A Story Told And Remembered
On February 14th 1980, in Calabar Nigeria, I was born, Ekanem Bernadette Otu. I was born to a Caucasian (American) Mother and an African father. As you can imagine, we were the talk of the town. Biracial families were rare and somewhat of an anomaly. Children with fair skin and curls, as my brother and I had, were unique and attracted a lot of attention. My family was doing well, with both parents having good State and/or Government employment. We had house girls and house boys to look after us and spoil us. We had family and friends, Aunties and grandparents constantly fawning over us. Yet, none of these things defined me. At least, not yet.
After raising us kids in the United States since about age 5, my father moved back home to Nigeria, where he currently resides. While my brother visits Daddy every year, without fail, I haven’t been invited home since 2002. Though my father and I have a very close relationship and speak on the phone several times a week, we have not spoken about the reasons why my every effort to return home is derailed. But I think we both know why. The reason I wish it was, is that my country recently imposed a 14 year prison sentence for any behavior resembling that of homosexuality and 10 years for harboring said criminals. I can’t imagine what the punishment might be for me, as a transgender person. Daddy supports me as best he knows how, even though he doesn’t fully understand and refuses to allow me to visit because of what I am; either because of this law, or more probable, because of his personal reasons and reconciliation.
I remember when I first started to get a concept of my self, the start of defining myself, as an individual. I remember when I started to realize my separateness in the world and that I was a ME. But I wasn’t the me being assigned to me. I was really kind of the opposite. I just didn’t have the words to explain who that ME was. When I began to become aware of myself, it wasn’t an awareness of being biracial, or African, or fair skinned. I was unaware of privilege or opportunity, my Montessori private education, or my stability over the poverty that was prevalent all around me. I was unaware of class or the US Accredited Degrees that my parents had obtained. Inside of this little me, was sprouting an awareness of an imbalance, a misinterpretation between who I was and who others were telling me I was. They were saying I was a girl. And I was certain I was not. I knew this one part of myself. I was a boy. Just like my brother. But I would soon find out, I was alone in this knowing.
I began to watch and study my big brother and try to understand our differences. He was a boy like I was. But for some reason, everyone else knew he was a boy. I wondered how he pulled it off and convinced them. Because, at that time, it wasn’t a matter of anatomy for me. In fact, I’m not even sure I was, yet, totally aware of the differences of our anatomy. Afterall, we both had the same pee-er. But mine was on my belly and didn’t work when I tried to pee with it. Soon, mother informed me it was my belly button, but I really suppose they were both pretty much the same to me at the time. And so it would begin; what seemed to be a lifetime of watching, with envy and filled with inadequacy, as my brother lived what is supposed to be my life.
I was just shy of 5 years old, when my family moved to the U.S. It was my first American Christmas, complete with lights, holly, jingle bells, new aunts, uncles, cousins, and gradparents. Not to mention aromas, flavors, and sweets my pallet had never experienced. There was even an old fat white man, claimed to be Santa Clause. Obviously, an impersonator, as Santa Claus was Black and thin, as I had known him to be back home. That holiday, someone, who obviously did not know I was a little boy, gifted me with a baby doll wearing a yellow dress and bonnet. Her name was Sunshine and I hated her and everything she stood for. Moreso, I was offended at the gesture. My Sweet Mother, for which I am named (Ekanem means Sweet Mother), descelated a brewing meltdown, by simply taking the doll, removing the dress and bonnet, resewing the clothing from dress to overalls, and renaming HIM Sunny. My parents, my Sweet Mother, with subconscious, yet calculated intent continued, seemingly without much fuss or thought, to cater to my identity. She was always making me or trying to make me feel good and beautiful about myself; My light skin color, my hair, the gap between my teeth, my obesity, my queerness, my sensitivity, my femininity, and even my masculinity. My whole family really did. If it was playing the “boy” roles in plays and skits, or being the father when I played house, or that my best friends were always boys… no one ever batted an eye or attempted to redirect me.
For example, In 1986 my parents bought me my first male doll, My Buddy, as advertised on TV. The moment I saw the advertisement I knew that most of my problems were solved. The boy in the commercial drove a big wheel tricycle. The same wheels I was rolling on in those days. So, we already had something in common. The kid and My Buddy had a clubhouse with some other male friends. I had male friends and my cousin, Anthony and we had indeed built several clubhouses. Mom sometimes made forts and forts were just as good. The only thing different about me and the boy in the ad was that I didnt have that doll. And then, just like that, my folks got me one too. Until this day, I still have My Buddy. He was truly one of my best friends in my young childhood.
My parents knew, in a casual sense, that I wanted to be a boy. It was something repeatedly implied, if not just said, and in hindsight, repeatedly expressed in my behavior and in activities in which I did or didn’t want to participate. Around the same age, I wanted to shave with my father as we got ready for school, while my mother was working. My father bought me a toy shaving kit and let me pretend to shave alongside him. That was our special time everyday, and is still one of the best memories I have of Quality Times spent with my Dad.
As time went on, and “pretending” to be a boy wore thin at school and began to backfire, I slowly stopped talking about it. As puberty hit and kids became mean, I began to hide my truth. It wasn’t until randomly seeing an episode of Jerry Springer at a friend’s house, a sensationalized episode about “sex change” stories, that I realized that there were other people who felt like me. I rode my bike home as fast as I could to tell my mother. My parents supported that I felt different, but “options” to DO or ALTER anything about my physical appearance were, hintedly, off the table. I could FEEL any way I felt, but I wasn’t to DO anything about it.
For years, I tried to comply. At 21, I was 300 pounds, living without hormones, trying to tape myself down, to live as a man outside of my family – hoping that no one would notice the truth about my body and voice. Those years were horrible, filled with constant anxiety of trying to “pass” as male and worrying about being found out. More than anything, it was physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. 13 years later, I couldn’t do it anymore.
In April of 2014, I walked into a doctors office, sick from depression, advanced alcoholism, and paralyzing anxiety. I asked the doctor, whom I had never met before, to prescribe me Testosterone hormones. After a brief 5 minute conversation, I walked out with a Prescription for “T” and some psych meds. No questions asked. No tests run. No blood levels checked. No psychological eval. I have been on hormones for just shy of 4 years, put myself through hospitalized detox for alcoholism, inpatient rehab, a program of recovery, therapy, weaned off of psych meds, secured ongoing medical treatment for alcoholism, and coordinated my own gender reassignment treatment and surgeries, all on my own, without guidance from an insurance provider or a PCP.
The effects of hormones on my body and mind have been life changing. The freedom for a person to move among his/her fellows, as they are, without scrutiny, unsolicited attention, as a man among men/woman among women is the way most people are gifted to live with impunity. The alternate, I assure you, is an internal imprisonment of a secret torment. It made me resentful and angry and hidden and ashamed and inadequate and insane and deviant and imagined. My life is peaceful now. Normal. Sensical. Authentic and genuine. This is not my costume. I do not take the trans off when I am at home alone. This is the person I am and always have been. My personality has not changed. My confidence has. Now, instead of agonizing over passing as male, I just am. I would have to tell people that I’m a transman for them to ever know – as has been necessary to share in several recent visits for medical treatments. More often than not, I then have to explain what being a transman means and how the definition is applicable to me. Most of the time, it takes some convincing before people believe that I am a man of trans experience. Those moments are more often than not, the moments just preceding those in which I am forced to set boundaries regarding inappropriate questions and remarks which so often follow.
After a lifetime of feeling like and knowing that I was someone other than who I was assigned to be, I am settling into who I truly am and have been this whole time. I never realized the roadblocks I would hit to just be my authentic self. Probably the most difficult, is navigating the healthcare arena and navigating something even more stressful and dangerous. I, still am only just learning how to navigate this world, in this climate, as Ekanem Bassey Otu, a Black man (of trans experience) in America.