Your Power Ends Where Mine Begins The Redeeming Freedom of Queerness

Personal power provides all human beings with the right to define themselves. It is an act of violence to exert such powers of definition over other people without their consent or participation, argues OluTimehin Kukoyi.

On 15 June 2021, exactly a month before the anniversary of the last time I saw my mother alive, I woke up around midnight into a world upside down: my best friend on the phone, her voice firm in ways I had never heard before: ‘Don’t go on Twitter.’ Me, confused, groggily reminding her that I hadn’t been on in weeks; the damn thing was banned in Nigeria anyway. Her, insistently telling me what not to do. Me, squinting in bewilderment at all the notifications on my usually quiet phone. Random Instagram DMs. Text message after text message. I’m so sorry. Are you okay? You don’t deserve this. I’m so sorry.

I had spent the day in bed, having dreams in which I was strenuously trying—and failing—to hug my mum. For some reason, she was standing behind a huge loveseat carved from solid wood, heavy and immovable, like the unending grief of losing her. It was dusty and unused; the sort of furniture you find today in the family homes of Yoruba people who took to colonization early and quickly. Prohibitively expensive. Full of whispers and scandals.

Reluctantly awake, the memory of this piece of furniture was clearer than my mother’s face. I could still see its sheen, put there by a sweating father and son (never a mother and daughter); sawing, sanding, shining. It was upside down, askew. Like the inside of my mind when I read that first DM. ‘Hey! I’m certain by now you are aware of the CNA article and I can only imagine the stress it might be putting you under. I just wanted to check on and to say take care of yourself. 🧡’. The sender, a stranger.

Me in the dark at 2 a.m., having seen nothing except this alarming drip of concern. Feeling something strange inside my body. A shaking-shivering unease that made it almost impossible to sleep, no matter how tightly my partner held me. When I woke up, every time I woke up—3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m.—the anxiety was there, spreading itself inside the love that usually fills our bedroom. Cold. Stomach suddenly running. Mind dizzyingly racing. What is happening?? What did I miss?!

When I eventually read the essay, I realized what I had missed: a burial, with everything but my name in the Order of Service.

I woke up around midnight into a world upside down…

A proverb popularized by Chinua Achebe in a 1994 interview with The Paris Review says, ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ I may not be a literal lion, but I am a writer. I can dissect my absurd presumption that friendship can exist in places where power imbalances are jealously guarded; my childish belief that if someone professes egalitarian values, it automatically means she will hold herself to them; my optimistic delusion that being forthright even about the uncomfortable things will always earn if not love, then, at least, respect. Celebrate with me, for I have outgrown these naiveties.

I can tell also of the gushing, anxious love that inspired me to call Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ‘Mama’. It solved the problem of being Yoruba, irretrievably respectful of elders who respect themselves, and therefore uncomfortable with using the first name of a new friend who was significantly older. ‘Mama’ took two syllables out of Adichie’s unusual, household first name. For four years, ‘mama’ had lain dusty and unused. Here was a chance to say the word again—and mean it. ChiMyMama. She wasn’t my mother; had never asked to be, had never done anything to deserve the label. I called her Mama anyway, because something inside me needed to. So, when she called me a lying user in her essay, I understood that it was because something inside her needed to.

It is a manipulative way of living, to lean into your place as the palatably controversial darling of the mainstream and peddle blatant falsehoods about people who point out how you insist on invalidating the lives of other people. I read that viral essay and could not recognize the person, or indeed the relationship, that she described in its first part.

‘Support-giver’, like the night I breathlessly, joyously shared my idea for my upcoming TED talk and she responded with ‘That’s your topic? Really? I don’t think it’s your strong suit.’ ‘Comforter’, like the day I received a heart-breaking call about my grandmother during one of the lunches she invited me to at her home, and she responded simply with ‘Oh,’ after I tearfully shared the news. ‘Counsellor’, like the time she laughingly informed me that the US Ambassador to Nigeria had asked her if she knew me, then advised me of the many advantages of diplomatic access.

The thing about emails is that they have this wonderful nature of going both ways. For instance, the email in which she asked about my visa application, ‘How did it go at the embassy?’ Or the one—from me this time—which included a link to an incredible essay about gender written by a closeted trans woman, sent after a fraught dinner-table conversation about trans realities. She aired her original ideas two months later anyway

‘Enemies beware,’ Adichie wrote last year, ‘the worst has happened. My madness will now bare itself.’ But I am not, and have never been, her enemy. What I attempted—and failed at—was to love her beyond unquestioning loyalty, empty sycophancy, or the power and fame of celebrity. And I’m perfectly fine with having failed. I love myself and my community more than anyone who would, using her adroitness with language, make this already violent world even harder for us to survive in.

What I attempted—and failed at—was to love her beyond unquestioning loyalty, empty sycophancy, or the power and fame of celebrity.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is pretending that she has not, over the last four years, made and endorsed lengthy public statements that are unmistakably transphobic to those of us who actually understand transphobia. The US, which is an important source of the global influence Adichie so expertly uses to propagate lethal falsehoods, is currently passing record amounts of legislation denying trans, queer and gender non-conforming people fundamental rights. While these rollbacks are happening, the anglophone media landscape is awash with cis women, most of them White, claiming a fear of some mythical harm for which literally no significant evidence existssomething something man-in-dress something something. As if there has ever been a time in recorded history when dangerous men have needed to appropriate femininity to do something as pedestrian as violating women.

This pretence that transphobes just want to protect cis women from being harmed—or, more alarmingly, erased—is extremely tired. Still, it works because of who Adichie’s primary audiences are. Among her biggest fans are reactionary members of Nigeria’s middle and upper classes—loveseat owners, if you will. The kind of people who, in recent years, have made a delicious little bogeyman out of The Gays™️ they have so thoroughly succeeded in driving into hiding. But even more than these Nigerians, Adichie is adored by the US political elite and White liberals who love the idea of a Black feminist, especially one who will never require them to deal with the actual substance of Black feminism.

Black feminism is not about gaining and flexing power—it’s about finding freedom. It’s about securing the bodily autonomy, self-determination and wellbeing of all people, whether they fit into society’s restrictive ideals or not. Black feminism recognizes that no one has the authority to determine, investigate or invalidate the limits of someone else’s identity. It is committed to reducing harm and combating violence, especially against people who are disproportionately at risk. At its core, Black feminism is about radically loving people so that they can live well—and minding your damn business the rest of the time. It’s like Angela Davis said in 2020: ‘Feminism is not simply about gender and not simply about women. It’s about identifying the connections between race and gender and capitalism and sexuality and imperialism.’ Or, more colloquially, like the world’s favourite mom, Auntie Tab says: ‘Go on ‘bout your business, and have yourself a good day. But even if you can’t have a good one, don’t you dare go messing up nobody else’s, hear?’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is pretending that she has not, over the last four years, made and endorsed lengthy public statements that are unmistakably transphobic to those of us who actually understand transphobia.

There was a TV interview a few years ago where Adichie legitimately scolded a conservative White man for having the audacity to tell her, a Nigerian immigrant woman living in the US, about racism. ‘You don’t get to define racism,’ she asserted. But today, she’s being lauded by conservative White men for making herself an authority on what is and isn’t transphobic; despite being cisgender, despite being straight. And, perhaps most damningly, she has quietly looked away from the teeming hordes who were emboldened by the tone and contents of her viral essay to inflict online violence—the kind she claims is so obscene; the kind I and Akwaeke Emezi in no way have the power to incite against her—on young writers whose sexual orientation and gender identity are seen all over the world as reasonable grounds for dehumanization, criminalization and murder.

The most popular section of Adichie’s essay is the one in which she argues powerfully on behalf of people who are afraid to tweet, lest they be abused online for saying ‘the wrong thing’—a crucial intervention, I suppose, in a world where people are routinely harmed offline for being ‘the wrong thing’. I wonder if Adichie was particularly concerned about Twitter users such as the Feminist Coalition (FemCo)—an unbelievably efficient group of young Nigerian women who she rightfully praised in 2020, in the wake of the #EndSARS protests. I wonder if she was thinking of that one tweet FemCo posted condemning the harassment that #EndSARS protesters were inflicting on queer protesters. I wonder if her concern was informed by the avalanche of homophobic vitriol that Nigerians unleashed in response.

Perhaps Adichie had in mind how FemCo buckled under the weight of this virtual violence and deleted the tweet, even though LGBTQ+ Nigerians were being subjected to online and on-the-ground abuse for talking about anti-queer police brutality. It would be nice to imagine that her outrage included how a significant correlation quickly appeared between #EndSARS sentiments and remorseless homophobia. I wonder if this is what she meant when she said young people are scared to tweet the wrong thing.

Black feminism is not about gaining and flexing power—it’s about finding freedom. It’s about securing the bodily autonomy, self-determination and wellbeing of all people, whether they fit into society’s restrictive ideals or not.

As a Bright Young Nigerian Feminist, I was once entrenched in the mindset that liberation could be found by insistently educating men and straight people about the lived experiences of women and LGBTQ+ people. I thought more knowledge would lead to empathy, and ultimately to the desire within men and straight people to stop harming us. I spent years in this reactionary posture; publishing tens of thousands of words targeted at Nigerians in general, then at Nigerian feminists in particular, following the Great Transphobic Reveal of 2017. The more anti-queer Nigerian social media became, the more I argued. And the more I argued, the clearer it became how futile that was.

Eventually, I realized several important things. More than needing those feminists to love us, I need to love myself and my LGBTQ+ siblings. More than needing society to know us, we need to know who we are. More than trying to get the world to stop attacking and reviling us, we need only to grow more skilful at protecting and honouring ourselves. We can stand at the edges and claim them as central; we can live our lives anyway.

So here I am, alongside my glorious siblings. Uninterested in the dehumanizing debates about whether we are who we know ourselves to be. Unmoved by the blatant attempts to destroy our careers, our reputations, our sense of safety in a world already drooling for our suffering. Unimpressed with the petty preoccupations of people wedded to the gilded cage called straightness. Busy yourselves with that; we are too busy living—too busy trying not to die—to join you.

We’re not asking cissexist, queerphobic people to love us. We know how to love ourselves even beyond the seams of this world. We’re not asking such people to make special concessions for us: we have the same inalienable rights as everyone else, and we’re getting better at exercising those rights. In truth, what we’d like to ask is that they keep our names out of their mouths. And if they’re going to keep our names in their mouths, then they should at least have the courage to actually say our names. Better yet, they should have the courage to say things that are recognizable as the truth. We won’t ask because we know they won’t stop lying about or against us. So, we’re not asking them for anything. They are free to do what they want. And we are free to Pay It No Mind; free to bloom, despite.

It is important to understand, to really understand, that we’re not all seeking the same things. Many people want money, power, status, or the flimsy and transactional mirage that this patriarchal world insists is love. But there are those of us who can’t afford to want things as transient or empty as that. We’ve survived too much, lived too long inside the pain of not being seen as human, to sacrifice ourselves for hollow idols with feet of clay. We want different. We want more. 

What we want is space to truly love ourselves, without shame or fear. We want to be awake to our lives, and to be seen and held by those who have the eyes, the hands, the range. We want to have our rights protected and our need for safety, connection and dignity met. We don’t want what you have. We want what’s ours. So why try to come for us? You will not succeed, and worse, you’ll be surprised by it. You’ll end up at the finish line of this imaginary contest, panting and spent, and we will be lying in the flowers, warming our precious bodies in the sun, thanking everything in the endless universe for the gift of who we are.

You over there, fighting air. Us over here, deeply breathing.

Adichie, who relies on the dictionary to define feminism, imagines that my commitment to queer and trans autonomy is the result of reading ‘the latest American feminist orthodoxy’. She’s wrong. Queer and trans liberation are the foundation upon which my life turns; my survival is sustained by the survival of my community. To be queer is to know, from a place far beyond the reach of even the most voracious violence, that there is a way to be free. To be queer and brave is to make yourself your own compass, then spend your life discovering the tools for fashioning freedom. Queer and trans people wholeheartedly embrace new realities because we understand, as the oft-quoted lesbian feminist writer, Audre Lorde, so eloquently put it 38 years ago, that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.

It must be said, however, that if you get so good at using the master’s tools that the master himself begins to congratulate you, then you have a bigger problem than you realize—and the people rightfully calling out your dulcet-toned violence aren’t the problem. Because ultimately, this is the point: White men don’t get to define racism. Cis women don’t get to define transphobia. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie doesn’t get to define me

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