28 January 2014

Nigeria: Being Gay in Nigeria Now

When President Goodluck Jonathan signed Nigeria's Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act earlier this month, human rights groups around the world cried outrage. But how do homosexuals in Nigeria feel? A gay activist and health worker who calls himself John shares his thoughts on a law that criminalizes his way of life and his livelihood. This is his story as told to Nicholas Ibekwe.

My name is John. I'm a 29-year-old human rights activist and community health worker from south-eastern Nigeria. Some of my colleagues and friends know I'm gay. I'm not out to my family, but they suspect it.

It's a great taboo in Igboland to be a homosexual. It's a serious taboo in the Igbo tradition. It's seen as aru, an 'abomination'. It is abnormal for a man to have feelings for another man.

In Igboland, people don't get married early. My family is not expecting me to start talking about marriage now, but they expect me to have female friends. Maybe because I'm an ex-seminarian, they still see me as a holy person who should have only male friends. I joined the seminary as a young person and I was expelled because people found out I'm gay.

Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act

I felt sad when I heard that the president signed the bill into law. The new law in Nigeria affects everybody, not just the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community.

As a health worker for the most-at-risk population, I work with gay men, female sex workers and intravenous drug users. The new law compelled us to close all our offices because they were seen as a place where a lot of effeminate guys come. The closure means that those once coming for counselling can no longer do so. That includes spiritual counselling for emotional problems, but also physical issues. Like I'm suppose to treat somebody for warts - there's nobody to treat them. There's nobody to conduct HIV counselling.

But the new law affects not only those who are HIV-positive. If they are unable to access care, they will transfer their infection to others.

The law says those found guilty of "aiding and abetting" should be imprisoned for five years, so if we continue our work, definitely we are going to be jailed. And now it will also be difficult for us to hang out. This law criminalizes the coming together of gay people or forming gay clubs or associations.

Our peer sessions offering health information and education have halted. If we hold meetings like this, the police will definitely come to arrest us. Even at today's meeting we have to act neutral. We are holding it an eatery, planning to act like people who have come just to have lunch and have our conversation politely.

Arrested, blackmailed and tortured

As a community leader and the local leader for House of Rainbow Fellowship, I have witnessed a number of threats. A lot of the community members were arrested, blackmailed and tortured within a few days after the bill was signed into law. Yesterday someone was seriously beaten and stripped naked because he was seen as effeminate.

When someone is arrested, they are asked to list other people suspected of being gay. This was already going on before the law was actually signed. Recently, they arrested some gay people in Akwa, Anambra State. They arrested over 30 people at Nnewi police station and those arrested paid huge amounts of money to bail themselves out.

But after the bill was signed, they started re-arresting people. They went to my family, but were told I don't live there anymore. In the north, in Bauchi, we recorded about 38 arrests. In Lagos State, there were similar incidents. In Oyo State, eight persons were arrested. So there is great panic in the community.

A Nigeria where...

People are not calm. The law puts everybody in a total confusion. Community members have gone into hiding, including myself.

The new law means I will no longer be free to ask my boyfriend to visit me at home. Because once he comes and we are alone in the house, people will start asking questions.

I love Nigeria. I would love to stay in Nigeria. I would love to raise my child - if we're to have one tomorrow - in Nigeria. I might travel out of the country, maybe on a temporary basis, until the law is repealed because persecution threats are high now. But I don't take any joy in thinking of leaving the shores of this country, seeking asylum or going to live permanently abroad. I don't have that in my agenda. I don't want it.

The only thing I want is a Nigeria where everybody, irrespective of our sexual orientation, is respected. Where our fundamental human rights will be respected. Where I can come home and be very free to live my life because my ancestors came from this place.

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