What it means to be Intersex in Nigeria

Intersex is a term used to describe individuals born with physical sex characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions of male or female. Intersex people have genitals, chromosomes, or hormones that do not fit into a male/female sex binary. This deviation from the typical sex binary can manifest in the chromosomes, gonads (the sex organs that produce gametes, that is, testicles and ovaries), hormones or outward genitalia.

Nigerians attach a lot of importance to the myths and the ways of life of the people who came before them. And for the Yoruba, this is especially true. A big Yoruba myth about intersex people is that they are created by Obatala, the Yoruba god tasked with the moulding of human beings. This long-held myth was widely explored in Buki Papillon’s book, “An Ordinary Wonder”.

As the story goes, on this particular day, Obatala was making a female body when his wife the goddess Yemoja, brought him a drink. Unknown to them, Esu, the trickster god, had laced the drink with palm wine, and alcohol is forbidden for Obatala and his followers. Olodumare, the Supreme Being was disappointed when He was presented with a finished body that was neither male nor female. Yemoja, burdened with guilt for her part in this blunder, offered to specially guide and protect this creation if she identified as a woman.

Science’s explanation for the existence of intersex people is far more logical. In some cases, intersex traits are passed down from one generation to another. These intersex births are due to variations in sex chromosomes inherited from the parents. In other cases, the sex characteristics of a fetus could change if testosterone or estrogen levels are excessively high or excessively low.

The existence of intersex people in Nigeria is often overlooked or ignored in mainstream discourse. As strange as it may seem, some people do not even know that intersex people exist, or believe that they are real. Intersex people face a lot of stigma due to societal norms and many of them prefer to stay hidden. This discrimination originates from deeply ingrained beliefs about gender and sexuality. Traditional gender roles and norms (as highly upheld in conservative societies like Nigeria) prioritize binary classifications of male and female which will inevitably lead to stigma and discrimination against intersex individuals who do not fit into these categories.

Although Nigeria has criminalized LGBT relationships, there is no record of arrests of intersex persons. If this were to be truly considered, what would they be arrested for? What crimes have they committed? Arresting someone for being intersex is almost the same as arresting someone for the colour of their hair or the shade of their skin. Despite this, intersex individuals experience a devastating lack of understanding and support within Nigerian society.

Nigeria previously used the term “hermaphrodite” to describe intersex people. This term is derived from mythology and inaccurately implies that a person has fully functioning sets of both male and female genitalia, which is biologically impossible in humans. “Hermaphrodite” is now outdated and often considered an offensive term.

James Johnson/Iyabode Abade: One of the earliest public cases of a Nigerian intersex person

A Nigerian intersex man, James Johnson started a career as a female footballer and was known as Iyabode Abade. Johnson was called up to the Nigerian women’s national team in preparation for the 1998 Women’s African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the 1999 Women’s FIFA World Cup. Sadly, Johnson was dismissed from the team after it was discovered that he was intersex. This discovery ultimately led to the demise of Johnson’s career as he never recovered. At the age of 19, James Johnson left Nigeria and underwent the necessary surgical operations to become a man. Even though he was raised as a man, James Johnson claims he never truly felt at home in his body. He had neither breasts nor did he menstruate. So transitioning to a man was a no-brainer.

In an interview with Punch, Johnson said:

“Until news broke out of my gender status, life went on normally for me as a female even though I wasn’t really content with my situation. For 19 years, I lived as a female, Iyabo Abade, hiding my pain from the world for fear of being humiliated. I lived like a fugitive, afraid each moment of what would happen to me if the world found out that I had both female and male sex organs. I lived in pain every day, not knowing where to turn to for a solution. It was a very terrible period in my life.”

The more ignorant Nigerians who often attach magic to everything see intersex people as in need of deliverance from witchcraft and other evil forces, or as cursed, or as mistakes sent as punishment for their parents’ crimes.

In 2013, in Sapele, Delta State, Nigeria, an intersex man named Henry Enuta, was almost lynched by an angry mob. Enuta was described as having a moustached face, like a man, but also having breasts, as well as female and male genitalia side by side. News of the discovery of Enuta was quickly sensationalized by media outlets, with many of them referring to him as a hermaphrodite, an offensive and misleading term. This is an example of how most people in Nigeria treat anyone who does not fit the mould.

Intersex people in Nigeria are also at risk of high rates of infanticide. Infanticide is the intentional killing of infants or offspring. Since many Nigerians consider intersex people to be abominations, some parents may murder their child if discovered to be intersex at birth. While no publicly recorded cases exist, many stories confirm this is quite common in Nigeria.

In a 2022 interview with Punch, a Nigerian family from Ebonyi State disclosed that they have trouble gendering their intersex child. The child was discovered to be intersex at birth with his male genitalia not properly developed and the female genitalia directly behind it.

In the interview, the boy’s father said:

“When the doctors started treatment, they found out that he had more male chromosomes so they concluded that he would be referred to as a male child.”

Another Nigerian intersex person, Mystique Evolving was raised as a man. Outwardly, she looked like a man as she had a penis, but as she grew, her voice didn’t get deeper, her shape resembled a woman’s and she also started to grow breasts. Test results from a doctor showed that Mystique had two ovaries, even though she didn’t have a womb. However, her family started to accuse her of being gay. According to Mystique, the last time she saw her family, they abused her physically, cut off her hair, and almost killed her. For Mystique Evolving, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel as she has found love and is now happily married after undergoing surgery.

A Nigerian intersex woman known as Queen the Qbola Girl (“gbola” means “penis” in Nigeria) has found fame on Facebook by sharing her story and demystifying some of the popular myths and weird beliefs about intersex people. Queen uses Facebook to show millions of Nigerians worldwide what it means to be an intersex person living in Nigeria. In one of her posts, she shares the struggles she faces with dating with some men trying to use her to satisfy their fetish desires while others abandon her immediately after they find out she is intersex. Queen possesses both male and female genitalia, as well as breasts. Through her openness about her life as an intersex woman, Queen the Gbola Girl hopes to create more awareness about the reality and unique life of intersex persons in Nigeria.

Addressing the challenges faced by intersex individuals in Nigeria is crucial for fostering an inclusive society. It is vital to support intersex people in Nigeria by raising awareness and ensuring they have legal rights and proper healthcare. By working together, we can create a more inclusive and fair society for everyone.

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About Azeezat Adeniji

Azeezat Adeniji is an English Language student from Nigeria. She enjoys reading, writing and trying new recipes.

View all posts by Azeezat Adeniji

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