Leave Me, Let Me Live

 
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Chinonso Nzeh

Art by Giancarlo Calaméo LaGuerta

 

I learn that dying is such a silent thing
and water too has hands
that can reach around your neck and turn
your own body against you
—Titilope Sonuga



1.

I have told this story many times, starting with Chinedu’s story, but that was not my first memory. My earliest memory—and by this, I mean the earliest that I remember—was of Justice League’s Superman, Clark Kent.

Born in the early 2000s in a typical privileged Nigerian home, childhood in the evenings was sitting on the sofa with your older siblings, legs crossed, gaze fixed on the hunchback TV mounted on the etageré TV stand, eating chips and drinking juice, while watching Justice League’s Superman on Silverbird TV station.

Superman, the famous fictitious character whose alter ego was Clark Kent, saved the world from evil people. I liked watching Superman. I wanted to clasp his hands and fly with him. I wanted him to save me, although unsure of what I needed salvation from. Whenever watching him, new feelings trickled through my body. I often used my mother’s hollandaise wrapper to form a cape, jumping through our dining table, windows, and staircases, fantasizing about Superman by my side, jumping with me, whispering: I will save you, Chinonso. One day I chipped my front tooth when I jumped from the dining table. I was five and a half years old.

 

“I wanted to clasp his hands and fly with him. I wanted him to save me, although unsure of what I needed salvation from. Whenever watching him, new feelings trickled through my body.”

 

2.

Chinedu joined my grade three class. It was on a drizzling Wednesday after sports. We shuffled into the classroom earlier than usual because of the drizzle. He was already seated in the first column on the second row. A boy my height, dark-skinned like me, with a lasting smile on his face.

There was an elegant reserve added to the way he did things. His handwriting was a neat, beautiful slope. He wore a zesty fragrance. He sang Ave Maria, regulating the Latin with his smooth treble during the religious studies class. His manner of speaking with a polished British inflection made the class question his identity even though he was a Nigerian and had an Igbo name.

I stuttered whenever we talked to each other. He was not gauche, but I was. I would always deflect my gaze from him when we spoke, even though I liked talking to him.

I thought of Chinedu often. In class. At home. I dreamt about him many times. In one of my dreams, he was the twin brother my parents left in the hospital when we were born. In another, we wore capes, held our hands, and jumped around the playground at school.

As a child, I was irritated by many things, but in one incident I recall, Chinedu was speaking to me, and a drool flew from his mouth into my mouth; I swallowed it by mistake. I could have flinched, I could have loathed him, but I was indifferent. The spittle had come from Chinedu’s mouth, tongue. It was Chinedu. No one else.

I could sense that something about me was distinct, but it wasn’t yet a concern. The boys and girls in the class felt for each other what I felt for Chinedu.

 
 
3.

One day in class, while we were jotting down what the teacher wrote on the board, I sighted what seemed to be an error. I don’t quite remember how the words were put, but it read like this: another effect of drug abuse is that it makes the youth engage in homosexual activities. I, young and bright, called for the teacher’s attention and told her she was supposed to write “home sexual activities” and not “homosexual activities.” The word appeared wrong. Frustrated by my precociousness and zeal to rebel, the teacher said it was no mistake. I, still headstrong about the incorrectness of the word, took heed.

After school, I picked up the bulky dictionary from the eight-column shelf in the sitting room, and I swirled through the pages, searching for the letter H. When I found the page, I adjusted my glasses to my nose bridge, anxious and squeezed with the urge to prove my teacher wrong. I saw the word. I froze. She was correct.

Homosexual (noun): a person who is sexually, emotionally, or romantically attracted to people of the same sex. (Synonyms: gay, lesbian, homophile.)

I gawked at the word. Not only did I feel defeated by my teacher, I saw myself in that word. I thought of what I felt for Chinedu. Then the first statement I mumbled was: am I... a homosexual?

I was eight years old.

 
 

4.

Am I... a homosexual?

On a Sunday morning in the children’s church, the teacher, a stubby woman who wielded a supercilious air, spoke about the destructive lifestyles that Christians should not partake in. She opened the Bible before her, paused, adjusted her eyes on us, and began to speak. Her voice was a reverberation threatening to drench any sound that came close. She read Genesis chapter nineteen, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, how God flung sulfur on the city and smoldered the dwellers because of their lifestyle.

Whenever her eyes met mine as she spoke, my chest braced taut, my breathing hard.

The words were repetitive, boisterous in my head: Homosexuals. Man to Man. Hellfire. God’s wrath. Destruction. Judgment day. Deadly Sin. Death. Disgrace.

Those words, her words, were folded inside my mind, hemmed with strings of fear.

I would be disgraced. A large screen depicting my actions and impressions would be shown for everyone to see. God would hurl sulfur at me. I would be scorched in the lake of fire. The devil would insert his hot rod inside me. My eyeballs would fall out. My intestines would burst. I would forever be condemned. Because I loved Chinedu, because I loved Clark Kent, and because I loved our kind.

I was eight, saddled by these sermons. I abhorred sleep because my dreams frightened me. One of the nightmares I can remember was of Ogres, about half a dozen, holding large forks, haunting me because it was judgment day.

I would wake up with panting, sweat pouring down my face, unable to cry out because I knew my parents would chastise me if I told them the reason.

Every day, I thought about the sermons, about hellfire. Trepidation, like a buried seed, was burgeoning inside me.

I would loathe church revivals because of the way the pastor would call people out: Mrs. Obi, you cheated with a man in your matrimonial home, that is why you are barren. Run outside now and receive deliverance, or forever stay in darkness!

I was terrified, terrified that I would one day be disgraced.

 
 

5.

I was swaying my hips to the rhythm of Bricks and Lace’s “Love Is Wicked” floating through the stereo in the sitting room when my mother walked in and said, So you want to be living this gay lifestyle? Why are you shaking your waist like a homosexual?

A sharp coldness hit the deepest cells of my being. My mother had said the word. Homosexual.

She would say it often whenever my effeminacy affronted her.

I attended a military secondary school where I was derided for my effeminacy and often called gay. Whenever I was called gay, I would defend myself and swear on my life, howling. How dare you call me gay? Me gay? God forbid. Despite my protests, a boy in the class opposite mine promised to kill me if I did not stop behaving like a homosexual. He was huge and had heavy cheeks that dropped like a bulldog’s.

It was new, the taunting. Even though I had gotten subtle barbs before then, no one had threatened to beat or kill me. I went to a Catholic-British primary school; we were, in Nigerian speak, Ajebutters—bourgeois kids. No one noticed my effeminacy, or rather, it did not matter.



6.

Senior J was a benevolent senior. While others were aggressive and chaotic, he was warm and humane. He came to our class block often, gave us advice, and told us stories. Senior J was pudgy, dark-toned, with sallow, uneven teeth. He had a problem with the way I was and said I needed someone to put me through, said that I should see him the next day in his class after school. I was not sure what he meant, so I did not read much into his words. Only ten or eleven years old, I was naive.

The next morning, I found Senior J lying flat in the middle of the assembly ground, his face to the dirt. Everyone huddled, whispering to each other, and gawking at him.

What did he do? I thought.

Our commandant spoke with rage and said Senior J had sexually assaulted a boy in Form One. The commandant ordered every junior student who had talked to him to come forward. Many people came forward. I came forward, too.

In the days following, rumors spread that I was the boy who Senior J had sexually assaulted. I heard people say it. Some people walked up to me to say sorry. I was not the boy. His identity was confidential. But it was weird. For some reason, I started thinking that I was the boy. Why were they apologizing to me? Why were they talking about me?

After I asked, a classmate told me that it was because I looked like a homosexual, and I was the only one in Form One that this kind of thing could happen to.

I went home and cried, but I could not tell my parents what had happened because I did not want them to know.

 
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7.

Punaar Vivah was a popular Hindi soap that aired on Zee World. It followed Yash, a wealthy widower with two daughters, who married Aarti, a divorcée with a son from her previous marriage. Both individuals faced many ups and downs in their second endeavor to embark on the marital journey.

Yash had perfectly etched brows, was full-bearded, quiet, and had a sense of agency. I liked Yash. When the girls talked about the soap, and how they, too, liked Yash, I would always want to blurt that I loved Yash, but I held it in, could not say it out loud. With my mother’s phone, I checked his profile on the internet and saved all the pictures of him that I could find. Every day, I stared at his picture, longing for his embrace.

But I would go to hell for liking Yash. I would be burned. I remember crashing on my knees in my room, begging God to forgive me, crying, pleading that I would never love Yash or any man again.

And I would love Senior A, the new head boy when we were in Form Two. He was tall and brilliant and won many awards in competitions. Whenever he walked past our block, I’d stare out of the window, gaping at him, my jaws unlocked.

I told God, one last time. Just let me love Senior A. Please.

It was that same year, at age twelve, that I started writing to God at the end of each year.

In my family, it was a ritual to put down our prayer points and wishes on the last day of December. I would scribble a petition about not wanting to love boys and men again, and then burn it with a fire lighter. This would go on for a long while.

 

8.

Homophobia cloaks itself as a concern, but it is inherently hate.

My classmates had planned, when we were in Form Three, to set me up with a girl since I had no girlfriend. I overheard them talking about it, saying, We just hope that Chinonso is not gay. The girl was buxom, her voice commanding. She made me think of Goliath whenever she sauntered toward me with her gigantic stride. The girl, intimidating, would always caress me to see if she could turn me on, and I could not refuse. During tea breaks, she would push my food away and run her hands over my chest, sometimes touching my lips. In the visual arts studio, she would brush her backside against my trousers. One day, I begged her to leave me alone, told her that I had a girlfriend, Mirabel, at home. She left me alone. My classmates left me alone.

I watched an online deliverance service on a TV station owned by a popular pastor. He delivered a boy from homosexuality and said that demons had slept with the boy and made him that way.

I cannot quite remember what it was called, but a place-your-palm-on-the-TV-screen deliverance session occurred. I placed my palm on the TV screen, saying amen to the pastor’s “Be Delivered!”, hoping that I would be delivered.

I would perform this action many times, even though it was all in vain, my efforts futile.

After I received my first phone, I quickly filled my search history with “how to not love a man as a man” and “how to be freed from homosexuality.” I watched videos on YouTube about the same topics, most of them disappointing. I recall one where a man accepted himself after years of denial. I was disgruntled. That was not what I wanted.

While everyone had lovers in senior school, I didn’t. I immersed myself in academics and literature, my studies the only way to detract people’s attention from me. Everyone saw me as a guru who was not interested in dating or sex. But I wanted to be loved, although not in the way they wanted.

Slurs still came. The teacher who said that my classmates should pray for me so that I wouldn’t love men because it was my kind that did that immoral act. The boys who shamed me for refusing a lap dance from the girl with the biggest backside. The girl who shouted my name in the biology class when the teacher said homosexual people wore diapers because they had leaking butts. Everyone laughed at me.

Tired of the insults that night I filled the bathtub with water, and I doused myself inside. As the water permeated through my nose and my mouth, I thought of all the things I would lose if I died. I ran out of the bathtub, coughing. All through the night, I shivered under my blanket. The next morning, I woke up with excruciating pangs in my ribs.

 
 

9.

I came up with plans. Pretending to like basketball and paying a huge amount to get in the club; drinking gin and chewing ice blocks to morph my voice into a coarse baritone; leaving the school choir; changing my gait; planning a fake relationship with E.

E was in her first year in senior secondary school; I was in my second. E was brilliant. I first knew E in the school choir. She came to audition, and her voice was a mellifluous alto. We became friends when I complimented her voice. She was slim, a little taller than me, had plump lips; sport waves spread over her low-cut hair. I wanted to love her, tried hard to love her in the way I loved Chinedu. Still, nothing. Whenever we talked, I would stare into her eyes to see if I would entice myself; it was sterile.

I told her that I wanted us to be more than friends, something undefined. We should tell people that we were lovers. She agreed. But what we had was not more than a friendship. No racing pulse, no fluttering in my stomach, no tingling in my nerve endings, no rhythm.

They called her Nonso’s babe. I liked the name. It magnified my essence. Schoolmates, especially the boys, began to laud me. Now they saw me as a real man. A straight man.

It would go on, the semblance, the love for boys and men, the prayers, the blurred hallelujahs, the exorcism.



10.

The year I graduated from secondary school, I applied to the law program at the university, but I was a few points below the admission cutoff point, so I was given another major. Because I wanted to study law, I rejected the major. I stayed back home (until I got admission the next year to study law). I wanted to be taken seriously, even though, truth to tell, all I really wanted to do was read and write.

I drowned myself in books. My father got me a laptop. I took my writing seriously. I opened an Instagram account, and I tried to date girls online. I kept praying my attractions away. I kept loving my kind.

I clung to my faith and got more involved in the church.

When I thought that terror had run down a bit, it rose, fierce, disrupting me. One of the Sunday school teachers called men who loved men Reprobate and Renegade. She said that they were destined for hell, that God had written it down.

Reprobate and Renegade.

I stopped going to church, even though I still clung to God.

 
 

11.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic changed the world; revamped my life. It was the year of unearthing, of acceptance. I faced my fears. I did not know until then that many people like me, homosexuals, queers, existed. One day I was scrolling through my Explore page on Instagram when a page popped up: a young black man clutching a small placard that read QUEER LIVES MATTER. He was Nigerian. An Igbo person. We shared similar characteristics, identities. According to his profile, he was an educator on gay rights; he created video content about queer culture, parlances, and human rights on his page. I was startled by his audacity. Gay. Young. Nigerian. Igbo.

Every day during that period, I watched his educational videos. I learned new terminologies like heteronormativity, cisgender, genderqueer, drag, ze/hir pronouns, cis heteropatriarchy. I learned about the umbrella of sexualities and the fluidity of sexualities, about the incident at the Stonewall Inn on the 27th day of June 1969 that birthed the queer pride month, where the police raided the club and arrested thirteen persons for gender-inappropriate clothing, and how the queers revolted.

I admired him, but not in a romantic way, instead in the I-wish-I-could-be-like-you way. He loved himself and cherished his body, and, because of how he loved himself, I, too, began to love myself. The inward resentment I had for myself began to wither.

One of my friends shared a video of the gay Igbo man on his Instagram story. I asked him if he knew the man, and he said yes, that he was a fan, too.

A fan? I thought to myself. Was my friend also gay?

After days of mental gymnastics, I was finally able to ask him if he was straight. And when I did, he said he wasn’t. Said he knew that I wasn’t, either.

I was too stunned to say anything. For the first time in my life, I felt a certain kind of shared immediacy for this misery that was my sexuality.

He shared his story, told me to take it easy with myself, and sent me books from the Apple Books app to read. We were bound by strands of solace.

Like a raisin in the sun, the self-resentment shriveled. One morning, I had just finished reading one of the recommendations my friend sent in, Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men, written by a Nigerian gay man. It was bold. Unflinchingly truthful. It spilled secrets. At first, the puritan in me kept cringing when the men in the book had furtive sex. I felt naked, ashamed. At some point, I asked myself, How can he say this out loud? So, this happens in Nigeria? Are these people real?

I saw the horrendous realities that queer people in Nigeria faced. I saw them shapeshifting to conventions, wearing off their skins. I saw the beauty of queerness thriving amid chaos. I saw resistance.

I suddenly felt light. Too light. As though I could glide in the air and fly with Superman if I jumped off my balcony. This was what it meant to be free. To feel light, beautifully empty, expunged of all your disdain. I was free. Yes, I loved my kind.

Even though the world was on a lockdown, I made new friends. Friends like me. All on Instagram. Wooers, too. Good and awful.

 

“It took me some weeks to come to fully trust her. Once I did, I told her that I was gay, and she told me it was fine. That she knew. We cried together. Days later, she sent me photos of half-naked men and bodybuilders and asked me if I liked them. She may have meant well, but to me, her actions were problematic. She never asked me about love. And her questions were tinged with ghastly curiosities and hyper-sexualization: Does the anus tear during sex? How are you enjoying the sex? So you love dick? Do you realize the vagina is sweet? Who is the man; who is the woman?

 

12.

On the phone I told a straight friend about my sexuality. Told her that I was bisexual; I didn’t want to tell her I was gay. I knew she would reject me.

It took me some weeks to come to fully trust her. Once I did, I told her that I was gay, and she told me it was fine. That she knew. We cried together. Days later, she sent me photos of half-naked men and bodybuilders and asked me if I liked them. She may have meant well, but to me, her actions were problematic. She never asked me about love. And her questions were tinged with ghastly curiosities and hyper-sexualization: Does the anus tear during sex? How are you enjoying the sex? So you love dick? Do you realize the vagina is sweet? Who is the man; who is the woman?

The questions offended me. I had never had sex. Of course, I was (am) a sexual being. But love entails more than sex. I confronted her, and she said, I was kind enough to accept you, even though this gay thing is bullshit.

We never spoke again.



13.

Recently, I read Otosirieze Obi-Young’s short story “You Sing of a Longing,” a story about a queer man, who, amongst other things, falls in love. Reading the story, I felt seen. I will always remember these words from the story:

To be in love is to feel a lightness of being, in being. It is to feel in your belly a little god of little things, a granter of miracles in the most meaningless of moments. It is to have a You-shaped hole in the universe, to imagine that all of creation is in sync with your mind. To be in love is to imagine defiantly, to believe defiantly, that the object of your hunger will always lie in sight, within reach. To love is to have the luxury of options, and to choose to be unshackled.

The words have stayed with me. I, a hopeless romantic, loves love. I want to explain to my friend, to the world, to God, that this is what it feels like for me to be in love with a man.

Obi-Young’s story inspired me to write my own. One afternoon, I was setting my clothes inside the washing machine when the Lagoon Front story idea came to me. It was initially a piece about a gay teen who suffered from depression because he was being bullied. However, I was scared to write that story because I feared backlash from my parents and my straight friends. So I made the narrative about an effeminate boy since it is possible to be effeminate but straight.

 
 

14.

In late 2020, I met F on Instagram. He did not look loud. He was also handsome, reminding me of Chinedu. F had calm eyes, tender beards, and a benign smile. After I announced I was going on hiatus from Instagram, we began talking on WhatsApp every day. I felt flutters in my belly when he spoke. He read my stories. He lauded and critiqued them. We liked many of the same things, and even more, our differences, our diversities, were beautiful. He was shrewd and had an eye for details. I liked everything about him.

I could hear voices in my head during that period. One of the voices, similar to the Sunday school teacher’s, kept calling me a reprobate evildoer whenever I smiled at F’s text messages or his voice from the phone. One of the voices kept saying F would let me down. One of the voices kept saying I would die for loving F. One of the voices, although silent and fleeting, kept saying that I should let life be, that I should make peace with myself, that I deserved love. But the other voices quelled this voice.

I ghosted him. I did not reply to his messages, did not pick up his calls. But I still loved him. Months later, when I texted him, he had gotten a girlfriend.



15.

I was afraid to love because I was afraid of dying. To love is to die. You are not sure if the person you entrusted your heart with will mince it or keep it safe. So I kept inside my shell, reading and writing, not caring too much for love even when my soul yearned.

I continued to carry on conversations online, sometimes with other men. My toxic trait dismissed them even though I loved them. Then I met this tech guy. He was quite older than me, had nice poses, read books. I liked him and he liked me. Like F, he read my stories. We decided to meet; I told him I wanted an open place, and that I was a shy person. He said he’d make me comfortable.

He looked better in real life than he did online. He drove a silver-hued Toyota Corolla. Sitting next to him talking in the car, he caressed my thighs and almost reached for my groin. I froze. I had told him that sexual intimacy would come later since I was not sure about trusting temporary people with my body. At that point, I did not know if our shared affection was only transient. He kept stroking my thighs, his tough palm causing hotness on my thighs.

I remained still, could not say no, did not say no. After some time, I finally blurted out “No!” Then I exited his car, went home, and cried. I would later find out that he had blocked me on social media.

 
 

16.

I feared my roommates at the university. The things they said horrified me. Their preposterous aversion towards gay people. How man go dey fuck man? If I catch any gay person, I go kill am!

These were the people I was supposed to trust. I was the chef in the room. They praised my cooking. They appreciated my zeal to study and said that because they saw me study, they, too, wanted to study. But they did not know that I was gay. I wonder now, wistfully, what would have happened to me had they known.

On Valentine’s Day of this year, 2022, I received a book package at my room from a man who liked me. I did not like him. I lied to my roommates and told them that the gift was from a publishing company, a lie they believed given my interest in literature.

I would find out soon after almost that this man had married to please his family. I would tell him sorry again and again because I couldn’t accept gifts from a married man. And I would return the books to the delivery man.



17.

While I was home for a school break, my sister read through my diary. I kept it on my study desk, and she found it. She told me that she saw something about me, that she would tell me on a good day. I knew what she wanted to tell me. And she knew that I knew. That lucid yet silent comprehension hung over us.

We quarreled one day, and she said, I know you are gay!

Instead of anxiety, I felt relief.

We never talked about it again, but I feel that one day we will.

 

“This body bears the proclamation of its lacerations. This body will live. This body will love.”

 

18.

A few weeks ago, I stopped pressuring myself to succeed. Of course, I want to succeed but not in that overpowering way.

Often, success is the only way to be respected as a queer person. That reality is sad and classist. And even that respect is stained with conditions.

I come from a family where success is valued over most other things. There is a high probability that if I work hard and become successful, my parents will respect me after I tell them that I’m gay.

But why should I give in to society’s expectations? Recently, after writing all night, I was reflecting on question and fell ill. I thought to myself, Why do I have to live at such a fast pace? After all, life is messy; you can work hard and still never achieve success.

I’m starting to take life slowly, letting life be, exploring faith from a newer prism, loving hard, learning and unlearning, and letting peace be.

I’m focused on the present, writing, reading, putting the best I can offer in my academics, and spending quality time with my friends and family, educating them about gay rights from the straight ally point of view. When the time feels right, I will tell them who I am.



19.

This body bears the proclamation of its lacerations. This body will live. This body will love.

I sit at my study desk, I open my diary, and I write boldly with my pen: Rapu m, Ka m bili, an Igbo sentence that loosely translates to, Leave me, Let me live.



20.

One day, the world will bend to the cadence of this body.

 
 


Chinonso Nzeh

Chinonso Nzeh is Igbo, and his works have appeared in Isele Magazine, Black Boy Review, and elsewhere. He thinks of storytelling as a way to comprehend the world’s wonder. When he’s not writing, he’s reading or listening to old-skool music. He hopes to dump his law degree and become a writing professor.



Giancarlo Calaméo LaGuerta

Giancarlo Calaméo LaGuerta (b. 1993, Gaborone, Botswana) is a multidisciplinary self-taught artist who works primarily in portraiture. Employing abstraction and surrealism through photography, collage, drawing, and digital media, his subjects show pain through rage, sorrow, or hysteria. Giancarlo is based in Gaborone where he continues to hone his craft.



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