“If you are comfortable answering, can you tell us what your sexual orientation is?” Everyone’s eyes fell on me and I froze for a whole minute. I looked at all their faces and…was it eagerness I saw in their eyes? I cannot recall exactly. What I do recall from that moment was the brief panic that choked me followed quickly by a final resolution. I shrugged my shoulder and with a blush, I said:
“I am queer”
A few people nodded, some had smirks on their faces and others couldn’t be bothered. The new club member had finished introductions so it was time to move on. I will go on to dread this moment for months, fearing that when they discover where I worked, someone would inevitably out me (this hasn’t happened) . Thankfully, they’re a group of ‘exposed’ and well-read individuals – the word queer was nothing new to them. And through them, I have met a few community members and allies alike who are my little pockets of freedom to truly be my most queer self in this relatively new environment I found myself in.
My queer self… was not always queer. It was lesbian first, then bisexual for a long time before the start of an era I like to call The Lost Days . You see, around this time, I was beginning to find parts of my Self that I had not paid attention to in the past – the most dominant being my gender. One minute I was sure of who I was, and the next minute, I found myself trying to get through new and unidentified layers of gender, sexual identity, gender expression – and what all these meant for me. I was asking myself questions like “W hat am I now that I am not sexually engaged with men?” “If I am not a woman but dating a woman, does that make me a lesbian?””How much of my sexuality is affected by my gender and vice versa?” “What am I called now given my history with men?”
And like a prayer answered, I encountered the word QUEER all over again.
In my journey to learning about my queer identity, I learned about the origin of the word and how it has evolved to being what it is today. I traced it’s beginnings to the 16 th century; in its early definition, queer was used to refer to anything strange , odd or very different from the usual . One popular reference of this definition is the Northern English phrase “there’s nowt so queer as folk” which translates to “there is nothing as strange as people” . The earliest time it was used as a homophobic reference was in a letter penned by theMarquis of Queensberry, John S. Douglas where he expressed his displeasure in his son’s romantic relationship with another man. Over time – and I am talking centuries— it will grow and expand to become a popular homophobic slur used to categorize effeminate men and men who were engaged in homosexual relationships.
The gay rights movement in America and the Stonewall riots will forever be the tipping point for the community – as the beginning of the fight for gay rights liberation and the reclamation of the word queer. Activists, in their push back against discrimination and police brutality during the AIDS epidemic in America, boldly identified as queer. It was a sort of defiance against the intolerance and violence they faced while daring to stand for what and who they were – QUEER people. With the 90s came organizations like Queer Nation whose pamphlet aptly titled Queers Read This in its discourse, continued to reclaim the word queer as an umbrella term. These early uses of the word all pointed mostly to sexual minority identities that were non-heterosexual. As more and more people came to align with it, it expanded in meaning and range. It ceased to be a singular identity for individuals and became a unifying marker for non-cisgender and non-heterosexual people.
“Yes, it’s an identity. But it also conveys a sense of community. “
– Sophie Saint Thomas & Carina Hsieh;Cosmopolitan, 2020.
All around the world – Nigeria included – more and more people are coming out as queer. This does not mean that there are no gay, lesbian, transgender, bi-romantic, or asexual people – these people still exist. Rather, what is happening is that more people are finding that the umbrella or inclusion provided by identifying as queer, makes room for all aspects of themselves as non-cishetero people.
I spoke to a few members of the LGBTQIA + community, women and non-binary people especially, about what being queer meant to them; their answers ranged from its use in sexual to gender identity and for others, the room to still be exploring who they are.
For Olutimehin, queer gave her room to accommodate her past romantic and current relationships dynamics in their diversity. In a post on her Instagram feed, the writer and activist opened up on why she feels most comfortable with the identifier queer versus lesbian. She said, “I identify as queer because it gives me room to work through my historical sexual / romantic experiences without potentially invalidating the widely-held understandings of what it means to be lesbian.” As a woman dating another woman romantically, it can be easy to see why it would be easier to claim lesbian—that is what everyone thinks when presented with a two-woman relationship dynamic. Like many others who commented under this post, I spoke on how being enby (non-binary) and AFAB (assigned female at birth) with sexual and romantic attractions to any gender, saying I am queer carries all the layers to my identity comfortably. Growing up AFAB and bisexual, it was hard to define what my sexual attraction was when my gender changed. The identity queer gave me time to process without losing my sense of belonging in the community. For me, it is both an individual label and a collective one to show that I am a part of this particular community of non-cisheteros.
Stephanie* says “I identify as queer because of the idea of freedom and inclusion that is intrinsic to its meaning. What this means for me is that the ‘love is love’ idea that the rainbow symbol embodies, is carried along in the queer identity – that it bridges the barriers that have been created by society and its norms.”
Not everyone is totally sure of who they are and how best to describe themselves; they find that being ‘queer’ has space and time for them to explore and learn about themselves— D* is one of such people. Although she finds it hard to talk about her sexual identity for lack of the right words, I spoke to her on her understanding of the word and she said: “Queer for me means finding myself and still on a journey to find more.” When I asked her if queer was strictly a sexual identity for her, she said yes it is.
L* said: “I identify as queer because I can use it in different ways, and it means different things to different people. I don’t want to be tagged a lesbian what if I’m bisexual? But I haven’t figured that out.” For her, being queer gives her the freedom to test the limits of her sexuality versus being lesbian which is heavily gendered and points to the singular attraction to women by another woman; the vagueness queerness offers allows her to explore outside the confines of being lesbian.
The bounds of the queer identity as seen above is far and wide … and this is just five people; imagine what it is for so many more people. Irrespective of how one identifies in emotional / sexual attraction and gender, the term has defied all boundaries and now serves as a collective identity with many branches – big enough for everyone while being very specific, individually.