“I was too scared to let anyone find out because as a teenager [growing up in Nigeria] I was made to believe that being gay was a curse and it was the worst crime ever.”
Although a global trend towards equal rights for LGBT communities is on the rise, the Nigerian government has seemed determined to head in the opposite direction. Two years after the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was passed, LGBT people in Nigeria continue to live in fear, being hunted like animals and treated like criminals. Even holding hands with their same-sex partner in public can put a Nigerian behind bars.
Violating the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition law can lead to up to 14 years in prison. Additionally, in the 12 northern Nigerian states where Sharia law is imposed, punishments for homosexual acts include imprisonment, caning or death by stoning. The law also criminalises anyone who advocates for LGBT rights, barring people from even showing support for the cause.
Richard Moore, a graphic designer living in Lagos, realised at an early age that he wasn’t attracted to girls.
“At the age of 5, I found myself crushing on a couple of boys in my class. At that point in my life, I didn’t know there was a word for that.”
He continued: “As I grew, these feelings grew with me. When I got into university, I tried locking it all away but I couldn’t. That was when I realised that I was gay.”
Homophobia rampant in Nigeria
African countries remain among the least accepting of homosexuality, with homophobia being a common occurrence in Nigeria. A poll conducted by NOIPolls in 2015 revealed that 87% of Nigerians supported the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which is commonly referred to by Nigerians as the “Jail The Gays Law.” It was because of these homophobic surroundings that Richard realised coming out was not an option for him.
“I was too scared to let anyone find out because as a teenager I was made to believe that being gay was a curse and it was the worst crime ever.”
In secondary school, Richard began fooling around with a classmate. When some of the older boys in his dormitory discovered what he was doing, the backlash began.
“I was beaten up publicly. They all said it would have been better if I had sex with women. I was constantly being taunted till I graduated.”
Richard also experienced homophobia from his family when his grandmother and aunt found gay porn on his phone. He explained how his family had prayed for “the evil habit” of homosexuality to be eliminated from his life, making him realise that he would have to keep his lifestyle hidden from his family.
In 2014, research by the Solidarity Alliance revealed that 45 cases of abuse against LGBT people had been recorded in one year alone. More shockingly, it revealed that family, friends and neighbours had carried out 73% of the attacks.
Ayo Sogunro, a Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist for The Initiative for Equal Rights, said that most Nigerians are ignorant about the scope of the same-sex ban, but understand that it has been placed to “stop gays”.
“The law has encouraged a number of ordinary citizens to act on their intolerance in the guise of obeying the law. It provides unscrupulous officials with additional leverage for their profiling and extortion rackets.”
Richard believes that the country’s law banning same-sex marriage has put the LGBT community in the spotlight.
“The moment the ban was publicly declared alongside the 14-year jail sentence, a lot of people were suddenly on the manhunt for anyone that could possibly be gay.”
Since the law’s implementation, abuse and extortion have become common among state-sponsored vigilantes, police and public mobs. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has also been vocal in condemning the LGBT community.
“I remember being stopped on the road by policemen,” Richard recalled. “They asked to search my phone. That sounded ridiculous to me. After a bit of resistance, I let them. The minute they saw a sex chat I was having with an ex-boyfriend, they got me in handcuffs and shoved me into their van.”
Richard was dragged to the station, where the police demanded money for his release. “It was either that or they were going to inform my family,” he said. “I was terrified.” Richard later found out that the same thing had happened to other gay people in Nigeria.
Coming out in Nigeria
Regardless of the situation in Nigeria, several people have come out publicly. Bisi Alimi was the first Nigerian to come out on television, drawing international attention. The Nigerian LGBT activist was forced to flee the country and was granted refugee status in the UK in 2008.
Bisi is not the only openly gay person to flee Nigeria. Aderonke Apata, a LGBT activist, was forced to flee in 2004. Another LGBT activist, Davis Mac-Iyalla, was fired from his job in 2013 and granted refugee status in the UK, where he now lives with his partner.
Harassment, beatings, public shaming, anti-gay laws, and knowing that openly gay people are forced to flee are some of the reasons why most Nigerians choose to hide their sexuality. Richard said he only told two of his friends and never planned on telling his family, although his cousin and sister found out and promised to love him just the same.
Changing attitudes through the younger generation
Ichie RedEyes, a 19-year-old student from Lagos, thinks older generations feel threatened by the LGBT community. He acknowledged that being a lesbian can be difficult because Nigerian men believe women who act out roles traditionally believed to be the man’s role are “overturning the purpose of the family”. However, Ichie said that being gay is equally hard, if not harder, because society tends to be “harder on men”.
“You will be told very often by the religious and traditionalists that your attraction is unnatural and against good wills. You will be asked a lot of ignorant questions about your sex life. The police blackmail, extort and sometimes you will hear of gay people being beaten, burnt or jailed.”
John* is a closeted gay man living in Imo, south-east Nigeria. He has only told his cousin about his sexual orientation and while his cousin was “cool about it”, John has no plans of coming out to the rest of the family, particularly his male relatives. He explained:
“My family is homophobic. My older brother is homophobic. So is my dad. So is my uncle. My dad told me that if he found out I’m gay, he would disown me. It’s not easy to just come out. I might be able to tell my mum later in life. But I don’t think I can ever tell my dad.”
Communicating through social media
Several online communities have emerged within the LGBT community in Nigeria. The website Kito Diaries is one, with the motto: “We’re here. We’re queer. We’re fabulous”, allowing people to submit articles about their lives.
John uses the site to write about how he meets other gay people in Nigeria. He hopes his stories will offer young gay Nigerians assurance that it is possible to have romantic connections in the conservative country.
Richard decided to get involved with Kito Diaries as soon as he came across it.
“I saw Kito Diaries filled with stories of gay people and their crazy experiences and right then I was quite convinced that I wasn’t alone. I felt this need to share my thoughts and experiences as well.”
Richard is working on a series titled “Unknown to ME” about his experiences living as a gay man in Nigeria. He is also in a serious relationship with “someone special” and explained that although he won’t be able to introduce him to his family, they have discussed a future together. In terms of the future of Nigeria’s LGBT community, Richard is unsure.
“I can’t say much about the future of the Nigerian LGBT community, but who knows. Life is filled with surprises.”
*The interviewee’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.