Musa Jibril, Lagos
Imagine a Lagos middle-class family sitting at the table in the evening, parents and their offspring, having a chat like normal folks and suddenly, the first child of the family confronts them with his secret: “Hey, I am gay.”
You can expect a hush to descend on the table.
For that family, one can only imagine how that moment is going to forever impact on their lives, individually or collectively. For a close-knit family, the reality comes with some emotional jag, denial and dilemma for parents and siblings.
The question, how will you react if your son tells you he is gay? ––even when it’s hypothetical––has no easy answer. To the mainstream society, the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) phenomenon remains a conundrum of an undefined proportion. Nonetheless, there is a wide gulf between hypothesis and reality.
On the morning of February 5, two journalists from two different newspapers met with three members of the LGBTQ community in Ogba, Ikeja area of Lagos. The objective of the discussion is to dissect how their families reacted to them when their sexuality was out. Their stories––three narratives depicting three shades of responses from three families––give inside views on the real-life relationship between gay people and their families.
Exposed by a sister
The anecdote of the middle-class family is John’s true-life story. The sum of the story portrays a family overwhelmed by the truth of their son’s sexuality.
Fair-skinned, slim and bespectacled, the soft-spoken youth lives with his family at Ogba, the Lagos suburb where he was raised, though he hails from Mbaise, Imo State.
At 17, John was certain of his sexuality, but he remained in the closet until his 21st birthday when his immediate younger sister guessed correctly and blew the whistle.
While he is not exactly advertising his sexual orientation, John avows he wasn’t exactly hiding. “When I was 18, I had told my mummy I am not going to get married,” he says, “but she didn’t take it seriously.”
He continues: “I try to live my life as open as I can, especially, with my younger ones. They are my friends on Facebook so they get to see my posts. My sister first told my mum who woke me up in the night and asked me about it and I denied it.”
According to him, his sister relentlessly continued to dig for evidence, “until the day she stumbled on my texts to my best friend and the messages were explicit enough for her to conclude that I must be gay.”
Attributing his sister’s motivation to sibling rivalry, he recalls: “Last year, on my 21st birthday, I took her and my best friend out for a party. Back at home in the evening, we had a family meeting. My parents were admonishing her over a decision she was about to take and she just flared up: “Why is everyone against me as if I am the black sheep of the family, meanwhile John is gay and no one is saying anything about it?”
The family’s moment of truth as recaptured by John: “My parents were shocked and confused. For the first five minutes, everyone was silent. Then, my two other younger sisters burst into laughter. Mum spoke first and said, “Okay, I have been hearing this issue for a while.” My dad too said, “I have heard enough of this gay rumour.” Staring directly at me, he asked: “Are you gay?”
John, who avows he had already told his friends of his intention to come out to his family someday––“because I do not want them to find out in future and thought that I had deceived them all along”––decided to use the opportunity fortuitously engineered by his sister.
“I told them that I have been dealing with this for a long time. I had prayed, fasted, done everything, to no avail. I told them I was willing to go through any process they want me to go through just to prove to them that I had tried on my own already.”
He was surprised neither his father nor his mother reacted angrily. Not even a scold. Oddly enough, they felt they needed to pray about it and from that moment onward, he detected in them a degree of behavioural change. “My father and I never had the father-child bonding, but suddenly, he became caring.”
Abruptly, his parents became interested in his sex life.
“They asked whether I had been having gay sex which I denied because it was too much for me––I mean, these are people who never had any sex education talk with any of their children suddenly wanting to discuss my sex and sexuality. It was very embarrassing for me.”
While his father treads gently, his mother came at him aggressively with blunt probes.
“One day, mum and I were talking over the phone about something entirely, and abruptly she said, ‘Wait first, how do you take care of your sexual urges? Do you have a girlfriend?’ I just said, no mom, not today, and I cut the phone. From time to time when she is confused by the news she hears about gay, she would come to me with various questions to verify what she has heard.”
One instance remains unforgettable for him. “When she heard about a church member who separated from his wife after she found out he was gay, my mum asked me: “Is it true that these gay people swear an oath with their partners which makes it difficult for them to stay married to the opposite sex?”
Perhaps at their wit’s end, his parents told his maternal uncle. In an ironic twist, the parents were the ones who came under fire. “His [uncle’s] wife blamed my mum for not taking us to church, for not being a very good mother, and my dad, for deviating from the Catholic Church.”
Family members continue to silently rebuke him on social media. “The last time I posted online in favour of a gay couple, one of my cousins, went into my inbox and sermonized me about what the bible says. Recently, I posted about a Mormon couple that divorced because the man was gay and instantly my post attracted a huge backlash, from my kid sister, my cousins and my mentor who had not commented on my posts in a long time.”
As for his whistleblower sister, he says: “I’d tried to engage her in a debate on my sexuality at one point and she slammed back at me that the bible doesn’t support it. But we are still close.”
Scorched by a mother’s fury
When Ovie, 46, a Delta State indigene, joined the conversation, his words to John were: “You are lucky.”
Unlike John who says he is pansexual, Ovie is gay.
At the time of his outing at 32, the vitriolic attack came from an unexpected quarter: his mother. And for almost a decade, his mother was the scourge of his life. Why? Because she caught him right in the act under her roof.
“She shouted for the whole street to hear in Mushin and I wished the ground had opened and swallowed me.” Ovie’s poignant recollection: “She threw my belongings outside, shouting, abusing and cursing me. I was ashamed. She ordered me never to come close to her and for some years, I went through hell, homeless and helpless.”
That was the first chapter of disownment.
He continues: “My girlfriend at the time was pregnant for me and we were cohabiting. On my own volition, I told her the truth. She was so full of disgust she packed her belongings and left that very day. She reappeared several months later and dumped a four-month-old baby in my house, saying, ‘Take your thing’.”
The child, now 12, lives in Denmark with Ovie’s elder sister.
Between his mother’s scorched-earth fury and his ex’s flaming resentment, Ovie says the latter hurt him more.
He explains why: “She went somewhere else, became another man’s wife and gave birth to six children, and never bothered to ask for this one she had for me. Even if she denies me, must she deny her daughter? Are those other six children more human than our child?”
Before her death, his mum reconciled with his sexuality. “When she travelled abroad and lived with my sisters, what she learnt about LGBTQ mellowed her anger.”
Shielded by sexual ambiguity
At first, he declined to be interviewed. Talking to journalists in the past got him into trouble and he was able to wriggle out of it because he had a girlfriend. Eventually, he agrees to an interview. But first, he wants to correct a misconception: “I am not gay; I am bisexual.”
Ebikeme (the only name he gives) in his 30s is a graduate of Rivers State University, where he studied Biochemistry. Currently, he is a filmmaker, precisely a director and a stage actor. Dark skinned, he is a young man of good looks.
“I think my mum suspects,” he begins, “She always tells me no matter what you turn out to be, remember, I will always love you.” He admits both of them––mother and son––had fenced around the subject in the past.
“We always have a conversation about gay. ‘Mummy, what do you think about these gay people?’––That’s me. I wanted to get her idea of it. And she was like, ‘I don’t know what to say about them, they are human beings, aren’t they?’
Unlike his Bini mother, his Bayelsa father has no inkling about his bisexuality. However, there is a far more grave reason for him to hide his double sexuality.
“Some of my uncles are homophobic. They curse gay people. Once there was negative news about gay people, and one of my uncles happily said: ‘good for them, minus one problem in the world.’ He dwelt on another ‘gayburster’ uncle.
“One of my uncles once gave me his perspective on the gay psychology and said the reason they are out is either because they are ashamed or the spirit of gay leaves them. For him, the next thing to do is to subject the person to therapy––take him to a pastor or a church where they would flog that spirit out of him and put him through dry fasting.”
According to him, this uncle has a book of therapies on how to ‘un-gay’ ‘those homosexual people.’
“When I go to his house, he would sit me down and regale me with his new therapy insisting, ‘These things have to be a psychological problem.’
This is Ebikeme’s belief: “Even if I come out to them, they will tell me, ‘why na, is it because we are condemning them that you decide to say you are one of them?’
To cut a long story short
One year after he is out to his family, John says of his parents: “They are still in denial––till tomorrow. If you ask them, they will tell you they have a straight son; they don’t have a gay son. They still hope that one day, I will come around.”
Ebikeme is not planning to ever be out. He will not remain in the closet forever, he insists too. “I once loved a particular girl for seven years. We dated, we did everything and I was faithful to her. If I am in a relationship with a girl I really love, I don’t see any other person, male or female. My faithfulness is solid. In the long run, I think I would love to be with a woman.”
A fool at 40 is said to be a fool forever. At 46, Ovie is nobody’s fool. He is who he is, and he makes no pretence about it. For him, the storm is over, after surviving his mom’s scourge. Now, he envisions himself always on the sunny side of life––on account of his daughter.
“Come let me show you her picture,” he coos, beaming with pride. The picture, sharp and colourful, is of an adorable girl.
“She is all I live for,” he says.
Back to the Question: How will you react if your son tells you he is gay?
A random poll by Saturday Sun draws a skewed result from mothers. Mrs Cecilia Julius, says, “I will be very mad at the child.” She says further: “If he or she refused to change, I will disown him because I can’t allow any child to become an embarrassment to me.”
Another respondent, Mrs Toyin Oke, did not differ. “I would deny that child and from that moment, he is his own responsibility,” she affirmed, “I cannot allow him to bring embarrassment to my name.”
A temperate view comes from Mrs Ebele Nwakozor. “I will be devastated knowing that my son does homosexual things. I will not totally blame him, but certainly, I will have to review his upbringing, the kind of peer group he mingled with or the kind of people I left the child with when they were little. Then, I have to watch him closely and pray for change.”
Fathers’ views were decisive too as shown by the following two. Ayodele Oshikokhai, a father of four says, “I will react negatively because it has never happened in the history of the family.”
Apart from being a Christian, he goes, it is un-African for a man to be a gay. “So, if he decides to be gay, I can disown the child. I will not even want him to bear my name again because what he claims to be is against the natural order of things. If he decides to be gay, he is on his own; he should quit bearing my name and I will banish him from my house.”
What if the child is his favourite? He remains unmoved. “I will take time to counsel him; if he refuses to be straight, I will transfer my affection to another child, then disown him and get him out of my life.”
Idumonza Isidahomhen considers such occurrence a taboo because of “where I come from and by my religious inclination as a member of The Apostolic Church.”
He outlines his preferred course of action: “My education and exposure will moderate what I will do next, which has to do with reorienting this fellow who has gone astray. But I do not support totally ostracizing the fellow. Nonetheless, he is a disgrace, there is no way I will completely identify with him in public, especially if he fails to respond to efforts to bring him back to normalcy.”
Advice for families
There seems to be no such thing as the standard reaction for family members of out gay person. When families arrive on this Golgotha, their reaction is dependent on mixed factors of religious morality, sense of social conformity and consciousness of social standing.
According to Rev Fr Anthony Chimaobi, a priest at St Brigid Catholic Church, Lagos, prayer counts at this point.
“Pray for that person. Prayer that God make him see the light, because being gay is not normal,” he advises.
Father Chimaobi counsels further: “Two, do not ostracize him––even Jesus Christ said that he did not come for the righteous but the sinners. You cannot convert somebody by ostracizing him. You cannot help one to become better by ostracizing him. It is by love.”
At the same time, the clergy says, “We should not agree with them that it is correct. Show love to them. Pray for them. See them as those who are in need. Don’t ostracize them, but don’t approve of their gay tendencies.”