Africa: #EndSARS Excluded Queer Protesters. What Will It Take for Acceptance?

28 October 2020

Or when will the time be right for queer people who face police brutality like everyone else, to see their struggles echoed?

This video by Amara is so sad that I'm unable to get through it. Maybe this is because I have become used to seeing fearlessness and joy on her face in her videos these past few weeks. There was still the guardedness and fatigue characteristic of queer Nigerians in her - the this-shit-is-so-hard-but-I-have-to-keep-fighting feeling we all try hard to hide - but she always had joy. Not this time. Even in the thumbnail of the video, you see her looking defeated.

There'd been so much freedom in the early days of the #EndSARS protests. Queer people, both in Abuja and Lagos, had displayed banners declaring their humanity. Na lesbian I lesbian I no kill person. Queer lives are important. A video of queer activist Matthew Blaise screaming "Queer lives matter" on the streets of Ikoyi has been viewed over 3 million times. It felt like, buoyed by the moment, if Nigerians hadn't learned to see queer people as full humans, they had at least learned to look the other way.

But then there was Amara's video. In it, she narrated how a protester in Abuja had unfurled a rainbow flag. Quickly other demonstrators turned on her and her queer peers. They tore down the brave banners declaring pride and dignity, and seized the flag. Some other protesters formed a human barricade around their queer peers to protect them.

On Twitter, some people defended the actions of the intolerant protesters. The more articulate ones argued that while a "movement in Nigeria specifically about LGBQ rights is long overdue", they shouldn't "hijack" protests about police brutality with a rainbow flag or with their own slogans because that's "literally creating another protest within the main protest". But in what sense are queer Nigerians trying to hijack the protests? We too are fighting to not be brutalised by the police. And like everyone else, we have so many stories.

There's my friend who, on his way home on an okada to Ikoyi, was stopped by police officers. This one go be one of them, they said when they saw his short shorts. They ordered him to unlock his phone and, when he refused, they slapped him. They dragged him into their van, continued to assault him until he did as they asked. They took screenshots of his texts and threatened to rape him with their batons.

There was also the young man waiting at the bus stop in Ogba who was bundled into a SARS korope. You're a yahoo boy, they shouted at him until he unlocked his phone when their refrain switched to Ah, what this one is doing is worse than yahoo.

In both instances, the police forced them to pay bribes before they were released.

Despite the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act of 2013, being gay is no more a crime in Nigeria that having an iPhone or driving a Benz. And so, if protesters are already carrying banners declaring "iPhone no be gun" and "I drive Benz no be crime", then how is "Na lesbian I lesbian, I no kill person" any different? If people are assaulted because of their queerness, then how is the declaration of the validity and rightness of that queerness "literally creating another protest within the main protest"?

Talking with my friend Kayode about this, he mentioned the deft positioning of the Feminist Coalition in #EndSARS, and commented that a similar move by queer Nigerians might just be what will bring acceptance. The morning after the protests started on 8 October, several women began mobilising. Food vendor @Mosopemi shared her plan to provide breakfast for the protesters. Feyikemi Abudu began raising funds for this purpose, and a female attorney started seeking lawyers willing to volunteer to support arrested protesters. Seeing a need for organisational leadership, the Feminist Coalition came in. It helped coordinate efforts and wrapped the #EndSARS cause around itself. These women's invaluable actions ever since have forced men to recognise their humanity.

My friend suggested that finding a way for queer Nigerians to wrap the movement around themselves, too, might be necessary to make all protesters recognise that "they suffer like us" and engender a coming together, rather than a setting apart of struggles. This view is both optimistic (to think that Nigerians may begin to accept queer people) and infuriating (to see how minorities have to keep proving their humanity in the first place). It may also be a fragile strategy. We have already begun to see cracks in the rapprochement between the Feminist Coalition and the rest of the populace following their now-deleted tweet in support of queer protesters. This has been their agenda all along, some people have said.

Days after Amara's video, she and some other queer demonstrators returned to the protests. One of them carried a basket of green apples, inside which there was a rainbow flag, its colours bright and pretty. The joy had returned to Amara's voice. In other parts of Nigeria too, queer protesters held up their #QueerLivesMatter banners in defiance. They showed another way to prove their humanity and earn respect. To keep showing up again and again, despite the hate, just like other Nigerians who continued to protest police brutality in the face of more police brutality. To ignore the noise and declare I am here, I am valid.

It's a way all too familiar to queer Nigerians anyway.

Adeniyi Ademoroti is the Features Editor at BellaNaija, and an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His writing has appeared in AGNI, Hobart and The Republic.

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