I don’t know yet but I want to find out.
When I was writing the previous post, the word ‘queer’ jumped out at me. I realised I was queer. I had never conformed to gender roles. At least not without melodramatic consequences. The ways in which I didn’t conform were more than being a tom boy or a ladette. I have always seen myself as Boy embodied as a female even if I do not want to transition into a Man. (The Man Look Is So Boring!)
Simone de Beauvoir said “You are not born are woman, you are made one.”
How did I become a Woman? What makes me a woman? How did I react to attempts to make me a Woman? How did it happen? Was it successful? Was I a woman or just pretending to be one? Or trying to be one? I joined the gang that tried to expand what woman and feminism meant. We pushed against hyper feminine stereotypes. Some days seemed like a constant battle. Since I was 5 all I needed to hear was ‘a girl/woman can’t…’ and I rose to the challenge to prove a woman could. Exhausting and depressing stuff.
I never competed with women. I did not feel that they were my competition. I believed I was and should be competing with The Boys (and Men if they could be found) They felt like my natural rivals. So I competed with them. Hung out with The Boys. Drank smoked and partied like The Boys. Competed with them socially, professionally and intellectually. I had next to no female friends and had no idea how to relate with girls and women. Our interests seemed so different. But I had breasts and a vagina. I was sexually liberated and enjoyed consensual sex a lot. But there was always some jack popping up trying to steal it from me, usually at work.
We didn’t have a framework for talking about sexual harassment in the workplace in Nigeria in the 90s. It seemed like the price a single woman paid for joining The Boys Club. I quit and I set up my own company instead. And got a boyfriend. It was easier to hang out with The Boys if I was in a relationship with one of them and worked for none of them. But sooner or later The Boy I was hiding behind and The Boys I did business with would demand I behave more like a woman. I did try to be more feminine. It always had the most interesting consequences but it did not help. Performing woman did not make me feel privileged and powerful. It made me feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed. Especially the sexual tension and attention. And I didn’t know how to handle it. I did not want to learn either. Many a sister tried to teach me. I listened, unconvinced. And struggled, in my personal and professional life.
I took a job in the humanitarian sector after 10 years on my own. They paid well and I reasoned I would be safe from sexism. I wasn’t and I encountered racism too. Racism light but racism none the less. Before that racism was something I could read about and ignore. After all I was a light skinned bi-racial female living in Africa, I had all the privilege. Or so I was always told. I wasn’t allowed to complain when Black people touched my hair, called me names or treated me like a freak show. I had to accept it. It was the price of my privilege. But I grew resentful that my ‘gendered racial’ experience was being dismissed. I was treated like a White Woman and expected to behave like a Black Woman. I did not feel Black or White. Or like a Woman. Race, like gender does not exist on a binary.
I attended a conference recently. A cohort of 45 feminists from 15 African countries got together. We talked about the mental and emotional impact of being a women’s human rights defender (WHRD) in Africa. And what we could do to support each others well being. The diversity of African women in the room took my breath away. Women of different ages, nationality, color, tongue, gender, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity. And they were all African. It was more Pan-African than the AU, which is a congress of old Black Men.
On the day of departure I sat in the hotel lobby with some sisters. One of them mentioned she was asexual. I asked her what that meant. She said it meant not feeling under pressure to be sexual or to have sex. I paraphrase. A penny dropped. The airwaves hum with messages telling us we have to have sex and we have to have good sex. And if we didn’t something was wrong with us. Says who? I was kinda taken a back for a minute. That’s when the idea that I was queer started to germinate.
During the conference we avoided talking too much about sex, like good African women. It is so hard for African women to have honest, non-judgmental conversations about sex. Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in the humanitarian sector was not mentioned. Not in the context of WHRDs work in Africa. The silence around sexual orientation came up. LGBTQI participants asked for an honest conversation. One participant said divisive views about LGBTQI were splintering the movement in Nigeria. The honest conversation did not happen at this convening.
During introductions a few cis participants shared strong religious values. It was a relief when one of the gay participants spoke about her Christian faith, it struck a nice balance. I’ve come to expect religious disagreements over sexuality at these gatherings. Her presence reassured me the two were not exclusive. But the unspoken question on everyone’s mind was what were the religious sisters’ views on LGBTQI? Asking them directly and publicly seemed out of the question. A participant suggested everyone sign clause 15 of the African Feminist Charter.
The conference also didn’t discuss conditions of employment in the humanitarian sector. Or ask whether employers and donors were exploiting local labour laws. Or why life work balance was not a high priority. (Donors and funders expect results and reports. Not excuses.) Expatriate staff could afford vacations and mental health care. Not so much so national staff. OxfamGB even has a psychologist on staff at head office. How do local humanitarian staff cope? Most of us were so eager to keep our jobs we worked 100 hours a week. Like a participant said – physical and mental well being depend on financial well being.
We also also didn’t discuss why so many of Africa’s biggest civil society funders and donors are run by men. More women work the frontlines and middle management. Many have backgrounds in human rights work. They earn less and have less power. And they are vulnerable to predatory sexual behaviour. Winnie Byanyima at Oxfam? We’re watching to see if she’s window dressing or building a woman friendly organisation. After all Sirleaf Johnson was President for 8 years with out progress for women’s rights.
A sister from Uganda couldn’t attend the conference. She wrote a letter to the participants instead. In her letter she described her struggles with her health. Her letter implored us to take the task of creating a platform for our wellbeing seriously. Almost everyone knew her personally. She had been on the frontlines of the women’s rights struggle for decades. Her letter meant so much to everyone we started calling it ‘Hope’s Letter’. I remembered my own struggles after the Oxfam incident. I started to reflect on how it changed me. It’s taken me a long time to recover and feel safe again.
Then Oxfam 2.0 happened. It’s amazing how 7 years can be torn away just like that. It felt like someone ripped plaster off a festering wound. As Penny, Marc and Winnie justified my unfair dismissal I cracked. The injustice, the disillusionment, the disbelief, the sense of betrayal came rushing back. Plus I had an adult son back home needing support and intervention. And I couldn’t help thinking – how the abrupt loss of job, income and home had affected my ability to take care of my family. Africans understand these things. The conference did talk about the broken families our work often left behind. I’m still recovering.
What happened at Oxfam happened to me because I have breasts and a vagina. Because I wouldn’t let some incompetent sleaze ball rape me. And I did wonder why. After all I could have had sex with him and none of this would not have happened. Right? I’m not a prude about sex. At all. At all. Or I could have said nothing. But I have very strong opinions. About choice, consent AND sexual relationships in the workplace. The circumstances may not be the same for me and Hope but the consequences are similar. And it happened in the context of our work. Because we are women.
I also attended a conference on accountability for atrocities in Nigeria recently. There was a list of ‘atrocities’ going all the way back to 1967. None of the atrocities listed included sex crimes against women. It wasn’t even a category. We agreed to review that omission. How will we enforce accountability for sexual crimes and SEA? The extrajudicial murder of 100s and 1000s demands accountability. So does the SEA of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of women. Most of them women of colour. Exploited and abused because of their gender and their race.
In July 2018 the International Development Committee released a report on SEA in the humanitarian sector. The report was critical of charities response to SEA of workers and beneficiaries. They implicated all the large charities. They did not exclude one. The IDC did admit that it only sought the opinion of expatriate staff and none of the beneficiaries . They also admitted national staff were disproportionately affected. I didn’t read one word about accountability. Every last one of these charities is currently working in north east Nigeria. Without oversight and without accountability.
I’m a social entrepreneur. Not a humanitarian. I believe in systemic change not alleviation of symptoms. I believe in giving a hand up, not a hand out. Ashoka was a better fit for me than Oxfam. And I like their development model better. Invest in the best and brightest social entrepreneurs. We will do the rest. You don’t have to tell us what to do. We live with the communities.
A social entrepreneur is like an entrepreneur with a conscience. Or enlightened self interest. Or both. We produce goods and services that meet human needs and uplift The Many. We create value. And we still give back generously. We understand community. We understand Ubuntu.
So what does being queer mean to me? And why is it now important?
According to one online dictionary queer –
denotes or relates to a sexual or gender identity that does not correspond to established ideas of sexuality and gender, especially heterosexual norms.
It does not mean that I am a lesbian. Or gay. Or transgender. Or bi-sexual. Or Pan-sexual. It doesn’t make me heteronormative or homo-normative. I don’t know that I am binary or non-binary. I don’t consider myself ‘fluid.’ I don’t know what it means for me yet. I’m just queer. And right now its empowering me to step away from hyper sexualised gender narratives.
Sex, like religion, is something you do in private. Right?