The story of a Nigerian lesbian: From holy celibacy to secret marriage

Illustration depicting (L-R) Jesus Christ, a nun, and a masculine-presenting woman all holding hands. The nun in the middle is split into two, with one half wearing a habit and the other half wearing regular clothing. Illustration by Minority Africa, used with permission.

This story was originally published by Minority Africa in collaboration with FairPlanet , and a shorter version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Awele (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) describes her childhood as very happy, protected, and comfortable. She praises her parents for providing her and her siblings with a good life and quality education.

In her very sheltered childhood, Awele was only worried about schoolwork, chores, and nothing more. When she ran around the compound playing with her shirt open and billowing in the wind with a sponge stuck in her shorts to serve as a penis, that was just her being. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I thought everyone was allowed to be who they wanted to be,” she recalled.

Awele was raised strictly Catholic, and at 17, during her first year of university, she felt a strong conviction to lead a celibate life. She saw religion as a source of love rather than vengeance or suffering, a perspective shaped by the teachings of Opus Dei, a Catholic group that taught lay people to seek sainthood by dedicating even the mundane aspects of their lives to God.

Her desire to serve God and navigate her sexuality was also influenced by a wave of homophobia in Nigeria following the signing of Nigeria’s “anti-gay bill” into law by then-President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

As she became aware of her sexuality during her teenage years, Awele faced immense depression. The homophobic remarks she heard made her feel as though a part of her died each year.

“I realised that I was gay after I had decided to live a life of celibacy at 17 because of my newfound understanding of God’s love. I was afraid of what acting on my feelings could mean for me in the afterlife. So out of fear of sinning, I may have held even more tightly to what I thought was my vocation,” she said. “I locked my true self away to avoid disappointing my family.”

Awele says she did not have any queer icons growing up. “The first time I heard of a queer person was Ellen DeGeneres, and I was in secondary school. No one around me— no aunt or cousin — was ostracized for being queer.”

After accepting her sexuality, Awele decided not to pursue celibacy, despite her mother’s insistence on her becoming a reverend sister. Eventually, she walked away from Opus Dei and her celibate intentions.

Emigration, postgrad, and self-discovery

While studying finance at a university in southeastern Nigeria 11 years ago, Awele's goals were to graduate with good results, move to the United States for a master’s degree, work at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and emulate Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the current director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). She admired Okonjo-Iweala and even hoped they could be friends someday.

Before leaving Nigeria for her master's study in the US, Awele started exploring her sexuality: “I did not get sexual in a way with anyone because I still was not bold about who I knew I was. I was afraid. I had a burner account on X (Twitter) because I was too afraid to tweet anything associated with gay.”

While in the US, one day Awele looked at herself in the mirror and called herself a lesbian for the first time.

“The year was 2020, I was 25, there was a pandemic, and it dawned on me that I had lived 25 years of my life for my family and none of those years for myself. I looked at myself and called myself what I was by name, a lesbian,” she said.

Admitting who she was helped her to accept herself. And that made her begin to love herself more she explained.

However, accepting herself did not undo years of homophobic retorts she heard growing up in Enugu, Nigeria. It took some time before Awele became accustomed to public displays of affection, even when platonic, from other girls.

Navigating queer love against the  backdrop of homophobia

While Awele has not yet met Okonjo-Iweala, she has achieved her goals as planned: she moved to the United States, earned a master’s degree from a prestigious university, and now works at the IMF.

In fact, things turned out better than she had planned because she had not expected to find love while completing her postgraduate program.

When Awele met Ruby (an alias), the woman who would become her wife, things played out differently from her plans and what she was used to. Ruby’s family loved her. They loved her for just being, and they loved Awele the same way. This made Awele change her mind about marriage.

“Two years into my relationship with Ruby, I knew it would be an utterly wicked thing to do to myself if I did not marry someone who loved me like this,” Awele said.

But she had to navigate being in love without telling anyone. The topic of same-sex marriage was not one she could broach to her Catholic parents.

“Before I married my wife, I experienced two gut-wrenching breakups that left me heartbroken for some time, and I had to find a way to deal with that by myself. I could not tell anyone in my family what was wrong with me, which is hard because my family is very close-knit; we tell each other everything,” she says.

“The one time I summoned the courage to share my pain with one of my sisters, I had to switch the gender of the person who hurt me. That is not a way to live. I do not want to censor myself in my hurt because when my people come to me for comfort, I do not want them censoring themselves.”

At this point, Awele breaks down in tears. “Even when I wanted to get married, I could not tell anyone. I did not know any gay person who was married …”

Awele speaks with her parents every other day but has yet to tell any of them that Ruby is more than a housemate and a friend to her. She told her sisters about being married to Ruby, and one of them stopped speaking to her because she believed Awele was living in sin. “On one hand, it breaks my heart but then also I know that she is wrong, so I let her be,” Awele says with a resigned sigh.

“I am lucky to be married to a wonderful woman who understands that there are cultural, religious and institutional undertones that make African homophobia different and that she does not press me to tell my family about us,” Awele says.

“My wanting to tell them is just me. It stems from the fact that I deeply believe that the love I share with Ruby should not be hidden. It is too beautiful to be hidden.”

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