It’s not often that we see onscreen black queer representation that is as rich, complex and balanced as Eric Effiong played by Ncuti Gatwa in Netflix's Sex Education. Over the last few seasons, we have watched Eric, the best friend of Asa Butterfield's Otis, navigate his queerness in a way that is joyful yet sober and nuanced. From the moment we are introduced to Eric, he is confident in his sexuality as he proudly talks about the two and a half (!) handjobs he has given over the summer and is quick to give a dick-sucking workshop using a banana at a house party. It has also been beautiful to watch him grow as the episodes and seasons passed. In the show’s most recent season, which dropped last week, we get to see Eric explore not just his queer identity but also his identity as a Nigerian born in the diaspora.
In episode six, Eric goes on a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, with his mother for a wedding and, for the first time, the audience is taken out of the show’s Americanised Britain. Through Eric’s lens, we get one of the more nuanced representations of the Nigerian queer scene that I, as a gay man living in Nigeria, have ever seen on television. What makes it so rich is the understanding of subtlety. Early on in the episode, Eric is interrogated by family members as to whether he has a girlfriend. The question of whether or not you have a partner of the opposite sex haunts many queer Nigerians because marriage is important – which makes the fact that most of the Nigerian scene takes place against the backdrop of a wedding even better – and so is being paired off. Watching Eric quickly become subject to this interrogation is a bit too familiar but also feels apt. In Nigeria, there are several legislations that criminalise marriages between people of the same gender, sexual relations between people of the same gender and even parties and clubs that might promote homosexuality. All of this, in addition to how highly conservative the country is, makes Nigeria a very unsafe place to be for LGBTQIA+ people.
At the wedding, Eric meets Oba, a young gay Nigerian photographer. Most of the important statements Oba makes about the reality of the Nigerian queer community he makes when he stops talking. He tells Eric that weddings make him sad because they remind him of what he can't have; the most important part is left unsaid. His goal here is to identify if Eric is also queer or, more importantly, someone he could freely be himself with in a way that doesn’t require him to mention “gay”, “homosexuality” or any words that could put Oba in danger if he had been wrong about Eric. Navigating a country like Nigeria as a queer person, where even apps like Grindr are littered with homophobes actively seeking out queer people to harm, means that people like Oba – like me – have mastered the art of identifying safe spaces and safe people wherever we go, regardless of whether we intend to hook up with these people, be friends with them or merely know if we are safe with them. Later on, Oba tells Eric, ‘‘There are a lot of us here; we just have to speak quietly.’’ This statement captures the reality of a significant part of the underground queer subculture that is thriving quietly in Nigeria, especially in Lagos. While more queer people and queer spaces are visible in Nigeria now than ever before, the majority of the queer community in Nigeria still has to exist quietly.
Oba functions as Eric’s guide in navigating the often dangerous reality of being LGBTQIA+ in Nigeria. As they drive to a secret queer party, they receive a few menacing glances from the taxi driver, who appears to have deciphered where they're heading. Oba’s not-so-subtle shift in demeanour in a bid to throw him off is chilling to observe, but it is the contrast in Eric’s face who – while no stranger to homophobia – isn’t as used to his effeminacy putting him in such casual and immediate danger. Eric is almost oblivious to it and it is only after this he realises how risky it was to follow Oba in the first place. When they arrive at their destination, Oba immediately scouts for escape routes. However, as they walk into the party, it is beautiful to watch the tension dissipate. Freedom to be oneself and exist freely and authentically is universally understood among queer people regardless of the society they are raised in. On a larger scale, it shows the resilience of LGBTQIA+ Nigerians, who are working hard to create safe spaces for themselves in a country that makes it hard for them to do so, and on a smaller scale, it is a joy to watch Eric exist, albeit briefly, surrounded by people he shares so much with at this special intersection of being queer and Nigerian.
This is not to say that the portrayal of Nigeria on Sex Education is without its flaws – Eric’s mother's accent is pretty confusing to me and I find it hard to place, and there are one too many Nigerian expletives thrown about. However, it can’t overshadow how great a job they did with capturing the energy of a Nigerian wedding, the relationship with Eric's grandmother — for example, when she shoos away a girlfriend of a son from taking a family photo with the rest of the family in case they break up and need to cut her out — and their extremely nuanced approach to the largely underground LGBTQIA+ community in Nigeria.
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