For Ace (not real name) Christmas was never the joy-filled celebration his siblings swear to the heavens it has always been for them.
The holiday season, which begins for his family on the second week of December and ends when school and work resume fully in the second week of January, is easily Ace’s biggest nightmare period. He isn’t alone in this experience. The room is full of Aces, gathered to give each other the holiday we all deserve – a Christmas get together as gay as anything.
Ace’s siblings are all ‘normal;’ where he is an effete presenting closeted gay man, his siblings, two of them both male also are masculine-presenting heterosexual boys’ boys. His mannerism is a source of constant bullying by his extended family, a year-round ritual of pain that school and holiday temp jobs give him a momentary reprieve from. The end of year holidays forces him to endure it daily, worse still on Christmas day when his extended family come together for Christmas launch.
“I think until last year I dreaded Christmas,” Ace said. We had stepped out to the balcony to talk about what it means to be at a Christmas get-together of queer men and women living and thriving in Lagos, many away from harmful family. What changed last year? Ace did something radical for him, he chose to spend Christmas at a friend’s in Ikorodu, avoiding his Lagos Island family house for 2 weeks.
“It was the best Christmas of my 24 years of existence. We drank, we laughed, we watched movies and had more friends over, all of them gay, all of them with a similar story of harrowing Christmas with family. It was glorious.” His eyes lit up while recounting the experience.
Spaces like the one we were at are becoming increasingly common across Nigeria. Safe spaces created by influential queer people, many in private capacity, some created by activists simply doing the work of making life just a little bit easier for LGBTQ+ people living in Nigeria.
Gay rights activist, Matthew Blaise, has done similar in Lagos and Abuja multiple times this year alone.
“When every day of one’s existence is a struggle to just live, it becomes imperative to have a breathing space,” he said as a way of introducing himself as host and opening the room for further interactions, “I am constantly bruised; by words, by shunning, by police harassment. I wake up every day ready to go out and fight again, and that is the reality of a majority of queer Nigerians living in Nigeria. You need a moment to breathe normally, just one day where you are affirmed and reminded that you are loved. Hence this healing space.”
His healing space will soon take on a deep meaning for so many.
Nigeria’s infamous Same-Sex Prohibition Act (SSMPA) is in its 7th year. The pesky law – ridiculous in its intent and deeply flawed in its content, by its blanket grey application could be hostile to a gathering like this. All it would take is an overzealous officer of the law’s discretion. Ace expressed this concern as we rejoined the gathering.
COVID-19 protocol requires that public gatherings not exceed 50 people in a space, and they need to be masked. Our space of 30+ people is thus full of happy masquerades. You can see the peace in all our eyes.
“This is the first year I really leaned into being in queer spaces without fear,” Ace said. Two of his friends are among the 57 men rounded up at a birthday party in Egbeda, Lagos State. Charged with organising a ‘gay initiation’ event, a preposterous charge to be sure but it cost them jobs and peace of mind and forced them through a sham trial that took years from their lives they could never recover.
“I have feared every day since then that that could happen to me too in spaces like this. It is unfair that even in search of safety we are afraid.”
It is why Matthew and people like them do what they do.
“[This] safe space was inspired by the exclusion of Queer people in festivities because of homophobia and bigotry,” Matthew told me as we talked about what drives the work they do, “We are not given space to own the totality of our queerness with joy especially in times when everyone should be most happy. Some of us have been disowned by our families. Some of us have our lives threatened if we go back to our homes. Some of us can’t subject our mental health to torture. Hence the need to create a space owned by us and for us.”
The holidays are a time for joy. As we reminded each other to be kind to ourselves in little and deliberate ways, I spared a thought for the thousands of queer people for whom even momentary respite like the one we are able to have – a Christmas as queer as a rainbow on a clear day, is only a distant dream.
There is much to be done until we can all know the fullness of humanity with unbridled dignity. For now, this is a good start.
We toasted, “Happy holidays!” And we mean it. Thank the Gods, we truly mean it.