Popular Nigerian Drag Queen, James Chukwueze Obialor (AKA James Brown), recently posted that they gifted themself an education abroad this year. Since then, James’ social feeds have been flooded with congratulations from people who might have previously ridiculed them (and other queer Nigerians) for their sexuality.
James has been an internet celebrity ever since they were arrested by the Nigerian police for being gay. Their statement “Did they caught me? They did not caught me” became a popular internet adage, used in memes and skits, often with complete disregard for the queerphobic and homophobic situation that led James to making that statement on camera.
Queerphobia is prevalent in Black communities but those who are deemed to have “made it” appear to be exempt from the vitriol dished out to the average queer, Black person. For example, when Zaya Wade came out as trans, the insults heaped on her parents were quickly shut down due to the family’s fame and riches. This begs the question: is society kinder to queer people who have access to huge amounts of social capital?
When I asked *Jade, an androgynous Nigerian lesbian, if she has encountered bigotry before and if she has been discriminated against based on her gender expression, she said:
“Yes I have and sometime back in January 2019 was the first time I was physically harassed with my ex-girlfriend at the time… I also went through conversion therapy in 2016 [forced upon me] by my roommates in university.”
The intersection of capitalism and imperial colonialism in particular, has African populations in a chokehold. Most historic African societies flourished under nurturing , eco-friendly, homoerotic traditions but the invasive nature of European settler-colonialism has led to the eradication of these systems, replacing them with the harmful ideologies of capitalism, homophobia and fatphobia, in attempts to eliminate all indigenous modes of living.
Nigeria felt the brunt of imperial colonialism exerted by Britain and lying in the wake of this colonial reign, are a series of adverse impacts from late stage capitalism and hustle culture to homophobia to punitive justice and state-sanctioned violence. Nigeria has also been classified as a country suffering from multidimensional poverty which means that the majority of people in the country live well below poverty lines. Amongst these people are queer Nigerians who are faced with the tribulations of both poverty and queerphobia. Despite all of this, queer people have continued to persevere and exist in every social class in the country.
The average Nigerian thinks queerness is “dirty”; An irritable action needed to be dealt with violently and the only people Nigerians ascribe dirtiness to are poor people. Rich people get away with committing various crimes whereas poor people are treated like outcasts in the same society for even the most basic reasons. This goes on to show the huge class disparity Africans are faced with and how hard it is to breach those class systems. Chances are that if you are born poor, you will remain poor since the cycle of poverty is harder to break because we live in a society that doesn’t present poor people with the opportunities to create better lives for themselves. This system of reduced class mobility is intentionally upheld by the political and economic authorities in the country.
As such, respect and basic human dignity in African societies today are not accorded to people based off their humanity or how well they contribute to society but on where they are ranked on society’s ladder. For you to be respected in society, Nigerians say you must have “owo” or “Kudi” or “ego” (money). A modern-day Yoruba saying goes:
“Owó lọ́wọ́, ẹ̀yìn nílẹ̀”
This loosely translates to “money in hand equals your back on the ground”
It was a statement originally used to shame sex workers for receiving money to engage in sexual activities but has since evolved to mean ‘the more money you have, the more willing people are to do things for you’. In this hierarchy, poor queer people stand no chance. We live in a world where most people have something to hide due to the oppressive systems that force us to live ‘conventionally’ yet being rich affords a lot of people the chance to integrate into society without fear of people being nasty because of a suspected unconventional lifestyle.
On asking *Jade if having more money would protect her from homophobia, she said:
“I think so. “More money, more respect.” – As said by Zinoleesky. But above all, being able to move out of Nigeria to a society where you can truly just be happy and free. That’s it!” – *Jade
If someone is accused of being queer, the first thought is to regard them as poor and dirty but it doesn’t work that way for the rich. Once people realize how rich you are, they start to gravitate towards you even if they are homophobic because while they desperately want to hurt you and impose their idea of “normalcy”, they also recognize the social privilege that comes with your person and to some extent, that social privilege inoculates you from queerphobia.
I spoke to Dennis Macaulay, a pansexual Nigerian man who said:
“I guess going by world bank categorization I will say I am middle class, my friends will come and say I am rich but please ignore them lol”
When I asked if Dennis if he had ever experienced a bigoted person being kinder to him by virtue of his societal value, he said:
“All the time! I had someone who used to work as my domestic staff, I mean he knew I was queer cos he will come and clean up after parties and all but he never said anything to me considering that I was paying him and I always gave him stuff. I did stumble on a facebook post he made about how gay people annoy him and all which was amusing because he definitely knew I was queer but pretended not to notice.”
It would seem that capitalist cis-heteronormative society actually reserves a more severe form of violence for queer people who are deemed as average or poor. This does not mean that the rich queer people are exempt from queerphobia but the fact that they possess some amount of social capital reduces the kind of access people have to them to enact homophobic or queerphobic violence to their faces. As Dennis said:
“I have been mostly lucky so I have never really encountered homophobia. However I do think that money helps minimize the impact as we live in a very classist society where money is literally worshipped. The danger with this however, is that not every queer person will have money and this community is disproportionately impacted by poverty so a few people being insulated by class will not lead to our collective liberation.”