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‘If she finds out I’m gay, I would be buried six feet under’

2019-05-16 23:29

Five years after Nigeria introduced harsh anti-homosexuality laws, secrecy has pushed the increasingly at-risk LGBTI community underground – while, above ground, Nollywood serves up a diet of gay demons, writes Charl Blignaut.

The already congested streets of Lagos are awash with election posters. Nigeria is in the middle of its two voting weekends and patriarchs preside over traffic islands, interrupted by the occasional matriarch in traditional attire.

Pop star Banky W has returned decent numbers in his district and is the only politician any of the young people I meet want to talk about.

Most say they are not going to vote; that the oil and military-driven political state is a parallel universe. Especially if you’re queer.

I’m in a car with two medical doctors – young Nigerian virologists working in the field of men’s sexual health, in particular men who have sex with men. Both are activists in their own way.

Like everyone else in this report, they’ll remain nameless – call them Doc and Fred – because they have no desire to attract negative attention to their work in a country where being caught having “carnal relations” with a member of the same sex can result in arrest without a warrant, a 14-year jail sentence and a life shrouded in shame. “Gross indecency” gets you three years behind bars. Public displays of affection are criminal here, making Lagos, for all its dynamism and hustle, a giant closet.

Nigerian society has always been homophobic, but there was an outcry from human rights activists when, in 2014, then president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.

At the time, Graeme Reid from Human Rights Watch said: “This law threatens to further marginalise an already stigmatised population, driving them underground, and imperiling their rights and their health. It will most likely lead to the arbitrary arrest of gay people, while facilitating extortion and blackmail of vulnerable groups by members of Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt security services.”

Doc confirms all of Reid’s fears.

“They have banned sex, but it’s had the effect of banning being gay,” he says. “The police even stop us on the road, search us, take our phones, look through our pictures, look for gay apps. You’re immediately guilty. You just have to walk in a feminine way. Mostly, they will take you to the bank to draw money for them. It’s become a thing now – either you pay them or you have to bail yourself out. And the fear is family finding out. The threat to call the family.”

Fred, in his immaculate Ankara fabric, agrees.

“In the media, they don’t talk about it – it’s a subject to be avoided. Unless it’s bad news, like men lined up after being arrested … Though we did have Falz and Laila.”

The occupants of the car begin to chatter excitedly. Ahead of the elections, a talk show called On the Couch was launched on YouTube. Its hosts, rapper Folarin Falana and journalist Laila Johnson-Salami, grilled presidential hopefuls and pointedly asked about their positions on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights. The clips of politicians squirming and changing the subject went viral.

Testing in nightclubs

The 2014 laws have made Doc and Fred’s work tricky. Funded by international nongovernmental organisations and philanthropists, Fred works on the mainland, while Doc works at a home clinic on Victoria Island, the wealthy part of this lagoon megacity with an estimated population of 23.5 million.

Fred’s clinic has adapted to the challenge by going out at night to offer on-site testing and counselling for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Although there are no LGBTI clubs in Lagos, there are private parties.

“We identify [queer] people who clearly know other people, we call them influencers, and they get paid for each person who comes to test. We set up the testing station close to where the party is,” he says.

Then the worrying truth: “We have had close to a 70% positive result for HIV from this group,” says Fred.

Fred’s clinic, as does Doc’s, dispenses antiretroviral treatments as well as Prep (a pill that can remove the risk of contracting HIV but not other sexually transmitted infections) and Pep (a pill that’s taken after potential exposure to HIV), as well as hepatitis B vaccinations. Despite these medical advances, testing HIV positive is a double closet for the clinics’ patients. Doc says most don’t tell their families they have tested positive and, if they do, they will almost never say the reason is sex. Almost all of the young gay men #FreedomForAll spoke with live at home.

We will hear stories of young men testing positive and telling their fathers, who proceed to have the entire household tested, suspecting the domestic worker of somehow infecting others. Or stories where blame is laid on a pair of scissors or clippers borrowed from another boy at school.

Secrecy, it seems, enables myths and misconceptions about HIV transmission to be entrenched instead of dispelled.

The demons of Nollywood

Alvin (24) has recently obtained an engineering qualification and is one of the young men who has stuck to his antiretroviral meds. His viral load is undetectable, but he is battling to live at home with his middle-class family. He found out he was positive while he was at school. He’d only ever had unprotected sex with one man, who denied he was positive when Alvin confronted him. As this was happening, the new laws took hold.

“It’s doubly hard being HIV positive. I have to keep it a secret and I’m not this person; I hate lying,” he says. “My mum and sister know. I told them I don’t know how I got it. My mum thinks it’s a spiritual problem.”

She isn’t the only one who believes this. On TV and streaming on the internet, Nigeria’s melodrama factory Nollywood makes surprisingly common use of gay and lesbian characters, most often demonising them. Given the laws and the role played by the state censors, queers are shown as immoral and it’s not uncommon for a gay character to make a pact with the devil or become possessed by a demon. A powerful priest must then convert them to Christianity and cure them. Of course, they could just as well die or be arrested by the police in the storylines increasingly studied by academics.

“It’s always very negative, how Nollywood portrays gay men – often as effeminate, often as paedophiles. Nigerians are very gullible with large religious and cultural biases. It wasn’t always like this, it’s become worse,” says Alvin.

I ask what would happen if he had to tell his family he identified as gay, even though some of them suspect it.

“Oh my God, the worst. I don’t know the extent of what they’d do, if they’d kick me out the house or not. Usually, I am just depressed, feeling like I will never measure up.”

Alvin says he has been disappointed when he has used dating apps on his phone, like Grindr and Scruff, to meet other men.

“Everyone just wants a quickie and then they block you. I don’t have an active social life in Lagos … I practice safe sex and I am very careful because I don’t have the strength to disclose. I’d rather avoid penetrative sex.”

Hooking up while illegal

Musa says that the safety warnings on these apps when opening them in Nigeria should be taken seriously.

“Everyone has a story. Hopefully you learn from the first time. He demanded oral sex and then robbed me with a knife, took my bank card and my phone. If I didn’t draw the cash, he would phone the police. If your family finds out …”

At the clinic, Doc hears many similar stories: “Sometimes the people who do that are also gay people, but because of greed and internalised homophobia, people can do it. We’ve had people come in here who’ve had sex with someone and they’ve woken up to find another person in the room, and the two just start beating them, demanding money.

“We teach people to think about moving from Grindr to WhatsApp or Facebook and have a longer conversation there. Try to meet in a public place. They’ll rather drag you to a place where you don’t know anybody.”

On the mainland, Femi (28) sighs deeply when he tells me how soon after the laws came into effect he was caught in bed with a man and marched naked to the police, and how his life changed completely after his family threw him out.

Tony (24) was at school at the time.

“There would be videos that went viral. Gay couples or lesbian couples would be caught and someone would record it on their phone. They would be forced to have sex, and people would kick them and punch them while they did it. All the kids watched the videos.”

Tony knows the clinic on the island because he went there when his first boyfriend told him he had tested HIV positive.

“My heart was beating. I had only ever been with him. Everything came back negative. It was the happiest day of my life. But I’ve never been in another relationship ... This society opposes a relationship itself.”

A quiet activism

Tony works in the finance sector.

“In the office, there’s the general assumption that no one is gay. People even get fired if it comes out because the bosses are homophobic,” he says. “They fear you will project a negative image of the company. They fear you will want to touch them.”

He’s determined not to let straight people define his gayness, but he has no choice but to pass as straight at work as jobs are hard to come by.

“Nigerian masculinity ... well ... everyone has to fit. You have to express your masculinity and be macho. How you speak, how you walk – you learn and you copy them, it’s a protection …”

At the same time, Nigerian masculinity often seems to display itself.

“The majority of men in Lagos dress in a gay way; they like to open the buttons down the chest, the trousers are skinny, they look extra. That can be attractive. They’re being sexy to attract women, of course, but it’s confusing. What you’re emulating, you can also be attracted to.”

Tony is one of 20-odd siblings born into a polygamous family in southern Nigeria.

“There are eight mums. The marriages disbanded over time – the wives wanted better lives. I grew up with sisters who utilised me as a Barbie doll. They’d put me in heels and make-up to entertain themselves.”

He lives with one of his sisters today.

“If she finds out I’m gay, I would be buried six feet under … It’s a complicated conversation. I’m the only boy to my mum and the only one with my father’s name. They would lose respect for me, I would lose their affection, I would be a disease that they would want to fix …”

The fix for most families, of course, is marriage.

“Parents expect you to think about family at a certain age. When I get to 28, they will ask when I am going to marry and have kids. By 30, you must marry, regardless of whether you’re working or not. They want you to be a family man.”

A lesbian couple I meet say they faced the same pressure to marry and, in the end, they chose to move to Lagos and become estranged from their families.

Doc says that many see this pre-marriage phase “as that part of your life to have recreational fun, not something that should be intimate and special and lead to something deeper. So there’s a shortage of long-term queer relationships.”

There is no Pride Parade in Lagos, and no physical protests on the streets.

“You’ll be jailed if you protest – the fear and threat of arrest is there. The police are very brutal, they spray bullets. No one will say a word about it, it’ll barely be in the media,” says Tony.

Doc says: “No one wants to talk about it. The attitude is to just go on and live your life and sort yourself out. That’s not to say we don’t have gay people and lesbians and trans people and that their realities don’t exist. It’s their voices that don’t exist.”

Doc speaks about how his clinic has a legal division to keep testing the 2014 law, to keep chipping away to force a conservative legislature to define its powers.

“We have this symposium every year where we talk about the laws. We also make movies and web series where we talk about our things. But sometimes they get censored and removed, sometimes we just put them online but not in the mainstream. You can’t be allowed to encourage homosexuality,” he says. “But in many parts of the country, it’s fine to take a child bride.”

Alvin is not optimistic, but he hopes to find a job and move into his own place in Lagos.

“It takes moral fortitude to stand up and say I will not live a lie within a society shackled by culture and religion. We just have to do our best to keep going,” he says.

Tony tells me how a friend of his was exposed in a video.

“His family kicked him out. His job relieved him of his duties. He began to have suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t make him feel better, but he relied on us. He gave up on his family and made a new family.”

He refuses to let the laws shape his destiny.

“We do have fun, me and my friends. We’re an alternative family, we’re in places straight people can only hope to be. The majority of fashion houses are gay enclaves, the models who leave the country will tell you, and gays have achieved national fame in the food and entertainment sectors. We know that they’re gay; they’re a positive representation of the idea that we can achieve that too. For me, I just want to live my life.”

  • This series on LGBTI life in Africa is made possible through a partnership with The Other Foundation. To learn more about its work, visit theotherfoundation.org
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October 13 2019