The death of a Nigerian trans woman has shown that religious groups have much work to do
Disclaimer: this piece includes accounts of homophobia and discrimination. It also includes an image of a person who has passed away.
In memory of Emmanuella Adaolisa
The death of a Nigerian trans woman on the 31st of January 2023 sparked reactions from the Nigerian Christian community that, despite the overwhelming queerphobia in Christianity and the country, still felt hard to believe. What is disheartening is that at a time when the universal Church is becoming more inclusive, the Church in Nigeria does not even pretend to play catch up. For the sake of the love it preaches and of the people who come to her needful of that love, Christianity has to rise to work.
Away from family, Emmanuella Adaolisa had moved to the city of Port Harcourt for university, staying on afterward to live her true self. Her neighbors speak of a good and peaceful woman, and her photos are of a woman happy and comfortable in her identity. She reconciled her queerness with her dedication to God. She was returning from a church service when she had a road accident and died. I read through her story with a sense of melancholy for her short life, awe for the great way she led it, and anger for the system that did not let her live that life to the fullest.
In Nigeria, trans people are not recognised by law, as per the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (2014) which made homosexuality and LGBTQ identities illegal. Queerphobia is stable in everyday life, where it is "justified" by inadequate interpretations of indigenous culture, and mostly by conservative tenets of the two main religions in the country - Christianity and Islam. It is particularly saddening that it was in religion that Emmanuella sought bearing and community. Growing up Catholic, she dedicated herself to that community, functioning in every possible capacity in the church, according to testimonies from people who knew her. (One picture from her more youthful days shows a bright altar boy, hand clasped in front across the red and white of the uniform.) Having decided to live openly as a trans woman, she moved to worship in another parish, joining the church choir and making herself notable as a committed chorister and church member. She sang in the choir only minutes before her death. However, shortly afterward, a statement supposedly from the head of the choir at the archdiocese in Onitsha where Emmanuella started as a Catholic, referred to her death as an “embarrassing situation”. The statement enacts discriminating provisions for queer people in the church. It bans effeminate men and masculine women and inhibits other expressions of self and talent in the choir which does not fit into a conventional patriarchal binarism. This statement could have come from one bigoted administrator, but the responses of people to Emmanuella's death are not kinder. The Sunday after Emmanuella's death, a friend texted me to say how in church the death had become a lesson in what could be called “evil and its repercussions within the Church.” Across the Nigerian social media space, and even on her own Instagram and Facebook pages, where in digital safety Emmanuella had been living an open, proud life as a trans woman, there are people who think Emmanuella deserved to die because she tried to “deceive” God.
Emmanuella's story touched me because I too grew up in the Nigerian Catholic church. With the fervency that, I believe is certain to manifest in children seeking early answers and having nowhere to turn but religion, I gave my devotion to God and the Church. I made the altar, served at it, took liturgical readings, and sang in the choir. While I waited on God to provide answers to the questions I woke up with as a queer person, I searched elsewhere. By the time I was in my first year in the university, I realized how much hurt I had brought myself by seeking community in the Church. Even the air in our little prayer group where chastity and the righteous life were preached, had a caustic exhibition of patriarchal heterosexuality that by its very solipsistic nature was shortening my breath and threatening to suffocate me. We were not supposed to be involved in premarital romance, but every minute someone made a boyfriend-girlfriend joke and we were supposed to laugh. Of course, I couldn't.
Now, when every once in a while I go to Mass, the music brings back lost time—when I had once been part of this, an actor not a spectator. I feel a sense of loss, but loss padded comfortably with gladness. I think: “I’d like your kindness but I’m happy to know your unkindness”. But not everyone is lucky enough to be able to access alternatives, of either satisfactory solitude or a more accepting community, which is difficult in Nigeria where the law also prohibits association. I still go to Mass—I brace it as the priest rips things from their cultural-historical contexts and makes statements I dismiss outrightly as unreasonable—not only because I once read somewhere that we cannot change the church from the outside, not only because I think I still feel God, but also because this here—if you can separate its bad from its good—is free therapy. Religion (or its rituals) can be the source of a happy, healthy life. However, it must be adapted to suit our needs. Religion could provide a sense of purpose as well as community. In a society where the queer experience is filled with fear, rejection, isolation, and violence - it could be beneficial to find a less malign shelter of ostensible safety. However, time and again, the words of love professed by religious organizations hardly translate to deeds.
When I talk with friends, we often note how, in Nigeria at least, queer people build the church. We talk about the youth pastors, music ministers, and prayer coordinators we know who are also part of the queer community. Somehow, the church never has an accepting place for them. Even in a world where homosexuality was a sin, should it not be easier in the Church to find forgiveness? Meanwhile, the church has at its back a mountain of sinful past which the world has not hesitated to forgive. From the Inquisition to strategic roles in the transatlantic slave trade and beyond, the church has proven that its conservativism never does the good work that it professes. It seems that in all instances, the church not only leads the ‘sin’, but is last to repent. Understood in the context of Jesus having been a revolutionary, the church's conservatism is a harmful paradox.
Following experiences she had in the course of her parent's funerals in 2020 and 2021, acclaimed Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie laid criticism on the Nigerian Catholic church for several inordinate practices including sexism and financial greed. Criticisms like this have turned the church's mind towards its many historical and extant misgivings. On the day that Emmanuella died, Pope Francis began a six-day trip in Africa, where he urged Congo, a rich country whose minerals have been exploited since colonial times by foreigners, to forgive its offenders. This time, the Pope also denounced this colonial and neocolonial plunder of Africa.
Unprecedentedly, Pope Francis has likewise been more accepting of queer people in the church, declaring a week before his trip to Africa that “being homosexual is not a crime” and that laws that criminalize homosexuality are “unjust”. However, it seems that while the Pope's message of tolerance is getting louder, it still has not gotten where it is most needed: inside the church, especially in Africa. One could even ask: Is the Pope's stance a publicity gimmick? Hopefully not. The goal of global social justice is to sustain humanity across the board. It is not a group-level or country-level exportation of bad practices and the undesirable. The problem here seems to be that of communication. Writing in a reaction to the Pope's call to “dream…as a single family”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asks, “Does the Catholic Church, especially the Nigerian Church, see itself as a single family? For it must first see itself as a single family before it is able to dream as one”. This one question is packed with several others: Does the Church speak with itself? Does it listen to itself? Does it understand itself?
This is what came to my mind while reading the Church's statement calling the death of its member an embarrassment when under its belt the church has a thousand and one real reasons to be embarrassed. This statement reads so differently from what I would imagine of the Church—following our current times and the Pope's progressive shifts—that I still wish it wasn't true. Its impetuousness cannot even be salvaged by the word “provisional” in its title. So uncritical, so blatantly discriminatory is the statement, that it outrightly doesn't seem that the Church in Nigeria believes it when it prays for the Pope every Sunday at Mass because it is unbelief that would make it not listen, even critically, to the words of its leader.
The church has proceeded in this uncritical line for centuries, and the reward is a guarantee to always come last where it should come first—in love, social justice, and global sustainability. At the sight of the unfamiliar, its first impulse has been aversion. This—the Church's conservatism—is a demonstration that faith alone can't save us. The Church's maintenance of biblical geocentrism did not make it true. Religion must evolve to meet humanity's needs; faith and reasoning must coexist. This is important if Christianity has any will to do the work of love it theorizes. To practically love our neighbors will be the first to redefine the neighborhood, which Jesus taught. To love practically will be to love beyond belief itself, beyond identities, beyond skin color, and beyond sexual orientation. To love here and now the earth and its people, before heaven that may come—and when we love, we will begin to seek to understand.
The Pope has begun to demonstrate this desire to understand. But will the Church come along with him?