Commentary: An ode to Chicago: My city of refuge

Nigerian writer Unoma Azuah is now a U.S. citizen, but she has stayed deeply involved in her homeland by sharing stories of the persecution of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community there.

Azuah and Syrian writer Osama Alomar were guests of honor at the recent launch of a new Chicago City of Refuge initiative for exiled writers — a collaboration of the International Cities of Refuge Network; PEN International, an association of writers; the Chicago Network for Justice and Peace; and the Guild Literary Complex.

Chicago’s City of Refuge initiative might eventually offer such residencies, but presently it is supporting writers who have relocated to Chicago on their own by promoting their work and helping them develop connections within the arts community.

I ran into the welcoming arms of Chicago

by Unoma Azuah

As I look at my life, a particular scene in my childhood stands out to me. I was 9 years old, and I was playing soccer with my brothers. But my mother's voice pierced through that moment of joy. It was at the moment when I was so sure that I would have scored that one goal if her voiced hadn't startled me.

She wanted me to stop playing soccer with the boys. Instead, I was to hasten to the kitchen, wash the dishes and tidy up. I was so mad. I dared to question her. I asked her why I was always the one being constantly called upon to do chores, to cook, to clean and wash dishes, but none of that for my brothers.

I can't quite express the shock on my mother's face after I asked her the question. I had always been the good, obedient little girl. Then she spat these words at me, "How dare you question me? Who will take care of your husband and your children when you get to your husband's house? Will your brothers help you when you get to your husband's house?"

My response was, "I don't want any of that. I don't want to be anybody's slave!" That shocked her even more. She didn't need to waste any more words; instead she dashed toward me and I tore into the wildest race of my life. I believed that the kind of wrath my comment had stirred up in her was enough to make her beat me to a pulp if she had caught me, but I ran. For a long time, I kept running, until I decided to stop and confront sexism, homophobia, and all forms of discrimination and hate.

My mother was like most Nigerian mothers, who raise their girl child to become a potential wife to a man, just as they raise their boy child to become a potential husband to a woman. However, for little gay boys and little gay girls, and for homosexual men and lesbians, there are no easy escape routes out of the prisons of heterosexuality, sexism and homophobia. We never find affirming outlets. This can often lead us to life-threatening paths and possibly death.

I left Nigeria because of my sexual orientation. I left Nigeria because I would not sacrifice my life to please some of my country's cultural norms and new wave religions. I left Nigeria because I rejected the status of motherhood and marriage to a man as the only most important achievement every woman should have. I left Nigeria because I want Freedom.

When I left Nigeria, Cleveland, Ohio, was my first home. Then I moved to Richmond, Va. From Virginia, I moved to Maryland; from Maryland, I moved to Tennessee. I was restless, and the Bible Belt of the South threatened to choke me. I didn't have all the rights I wanted, so I left the choke of the South and ran to Chicago.

Chicago was waiting for me with open arms. Chicago gave me all the rights I deserved. Chicago reassured me that love is indeed love. Chicago gave me the honor to marry the woman I love. Chicago with a warm embrace said, "Welcome home."

It was the only city at the time to tell me that I am as good and as equal as every man and woman of this great country, that marriage equality was worth celebrating. Chicago gave me the beauty of a new set of wonderful friends and wonderful families. Chicago gave me the beauty of Lake Michigan; it gave me the pulsating heartbeat of Chicago's downtown and many other blessings. But, above all, Chicago gave me the beauty of being. Chicago is indeed my city of refuge.

Unoma Azuah teaches writing at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. Her research and activism focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Nigeria.

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