Some of my fondest memories are of me seated in my aunt’s bedroom surrounded by tiny jars of nail polish.
I’m all but 5-years old and transfixed by my aunt and her beauty supplies. Next to her lies a nail file, her cheap makeup collection, and of course polish, littered on the floor.
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My love for beauty was born in that room. Auntie would file my nails, applying a clear gel polish and encouraging me to ignore what the other kids were saying. They were saying a lot. They’d called me a “woman-wrapper” – a Nigerian pejorative that suggests a man’s emasculation. My aunt’s soothing words around this meditation around nails inspired a lifelong habit of painting them as a means of empowerment. There’s something mundane yet fulfilling about receiving a manicure. Every stroke up and down, each nail turning from flesh to hue, magic created before your eyes. It’d allow me to forget about the world just for those short moments.
Today, nail polish still transports me back to that small room. And though it’s a powerful tool as a means of expression, it’s also one that is a very loud political statement. That’s because I live in Nigeria, a country with legalized systemic homophobia, neck-deep in patriarchal values. Nigeria is one of many countries that still does not recognize LGBTQ+ rights. Just in December, 47 men were arrested for suspicion of homosexual behavior. Living as a visibly queer person here is dangerous.
In Nigeria, queer sexual relations, queer safe spaces and associations are deemed illegal and penalized with a prison term of up to 14-years and even death sentences under Sharia Law. Allies don’t get off the hook. Showing support and being an ally to a queer person comes with a seven-year prison term. It’s scary as police have the liberty actively hurt anyone they deem to be queer. To present as anything other than very masculine, cis and heterosexual is heightening the risk a person may have to abuse, violence and harassment.
I should know. It happened to me. When I was 20, I finally applied something other than a clear gel polish on my nails – black. While in Western cultures, it’s not uncommon for a man to wear black, in Nigeria, this is considered an act of rebellion.
The nails were as dark as night. I could see myself in the reflection, smiling and feeling like a bad bitch. As the polish dried, I posted a video of both my nails to my Instagram Stories. The feedback via DMs was instant.
Many were affirming and light-hearted replies from friends and acquaintances .
‘YES!’ ‘OMG a bad bitch!’ ‘So fierce, love it!’. But many were also asking me to tone down my flamboyance, a warning that bad things could come to boys who dare to be pretty.
These replies, as honest as they may be, triggered my anxiety and dampened my spirit. But my critics were right – the police would pull me over. It was only a few weeks ago when I got stopped by the police while in an Uber headed back to the AirBnB I had been staying at for the past week.
The Police stopped me. They demanded to know where I was headed to and if I had any form of identification. He looked at nails and back to me.
“Are you a gay?” he asked. Having no choice but to reply, I decided to give him N20,000 (~$55) so that he wouldn’t bother me further. It was a safer option than risk being beaten up, or worse…
In the proceeding weeks, I was stopped again. This time, not by the police but by my peers. Random strangers asked why my nails were painted. A lecturer at my university asked me if i was a ‘showgirl.’ An acquaintance asked if I was transitioning. Someone random started citing the anti-same sex law to me, which I took as a threat.
My relationship with my manicure and nails means so much more than aesthetics. They stir emotions. They conjure memories. They remind me of my aunt and my happy childhood but also bring me back to the present, a painful reminder that I’m not free to be who I want to be. At least, not in pubic. To me, painted nails means that I’m risking my life just to feel beautiful. And to that, I’ve realized this: Sometimes the most effective form of activism is simply daring to live. Not just exist, but truly, authentically and loudly, even when it seems illogical or risky to and goes against literal laws. Because sometimes self-preservation and self-love come first. Black nail polish, be damned.