Free to be Me: Breaking The Silence
“Hello. Good evening”, I say into the phone.
“Hello ma”, the person at the other end says.
“Not ma. I’m male”, I reply calmly.
“Ooh. I’m sorry. I thought you were female. Your voice is so light”, the person says.
“Oooh”. I reply, awkwardly.
“So, sir, what do you wish for tonight”? The voice asks……
* * * * *
Growing up was very difficult for me.
I was always the subject of mean jokes and teases.
I’d go to a place, and under 3 seconds, I’d be forced to act a certain way, just so I wouldn’t be the odd one.
Some of my close friends would be with me and suddenly say, “Act like a man, Anthony”, in frustration.
And I wondered what acting like a man meant.
I know they meant well, but it hurt all the same.
Particularly when I started wondering if my friends were ashamed of being seen in the public with me, because of my effeminacy.
My physique definitely didn’t help matters.
Act like a man, they said.
Growing up, I understood that “Act like a man” meant to act in every way that wasn’t me.
It meant tilting my head downwards, so I could produce a deep voice that was comical.
It meant walking like I had a sore between my legs just so I could produce that “bounce walk” effect.
It meant willing myself to be stoic just so I wouldn’t make expressions that’d deem me to be less than a man.
It meant being more reserved, because apparently, being vocal, and demonstrative was a feminine trait.
“I wonder if you’ll marry a woman, or a woman will marry you”.
“I wonder who’ll be the man, and who’ll be the woman”.
They tell me.
To date, the words “woman wrapper”, “boy-girl”, “omekanwanyi”, still haunt me.
* * * * *
Many of my friends do not know, because I have become adept at keeping my thoughts and fears to myself, but I am extremely scared of crowds, strangers, words, and going out.
If you asked my family to tell you about me and asked an acquaintance to tell you about me, they’d tell you about two polar opposite people.
In the house, I am an extreme introvert. I very rarely leave my room, nor do I associate with anyone; my family, let alone neighbors.
I am the book addict who argues with research works, and articles.
I am the one who sees it as a herculean task to open his mouth.
Outside though, I’m the extreme extrovert with crazy words and a bubbly personality. I’m the supposed weird guy with a fun streak. I am the happy guy who never lets anything get in his way.
I am a dancer. The singer. The actor.
I am the noisemaker.
I am the troublemaker.
But what the acquaintance doesn’t know is that I do all these to cover my insecurities, and remove the focus from myself.
If I’m the life of the party, you’d have to love me, and not tackle me for my attributes.
You wouldn’t have to tell me how I have a feminine physique, or how light my voice is.
The most you’d say is that I talk too much, which to me, is way better than other things you could have said.
I’d rather stay in my room all year than go out to a place where I’d have to meet people.
I never want to hear what people think of me, because I don’t think I can survive it.
I never imagine anyone has anything good to say about me.
Which is why I always struggle with compliments.
I get very irritated when people compliment me. Because I feel they’re lying.
In public places, I have a strong fear that I’d be gawked at. Laughed at. Teased. Mocked. And sent away because of my mannerisms.
Strangers frighten me because I never know what could happen with them.
I can’t count the number of times total strangers have looked at me and said “Uncle, please act like a man, abeg. You be woman”?
With my head bowed down in absolute shame.
And me having nothing to say.
Or the number of times I’ve been introduced to someone, and the person says in the most patronizing way they could manage, “Try to act like a man more, you know. You’re too handsome to be like this”.
I am a chatterbox, and I use that to hide a lot of my insecurities.
Though, I am always scared of being rejected.
I have never been part of the boys or part of the girls.
A pariah, one could say.
Without a place to call home.
Or belong to.
The boys didn’t like me, especially as I wasn’t inclined to talking about most of what dominated a masculine discussion (Football, Women, Money).
The girls didn’t like me. Why’d a boy act like a girl?
Oh, yea… I forgot to tell you…. 7 out of 10 people who discriminate against me because of my mannerisms are girls.
And at some point, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Funny, but I still don’t know who I am now.
I think I lost him somewhere along with my childhood.
* * * * *
I had to put effort into the things I did.
Not because I wanted to.
But because I felt the need to prove that I was more than my effeminacy.
I wanted to make myself indispensable.
I wanted to be remembered not for my effeminacy… But for my achievements.
A lot of people avoid me, naturally.
Many don’t hide their disdain for me.
But I felt that if I could prove to them that I was great at things, they’d maybe want to be my friend.
* * * * *
Okwuosa tried to teach me how to act like a man.
He made me wear baggy trousers, to hide my curved physique.
He asked that I sag them.
He made me always tilt my head downwards so I could talk with a deep voice.
He made me learn slangs.
But after every moment spent, I’d go back, and feel disgusted with myself.
And for the first time ever, I cut myself.
On my thighs.
To let the blood seep.
I thought that bleeding would reduce the size of my thighs.
All it did was to remind me.
That I was a disgrace to manhood.
And I would never be man enough.
To feel pain, because I deserved it.
* * * * *
I never really understood the phrase “first impression matters”, because people already make their impressions of me, regardless of what I do.
It makes me so angry that I have to work for me to be respected.
I believe that everyone should be respected until they prove otherwise.
I don’t believe in “Respect should be earned first”.
Respect people at first sight until they prove that they don’t deserve your respect.
People see me, and automatically assume that I’m weak.
I come out for street sanitation, and all I keep hearing is “I no believe say this guy sabi work like this o, I been think to say na woman”.
I do something that requires physical labor, and everyone looks astonished.
Because as an effeminate man, I’m supposed to be fragile, and not be able to do any work that requires physical energy.
Every time I get close to someone, the sentence I hear is “I wish I’d been closer to you before now. I didn’t know you were so this, or that”.
And I ask……
Why do I have to be stereotyped because of my physique?
Why do I have to be looked down upon because I act a certain way?
Why couldn’t you keep an open mind to get to know me?
* * * * *
The words I have the hardest time believing, and don’t thought I will ever believe in my life are “I love you”.
It was very easy for me to say to others because I genuinely love them.
But I didn’t believe I am worthy of love.
Maybe it was because the emotion that has been most sent to me was hate.
I understood hate very easily.
And I believed it very easily.
I think I’ve heard people say it to me too much.
So, I saw it as a true reflection of their emotion.
I don’t know.
Maybe that’s why I looked at all the friendship that I kept, and still wished I had ended them all.
Because, no matter how much they told me that they loved me…
I thought it to be a lie.
* * * * *
The first act of victim-blaming I ever received was at the age of 10, or so.
I’d been abused, and I tried to tell the school nurse about it.
I was bleeding.
She looked at me, and said, “O maka n’i bu ome ka nwanyi”.
(Because you’re a boy who acts like a girl), she said.
I did not speak of it again.
Neither did I ever report.
Not when the seniors teased me and called me “Onye ntu”.
Not when the abuse happened again.
Not when I became anorexic.
I did not speak of it.
I thought I was a miscreation.
God must have been asleep when he was creating me because he obviously forgot to make me normal.
And it was my cross to carry.
So… I did not speak of it.
And that was my earliest recording of depression.
I was tired of being bullied.
I was tired of not speaking out.
Yet, I did not speak of it.
Even though I lay in bed wishing to cease to exist.
Even though tears take me to sleep on so many nights.
Even though I can’t shake off the feeling that somehow, no one would ever look at me with pride.
* * * * *
Do I ever get a moment to “just be”?
In private, yes.
When I’m with people, not really.
Sometimes I’d be laughing or acting so carefree, and suddenly stop, because I’d wonder “Am I acting too feminine”?
“Am I being too much?”
“Tone it down, Anthony”, I tell myself.
* * * * *
The thoughts are still there.
Ever so strongly.
To cease to be.
Will it ever go away?
I don’t know.
“Just ignore them” is the worst thing anyone has ever told me.
And sometimes, I wonder if a wound that is constantly reopened ever stops bleeding.
Because that’s what happens when people reduce me to my effeminacy and talk about it all the time.
I wish they’d stop.
I wish they’d know that it kills every trace of laughter in me.
I wish they’d know that it makes me so self-conscious when they say it.
I wish they’d know that I’ve tried to end it all several times, just so that I don’t hear about it anymore.
I wish they’d be kind to me.
I wish strangers wouldn’t bully me with their words.
* * * * *
“So, sir, what do you wish for tonight”? The voice asks…
“Kindness”, I whisper.
“I wish people would be kind to me”.
And I end the call, and cry my eyes out, again.
Because my pillow would never be unkind to me.
From the Diary of a gay man #BreakingTheSilence from Nigeria