How effeminacy went from being celebrated to sneered at in Nigeria

Written by Daniel Nkado

While growing up, a few blocks away lived a young thin boy – brown-skinned and lithe. Lithe in the way that a beautiful young woman would be.

His name was Kosisochukwu – a unisex Igbo name that means “As it pleases God”. As a sign of familiarity, many who knew him well called him “Kosi” for short.

But his most used name is nothing close to his given name. People called him “Omeka Nwanyi” – an Igbo phrase meaning “The one that behaves like a woman.” Even strangers who did not know him would call him this when they make an acquaintance.

He often wore makeup and wound his hips when walking. I remember he had very expressive fingers too which he moved here and there as he talked. He also preferred to wear outfits that hugged him tight and on some days he would draw the edges of his shirt together and tie a knot above his stomach, leaving his navel exposed.

The word – omeka nwanyi – is the Igbo word for an effeminate male.

It was nothing derogatory at all. In fact, at that time effeminacy in boys or “behaving like a woman” was somewhat something admired. Being an “omeka nwanyi” somehow translated to you being calm, gentle, trouble-free, kind, dutiful at home, obedient and harmless – all in pleasing contrast to the brute nature of some other boys. So, omeka nwanyi became the kind of boy children parents wanted to have. Or the kind of boys parents thanked God they had.

It was also no problem then for women to marry effeminate men. In fact, many preferred it. The omeka nwanyi was seen as kind, hardworking, respectful and, most importantly, non-violent husbands. In fact, if an effeminate man ever beat his wife (which rarely happens), it must have been the woman’s fault. That was the widely-held opinion then, so it is not common those days to see mothers advising their daughters – “Look at him, he can barely hurt a fly. He will take very good care of you.”

But all that has changed now. Today, effeminacy is directly linked to homosexuality – the last thing any Nigerian would want to be associated with. Anything linked to homosexuality is taboo here and is avoided. Today, people are more likely to call an effeminate boy they come across “Homo” instead of “Omalicha”, “Omeka Nwanyi” or “Nwoke na mma” – or any of those fond names people once used.

It appeared that no one cared then – some people just behaved differently and there was nothing more to it. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, I guess.

But, today, even as the world claim to have become more aware of “LGBT rights”, the knowledge has not necessarily translated to more tolerance. At least not over here.

In most parts of Nigeria today, effeminacy is seen as the proud display of homosexual behaviour – like the audacious flaunting of sin. So effeminate men are often victims of violence and hate attacks.

It may not be right to say all effeminate men are gay. Sexual orientation goes beyond demeanour and there are gays more macho than your average straight man. To tag someone a homosexual just from the way they behave or to say something like “(s)he sounds or acts gay” reinforces the faulty idea that appearance is directly related to sexual orientation.

There are obviously effeminate men who are totally straight. More so, the perception of effeminate behaviour is subjective. Society plays a role in the way masculine and feminine behaviours are judged. Some people may classify normal male behaviour not common in their immediate surrounding as effeminacy.

But, most importantly, even if they are – everyone has the right to live and be respected. Just anyone. Whoever you are.

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Daniel Nkado is a Nigerian writer and the founder of DNBStories.com. Get his books on DNB StoreOkadaBooks or BamBooks!

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