The Challenges Of Being Trans In Nigeria – Report

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Al Jazeera has highlighted the challenges of being trans in Nigeria.

According to Al Jazeera, the common features of Trans Nigerians are; safety, facing discrimination and criminalisation.

The Challenges Of Being Trans In Nigeria

Trans Nigerians discuss fearing for their safety, facing discrimination and criminalisation and having to leave the country in order to medically transition and live freely as themselves.

Tom Kola was five years old when he realised he was a boy. But it took more than two decades and a move halfway across the world before he would have an official document to prove it.

Growing up in Nigeria, Tom did not have the language to articulate his trans identity. But he understood that being raised as a girl did not feel natural. Still, relatives would tell him he was one and needed to act like it – including in the clothes he wore and the chores he did.

“My parents wanted me to be calmer, docile, less active and less confrontational because this was how they thought girls should behave,” says Tom over video call from the United States, where he relocated in 2019 in the hope of finding a more accepting society. Now aged 25, he is an MSc student and living as a trans man.

This is not his first time away from home. He first left his family home to attend university in a different Nigerian state. With that came the freedom to dress, walk and talk in a way that felt true to who he was. But, whenever he returned home, it became a source of conflict.

“They always complained and tried to change me by taking me to church, seizing items they considered masculine and even threatening me,” he recalls.

“I carried this turmoil within me all alone for years, constantly going back and forth between accepting what was seen as ordained and the realisation and actualisation of self. I buried it for a few years but the turmoil, wonder and feelings always came back.”

In 2015, when his uncle found him in bed with a woman, he reported him to his family. They refused to have a conversation about his gender identity, concluded he was a lesbian and subjected him to a conversion therapy session that lasted more than two hours at a church.

When I was in Nigeria I felt hopeless about a happy, healthy future … I knew if I stayed … I would never be able to transition in the ways I desired.

“I strongly believe my family knows I am a man but are in denial,” Tom says.

In Nigeria, he says, he constantly felt he could be harmed. Strangers would approach him in the street to ask if he was a man or a woman and he would receive transphobic threats online.

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“I always feel discomfort and fear for my safety whenever I go in a restroom and I walk in on another man or another man walks in while I am there. I immediately start planning the fastest possible exit to avoid being studied or analysed and potentially outed as trans,” he says.

A ‘non-existent’ identity

Around the world, transgender people suffer harassment, discrimination and physical violence as a result of their gender identity and Nigeria is no different. But compounding the social stigma are the formal and officially sanctioned laws that govern gender identity in the country.

In Nigeria – where homosexuality is criminalised and same-sex attraction is widely considered morally unacceptable – little is said about trans identities mostly because there is a misconception that these identities are non-existent. As a result, trans people are often erroneously considered gay; many are exposed to homophobia as a result.

In addition to the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, there are other laws that could affect trans people. Section 405 of the Penal Code, which applies in northern Nigeria, provides that a male who dresses like a woman in a public place is a vagabond and section 407 prescribes that the punishment for being a vagabond is one-year imprisonment and/or a fine. There is a heavier punishment of two years imprisonment and/or a fine for repeat offenders under section 408 of the code. The Sharia Penal Code, which has been adopted by 12 northern states, also prescribes prison terms or fines for vagabonds – men who dress in women’s clothes or women who dress in men’s clothes.

This hinders the process of social transitioning, where trans people “come out” by making others aware of their gender identity – usually through changing their name and way of dressing, asserting their pronouns, and making other physical or behavioural changes.

“Social transitioning is such a dangerous experience in Nigeria,” Tom says, describing how people would yell at him on the street. “I know they are just words, but it has very real consequences for people like me because those violent words quickly turn into action if left unchallenged.”

Tom left Nigeria because he felt at risk – from the country’s laws and threats of violence – and also because of the absence of medical services suited to the needs of trans people.

“I realised from a very young age that there was no light at the end of the tunnel for someone like me that hopes to someday medically transition,” he says. “When I was in Nigeria I felt hopeless about a happy, healthy future … I knew if I stayed … I would never be able to transition in the ways I desired.”

‘I can’t go to the hospital because I am scared’

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For trans people in Nigeria, access to emergency healthcare or care related to their transition is a huge challenge. Healthcare practitioners may not be familiar with the existence of trans folk or may choose to ignore the possibility of their existence. Research studies carried out by healthcare practitioners in Nigeria do not include trans people or address health concerns relevant to them and practitioners receive no training in how to work with trans patients.

This lack of research, information and training has led to gaps in areas of mental health, primary healthcare and trans-related care. In May 2021, The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) released Equal in Dignity, a documentary highlighting the discrimination faced by trans women within Nigeria’s healthcare system. Among other things, verbal and physical assault, denial of medical care and in some cases medical procedures without consent was documented.

Alexandra Maduagwu, a masculine-presenting non-binary person living in Lagos, works as a human rights project associate with an NGO that caters to queer folks. They explain how this general lack of knowledge regarding trans people affects their access to healthcare.

“I would like to have access to an endocrinologist who would guide me on my gender affirmation path, so I do not go amiss. But as a trans person, I cannot talk to doctors here honestly about the changes I want for my body without them asking strange questions about why I want these changes and judging me for it,” Alexandra says.

Trans people are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime, compared to cis people.

Furthermore, because there are no policies or laws that recognise trans identities or accommodate trans bodies, there is a huge problem of institutional erasure. This can take seemingly less serious forms like using the wrong gender markers and “dead names” on hospital cards or prescription forms, or more extreme forms like practitioners refusing to provide services to trans patients or letting their bias affect the quality of care given.

Bobby, whose name was changed to protect his anonymity, is a non-binary person in his 20s who was assumed to be female at birth but presents as masculine. He struggles with being trapped within the binary conception of gender.

“Is there a doctor in Nigeria that would not look at me like some strange animal? If I go to see an OB/GYN looking the way I do, will I be asked to get out or will they treat me with respect?” Bobby asks.

“I am due for a check-up, but I cannot go to the hospital because I am scared, and I do not want to expose myself to violence and dehumanisation. The last time I went, the doctor was fixated on my genitals. In fact, when I am filling the forms, what do I fill in for gender?”

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Section 17(3)(d) of the Nigerian constitution guarantees all persons the fundamental right to adequate medical and health facilities. But, despite this, procedures like orchiectomy, penectomy, phalloplasty and metoidioplasty are not available in the country.

Consequently, many trans people who want to undergo medical transition travel to countries with more favourable healthcare environments, like the US, United Kingdom or the Philippines.

Other services like laser hair removal, hormone therapy and trachea shave, which are accessible in Nigeria, are often too expensive for the people who need them.

“Medical transition is expensive and many trans women cannot afford the procedures,” says Chizoba Okosa, a 27-year-old trans woman, who has been trying to raise money for her medical transition through GoFundMe.

“I have started transitioning medically – taking hormones and I love the fact that my body is changing, but every day I wake up anxious about how I am going to get the money for my next hormone shots.”

Because of high levels of unemployment in the trans community, many trans women – including Chizoba – have resorted to selling sex to get the money they need for medical procedures, she says, describing her experience of it as “really horrible”.

‘Language for my identity does not exist’

The soft-spoken Chizoba says her earliest memories involve playing with dolls and plaiting her cousin’s hair.

“I always felt like a girl even in my early primary school years. Femininity was something I embraced without difficulty. I never questioned myself,” she says.

Her parents died when she was young, and her carers – who, she says, were never particularly concerned with her welfare – paid little attention to how she presented. When she was 12, she started experimenting with female clothing.

In 2016, Chizoba started hormone replacement therapy but financial difficulties have hindered her access to trans-affirming healthcare.

Then, last year, she took advantage of the federal government’s mandate to register for a national identification number (NIN) to change her gender on her ID document. Because it was her first time going through the biometric process and there was no record of what she previously looked like, Chizoba was not challenged on this.

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