“Being gay in Nigeria is like being on the most wanted list of a law enforcement agency; you are not safe and no one wants to associate with you. Sometimes I feel so scared, lonely and terrible that I just feel like ending my life.”
These were the words of 25-year-old Tope James (Not real names) as she discussed how life has been since she discovered her sexual orientation.
Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, of 2013, which took effect in January 2014, made a bad situation much worse for the already subdued Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community, as the law prohibits any form of gay marriage, or civil union entered into between persons of the same sex.
On 13 January, 2014, former president, Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which imposes various punishments for some types of homosexual acts.
The Act imposes a 10-year prison sentence on anyone who “registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations” or “supports” the activities of such organisations. It also provides a 14-year imprisonment for persons who contract same-sex marriage in the country.
However, it seems the law has paved the way for people to engage in homophobic violence without fear of legal consequences. There have been various reports of LGBT people in the country being molested due to their sexuality, as the Act has been used as an excuse by many to stage violent attacks on the LGBT community.
While some are extorted for their secrets to be kept, others have been sexually abused, and there seem to be no legal protection against discrimination of the LGBT community in Nigeria.
Although the Act only intensified the attacks, the challenge of homosexuality is not a new thing to the Nigerian society.
In 2004, Nigerian gay rights activist, Bisi Alimi became the first Nigerian to openly confess his homosexuality on national television, and eventually had to relocate to the United Kingdom after series of threats on his life.
Members of the House of Rainbow Metropolitan Community Church, a welcoming ministry for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people in Lagos in 2008, were also threatened, stoned, and beaten.
Sharing his experience with Nigerian Tribune, gay pastor Reverend Jide Macaulay, and the founder and CEO of House of Rainbow, said “I lived in Nigeria as a young man with my parents and the rest of my family, I was never able to express my sexuality due to the hostile environment of the home, church and community against same sex attractions. The only response was often violence masked in the rhetoric of religious oppression and bigotry.”
Macaulay who now lives in the United Kingdom added that “Between 2006 and 2008, I attempted to establish a faith based community to support Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) people in Nigeria, to provide a safe place for families and allies. In two years we did as much as we can, however, what was most frustrating is the ignorance of our government in cheapening of human lives and inaccurate faith and religious interpretations of the sacred text.”
Last year, the Bisi Alimi Foundation conducted a survey of Nigeria’s LGBT persons on what it feels to be a member of the community. Some of the responses included stories of rape, police harassment and extortion, family rejection and denial of healthcare services.
“I travelled to my home town with my girlfriend some years ago, and a neighbour busted in and caught us in the act. They were two guys; they hit us with belt and even threatened to expose us to the public if we don’t comply with them. They ended up forcing us to have sex with them.” (Lesbian living in Nigeria, 25-34)
Another one said “I have had to deal with physical, emotional and verbal abuse from family. So bad I’ve incurred wounds and scars from it. I’ve shrunk into my shell for fear of coming out or being found out. Depression has become the order of the day and suicide sometimes seems like the best way out.” (Queer Person living in Nigeria, 25-34)
Speaking with Nigerian Tribune, Alimi who got married in December noted that although it might take a while, LGBT persons in Nigeria will someday eventually find succour.
“I believe there is a safe future for LGBT persons in Nigeria, although it won’t come easy. It is a very difficult situation, and while I want people to be safe, I also don’t want them to lose their authentic self.
“However, despite that, their safety remains a priority. So I advice members of the LGBT community not to go on dates if they don’t know the person. If you must go on a date, don’t go alone. Walk in groups, it helps. I think it is time LGBT people start learning tricks on how to be fit and alert, lick kickboxing, karate and others,” he said.
Members of the LGBT community are of the opinion that the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, as well as violent reactions from the general public contravenes basic tenets of the Nigerian Constitution and serves as aninfringement on their human right.
“Being gay doesn’t make one a bad person, it does not define who you are. And because I am attracted to the same sex should not make me a criminal. Many people don’t understand the emotional trauma that we have to go through. I was once married to a man just to save face after being pressured by my family, but it just didn’t work. I am not attracted to a man,” Eunice said.
In his reaction, Macaulay said “Nigeria took away any possible rights when the government passed the anti-gay laws in 2014. They unleashed the criminal minds of an already corrupt society including the police. The criminality and violence against gays and lesbians are at a record high.
“The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act 2013 was a deceptive legal tool that put at risk the lives of same gender loving people. This in my opinion is not about criminalising sexual act, but behaviours that have been proven over and over again as natural. Nigeria needs to pay attention to human sexuality and what the scientists are saying about homosexuality. A total dependence of religion, culture and tradition is blighting the compassion of humanity to another,” he lamented.
However, despite interventions from international bodies and countries, many African countries with Nigeria included have refused to consider increasing LGBT rights, and in some cases have even drafted laws to increase sanctions against LGBT people.
In April 2014, the African Commission adopted Resolution 275 on Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity. It called on governments to prevent and punish all forms of violence targeting people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It has also urged the Nigerian government to review its law on LGBT matters.
The Federal Government is however, adamant on its take on assenting LGBT rights in Nigeria, as the current administration has made it known many times that it will not be coerced into legalising homosexuality in the country.
President Muhammadu Buhari, during a visit to the United States of America in 2015, categorically ruled out any chance of Nigeria being pressured by America into legalising the act.
According to the Special Adviser to the President of Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, the issue of gay rights came up during a discussion the president had, where he out rightly rejected the idea, citing legal and cultural reasons.
The resentment does not seem to come from the government alone, but from the general public at large, as many believe the issue of homosexuality should not even be up for deliberation.
“Sincerely, I believe the act is demonic and anyone involved in it ought to be chained with series of deliverance sessions held for such person. I really can’t imagine as a woman, why I would allow another woman to touch me. It is just so disgusting,” Kemi said.
Businessman, Charles said “The man is made for the woman and vice versa. Trying to change that is insane. If anyone around me practises that, he or she is ready for doom, as I can’t promise not to be aggressive. They are living a pathetic life.”
Hopeful that things will get better, Macaulay said someday there will be a solution for the crisis of homophobia in Nigeria.
“Handling the pressure is an understatement; it is a nightmare working against the tide of hatred and legal justification. But I have kept my cool by focusing on the reward of saving lives and supporting the LGBTQ people rather than focus on the risks.
“Every day, I receive tons of troll messages of condemnation and prayers sending me to hell. This is not ideal for the wellbeing of anyone, let alone psychological stability. I have learnt to rest my heart in God, knowing what I have learnt about myself as a gay man, loved by God, cherished by the blood of Christ and protected by the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the way forward is to preach the inclusive gospel of Jesus and rejoice in the ineffable love of God.
“I believe that we can find a solution for the crisis of homophobia in Nigeria and push forward to achieve these rights; I believe that our leaders are capable of listening and reasoning; I believe that there are more allies who understand and are not threatened by homosexuality. I am optimistic as long as we stay focused for the long run but there are challenging times and storms ahead. It is hoverer, important to acknowledge that there are very brave LGBTQ people living and fighting everyday in Nigeria,” he said.
Reuben Abati, when invited to deliver the keynote address on “Human Rights, Sexuality and the Law,” in December 2016, at an annual symposium organised to promote awareness on issues relating to the plight of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Intersex (LGBTQI) Community in Nigeria, noted that “Nigeria in spite of acknowledged advancements remains a nightmare where human rights are concerned.
“The failure of institutional mechanisms and the absence of political will to translate constitutional rights into effective human rights realities have resulted in what is clearly a governance and accountability crisis.
“There is a disconnect between Nigeria’s international human rights obligations and what it does at home, creating conflicts and tensions in the implementation of human rights law,” he said.
According to him, “What is clear is that there is a vibrant LGBTQI community in Nigeria led by internationally exposed, media-savvy and knowledgeable young men and women who are determined to insist on their fundamental human rights and their right to be who they want to be. They are aggrieved. They are organised. They have set up platforms for self-expression including the use of technology, publications, the media and other social networking opportunities. Their voice is likely to grow louder as they become more organized. For how much longer can they be ignored?”
If truly Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act is an infringement on their fundamental human rights and their right to be who they want to be, then perhaps, there is a contradiction in the laws.
However, legal practitioner, Barrister Gbenga Makinde noted that in some cases, there exist limits to one’s rights. And although a gay person is entitled to every other right in Nigeria, because the act itself is outlawed, such individual has no right in Nigeria as regards the issue.
“There is no contradiction of laws. Gay is unknown to our law in Nigeria, therefore a gay person has no right when it comes to gay matters; so you can’t put nothing on nothing. Because being gay itself is outlawed in Nigeria, then a gay person although entitled to every other right, has no right as regards gay matters.
“If a gay person is caught for instance and gets to court, such person only has the right to fair hearing and counsel, but will be prosecuted. So as far as law is concerned in Nigeria, same sex relationships are not recognised.”
Besides the law, our socio-cultural values also play a major role in the larger society’s resistance to the act. The environment seems to be harsh on them, and many even without the law, criminalises the act. And in most cases, the resistance is based both on moral values and the law.
Criminologist, Dr Ayodele Olabisi explained that all behaviours are acceptable except the law states otherwise, as the law of a land defines what is acceptable and what is not.
“Human rights are defined by extant laws; it is the law that defines our being. So whatever the law allows and disallows becomes a boundary for behaviour for members of the society. So in Nigeria, the law says there is no gay right, so there is no justification for doing it.
“However, being gay on its own has nothing to do with morality, but the moment the law says it is unacceptable, then it becomes so. Sexuality is about orientation, so if those who are wired to have such urges feel the passage of the law is a devaluation of their rights provided under the Constitution, they can appeal a court of competent jurisdiction and seek for intervention in respect of their rights,” he explained.
In the same vein, describing how socio-cultural values are key in the society’s refusal to accept the act as normal, Sociologist, Mr Aliyu Kolawole said “From the socio-cultural context, that way of life is not what the society is used to.
“Although culture varies across Nigeria, many are used to a relationship of husband and wife in terms of male and female and we socialise in that regard. However by virtue of modernisation and civilisation, other ways of life are coming into our system, which include this form of marriage. So the issue of gay, lesbianism and the likes is alien to our people’s culture and that is why there is a resistance to it.
“Also, we are in a society where religion permeates every aspect of our life, and we tend to explain everything from the religious perspective. So this also influences why people are rejecting the act.”
Many religious doctrines are indeed negative towards homosexuality and any related sexual orientation. Many teachings and beliefs condemn such act, and continue to be an important factor in the opposition to societal acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Cleric, Pastor Jumoke Adebayo citing Romans 1 and Mathew 19 said out rightly, that being involved in the act is a sin.
“The Bible on many instances revealed that homosexuality is a sin. Besides being the major reason Sodom and Gomorra was destroyed, many Bible verses state it as a sin, so being involved in the act is an outright sin.”
An Imam, Alhaji Fareed Bello, said “Islam is totally against it. The holy book says be fruitful and multiply, so I wonder how that can be naturally possible when a man decides to marry another man or when a woman marries another woman. The Quran is against it,” he said.
Even various traditional religions seem to disassociate itself from it.
Traditionalist, Oyinkansola Elebuibon, noted that although it may not necessarily have been something gotten from the western world as its history in Yoruba could be said to date back to pre-modernisation, it is still highly frowned upon.
“It is considered a sin even in tradition,” she said.
Buttressing this, Yemoja priestess, Ifawemimo Omitonade noted that Ifa Orisa tradition does not support homosexuality.
“It is stated in Irosun Elerin that such things are bad. It is believed to be a curse and Yoruba culture and tradition is against it.”
While some view it as a psychological issue, Psychologist, Dr O.O Ekundayo explained that so far, the act of homosexuality has not been named as a psychological issue.
“The statistical Normal Curve in psychology is a frequency curve where most occurrences take place in the middle of the distribution and tapper off on either side. So once there is a deviant in behaviour from what is popular, it may be considered as abnormal. The majority in the middle of the curve are termed normal and those on the two extreme ends are viewed as abnormal. So considering that, homosexuality may be an abnormal behaviour based on statistics, as they are a minority.
“However using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classification, there is nothing psychologically abnormal about them because it has not been classified as an abnormal behaviour,” she said.
However, despite these views, the Nigerian LGBT community is hopeful that someday, their clamours for an environment where they can freely express their right of association will be achieved.