves contorting into however many shapes it takes to make sense of the shortcomings in our familial relationships.
You say to yourself, “my sister doesn’t hate me, she is just incapable of processing even that I’m gay, much less that I’m proud of this aspect of my being.” So you forgive her because you blame her shortcomings on that Islamic school both of you went to as kids for brainwashing her into believing all manner of inflammatory nonsense about queerness.
Many people go through life doing this, over and over again. Rationalizing, forgiving, loving again only to be hurt yet again. Family is after all eternal.
Maybe that is so. At least in the sense that one way or another we all have an eternal yearning for it and will seek it out whether from blood or not.
I have written here about how queer Nigerians navigate the family dynamics, and how when all else fails they can fall back on a chosen family of their own making.
How do you navigate loving someone when the someone your spirit yearns for – always has – looks nothing like what you see your parents have – a man and a woman.
I will tell you how.
It is a testament to the innocent beauty of love – in whatever iteration – that you don’t even weigh the consequences when you plunge headlong into love.
You love the first boy whose smile you can’t get out of your mind, and whose smell you store in your mind so you can pull it out and embrace it to sleep.
You tell that boy of your affection for him with your lips brazenly planted on his, heedless of the high likelihood of your parents or siblings walking in on you.
You go on long night walks through the winding not-quite-quiet streets of Kano’s urban mesh, holding hands when you can and stealing kisses in the open air framed by your love and lit by a star-filled sky that however you look at it exalts your love.
It is what I did.
Growing up in a relatively functional family that doesn’t hide its fights or affection gifted me two things;
- The knowledge that romantic love needs not be perfect.
- The certainty that I am deserving of romantic love and will get it regardless of what the world may have to say about a boy loving another boy.
Looking at my cis-heterosexual parents didn’t make me feel anything is wrong with what I felt, social attitudes and religious indoctrination will do that. The thing about those things however is that they rarely pierce a strong core of self-love. This is why it is important that the communities we surround ourselves with as we come into our own are consciously curated to remind us to love ourselves.
‘Love yourself,’ is not a meaningless mantra. It is in loving oneself that one recognizes they are deserving of another’s love and capable of bringing love to another.
Thanks to the increased visibility of queer Nigerians – online largely – we can see what it is like to love and be loved in the way we know ourselves capable of as queer people.
But love is work, and we need to do the heavy lifting of shedding the harm we have picked up through life, thanks to homophobia, to fully love ourselves such that we can love another.
In the end, love will liberate us.