‘I feel invisible’: 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.
“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’
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?”
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.
“Right now, I have a NIN slip that says I am who I am,” she says.
But for many other trans folk, the re-documentation process is an uphill struggle.
When I am filling forms, what do I write in for gender? Am I recognised? Can I change my gender marker in Nigeria? And if I do, what does that mean going forward?
Every Nigerian has the legal right to change their name, the most popular and acceptable reason for it being marriage. Currently, there are no legal procedures in Nigeria that allow a person to change their gender markers, but there are no legal restrictions either.
But the barriers trans people face are not only legal.
Chizoba is now trying to change other documentation – including that linked to her Bank Verification Number. She explains how she was previously refused access to money sent to her via Western Union because the bank staff believed she was impersonating someone else. “My face has changed a lot, I do not look like the old me and I am scared since I look so different, they will block my bank accounts,” she says.
For non-binary folks, the ordeal can be even more complicated.
“When I am filling forms, what do I write in for gender? Am I recognised? Can I change my gender marker in Nigeria? And if I do, what does that mean going forward?” Bobby asks.
“The option of being non-binary does not exist in Nigeria. It is very confusing for me too because although I am a demi boy, I am not a man but being male or female are the only options that exist here, and this makes me feel invisible. Language for my identity does not exist in Nigeria.”
‘I do not fit in anywhere’
Transphobia and discrimination often play out in interpersonal relationships, say those who spoke to Al Jazeera. This may involve deliberate misgendering, rejection by loved ones, being fetishised in romantic relationships, and even physical abuse or violence.
Chizoba explains that being trans affects the way she interacts with her immediate environment. She moved into a new neighbourhood last year, but says none of her neighbours knows she is a trans woman.
“I have to be careful when interacting with my neighbours. I just started the process of transitioning medically and I still possess some features considered to be male features. I do not want to face violence from my neighbours if they find out I am trans,” she explains.
Before she started medically transitioning, Chizoba was unable to access women’s spaces. “I was not allowed to use the female restroom at work. I worked in an NGO where one of the staff specifically asked me to use the male restroom even though she knew my identity,” she says.
“[My colleague] said since I had not started hormone therapy it made no sense for me to use the female restroom. This contributed to why I had to leave the job. Since I started hormone therapy, it has been easier using the female restroom, as I should.”
In discussions about trans-inclusive spaces, what is sometimes overlooked is how inclusion can help ease the small barriers that make navigating life harder for trans people. Chizoba highlights the importance of trans folk being able to access spaces and groups that align with their gender identity, as this does a lot to ensure their safety.
“In 2016, I was already on hormones for about a year. I worked in a hotel and getting dressed in the men’s changing room with men around was daunting. My breasts were growing rapidly and having to hide to take off my blouse was tiring. One time one of the guys saw my breast and was shocked. He asked if I was a girl and why I had breasts like that. I felt so ashamed and did not know what to tell him. I feel a lot safer now that I can use the appropriate restroom,” she explains.
As a non-binary person who presents in a masculine manner, human rights project associate Alexandra finds using public restrooms an unnerving experience and tries to avoid them completely. “Women express shock at me being in the female toilet and ask what I am doing there. Some of them go as far as telling me I am in the wrong place. On some occasions, the cleaners grab me in a bid to prevent me from going into the female toilets.”
Bobby points out that, “Everything is labelled for either women or men,” adding, “I do not fit in anywhere and there is no plan to create spaces for me and people like me.”
Remi Makinde is the director of TIERs’ Human Rights and Advocacy department and believes “true inclusion should involve creating diverse spaces that support and reflect the wide spectrum of gender identities”.
‘It is hard to find who to talk to’
In Nigeria, there is an obsession with policing bodies, and consequently, people who do not fit neatly into socially constructed categories are made to feel othered, says rights activist Xeenarh Mohammed.
“A huge part of me is tied to how much of myself I can express but expressing myself as a trans person in Nigeria is very complicated and not a lot of us are able to do that,” explains Alexandra. “That impairs my idea of what I can or cannot achieve as a person.”
Research shows that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to suffer from psychological distress such as depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.
“Trans people are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime, compared to cis people,” explains Aanu Jide-Ojo, a clinical psychologist who offers affirming therapy to trans people. “They are more susceptible to mental illnesses, due to a myriad of barriers to physical and social transition, even more so in Nigeria.”
Jide-Ojo believes trans-affirmative therapy can help trans people “build resilience and learn adaptive skills needed to thrive in Nigeria”, but there are few mental health professionals offering this in the country.
King Favor is a 21-year-old transmasculine person who says, “It would be cool to get counselling about things relating to my identity, like hormone replacement therapy and gender affirmation surgery, but it is hard to find who to talk to about it.”
Jide-Ojo believes research must be constantly conducted into “how social determinants of health like housing, access to healthcare and economic stability specifically impact the trans community” because these variables can affect mental health and influence “access to long-term care”.
‘I feel so alive’
Many countries have enacted legislation that guarantees protection for trans folks in their workplaces, schools and public spaces. That cannot be said for Nigeria.
Rights activist Mohammed says, “In my experience, the needs of trans people are no different from the needs of other Nigerians. Good healthcare, education, housing, protection from violations, freedom to practice their beliefs and the right to pursue happiness. These are the same things other queer people, people living with disability, people living in informal settlements, and other minority identities desire.”
“It is perplexing that everyone wants it for themselves, but also try to exclude those they have ‘othered’ from these basic wants and needs.”
The Nigerian constitution guarantees every citizen these basic rights, but section 45(1) allows the restriction and derogation of these rights “in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom or other persons”.
Considering this and other provisions that make any form of gender expression that does not conform to the norm punishable by law, trans folks are left in a state of uncertainty regarding their rights as citizens.
My life has gotten relatively easier since I left Nigeria. I am less afraid of harm and death ... I feel safer and more interested in building community.
“We need laws that expressly protect the rights of trans folks and accelerate their access to justice, policies that allow trans people to access gender-affirming services regardless of age, guidelines and trainings that push to demystify and educate people on trans issues, and deliberate efforts to put trans people, and trans voices at the forefront of trans issues,” explains Mohammed.
But until that happens, many trans Nigerians – or at least those who can afford it – have focused on relocating to other countries where they say they feel safer and freer to be themselves.
Nineteen-year-old Fay Feyisayo is a non-binary Nigerian who studies in Ukraine and says, “When I am in school, I am able to change my name and my style. It is like I am a whole different person. No one there has a preconceived notion of my life or who I am. I am just Fay.”
Since leaving Nigeria, Tom has also been able to affirm his identity in ways he never could in Nigeria. Even small things like using the right gender marker on forms and using the appropriate restroom.
“The first time I ticked male on a form in school, I felt so relieved,” he says. “I was very worried and afraid I would have to continue hiding my trans identity when I moved to the United States but I spoke to multiple people at my university and they were so supportive. That was something new.
“Being at a place where my … documentation has the right gender marker and I can use the right marker without worrying has been a constant cause to smile and a huge liberation for me,” he adds, happily.
Tom says one of his favourite places to be now is the gym, where he is working on getting his chest, arms and shoulders looking the way he wants them to.
“My life has gotten relatively easier since I left Nigeria. I am less afraid of harm and death. I have become more expressive. I have access to affirming accessories, resources, support, community, mental health care and medical care. I feel safer and more interested in building community. I even started a podcast called The Share Circle, to educate and raise awareness about trans identities,” he says.
“I feel so invigorated, inspired and alive.”