Flying straight and level as an African lesbian

Written by on September 16, 2020

Enid Otun is an aviation engineer and the creator of, ‘If Women Were Meant To Fly, The Sky Would Be Pink’, a podcast about her life as a female pilot in Nigeria

As a Black, female commercial pilot in Nigeria in the 1980’s and 90’s, I was starting to grapple with the big questions. What am I? Who am I?

I never used the word gay. I never used the word homosexual. I had no issue with those words in themselves, I had just never thought about relating them to me.

I realised that something inside me was saying that I was perhaps drawn more to women, but I certainly wasn’t in the right location for that to be happening.

In Nigeria being gay is not well received. That’s putting it mildly – it could literally be a question of life or death. And, even if it wasn’t that bad, there were plenty of fanatics in my local community who would be only too pleased to mow down a suspected lesbian.

I realised that, whatever words I used to describe myself, I could not afford to be out and proud if I wanted to survive. But, at the same time, I certainly wouldn’t pretend to be straight to appease my community. So I tried living my best life, until things changed for the better.

Eventually I met a woman who was mixed race like me and we slowly started a relationship.

It was complicated. All of our liaisons were clandestine and we lived in permanent fear of our relationship being exposed.

My mother eventually became aware of it and was not happy. I wasn’t bothered by her disapproval, though. I was determined to live my own life.

However, she decided to bring things to a head by contacting my cousin. I knew her fairly well, she had made an appearance when my father died (as they all did, hoping they would be in the will).

I walked in, in full uniform, and before I could get a word in edgeways the cousin proceeded to lay my life out in front of me.

“So now, you are not in boarding school anymore. All this playing with girls is fine in school, but now you are 26 and you need to stop all this girl nonsense. Get married, settle down and have children, you hear me?”

Oh, I heard her. Interestingly, I hadn’t “played”, as she put it with girls. I had only just started a relationship with a woman at the age of 26!

Her comments were a red rag to a bull. I leaned forward slightly so that she could see me head on in full view, epaulettes and all.

“I assume you are referring to me being gay. I am gay and always will be. As for my achievements as a female commercial pilot in this community, where women are treated as belongings, they were hard fought for and I give them up for no-one. “

I walked out never to see her again.

Enid Otun stands by an aircraft with her copilot in the mid 1990s. Enid Otun via Thomson Reuters Foundation

I realised that, in effect, I had sealed my own fate if she chose to shame me in public.

So I had no choice but to keep my relationship under the radar for both our sakes. Deep rooted cultural beliefs kept anyone who was different underground.

My inner strength and fighting spirit, learned from years of forging ahead with my career in spite of major opposition, in a time when you could not be Black, female and gay, would, I hoped at the time, keep me safe for now.

We have moved on since then. But unfortunately, while there is still state sponsored prejudice and fear, the LGBT+ community in Nigeria will forever need to look over their shoulders.

I have come a long way since then too.

Having moved to the UK in 1997, I still work in the aviation industry as a datalink engineer for a large U.S. firm. I have been married to the love of my life Lucy for 14 years. And, as long as draconian laws dictate who you can love back in my native country, I will never return.


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