Earning the Six Stripes on My Rainbow
My queer journey and how coming out saved my life
This newsletter features weekly musings about life, career, identity, and behaviour by a questioning African centennial. To get it in your inbox every week, subscribe here:
Occasionally, I’ll be taking a break from my usual thought piece newsletters to tell stories about myself, my past, and my becoming. I hope you find something in those stories that inspire you, guide you, or make you feel seen.
This week, I’ll be telling you an accelerated story about the ups and downs of my queer journey and how each phase of that journey earned me a stripe in the flag I now fly very proudly and unapologetically.
Stripe 1: Awareness
A question I’ve been asked often, even by queer people, is: “How did you know you were gay? When did you know?” The truth is I always knew. There was never a time in my life when I considered myself sexually attracted to girls. Not even remotely.
Even as a child, when I played those games that involved having a ‘play family’, I never looked for (or wanted) a wife; it was always a husband. I once fought with my sister over this boy we both wanted to be our husband in the game. He picked her in the end. Obviously, he didn’t have very good taste. 🥲
At the time when I recognised my queerness, all I knew was my innocence. So I saw my queerness as just a tiny, unique part of my larger personality. I never thought that being different would be the reason for so much of the pain I’ll encounter later in life.
But soon enough, the world slapped me sober and gave me several reasons to hide my queerness—even from myself.
Stripe 2: Denial
As I grew older, I quickly saw how the world around me responded with violent disgust towards people like me.
It was just as common for me to see someone being burnt alive on the open street, surrounded by a mob screaming “Homo! Nyash burster!” as it was for me to see a similar situation with a mob shouting “Ole! Onye oshi! Thief!”
That made me realise that I was one secret away from ending up ostracised by everyone, or worse, a charred corpse.
Understanding that my community considered people like me just as despicable as (if not worse than) a thief simply because we were different from the norm forced me to hide my queerness behind layers of performative masculinity.
I intentionally lowered my voice pitch so I wouldn’t sound as high-pitched as I usually did. I paid particular attention to how I swayed my hips when I walked and how I flicked my wrist. I didn’t want to be so blatantly ‘girly’. I also got myself involved in a lot of rough games (I even dabbled in football for a part of primary school, lmao 💀) so that I’d appear like your typical boy.
While doing all of that, I also made myself believe that I wasn’t trying to hide my queerness. Instead, I was trying to position myself to make friends more easily with other boys. I didn’t want them to see me as a sissy. I wasn’t any different from them after all since my queerness didn’t really exist. I wasn’t queer. I couldn’t be.
You see, when you tell yourself a lie long enough, you lose sight of what the truth was in the first place. I almost did. But, like nearly all beautifully tragic events, life’s way of reminding me of my truth involved a boy.
Stripe 3: Conflict
I must’ve been in Primary 3 (aka. 3rd grade) at the time. I’d been playing blindfold hide-and-seek at my neighbour’s flat for a little over two hours. Their parents had travelled to a different town for a wedding, so we had their flat to ourselves.
It was me, my sister, this boy, and his sister. It was his sister’s turn to be blindfolded and do the seeking. I quickly ran to a dark crevice in their storage room to hide. That was when I bumped into something in my spot. It was the boy. He quickly hushed me and pulled me down so that I wouldn’t start talking, and his sister would hear us and find us.
Ten minutes later, we were still hiding in the darkness. That was when he turned me to face him, grabbed the back of my neck and kissed me. I pulled away in shock and just stared at him. I’d never thought he was even remotely queer or, even more shocking, into me. Ignoring my flurry of thoughts, I leaned in and kissed him back. And that was us for another five minutes before his sister quit the game because she couldn’t find us.
The boy and I never spoke about what happened between us that day. Today, we’re no longer even in touch, but his impact on my life remains.
He reminded me of a truth I’d tried so hard to bury. Burying it would never have made me straight, but it’d have spared me the pain of dealing with the truth about my identity.
The years that followed were some of the most painful years of my life.
I struggled psychologically after my parents separated. I got sexually abused twice by two older boys, one of whom was related to me. I got called ‘faggot’ for the first time in my life. I tried to take my life twice, but something always stopped me. I tried unsuccessfully to date a girl to further run away from myself. Basically, I was a mess.
There was a raging internal conflict between who I really was and who I wanted to be. My resistance towards accepting who I was made me self-flagellate in more ways than I can describe.
Such scars (physical, emotional, or psychological) that we inflict on ourselves tend to be the most painful and the most permanent.
Stripe 4: Shame
At the heart of my conflict was the belief that I didn’t have the permission to be who I was. Amidst my internal conflict, I kept myself hidden. Hiding myself was my way of hiding the shame I felt about my identity.
Two experiences set into motion the process of overcoming my shame.
The first experience was in 2015, when I left Nigeria for the first time. I was taking a stroll along Market Street in San Francisco, where I’d visited for a Model UN conference. I wanted to explore the city and check out McDonald’s. I was chasing simple things.
What I never expected was to see two men walking down the street holding hands and stealing kisses without caring who was looking at them, and not scared that they’ll get burnt alive for being themselves out in the open.
I couldn’t stop looking at them. I was really lucky that they never turned around to see a weird 17-year-old Nigerian boy staring at them. That would’ve been weird. But I couldn’t continue my walk after that sight. I just went back to my room at the Hilton and cried.
The universe had opened my eyes to what was possible for me at a time I wasn’t ready for it. For the first time in my life, I could see a world where I didn’t have to be anyone else but myself.
Unbeknownst to them, those two men left an impression on me just by being themselves. By living without shame, they permitted me to do the same. But this was only the first experience.
The second experience was during my time at the African Leadership University. There, I met an openly gay African for the first time. His name’s Lindo. The first day I met him, I couldn’t speak to him. I could barely even look at him.
There are few things as scary as seeing what you thought was impossible standing before your very eyes. That’s what meeting Lindo was like for me. Scary.
But he inspired me in ways that few people have. Despite so much blatant homophobia on campus, he carried himself with pride and without apology. He didn’t cower or lower his head whenever he found himself amidst people who he knew made snarky comments about him secretly and publicly.
Watching him from a distance inspired me to begin the work to overcome my own shame. I found the strength to overcome my own shame, the foundation of a lot of my pain and self-conflict, by seeing people who had overcome theirs. That was the beginning of the end of my battle with my queerness.
Stripe 5: Resolution
A turning point for me with my sexuality was in January 2018. I’d spent the past few years gathering the energy to confront my sexuality head-on. But I never had enough to come out to anyone other than myself.
But in January 2018, just before I went back to campus to begin my third year of undergrad, my sister pulled me aside to the living room one evening and asked me: “Are you gay?” She started with some preamble about how she wanted to ask me something personal, but I immediately knew what the question was about even before she asked.
I was so exhausted from hiding, from pretending, and from lying that I just answered her directly: “Yes, I am.” As soon as those words left my mouth, I felt such a heavy weight lift off my chest and my eyes became wet instantly. She was the first person I ever officially came out to, and she handled it as gracefully as she could.
Finding the courage to tell my truth to one of the people I loved the most in the world gave me the confidence I needed to be my whole self with everyone else.
After spending most of my life tormenting myself for who I was, I was ready to finally bring an end to that battle and make peace with myself. I deserved it.
I never actually ‘officially’ came out to most of my friends. I just started talking about boys and the issues I was having with my boyfriend at the time. They then put things together by themselves. Thankfully, they never put me on the spot and asked me about my sexual identity. I could only handle that once in my life.
As I resolved my conflict with my identity, I made a promise to myself to bask in the fullness of myself and do for other young queer boys what those two men in San Francisco and Lindo did for me just by being themselves.
Stripe 6: Pride
Today, I’m very proud of who I am, and I’m proud of everything I went through to get to where I am. Before I graduated from undergrad, I created the first LGBTQ+ society on campus for people to learn about queer identities and for queer people to find community.
In my everyday life, I speak openly about queer rights, and I support queer people navigate their sexualities. This is something I intend to continue for the rest of my life.
I’ve never actually come out publicly. By that, I mean there’s no single event where I said: “Hello world, I’m queer.” It just sort of happened where people just figured out whether through my tweets, my IG posts, or my actions that I wasn’t straight.
Writing this piece is also not my attempt at coming out. I’ve been out for over three years now, and it’s been beautiful. I’ve lost no friends, I’ve made so many new friends, and I’ve found a community with so many amazing queer people and straight allies who inspire and teach me every day.
Since coming out, the trajectory of my life has been on a sharp upward slope. Resolving my internal conflict led to external results where my grades skyrocketed in parallel to my career advancing in ways I never could’ve imagined.
My queer journey taught me that, sometimes, the thing holding us back from being who we’re meant to be is our refusal to accept who we are now and working through the shame we feel about our status quo.
Every day, I learn more about myself and my identity. And with each day, I become prouder and more accepting of myself. Coming out is a journey, not a destination.
By going on that journey openly, proudly, and without apology, I hope I can inspire someone else to do the same.
Currently reading 📖
‘Chaos Monkeys: Mayhem and Mania Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine’ – Antonio Garcia Martinez
A song I’ve been playing on repeat this week 🎶
‘Good To Be Home’– Coco Jones
An article that got me thinking 📜
What Happens When Our Faces are Tracked Everywhere We Go? – Kashmir Hill