How Travel Helped Me Come Out

It took a conference in Brazil, and a few joyful trysts around the world, for me to gain the courage to live life on my terms.

Bahia, Brazil, People, Street

It was only after traveling across the Atlantic, to Bahia, Brazil, that I began to blossom in my body and embrace my queerness.

Photo by Luis War/Shutterstock

The first time I ventured beyond West Africa as an adult, I had been invited to teach about writing for social change at a Black feminist conference in Bahia, Brazil, in 2016. It was a thrill to visit this place on the other side of the world where the food, the music, and even the deities felt like home. The one thing that was completely foreign, though, was how queer everyone at the conference was. As a born-and-bred Nigerian woman, heterosexuality was all I’d ever been able to recognize, even when queerness—including my own—was staring me in the face. Arriving at that conference felt as though life itself was so fed up with my failure to get a clue that it dropped me into the deep end. You’re a fish; swim.

I’ve heard stories of people who knew they were queer from the age of 5, or who kissed someone and received both endorphins and clarity. That’s not me. I was about 7 years old when I had my first crush on a girl and 17 the first time I bewilderedly acquiesced to sex with a girl in my dorm who never spoke to me in the daytime. Still, I didn’t understand or even consider that any of this meant something about me. My conservative Christian conditioning was airtight: Men were for dating, no matter what emotional distance I preferred them at, women for furtive physical encounters that left me disoriented.

But in Brazil, for the first time ever, I encountered women who didn’t do queer things in the dark; women who loved women out of more than just the corners of their mouths. They were all older than me, their stories pockmarked with beauty, strength, and pain. The space buzzed with a palpable vitality that slaked a thirst I hadn’t even known I was feeling. I was hooked.

On our third day in Bahia, we ventured to eat at Ajeum da Diáspora, a (now-shuttered) restaurant run by an Afro-Brazilian woman working to preserve some of the culinary traditions that survived chattel slavery. We ate rice, beans, and okra dishes that tasted like someone in my family could have made them, and I felt home start to blossom in my body. That night, I sat among a few other conference attendees as they talked about their same-sex shenanigans with love and pride, sometimes belly laughing, sometimes deeply sighing. All of their tender, women-loving truths flowed together like a gentle stream, reflecting me back to myself in a way I’d never encountered before.

Oh shit, the recognition whispered as it settled into my ears, my limbs, my chest. I can relate. I can relate because I’m gay, too!

Terror and euphoria washed over me, and for the rest of my brief stay on that distant shore, I reveled in the discovery that it was OK to be what I had always been. Then I arrived back in Nigeria, and things were a bit more complicated. On every level that mattered, I had no idea how to hold on to the freedom and joy I had found on the far side of the Atlantic. I knew who I was, but I didn’t know how to be that person in my own country, the place that I loved even though it had prevented me from recognizing myself my entire life.

And so travel became the beating heart of my self-expression as a queer person. Lagos’s Murtala Muhammad International Airport—crowded, chaotic, and crumbling in parts—morphed into a shimmering doorway to my personal Narnia. On the other side of my city’s falling-down airport was New York, where I kissed a skeptical love interest under the approving eyes of a Tuesday evening crowd at Stonewall Inn. The next year, I visited Boston and played house for two weeks with a gentle lover who took me to Thanksgiving dinner and surprised me with tangerines as winter slowly set in outside her windows.

Time passed, and my fridge magnets in Lagos became mementos of joyful trysts too brief to hold, too distant to maintain. I left my fear on dance floors in Nairobi and Oslo, escaped with lovers to Accra and Amsterdam, snuck playful public kisses in Brussels and Alexandria. Cape Town was for spending money I didn’t have on strippers at my first lesbian club; waiting for the bathroom while the girls inside finished making out; dancing with a sexy stranger as her sweaty hands cupped my face. Johannesburg finished what we had started in Cape Town, with gorgeous bouquets of tulips marking the beginning and end of our playful, languorous affair.

Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria, Pool

By the pool at the Eko Hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos, I decided I found my first local love.

Photo by Kehinde Temitope Odutayo/Shutterstock

Every time I left Lagos, there was a whole world of queer freedom waiting for me. And every time I returned home, I brought back some of that courage. I started apologizing less and embodying my queerness more. I stopped being afraid to talk about what I wanted or to talk to the women I wanted. I met someone at a party in Victoria Island and spent the whole night obliquely wooing her by the pool at Eko Hotel. I coaxed childhood stories out of her as we lay staring at the moon, and by 4 a.m. I decided I had found my first local love. Two months into our relationship, I spent another entire night feverishly writing a poignant personal essay that no one asked for about finally embracing the way I love. I fought the battles I needed to fight and treasured all my hard-won victories. I kept traveling in search of freedom until I no longer had to—until one day I came home and realized I felt just as free as when I had left.

Nowadays, my fridge magnet collection grows for different reasons. I’m not running away anymore; if anything, I run back home to Nigeria because the love of my life is waiting for me. When I walk through the doors of our falling-down airport into the city’s unforgiving heat, there she always is. It’s not perfect—we run to each other but still wait until we’re in the cool quiet of our car to kiss—but it’s my life, in its fullness. And it’s so much more than I would’ve found had I never traveled halfway around the world only to find my own self, sitting in a room full of free queer women and loving it, just loving it.

OluTimehin Kukoyi is an award-winning writer, speaker, and public intellectual whose work focuses on love and freedom. She is known for her insightful analyses of issues relating to feminism, gender, sexualities, and pro-poor urbanization.
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