When Nasele was 8 years old, she came to a startling realization that she immediately shared with her father.
“Daddy, I’m a boy,” she confided.
His response quickly moved from horror to hysteria. “He laughed. It was the deepest, loudest laugh I’d ever heard come out of him,” writes Rizi Xavier Timane, the man Nasele eventually became. As Timane recounts the incident, he reports that when his father finally regained his composure, he assured Nasele that she had nothing to worry about. “All little boys and girls go through this phase where they’re a bit confused,” he counseled. “Don’t worry, my dear daughter, It will pass.”
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It didn’t. And as Nasele came of age in northern Nigeria, her life became a living hell. Her account of the mistreatment – An Unspoken Compromise – is part memoir and part guide to finding acceptance within a community of faith.
She reports being sent to an all-female military school, where she was the target of constant bullying. As an extremely butch girl, everyone – including Nasele herself – assumed that she was a lesbian. To a one, they were horrified. In fact, her fundamentalist Christian parents not only arranged an exorcism but continually berated her as sick, perverted and demonic. “My mother seemed to think it was her duty to save my soul. … She said prayers over me and thumped her Bible in my face,” Timane recalls. One evening, as 14-year-old Nasele watched TV, elders from her mom’s church surrounded her. “At one point a Bible was placed on my head, and I was asked to hold it there while they shouted prayers over me. After that, they broke out the holy oil and holy water and hit me across the face with the leaves of a palm tree.”
Years later, Timane realized that she had been subjected to religious abuse, but that light dawned only in hindsight.
As a 15-year-old, Nasele experienced her community’s wrath – overt ostracism and physical and emotional persecution that finally ended when she received a scholarship to a British boarding school. While things in England were significantly better, they were far from perfect, and she continued to experience ridicule. “The worst homophobia came from my fellow African students,” Timane writes. “When another Nigerian student – a young woman – died in a car crash, I heard them say, ‘Why couldn’t the fucking lesbian have died instead?’ “
Nonetheless, by 1998, Timane had completed undergraduate study and was in the throes of grad school. Sadly, Timane reports that her parents did not celebrate these accomplishments but instead continued to taunt her. She says that she snapped – entering a realm of despair she had never before experienced – when her mom accused her of molesting her younger sister, a charge predicated solely on her assumed homosexuality. “I now had proof that my family didn’t know me at all,” Timane writes. “They saw me as a possessed pedophile.”
The impact of the accusation sent Nasele into a downward spiral that included alcohol and drug abuse. She stopped going to class and would have flunked out were it not for a college administrator whose intervention helped her to temporarily pull herself together. After a series of counseling sessions, the two formulated a plan and in short order Nasele moved to Los Angeles – without telling a single family member her whereabouts.
Not surprisingly, long-stoked feelings of self-hatred followed Nasele across the pond and became so acute that she got down on her knees and began to pray, making a deal with God: Acknowledge my appeal, and I will get sober. According to An Unspoken Compromise, a soft but powerful voice became audible. The message? Being queer, whether lesbian or transgender, was a non-issue. “From that day on I never questioned my sexuality or whether being LGBT would keep me – or anyone else – from having a close relationship with God,” Timane continues.
She got clean, began singing gospel, finished her degree, enrolled in the Claremont School of Theology, and found a female partner whom she eventually married. But Timane still felt somewhat unsettled. Despite the upward trajectory, something continued to feel off. And she tentatively began to explore transitioning from female to male.
“I felt incredibly conflicted,” he writes. “On the one hand, aren’t these just lesbians running away from their femaleness? Changing their body’s physical attributes to reflect male personas also would change their sexuality – in essence they would become straight men – and I saw impudence in that. In fact, I found it outrageous.”
Nonetheless Nasele couldn’t deny that shifting from female to male held great appeal. And why resist the pull? Things with her parents had reached stasis and her partner had agreed to support whatever decision she made; Timane felt ready.
The transition moved quickly. First there was a bilateral mastectomy then testosterone supplements followed by surgery. Timane’s faith, not in organized religion, but in God, helped enormously. He reports that part of the process, gleaned through prayer, was learning to differentiate love from acceptance. “I believe my parents love me, but I know that they will never accept how I live my life. … They believe my choices have blocked me from entering the Kingdom of God, and being so strictly religious, this is something they simply cannot abide.”
So be it. Timane has made peace with this and counsels readers of An Unspoken Compromise to do likewise, changing what can be changed, keeping lines of communication open and moving on. He further decries literal biblical interpretations. And rather than pigeonholing himself as a Christian, he calls himself a Jesusian, arguing that what matters most is bringing Jesus’ message of love into everyday life. “Jesus constantly fought against the Pharisees and chose to align himself with the ‘least of these,’ as he called the outcasts of his time – the poor, the orphaned, the prostitutes. Today this list would include LGBT persons and anyone who dares not adhere to typical cultural, gender and sexuality roles,” he writes.
In addition, Timane is unequivocal in condemning the damage caused by bigoted theology and acknowledges that walking away from a church, mosque or synagogue may be important – and healing – for some people. At the same time, he knows that many LGBT folks want to have a meaningful connection with a faith community; An Unspoken Compromise is intended for them.
Timane’s God is concerned with what’s in people’s hearts, not in what their bodies look like or what parts they’ve enhanced or removed. His conclusion: As long as what you do does not hurt “the least among us,” your actions are acceptable in the eyes of God. “Surely God would delight more in righteous efforts that help our neighbors rather than oppress them,” he concludes. “How about our religious leaders band together to raise their powerful voices and deep pockets against the rise in sex slave rings and the war against women?”
Indeed, isn’t such a stand long overdue?