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Young, trans Nigerians: ‘people need to see that we exist’

It may become harder for church and state to deny that trans Nigerians exist, thanks to activists like Miss saHHara.

Miss saHHara. Miss saHHara. Photo: Miss saHHara/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved. “When I was a teenager, I had to decide. I either left Nigeria. Or I killed myself.” That is how Miss saHHara, a young trans woman, describes the choice she faced, growing up amid transphobic discrimination, and violence.

Today, Miss saHHara lives in London. She’s a successful model, pageant queen, and performer. She’s also an outspoken and brave advocate, determined to change perceptions of trans people – in Nigeria and beyond.  

Miss saHHara speaks openly about the challenges she's faced, and the toll they have taken on her mental health. “There was no way I could live in this society,” she remembers feeling. “I tried to kill myself twice.”

We spoke over the phone on a Sunday afternoon. “I couldn’t talk to anyone; I couldn’t talk to my parents about my gender identity,” she reflected. “I was confused and crying all the time.”

Sick of hearing “there are no trans people in Nigeria,” she explains, Miss saHHara decided to publicly come out as trans in 2011. “I couldn’t keep quiet anymore, because people need to see that we exist and we are human beings like any other,” she told me.

After winning the Super Sirenya Worldwide Pageant in the Philippines in 2014, Miss saHHara launched the advocacy project TransValid – an online platform to educate people on trans issues.

“I couldn’t keep quiet anymore, because people need to see that we exist and we are human beings like any other.”

Growing up, Miss saHHara says that members of her family and community would pressure her to play football or the drums ‘with the boys,’ but that she was happiest ‘with the girls,’ teaching them about makeup and how to walk like a beauty queen.

“You should see me try and walk in a macho way,” she laughed. “It’s impossible!”

Miss saHHara said her grandmother was “very supportive… We would cook together and I know that if she could see me today she would not reject me as a trans woman. She would say I was a beautiful woman.”

But the religious community that Miss saHHara grew up in refused to accept her as a woman, she said. In Nigeria, she told me, “God comes first. I would go to church and be preached at and prayed over because they wanted to change my gender identity.”

“As a teenager, I was completely disorientated,” she explained. “I just didn’t feel right. The gender dysphoria – now I know what it was called, but then I had no idea. I thought I was possessed with evil spirits just like in the Bible and what they said to me in my church.”

With few chances to express her true self, the teenage Miss saHHara wore high-heeled boots and cut her trousers so that they looked like a skirt. Her family, friends and community would make disapproving comments. “Walking down the street, people called me names,” she said.

It wasn’t long before name-calling turned into physical violence. “I have scars on my body,” she said. But asking the police for help in a transphobic society is impossible; when Miss saHHara once reported an unrelated crime, it was she who was detained.

She describes being put in prison as the worst experience of her life. “They looked at me, they saw the way I acted and the way I presented myself. And they locked me up in the hottest part of the prison with all the men.”

“They looked at me, they saw the way I acted and the way I presented myself. And they locked me up in the hottest part of the prison with all the men.”

In 2014, the Nigerian government passed a Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Homosexuality was already illegal in the country; this law further criminalised public displays of same-sex activity.

The law also targets anyone who aides the operation of gay clubs, societies, organisations or events. Human rights activists say it has led to an increase in homophobic and transphobic violence and hate speech.

Protest for LGBT rights in Nigeria, in South Africa. A protest in South Africa, for LGBT rights in Nigeria. Photo: Samantha Marx/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0. Some rights reserved.Vera, who lives in Nigeria, has been brutally impacted by the upsurge in attacks in this environment.

She told me over WhatsApp how, at age 15, she was raped by men who said: “We are doing this to you, so you feel what women feel; by the time you feel the pain you will be a man.” After the assault, she added, she “couldn’t get help because of transphobia.”

Following the introduction of the 2014 law, Vera was attacked again. Despite evidently being the victim of a violent crime, she was held in jail for two days. The police taunted her by calling her gay. “But I told them I wasn’t gay – I am a straight woman in the wrong body,” she said.

Vera worries that if she is to live freely as a trans woman, she may have to follow in Miss saHHara's footsteps and leave Nigeria. But she told me that she remains hopeful for a “future where Nigeria will embrace diversity and try to understand human sexuality.”

She organises, forms networks and offers support to other LGBT people through WhatsApp and Facebook groups. “The first time I met other trans people I felt so happy because I was not alone in my struggle. With them, I can express myself,” she told me.

“The first time I met other trans people I felt so happy because I was not alone in my struggle. With them, I can express myself.”

Miss saHHara said that she doesn’t know anyone who is openly, publicly trans in Nigeria. “Although I would like to go back to my country, I know it is dangerous for me. People have threatened to kill me,” she said.

“I wasn’t prepared for how people would react to my story,” she told me, about the backlash that she has faced. “I probably would have lived a quieter and more successful life if I hadn’t come out.”

Miss saHHara. Miss saHHara. Photo: Miss saHHara/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved.Miss saHHara says lies have been published about her in the media, and that the Nigerian culture minister even suggested that she should be banned from representing her country in pageants. But this has not dissuaded her: “It made me more determined to represent Nigeria!”

Miss saHHara wants “to say that we are here and to say that we exist. That you can be whoever you want to be if you put your heart in and fight for it.”

It’s for women like Vera, then, that Miss saHHara came out publicly. When I ask Vera if she knew of Miss saHHara, she tells me that her activism is inspiring.

It may be increasingly difficult for the church and state to deny the existence of trans people in Nigeria.

“The more you see people out there, in the LGBT community, living their lives freely and openly and being who they are, it helps you to understand that we are just human beings like everyone else,” Miss saHHara said.

In Nigeria, Vera shares Miss saHHara’s hopes. “I hope the future will be better for me,” she told me over WhatsApp. “I pray to be the first trans woman living freely in Nigeria. I believe we are the ones to fight for ourselves.”

About the author

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein. 


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