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One woman opens up about transphobia in Nigeria

“I'm careful, let's put it that way."

Josie Le Vay

Mon, 06 Feb 2017 13:40:29 GMT | Updated 18 days ago

On the 13th January, The Bisi Alimi foundation revealed a report on the effects of biphobia, transphobia and homophobia on LGBT+ people in Nigeria. At the event there was a panel of Nigerians who spoke of their experiences and debated LGBT+ issues. One of the panellists was Michaela OJ, a trans British Nigerian.


Michaela was born in the UK to Nigerian parents. She then moved to Nigeria with her family when she was six, where she spent her formative years living as a gay boy and teenager, before returning to the UK for university in her twenties, where she later transitioned from male to female.


We spoke to Michaela, who is now in her thirties, to find out about her experiences in both Nigeria and in the UK, what part religion plays in her life as a trans woman and what message she has for the LGBT+ people living in Nigeria.


What was it like growing up in Nigeria, did you have any struggles?


Even though I was classified as camp or feminine, people just took me for who I was. People who were outside my church or family did give me a bit of a hard time. I remember I was called names and given funny looks. It's got worse now due to the law being passed.


Did you know you were trans from a young age?


When I was growing up in Nigeria I knew there was something wrong. One day I was forced to play football with the boys, and I couldn't kick a football. The boys laughed at me. In high school, it was obvious. I'd be effeminate in the way I would run, walk and dance. I'd look like a woman. I remember in my second high school my literature teacher told me to "walk like a man". How does a man walk? How does a woman walk? I walk the way I was made to walk.


How did you come out to your family?


I didn't actually come out to them, but as of now my immediate family knows a little bit about me, but they don't know how far I've gone. I'm independent. I live alone. I'm an adult. I'm in my thirties. You know Beyoncé's song, "I'm a grown up woman and I'll do what I like"? I do me. So if they still want to be part of my life, it's up to them.


How do you think your parents would react to your transition?


I don't have a dad anymore, he died over ten years ago. My mum, she would always bible bash, telling you, "That is not right", "This is what the bible says", "Why are you disputing the bible?" And that's typical of African parents. Religion plays a big part in our day to day activities and life.


What issues do transgender people face?


When you don't pass well as a man or a woman when you're out and about on the streets. People look at you in a weird way, they bully you and they call you names.


Another issue trans people face is being post-op or pre-op. I feel there's a bit of discrimination. People ask, "Are you post-op or pre-op?" They go as far as asking what's between your legs. I'm post-op, but I still think it's personal. People shouldn't be pressurised to tell anyone. There's questions you don't ask, there's things you don't say to people, it's called manners.


Did you, and do you, go through some of these issues yourself?


Yes, I remember back in the days way before my transition I would get bullied, so I used to walk in the street with my head down. I don't know how I survived those days. But like I said, it gets better.


During my undergraduate studies I had to cover up my hair, I didn't want people in my class to know. When I used the men's toilets they'd be like, "Oh, what's she doing here?" I wasn't confident enough to use the female toilets. My psychologist told me to stop using the men's toilets because I could be attacked. Before my transition I had people on the streets say to me, "Are you a boy or a girl?" and put their hands between my legs.


Do you wish there were gender neutral toilets around when you were transitioning?


Yes. It got to the point where I started using Costa or Café Nero because they've got disabled toilets so I used to use them when out and about. But apart from that I'd hold my pee until I'd get home.


What would you do to cope with the comments and looks you got from people?


I try to avoid trouble. But with my transition, what I would do is every year I would say, "What do I need to do?" Start wearing bras now, start wearing dresses now. Start doing your hair now. I tried to progress. Every year.


You're talking about all these struggles you had when you were pre-op and in the early days of transition, but in Nigeria, you would have had to be like that your whole life? There wouldn't be an opportunity to transition, would there?


There would never never never never never be. I would never be in this state. I guess maybe I'd be married, I'd be forced to marry someone I didn't really love.


When did you realise you were transgender?


When I came to UK I remember the first gay bar I went to people were like, "Oh you're straight". I'd like men but I thought I was a gay guy. I realised that there's something else going on. When I finished uni I went to three interviews and I showed the boss my passport and they looked confused. They saw a female me standing in front of them but the passport showed a male. Back in those days I didn't feel like I was transgendered, I didn't realise. It kept happening and I'm like what is happening here? I remember I went to top up my Oyster card and the woman said to me "Do you know it's illegal to use another person's Oyster?" "But it's mine." So I went back to my GP three times and I went on YouTube and I read about it. Back in those days it was mainly F to M, but I managed to stumble onto M to F. Now of course you've got gender-neutral and more, I said to myself whatever you call yourself, I'll believe you.


You see little children in documentaries realising at that age that they're in the wrong body. It doesn't seem like it was like that for you?


Well, back in the late 70s I remember I went Brixton market with my dad and mum being a boy and I wanted to buy a Barbie doll. My mum said no, but my dad, for the love he had for me, said yes and he paid for it. He paid for it back in those days, which is like - wow.


What do you feel towards trans people, gay people, and bi people in Nigeria? What would you tell them?


I feel like they just have to be careful. If they haven't got a backup, they could be thrown out onto the streets by their family with no one to go to. And if you can't handle that, don't open up. Come out of your closet when you're ready to. I do feel for them because it's tough. In the UK we've got all the support you can get from the doctors, surgeons, lawyers, charity. There, there's nothing apart from Bisi Alimi's foundation. They have to be really careful. And who wants to go to prison for up to 14 years?


You were talking about religion earlier and how it can sometimes be linked to people's views on homosexuality and being trans. Are you religious yourself?


I'm Catholic, but people think being LGBT in unbiblical. It's like, no guys. One thing people do is they read the bible and they pick out what they want to use and what they want to know. In the bible God says, "Thou shall love your God with all your heart with all your mind, love your neighbour as yourself". If I do love my neighbour as myself, why would I hate you because you're lesbian, you're transgender? It's a religious country, fair enough, but people hide under the umbrella of religion. In actual sense, I think it's just total rubbish. They literally misinterpret the bible.


Have you ever experienced any struggles within church?


Well with the African community, I wouldn't make an effort to go there, because they would gossip. "Do you get your period?", "What's between your legs?". I'm not ready for that and I don't want to lash out on people and get labelled mental. I'm careful, let's put it that way.


Image: Flickr


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