I was labeled gay before I even understood what it meant – A man like Richard Akuson

What does it mean to be a man? Admittedly, this is not a thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up. Man Like is a weekly Zikoko series documenting those moments to see how it all adds up. It’s a series for men by men, which talks about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to be a man from the point of view of the subject of the week.

In 2017, Richard Akison launched the groundbreaking online magazine, A Nasty Boy, to celebrate homosexuality in all its beauty and struggles. Over time, the magazine has become a beacon of hope for young Nigerians whose identity and global existence has been trampled on by the country they call home. Listening to Richard recount harrowing moments from his childhood, what initially seemed like an obvious reason to start the platform and step into the role of an LGBTQ+ activist takes on clearer form – as do other members of this community, Richard has had his own struggles.

In this episode of Man Like, he talks about being labeled queer long before he knew what it meant, overcoming his childhood obsession with being liked, his journey to self-acceptance and why. he is afraid of growing old alone.

Let’s relax this thing a bit. Was there a time in your childhood when you struggled with the concept of being a man?

Oh, absolutely! I grew up in a small, conservative town in the north called Akwanga, and as far as I can remember, I struggled a lot to get people to see me as a cool kid. “Cool,” in this case, meant participating in the “manly” activities that my friends, siblings, and other boys around me regularly did. But I wasn’t good at football or shaking hands like the boys did. I was failing at even the simplest things and it frustrated me, made me feel inadequate. Growing up can be hard, but it was even harder for someone like me who walked and talked in a way that people didn’t think of as a boy.

Children are brutal. They made fun of me for not being comfortable with boys, and even when I started to be interested in girls, it became a thing in which they asked me why I had always wanted to be with them. It didn’t help that I had a brother I was always compared to because he was basically the model of a handsome young man. Next to him, I pale in comparison. Every day was a struggle for me.

Damn. Do you remember when you realized you weren’t like the boys around you?

The feeling of being different has always been that thing that existed. As a child, I was called boy-girl or “inna-màcè”, the latter being a combination of the short form of my original name, Innanoshe, and “màcè”, which means “woman” in Hausa. At the time, I just thought it was an innocuous nickname, but there’s still a lot I’m unpacking at the ripe old age of 29.

However, if I could pinpoint one moment that had the most impact on me, it would be my interaction with a girl I met when I was around 12 or 13, representing my state in a pageant. drafting in Lagos. I gravitated towards her because I thought she was the smartest person I’ve ever met. One day, on a ride back to where we were all competing, I was talking to her, making a lot of gestures, and the next thing she said was, “Oh my God. You are such a sissy. Even though I didn’t understand what it meant, I recognized a look I had grown accustomed to in people. I leaned back in my seat and tried to check the meaning on my phone. Something inside me died the minute I saw what that meant. I felt a deep sense of shame, regret and loss. I also felt angry with myself for acting in a way that made him recognize that part of me.

Before that, there were times when we had to choose teams for school games. Every time that happened, I either didn’t get picked or I ended up being the last pick. If a teacher forced me into a group, I would see the same disappointing look in my classmates’ eyes, and sometimes they would even complain out loud so I could hear them.

I am really sorry. Have these interactions ever affected the way you express yourself?

In a way, yes. I lived in my older brother’s shadow and was obsessed with being loved. I remember realizing I was a smart talker, so I made it my mission to constantly flex and show people I was smart, hoping it would make them like me. Also, my brother was shy, so that was something I had that made me special. Somehow, I was doing my best to entertain them. I would tell secrets that people had shared with me in confidence so that I could score points with new people I met. There’s so much essentials I could share without adding my own jara and getting in trouble. LOL.

True. But where does this desire to be loved come from?

I was trying to catch up on a lot of things. I was overcompensating for feeling inadequate and invisible.

Their validation would have satiated the very human part of me that wanted to be recognized and desired. But when it comes to validating other people, I’ve found that it only lasts for a while. Over time, it begins to fade. I had to work hard to find that fundamental self-affirmation that is also self-fulfilling. Without it, no matter what the world says, I would still have a lot of doubts about myself. It’s nice to get compliments and stuff, but what’s important to me is that I feel it too, that deep down I know who I am.

How did you get to this point of self-assessment?

It took time. Even after growing up and leaving Akwanga, I still struggled to value myself. I was preparing to go out with friends and hoped to meet a guy who liked me. Even when I did, there were always terms and conditions to our interactions. Let’s just say I took a lot of bullshit back then because I didn’t think I deserved better.

I’m happy to be where I am now because I feel like I’ve worked really hard to get past looking for people for validation or to like me in general. I did my best to change the things that bothered me and were in my control. Some of that confidence also came with age.

On a physical level, I had struggled with acne for a long time, so when I moved to America about four years ago, I took Accutane as soon as I had the chance, and now my acne disappeared. I also got into fitness. So basically I worked to manifest on my own the things that I admired in others. Another thing that helped me was journaling. Being able to unpack all the problems I was going through, face my past and make peace with myself, helped me a lot to get here.

I like to see it. Speaking of relationships, when did you know you liked men?

I know I was gay for as long as I can remember, even when I didn’t know the word. I had already been introduced to all the homophobic tropes within my community, like the names I was called growing up. Before identifying as gay, I was already labeled by people around me.

Shit! When did you find the words or understand your sexuality?

I finally understood my sexuality in my second year of college. I had come across the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ before, but that’s when I gave myself permission, albeit reluctantly, to internalize it as part of my identity. It happened because I became friends with another guy from my university who was gay and had a lot more lived gay experience than I did. The way he owned his sexuality impressed me. He didn’t associate who he was with feelings of shame like I did. I think it was crucial in my journey to self-realization.

What went through your mind when you finally accepted yourself?

Everything finally made sense. There was no weirdness or shock. It was just a sense of accomplishment, peace of mind, and lightness.

Speaking of your friend, I would like to know the role that friendship and community have played in your process of self-realization.

I can’t begin to put a value on the importance of a safe space through all of this. This space can be a person or a community, where you feel accepted and affirmed. I had a lot of that. I was accepted, not tolerated. Even what I have now with my friends is a relationship in which I can show myself in the fullness of my homosexuality and know that I am respected and accepted. These are the things I appreciate now. I want every queer person to have access to these types of affirming friendships.

Preach. So let’s move on to your life in America. What have you learned about yourself in the four years you’ve been away?

That I don’t have to put up with anyone’s bullshit. I was able to set clear boundaries without worrying about losing friends or being hated. These days, when I feel disrespected, I speak up and warn the person who committed the offense. I also make myself less available to people who objectify me and don’t see me fully. There was a time when I saw people who were the center of attention in nightclubs and wondered what it must be like to be the focus of everyone’s attention and fantasy. And let me be the first to tell you, it can be exhilarating but also tiring. You are tired of people groping and touching you indiscriminately for their own satisfaction. Because I exist doesn’t mean I’m here to please people.

Interesting. So, is something scaring you?

Yes! Not living up to my full potential and not doing enough with my life. I’m also afraid of getting to a point where fear and doubt influence my life choices. When I was younger, I remember my Aunt Becky telling me that she loved how fearless I was. She was like that too, she says, but as she got older, she lost that spirit. The older we get, the more fearful we become, the less daring we are with everything in life. It’s true for me. Some days I imagine I’d make a good actor, but fear arises every time I think about taking the first step. I’m afraid of failure, rejection, mediocrity, etc. I hope that the fear of failure will not become an obstacle for me.

Oh! I’m also afraid of growing old alone. To be clear, this has nothing to do with romantic companionship. I want what my grandmother had. She had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She had a house full of laughter, chaos and, ultimately, joy. That’s what I want.

Ah. I see. So, on the other hand, what gives you joy these days?

I find joy in my friends, family, and just everyone I love in my life.

About Sally Dominguez

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