Reflecting on Time and Gender
by Alexandra Maduagwu
Photo credit: @ohiaofeh
In many ways, this journey has always been about finding and naming myself. Looking back, there have been moments when my truest form of self breaks through the clutter of heteronormativity, religious ideals and internalized homophobia. It is in examining those moments, which are often scattered across the timeline of my life, that I find the clarity I need to forge ahead.
Most people have gender ambiguous childhoods. You’re likely to play with the boys as a girl and take off your shirt for football or chaser. It’s not a problem at that time but once you hit puberty, strange rules get enforced. You can no longer take off your shirt. You can’t play football with the boys and you start being forced to do things you never cared for because gender roles must be upheld – damn your insignificant interests. It never made sense to me because how could you say I had to do things I didn’t care for but my brother didn’t have to despite being around the same age as me? Everytime I asked I got a different variation of “he’s a boy and you’re a girl” and that meant nothing to me.
What came next is an era I’m fond of because that was when anything worth remembering started happening. One of the first things I noticed was how everyone seemed to have a script they played. Everyone lived according to certain rules, some you could choose and some you couldn’t. Cheers to the simpler times, when my main goal in life was to be a black Lucas Scott. Broody, artistic, Peyton Sawyer-crazy, sounded just about right. It liberated me from the worries that came with my physical appearance not meeting certain cisheteronormative standards. My slouching didn’t matter and neither did the darkness of my skin. For context, students and teachers would sometimes pull my shoulders back and say “Stop slouching! You’re a girl!” or crack jokes about when I would be married and my husband would return in the middle of a power outage and ask me and my children to smile so our teeth could guide him in. Expressing a masculine persona liberated me from those expectations and shaped my style. Thus began my mental and physical transformation from the timid baby girl to the intriguing bloke, Zandylexer. I chose to present masculine because it came easier to me than the script I was initially expected to play and frankly, it just made more sense.
Photo credit: @ohiaofeh
More often than not, people conflate gender expression and sexual orientation and sometimes the consequences of this are dire. Before I discovered my sexuality, I was assumed to be a lesbian just because I am someone who was assigned female at birth that presents masculine. I went to an all-girls boarding school that had a reputation for lesbianism that they were trying to redeem. I would, too often for comfort, appear on those lists without any evidence to back the claims. I never got suspended or expelled because I was one of the “lucky ones”. But I did serve a lot of punishment which made me develop a deep sense of wrongfulness that made me apologize for my existence everywhere I went.
Then came a time, during uni, when my focus was to be as androgynous as possible. It was important to me to maintain the perfect balance of femininity and masculinity. I realize now that the only reason I wanted that was so I could go to my parents’ house and feign comfort in my femininity – which was the only side I could show – but it was never enough. My femininity was always “tainted” with my masculinity in the eyes of the people whose approval I sought. I hated my clothes and it was difficult to find clothing that met both my requirements – which was to be as masculine as possible – and those of my immediate society – which was all feminine.
Lately I’ve been enjoying expressing and living as a masculine person. I realize my connection with my femininity was based on obligation rather than personal joy and authenticity and I’ve decided it no longer serves me. Some would say I could pass for a man but it isn’t really passing because once I speak people go “oh so you be woman” and everything about the interaction changes from that point. I am not a man, I am non-binary. I feel a degree of connection to my womanhood that manhood doesn’t account for but the non-binary umbrella does. I am non-binary because inspite of this connection, most aspects of womanhood and femininity make me feel dysphoric. This doesn’t make me any less woman than the next because womanhood isn’t one homogenous experience; there are many brands of womanhood across sex and gender, ability, culture, class and race, none more valid than the other. To view and present womanhood through one lens is to contribute to the decades of erasure suffered by countless women and queer people.
If you feel the urge to state “Why not push for a society where women can be as masculine as they like without feeling the need to identify away from womanhood”, I would advise you to desist from such intellectual dishonesty and be reminded that there are gatekeepers of womanhood at several points. Womanhood is policed through cisheteronormative, eurocentric standards at every level of life. More times than I can count, I have walked into a public restroom and had people ask me different variations of “Isn’t this the women’s bathroom”. The first time of note was at a family wedding and the confrontation went as thus;
“This one is for women o”
“I know. I’m a woman”
“Ah Ahn! If your mother saw you now how do you think she would feel?”
“It doesn’t matter”
“HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT!!?”
Person 2 comes out of a stall
“This is the women’s bathroom”
Person 1, “Ooooo shey you see?”
When it first happened it was amusing, now it’s an irritating, completely unnecessary and intrusive experience that has become a constant. This other time I went to the toilet at a human rights conference and someone shouted from across the room at someone else who was closer to me to grab me so I didn’t enter the women’s bathroom. Another such confrontation happened later that day in the same location.
During the lockdown, which was an introspective period for most of us, I learned a little more about what language was available to help me make sense of my life. I am a non-binary woman. Hopefully this is the only place I’ll ever explain what that means to me – as the non-binary identity isn’t one size fits all. My experience with my identity, body and social gender – which are markers for how one experiences gender – has always taken different forms. Whether or not I’m non-binary because of patriarchal impositions on womanhood isn’t relevant (and is frankly no one’s place to speculate) because the fact remains that I have never felt exclusively woman and I have never felt woman enough in certain spaces society has created for those who fit the patriarchal standards of womanhood. There are parts of my body I would rather do without and certain parts that aren’t there that I wish were; and in my interaction with the rest of the world, the need to be exclusively one or the other has never been there. I am at my most comfortable when my womanhood can co-exist with my masculinity which is every bit as palpable and real and deserving of naming as the other. To name one and deny the other is a disservice to me – a person whose goal is to live with as much authenticity and honesty to self as possible.
While I don’t deny my womanhood, I can’t say it’s a label that has ever fully claimed me nor I, her. There are masculine-presenting women who identify as women and who have never felt dysphoric towards their assigned gender. Those women may or may not identify as non-binary. I speak only for myself and my experience with gender as it relates to my identity, body and social gender. Naming my identity has helped me make sense of my experience which makes me euphoric but it has also made me painfully aware of how hard society has worked to erase people like me who either don’t fit into the gender binary or who perform gender differently. In sharing my experience, my goal is to make it a little harder for ignorance to excuse bigotry, not that it does, anyway. Humanity is diverse and one person’s experience is not the blueprint for millions of living people. Recognizing this is a step toward an equal, more compassionate society.
Alexandra Maduagwu is a non-binary creative who seeks to create meaningful experiences that change people’s behaviours. They are a performer, creative entrepreneur, storyteller and human rights activist. After graduating from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, they worked in administration in the literary and art spheres and are now on a path to telling SOGIESC focused African stories.
In 2018, they cofounded JuJu Panafrican Limited, a cultural entity creating a community of socially conscious people through engaging content, Afrocentric handcrafted fashion and memorable experiences.
Alexandra has worked with The Initiative for Equal Rights in Nigeria (TIERs) as a paralegal and spoken in panel discussions centred around Gender-Based Violence, Self-love and Gender Identity and Expression. They were also featured in Defiance, a documentary about people from a new generation of Nigerian queer folk fighting for visibility and representation. Watch it here.