Nigeria’s transgender, former beauty queen and singer, Ms Sahhara has said that she would not have come out so publicly if she had known that the reactions of Nigerians would be mostly negative. In an interview with Huffington post, Ms Sahhara talks about life growing up, the misconception towards trans persons and how religion has played a major part why trans people are not accepted. See excerpts from the interview below;
1) Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself, your likes, and dislikes?
Like some women, I am actually a ‘girly girl’, who loves fashion, makeup, and high heels. I also enjoy singing, writing songs, doing research, and helping my trans community whenever I can, by using my skills in digital media. I hate discrimination in all its forms. I also hate when human beings have been deprived the freedom to love and the freedom to be themselves.
2) When you were younger, you tried to reconcile your gender identity with religion, and this led you to attempt suicide. How were you able to navigate this reconciliation process; did you end up succeeding or abandoning religion altogether?
Yes, I did! And, after extensive research on religion, I found that religion is plagiarized and reinvented every century to fit the popular narratives of the time. I also came to the conclusion that I don’t need to believe in any deity or follow any particular religion to lead a positive moral life. As human beings, we have an inbuilt capacity to discern right from wrong. Most of the pain, war, hate, conflicts, greed and many more vices in the world today are caused or influenced by religion.
For my identity and my views on life, the transgendered identity has been proven by science to have a biological, and indeed a natural, basis. Therefore, it is right for me to be me. Most religions and traditions will say otherwise, though. Hence, I am strongly against religion, but I support spirituality.
3) Nigerians are very religious people, be it the majority of people who follow Christianity and Islam, and the minority who are still traditionalists. More than this is the fact that Nigerians have convinced themselves of the moral validity of homophobia given their religious beliefs. Do you think it is possible to reconcile the rhetoric of religion and LGBT rights in the country?
The LGBTQI+ community has always been embedded within our traditions, mostly in silence, but they were there. The colonization and the introduction of Western/Middle Eastern religions in Africa started the demonization of our community. Research and history have shown that we existed in peace and part of our various cultures. We did not have the popular labels or the understanding of what it meant then, but they existed peacefully. For example, the Yan Daudu of Northern Nigeria contributed to entertainment, occasions, and cooking. Then we have the popular transvestite performer called ‘Area Scatter’ in Eastern Nigeria, who performed for the royal families and the rich.
The anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric is now intensified due to American evangelism in modern Nigeria and the importation of the Wahhabism style of Islam from Saudi Arabia. It is possible for religious people to be tolerant and respectful of people’s identities and sexualities. My mom is a religious woman and she doesn’t judge people, she leaves the judging to her ‘God’. If most Christians followed the teachings of Jesus Christ, they will be more loving and be more accepting like Jesus was; instead of preaching hate, discrimination and passing judgments on the things that they do not understand.
4) Would the fight for LGBT rights move forward if Nigerians are reminded of the colonial history that grounds religion and homophobia in the country?
Some antiquated colonial laws such as the ‘Sodomy laws’ introduced by the ‘colonial masters’ are still in play today, in most former colonies. Britain has long moved on and repealed these laws, but they have remained silent on the effect of the laws they left behind in their former African colonies.
I have always said education is the key. But, as the saying goes, you cannot force a horse to a river and expect that horse to drink from that river. Nigerians have to be willing to learn about LGBTQI+ issues, for the process of education to begin. We cannot force them to learn if they are unwilling to do so.
Recently, Nigerian viewers made MultiChoice, a South African based broadcast company, cancel the airing of Caitlyn Jenner and Jazz Jennings’s respective television shows because Nigerian viewers complained that showing trans stories on television would corrupt their children. Since Nigeria is their biggest viewing customer, they canceled the shows, thus depriving other African countries, like South Africa, from learning more about what it means to be transgender.
I am hopeful for positive change within the African community, in the future. But we still have a long way to go.
5) You are a fashion model, beauty queen, and musician. Can you tell me how you use the platform given to you by these mediums to represent and promote the rights of transgender people, both in Nigeria and the world?
I use my hobbies to promote the plights of LGBTQI Nigerians and Africans in general. By being visible in the media, we show that we exist and are just as ‘normal’ as every other Nigerian. It removes the air of perversion that is used when telling our stories. The more we speak out, the more we change public opinion about us. The laws may not change anytime soon, but changing the public’s perception of our community is more important. I am competing for Miss Trans Star International on the 17th of September in Barcelona, Spain. I will be representing Nigeria as usual and I’ll be flying the Nigerian flag proudly. Sometime next year, I’ll be going back to Nigeria to shoot a short film about LGBTIQ+ Nigerians living and barely surviving in the midst of hate.
6) You are the first Nigerian transgender woman to come out publicly in the international media. This could not have been an easy decision given the discrimination, harassment, and threats that you must have anticipated you will get after doing so. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to go through with it anyway?
I was completely naïve. I did not expect the backlash and criticisms. In many ways, it was good that I didn’t know that the attention from Nigerians would be mostly negative because if I had known, I wouldn’t have taken the steps to come out so publicly. After coming out, the hate made me stronger and more determined to live my life fully and proudly, without fear of persecution. I wanted to prove the doubters and the haters wrong, by living my dreams fully. I hope that one day I’ll influence one or more LGBTQI+ Nigerians to come out and be themselves, without fear.
7) Since moving to the United Kingdom, how have you been able to continue the fight for the visibility, representation, and protection of transgender people in Nigeria?
Every day is a struggle. Being black, African, and a transgender woman makes progressing in life difficult. But I am still grateful for having the freedom to lead my life peacefully. My fellow trans sisters in Nigeria have it worst. The transgender identity, unlike sexuality, is physical and it cannot be disguised or hidden. So it will be impossible to go through the process of living as one’s ‘authentic’ self in Nigeria when navigating this journey. I always get asked for help from Nigerians who are going through what I went through all the time. It saddens me greatly, but all I can do is be their voice in the media and keep drawing attention to Nigeria. Hopefully, one day, the government will listen to our cries for freedom and equality.
8) I know that you have been a very vocal and active critique of the Nigerian law that seeks to imprison LGBT persons in the country. What, do you think, is the best mode of action for activists who want this law repealed?
We all have to continue speaking out and reaching out to our allies, in order to set into motion the change we need in Africa. If Nigerians are willing to listen, I will gladly speak to them about how ‘natural’ it is to be a member of the LGBTQI+ community.
By teaching people about us, we would squash the negative misconceptions they have of us. I would suggest lobbying the Nigerian government, but that would be futile given the fact that the government and the religious leaders consider us immoral and unnatural.
We can also involve international organizations like the United Nations, World leaders like President Barak Obama and the Queen of England, to put some pressure on African governments to reverse the hateful colonial laws left behind and the new ones being created due to religious pressures.
If the Common Wealth leaders gently persuade its member countries to enforce laws that promote the equality and the human rights of all, it will help to bring the much-needed understanding and legal protection for our community.
9) There are people who argue that gender identity is socially constructed and fluid not biologically determined. They argue that the validity of the identity of transgender people depend on a kind of gender essentialism that simply does not exist without one reverting to socially damaging stereotypes about gender. How would you respond to those critics?
Well, I can see where they are coming from, and gender is definitely a social construct. A vast majority of humans are assigned a certain gender at birth and grow into that gender without any conflict. But, there are many others, like transsexuals, gender non-binary people, and intersex people, who don’t fit into that binary definition of gender given by their doctors/ family/ midwives at birth.
Gender is a social construct because we are told that gender is binary—male and female—from the day we are born. We are taught that blue is for boys and pink is for girls. Dolls are for girls and toy cars and guns are for boys. We are pigeonholed into certain roles and if we stray off course, we are corrected or disciplined by adults for doing things they deem as wrong given our assigned genders.
Many transphobic people argue that gender is determined by chromosomes or biology, they forget that gender is assigned at birth by humans and not biology or chromosomes. We define and class people based on what genitalia they are born with. Those who are born with ambiguous genitalia are given a gender from the binary, based on what their parents want.
So using chromosomes to discredit our identity is baseless since biology is not so clear-cut. Gender is in the brain and not in our genitalia. Our brain tells us who we are, not what we have between our legs.
10) You founded a community, TransValid, a movement that seeks to represent, empower, and humanize transgendered persons. Can you tell me a little more about the community and the direction that you see the community headed for in the future?
TransValid Organization is an educational movement, which helps to clarify what it means to be trans. We produce and curate trans stories through our own narrative, as the transgender narrative is often obscured and sensationalized by tabloid journalism. Our stories are often told with transphobic slurs, dead-naming, and a callous disregard for who we say we are. Some examples include the use of the phrase ‘Formerly known as’, the use of the wrong pronouns, publication of ‘Before and after’ pictures of trans people to create shock and to use them as click baits for their poorly researched contents.
So TransValid helps to republish information that is put out by the mainstream media, in a more appropriate and respectful light.
11) What advice would you give to young transgender persons, like yourself, who are currently dealing with an environment of hostility and discrimination both in Nigeria and abroad, and to activists/allies fighting against transphobia within their community?
I will tell them to be strong and to never compromise their beliefs about who they feel they are or the people they love. One day we will win the equality fight in Africa. But it will, unfortunately, take some time.
They should teach people about who they are without implicating or outing themselves if they are not out or they feel unsafe. They should tell all who are willing to listen that being LGBTQI+ is natural and human.
Even people who are not members of our community can also help us by speaking out too. The more friends and family speak out in favor of their own LGBTQI+ relatives, the more minds we can change.
Many Nigerians who hold very strong negative views about LGBTQI+ people have no knowledge of what it means to be a member of our community. All they know is the common, perverted misconceptions floating around in the media and within our society.