Culture clash 

Nigerian student explains 'other side' of transgender assault

On April 28, Nigerian exchange student Obioha Onwubiko danced with and kissed a transgender woman outside the Elk's Club. After he found out that she was born a biological male, he punched her in the face.

Police charged Onwubiko with two misdemeanors, one of them sexual assault. The 21-year-old also faces a University of Montana student conduct code investigation into the incident.

Onwubiko doesn't dispute any of the above details, but he does plan on pleading not guilty when his case is scheduled to go to trial in December. He doesn't believe he did anything wrong.

Onwubiko was born in Nsukka, a rural region in eastern Nigeria. Homosexuality is not only a cultural taboo in Nsukka, it's a crime, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In northern parts of the country, anyone caught engaging in homosexual intimacy is stoned to death. Although Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, transgender people are nearly unheard of in rural communities.

"In my culture it's looked at very, very differently," Onwubiko says. "They kill you back home."

In the days immediately following the incident, Onwubiko avoided contacting his family in Nigeria to ask for help, even when he needed assistance paying his legal bills.

"I couldn't even call my parents to tell them the story," he says. "I feel ashamed that a guy touched me. I was hiding my face."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo courtesy of Anita Green
  • International student Obioha Onwubiko admits to punching Anita Green, a transgender woman, in the face outside the Elk’s Club last spring.

Onwubiko says it was a fluke that he even went out that spring night. He's not a drinker, and says he has not dated anyone since arriving at UM in January 2011. But when his buddies from the African Student Association asked him to join them at the Elk's Club for a fundraiser, he got dressed up and headed downtown.

Once there, a friend asked Onwubiko if he'd like to dance with a young woman that Onwubiko didn't know. The friend said she was too shy to ask him herself. Onwubiko recalls thinking, "'Who is this person who wants to dance with me?'"

It turned out to be 21-year-old Anita Green, a fourth-year UM student from Billings. (Onwubiko only refers to Green as "this person.") She has long strawberry blond hair and pale skin. She's also a preoperative transgender woman.

According to Onwubiko, they danced provocatively before eventually going outside for air. They kissed in front of the Elk's Club.

Onwubiko's account of what happened that night differs from Green's on a few key points. Notably, Onwubiko says Green was the aggressor. Green, however, says that Onwubiko was rough with her and demanding. He ripped her shirt, Green says. During their interaction, Onwubiko discovered Green has a penis.

"I saw an erection," Onwubiko says, adding that he touched her crotch to confirm. "I found out it was...Imagine how I would feel in this situation."

Green says that she tried desperately to get away from Onwubiko at that point because he was irate and she feared for her safety. "I was terrified," she says.

Green says she filed sexual assault charges because Onwubiko grabbed her crotch without permission.

As Green walked away, Onwubiko claims he reached out to grab her shoulder in an effort to make her stay and explain why she had tricked him. In front of witnesses, Green yelled for him to leave her alone. Onwubiko says that made him even angriera scene he admits looked like a black man trying to overpower a white woman. "This black guy is trying to rape this white girl," he says. "On top of what they have done to me, now they try to assault me again."

Onwubiko admits to punching Green in the right eye. He saw it as a way to ensure she stay put and explain herself. "I was trying to find out why I was being deceived," he says.

On April 30, Onwubiko went to ASUM legal services to ask whether he had grounds to press charges against Green. "They told me just forget about it," he says. "You can't believe how annoyed I was...Is that allowed in this place?"

In addition to the two misdemeanor charges resulting from the April 28 incident, Onwubiko also faces a third misdemeanor assault charge after he allegedly threatened another UM student April 30 on campus. Onwubiko says the second incident was directly related to what happened at the Elk's Club.

Udodirim Onwubiko, Obioha's sister, is a UM graduate now working in Washington state. She's been in the United States longer than her brother and is now advocating on his behalf. She sees the incident from a global perspective. "It is a clash of two cultures," she says.

Udodirim worries about how UM's student conduct code investigation will impact her younger brother's future prospects. If he loses his scholarship, Onwubiko could be forced to return to Nigeria. "I am afraid for him. This is a big dream," she says. "It is a huge privilege and it would be terrible to lose it."

As for Green, she had a black eye for several days after Onwubiko punched her. She feels more vulnerable now when she goes out than she did before. As she braces for the upcoming trial, she says it doesn't matter where Onwubiko grew up.

"We're not in Nigeria. And he needs to keep that in mind," she says. "I don't believe that sexual assault should ever be justified."

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