REFLECTIONS | SUMMER ’21
LESBIAN IS NOT A DIRTY WORD
WORDS by TIMINEPRE COLE
I worked for a corporate law firm in Lagos, Nigeria for about two years and stood out like a sore thumb because my gender expression was quite different from traditional ideals about how a woman should look. This meant there were whispered debates about my sexual orientation where the word lesbian was thrown around as some form of slur. One day the Ellen Show came on TV whilst a few of my colleagues and I were seated in the conference room. One of my colleagues said she was impressed by Ellen’s charitable deeds but was disappointed that she had to taint her reputation by being a lesbian. It felt like a personal attack on me. I felt the need to speak up in defence of Ellen, of me, and every other person who uses the label lesbian. I asked her what about being a lesbian automatically made a person who helped others despicable. She spat the words sin, abomination and unnatural at me with so much venom. In the heat of the conversation, she asked if I was defending Ellen because I was also a lesbian. I stood frozen for a few seconds before walking out of the conference room without saying anything else.
With at least four legislations criminalizing homosexuality in Nigeria, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community here means that most of the time we keep our identity buried to avoid any form of discrimination or violence. With the negative connotation attached to most of the labels, it is difficult for people who identify as LGBTQ+ to claim their identity—especially in public spaces.
This incident made me recall the first time I was asked questions about my sexuality. I was in my first year of university, and a boy who had persistently asked me out for months with no luck getting a date started telling people I was a lesbian. He was conceited enough to assume that any woman who would say no to his advances was a lesbian. At this time, I was blissfully ignorant about my sexuality; I was fourteen and uninterested in romantic relationships. It felt unnecessary to question whether I was attracted to men or women. People often conflate gender presentation and sexual orientation. As a result, I have never been able to hide the fact that I am a lesbian. Even before I discovered my sexuality, they would look at me and all the ways I presented as masculine and assume my sexual orientation immediately. More often than not, this exposes me to high levels of harassment and violence from homophobic Nigerians. Most times when I get stopped by the police, and they realize I am a woman and not a man as they had initially suspected, they question why I am dressed in a masculine manner and independently reach the conclusion that I am a lesbian. I liked to think that as a fourteen-year-old I was liberal enough to not care about a person’s sexual orientation. As an adult, I attributed how I interacted with my identity to the fear of harassment. Now, looking back at all the effort I put into explaining to whoever confronted me then that I was not a lesbian, I am forced to interrogate my discomfort with the word.
The first time I heard the term lesbian I was in secondary school. One of the prefects found two girls kissing and she reported them to the principal. I remember this day because we all stood quietly on the assembly ground under the scorching heat of the sun. The smell of sweat mixed with dust hung in the air as we wondered what offence was serious enough to interrupt classes. I could see the disgust in the principal’s eyes as she looked from one girl to the next. She said, “You dirty lesbians, we are raising god-fearing children in this school and we will not tolerate this kind of abomination.” It was on this day I realized two women could be together sexually in the way that a man and a woman could. As I heard the girls cry out with each stroke of cane that landed on their buttocks, I unconsciously registered the word as the worst thing a person could be.
After the incident in the conference room at work, I talked to my friends about it. Three out of four of them admitted that they found the term lesbian flinch-worthy and uncomfortable, but they could not really articulate why they refused to claim the label as their identity. I realized then that my experience was not that different from theirs, and I wanted to talk more about it with people who could relate to what I felt on a personal level. In these conversations with other lesbian women and non-binary lesbians, I found that a lot of us had and still have this aversion to the label. Panini, a non-binary lesbian says they have always felt weird about the term because it has always been used in a derogatory manner. “Even though I am more comfortable calling myself a lesbian, especially because I have made more friends in the queer community, I still feel hurt and ashamed when a stranger calls me that.”
Growing up in Nigeria, I was well aware of the old colonial homophobic laws still legally enforced in the country as well as new laws which criminalize the existence of sexual minorities. I often sat through religious sermons that reinforced anti-LGBTQ+ ideas, and at some point, I tried to make sense of these ideas. I understand how vital these laws and religious beliefs are in shaping perceptions and opinions where sexuality is concerned. L.Y., a masculine-presenting non-binary lesbian, recounts growing up in an extremely religious home with catholic parents. “The religious messages portrayed queer people as sinful, morally corrupt, and unacceptable. This made me develop low self-esteem. I would isolate myself from others [because I was] worried that they could tell. I was scared of my friends and family rejecting me.” Just like L.Y., I was raised in a religious home. Most of my family and friends were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and my greatest fear when I started to embrace my sexuality was losing my family and friends. I never came out to my friends, but once I became visible in online spaces as lesbian their interactions with me gradually stopped—as if to say I had become infectious. “Even if homosexuality was decriminalized in Nigeria, a lot of people would still feel shame identifying as lesbian because of their religious conditioning,” Panini said when reflecting on how religion affected their experience.
Lesbian as a word has also been used to ridicule and spew hate towards people who do not fit into neat feminine boxes, women who are fluid in their gender expression, masculine-presenting, or androgynous women, and non-binary persons who identify as female aligned. These standards, which are set by the patriarchy and sustained in all aspects of our society, are easily weaponized against people who look like me. For instance, Alex, a non-binary lesbian says, “presenting the way I do in Nigeria automatically means that people assume I am a lesbian, and as a result, proceed to discriminate against me. I remember when I was in secondary school, there was a clampdown on lesbianism because it was an all-girls school. My name would always come up on the list and I was punished for it. At this point, I wasn’t even aware of my sexuality. My only crime was that I am masculine presenting. There is a constant anxiety that comes with living the way I do.”
Though the experiences of femme-presenting lesbians are different, some still have an aversion to the label. Mariam says, “It is easier living in Nigeria presenting as a femme because I ‘pass’ as a heterosexual woman. I do not suffer as much of the violent homophobia that masculine-presenting lesbians may have experienced. However, the fetishization and unrealistic expectation on femme lesbian women to perform for the male gaze still makes it difficult for me to identify as a lesbian in certain spaces.”
When I was still dating men, it was a bland experience I endured in a bid to perform compulsory heterosexuality. I met nice men I could laugh with and hold conversations with, but the absence of passion or any form of sexual attraction towards them was obvious to me. I wondered if romantic relationships were supposed to be so unsatisfying. When I finally fell face-first into the world of loving women, I remember actually feeling something for the first time. It was like rain after a long drought. It was also ironic—I laughed at the memory of my fourteen-year-old self telling my coursemates, “I am not a lesbian, I am just not interested in relationships.”
For a long time, I questioned whether or not I was bisexual. Later on, I eased into describing myself as queer. I discovered that so many others found it easier to identify with vague and ambiguous terms like queer as opposed to lesbian. Toby, who now lives in Canada where she is free to express her love for other women, said she remains averse to the word; “To be very honest, even though I am a lesbian, I would rather refer to myself as queer. I went to an all-girls catholic secondary school where we were constantly told that lesbians go to hell.”
The first time I was brave enough to call myself a lesbian I was coming out to my younger sister. She asked if I was bisexual because she knew I had dated men before. I said “No, I am a lesbian. I feel no form of attraction towards men.” Then she said, “Okay, cool. This changes nothing.” It was that easy; It was just another random word like pineapple, flip flops, or balls. I realized then that I was only uncomfortable with the word because I grew up hearing people say it with disgust.
Earlier this year I moved to London and it has been quite a freeing experience. On my first date with someone I was getting to know at an outdoor restaurant in Brixton, a random man walked to our table to start a conversation. He soon stopped to ask if I and my date were lovers, and fully insisted that we were even without a response from us. He was uncouth, but I felt joy in something about our interaction with each other—maybe the way my laughter poured out in deep appreciation of the person before me, or the way their eyes held mine with complete focus. It was the first time I had been out with someone I was romantically attracted to without being worried about how everyone else perceived us.
These days, when a man asks me out I tell them in clear terms. Most times they are upset or even disgusted. They try to convince me that their penis can change me, but it has taken an entire lifetime and two boyfriends to come to a full realization about my sexuality. I am the kind of lesbian women unintentionally refer to as ‘sir’ and then blush when I respond in my soft voice. The kind older, religious, Nigerian women stereotype and stare at like some form of apparition. I am okay with all of these impressions. I no longer think of lesbian as a dirty word, instead, I associate it with all the things about myself that I love: short hair, flannel shirts, boots, leather jackets, and the kind of beauty that exists outside of patriarchal standards. It also pleases me to find that my experience is not one that stands alone—a lot of women are learning to name themselves without feeling ashamed. Mariam says, “I call myself a lesbian now and I find it liberating. Naming myself has helped me find my people.”
While it may still be unsafe for me to identify as lesbian publicly in certain spaces, I no longer feel the weight of society’s conditioning when I do. I realize that I only need to think about what the word means in my reality. This means that now I exist loudly, taking up space and making sure my voice is heard in conversations that affect me. Calling myself lesbian means I am firmly confident in who I am—leaving no room for confusion. Lesbian is not a dirty word, it is just an honest declaration of my sexual and romantic affiliations in a world that thrives on heteronormativity.
Timinepre Cole is a lawyer and writer from Nigeria now based in London. Their work focuses on the under-explored angles of the complex lives of women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and how public policies affect people at the intersection of misogynoir and queerphobia. Their work has been published in The Rustin Times, The Republic Journal, LivingFree UK, and elsewhere.