There are many challenges for LGBT people whose sexual orientation or gender identity intersects with other identities, such as race, gender, or nationality. In addition to the challenges that many Americans face when coming out, first generation immigrants often face additional hardships.
I recently discussed this topic with a lesbian, Nigerian immigrant, who agreed to speak with me under the condition of anonymity. She is a 34-year-old woman who immigrated from Nigeria as a teenager. She attended college and graduate school, lives in the D.C. area, and is employed in a professional capacity.
“I’m doing this anonymously because being Nigerian and gay, it’s a safety issue,” she said. “I also want to spare my parents.”
Her parents have not been accepting of her sexuality. “When I first came out to someone in my family, it didn’t go well,” she noted. “I broke up with my girlfriend, retreated, and started dating men. I didn’t expect the extreme reaction from my family. When my family learned about my being gay, there were threats.”
My source also discussed her internal struggle with being Nigerian and lesbian. “When I came to America, I had no idea I was a lesbian. When I was in college, I saw a woman’s body and started thinking and fantasizing about it. Because I didn’t have these feelings when I was younger, I thought it was something America did to me.”
She went through periods of identifying as bisexual, then lesbian, and, subsequently, taking it back before embracing her identity as a lesbian. She dated men and explored her feelings for women in college, but her first serious relationship was with a woman, while she was in graduate school. She has also been in a long-term relationship with a man, but did not feel the same level of passion and attraction that she does with women.
“Where I come from, my value as a woman is tied to getting married and having a kid,” she told me. Most people believe “that being gay is an idea that came from America, from the West. I have struggled with the idea that I can’t be lesbian and African. I didn’t have a frame of reference.” She asked herself, “How am I lesbian and African and an immigrant. I wondered if I was the only African lesbian in the world.”
My source has been disowned and re-owned and disowned again by her parents. When her family gets together for the holidays, they usually do not invite her. When she sends her parents texts, they often do not respond. She also was fearful of “disappointing my parents so bad that they would want to hurt themselves.”
Part of her growth process has been that even “when my parents act like they don’t love me, it doesn’t cause me to act like I don’t love them. They helped me out so much.” She believes that “they feel betrayed that I chose something else over them and if I really love them and wasn’t so selfish, I would suck it up and marry a man.”
“To cope, I have grown a lot spiritually. For years, I thought about hurting myself. That’s the damage that this has done. The lying, the hiding, the fear. I did some therapy, but what has really helped me is my spirituality. I’m seeing in the eyes of God, I am gay and African and a woman. My approval rests less and less with my family and more with God.”
She has also been burdened by relatives who have told her that she can never go back to visit Nigeria. Over the years, she has come to realize that this is not true. One of her cousins in Nigeria knows that she is a lesbian and has said she can stay with her family. Another aunt has expressed support and wants to meet her girlfriend, who is also a first generation African immigrant. She now realizes that she has “some support if I live in my truth.”
She did this interview because she wants “people to know they are not alone. It’s possible to be lesbian and African and out. [She is out to family and friends, but has safety concerns about identifying herself in print.] I have a really good life. Who knows what’s going to happen next? I don’t have to choose between being African and my sexuality or between being African and being in a relationship.”
She is willing to talk directly to other LGBT immigrants who are struggling with similar circumstances. She can be reached by sending a request to me or to the Blade.
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a former president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @lateefahwms.