In 2017, Nigerians, young and old, are believed to be pretty homophobic people. Few issues are more likely to elicit loud responses, scriptural references and quasi-intelligent tirades from Nigerians than a mere allusion to homosexuality.
The last decade has seen most liberal western societies recognise LGBTI rights; but where you find yourself outside the very considerate borders of the United States and Europe, and take a walk across Nigeria, being a homosexual can be a death sentence.
On January 7, 2013, former President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same-Sex Prohibition Act into Law.
Apart from making same-sex marriage a crime, the law also carries a 14-year sentence for individuals and organisations who support homosexuality. Public displays of affection were also illegalized.
'Beating the gay out of them'
The implications of the law have been far-reaching. For one, it has validated the perpetual reckless fear of homosexuals.
This is particularly dangerous because it strengthens a sense of obligation to keep homosexuality as distant as possible that many Nigerians have.
It was based on this sense of obligation that on September 12, 2008, four newspapers published the names, addresses and photographs of the twelve members of the House of Rainbow Metropolitan Church, an LGBT-friendly church in Lagos.
As a result, some members were threatened, stoned and beaten. One woman was attacked by 11 men. No attention was taken against those men.
After the law was enacted, attacks on homosexuals have become more rampant, both from private citizens and state institutions. One police unit is reported to have said it was on the hunt for homosexuals.
Nigeria is also now one of the worst places to be friendly to anyone remotely seen as gay. In the past five years, LGBTQ advocacy has become almost non-existent.
Notable advocates like the controversial Bisi Alimi and Michael Ighodaro, now Assistant Professor in Global LGBTI Studies at The New School University in New York, have fled the country, only visiting in short spurts.
A Millenial Perspective
In spite of this and the social suicide that can come from affiliating oneself with gay friends or fashion (or so much as holding hands with a male friend at Lagos Fashion and Design Week), many young people in Africa’s most populous nation are not as averse to homosexuality and the conversation surrounding it as their parents were.
In fact, they are slowly eating into the country’s infamous homophobia with information, content-based activism and conversations.
When being gay is a sin
When defending the Same-Sex Marriage Law, Reuben Abati, spokesperson to the President at the time, said, “this is a law that is in line with the people’s cultural and religious inclination… Nigerians are pleased with it”.
His statement is partly false.
There is anthropological evidence that pre-colonial cultures in what is now Nigeria engaged in same-sex marriages for certain purposes; for the Igbos, it was usually done so one of the women (now deemed the husband) could hold on to her assets or an inheritance where women were not allowed to own property.
What is true, though, is that Nigerian cultures are not familiar with homosexuality in the western sense, where it features same-sex sexual relations.
The researcher, Kenneth Chukwuemeka labels woman-to-woman marriage among pre-colonial Igbos as “an improvisation to sustain patriarchy” and “simply an instrument for the preservation and extension of patriarchy and its traditions”.
It is easy to see where the present religious and cultural inclination comes from.
During and after colonialism, western conservative Christianity and its local Pentecostal offshoots have preached and entrenched a conservative, hyper-homophobic form of the religion. Where homosexuality is brought up, the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah when the subject of ‘gays and lesbians’ is brought forward.
In the North, extreme homophobia is inspired largely by the tenets of the dominant religion, Islam and its jurisprudence, which prescribes various punishments, including death for the sin of homosexuality.
The irony is intense, if you will because this perception sits side-by-side with a growing subculture of Dan Daudu, a derogatory term used to refer to foppish males who can be found in the same area.
While they are arguably as esoteric, perhaps as a function of their unprecedented access to data, science and other cultures, Nigerian millennials do not care as much for religion as their parents did.
It is a global trend. While the world’s population is increasing, the percentage of them who identify with a particular religion is dropping.
This dissociation with religion is as at the basis of how they view homosexuals, away from definitions affected by the fickle extents of morality and faith.
It is a sharp departure from a decade or two ago when the older generation approached the idea of homosexuality as a perverse, immoral and inhuman sexual orientation.
Millennials live in a world where their favourite peers, relatives and colleagues may be or are gay.
In a country where young men would rather commit suicide than acknowledge their orientation, this has serious implications.
For them, the need to determine their attitude is more instant.
However, regardless of what you may call progressive trends, many millennials inclusive, are on the side of the fence where they are no gays allowed.
The cultural nature of homophobia means that except for those who dare to look beyond the typical arguments, it is deeply embedded in most of the society.
As such, millennials who do not share this perception have to skirt the fine line between supporting and protecting the rights of their friends and drawing the ire of a brigade that is on a constant search for ‘scape-goats’.
Telling the other stories
In a society where the less glamorous side of the story barely ever matters, this generation is creating platforms to “explore otherness” in people, create safe spaces and explore homosexuality beyond sexual relations.
In the last few months, the local platform, anastyboy, has garnered attention from within and outside Nigeria. The platform describes itself as “ a new radical fashion publication based in Lagos, Nigeria, that explores otherness in fashion, people and culture.”
It does this by encouraging individuality and beaming the spotlight on sub-cultures and subjects that its immediate society treats as taboo.
One of its most successful posts features a male cross-dressing duo that drew both praise and ire from many Nigerians.
Another of these platforms is TIERS. Short for The Initiative for Equal Rights, TIERS is a non-governmental organisation advocating for the sexual health and rights of LGBTI persons in Nigeria.
Their work cuts across two distinctions; delivering services that LGBTI persons need, like sensitisation, safe spaces and legal representation; and content-based advocacy.
“Our advocacy component is majorly to create a platform for conversation about the subject. A lot of the conversation around the subject is actually quite restrictive.”, says Olumide Makanjuola, who manages the body.
“I think people miss the point that the conversation should not be about same-sex marriage, it should be about the ability to be and co-exist. The sexualisation of LGBT persons, for instance, is a dangerous problem.”, he adds.
Through surveys like the “Gender and Sexual Diversity-Engaging Civil Society in Nigeria Research Report”, seminars and symposiums and shows like “Everything In Between” and “Untold Facts”, the platform hopes to get people to confront their attitude on homosexuality and gradually, earn respect for the freedoms and rights that LGBT persons should enjoy.
“What needs to happen is a very intense conversation where people can understand what the goal is,”, Makanjuola says, “ …because I think it’s all about understanding and communication. What we’re trying to do is intensify public conversation through alternative narratives and open-space conversation”
Despite the work done by platforms like these, much of the conversation happens on social media as it is still taboo to discuss such sensitive and immoral matters in full of view of the country’s homophobic ears.
Young people exposed to a myriad of influences are sharing their perspectives with others and demanding freedoms that could incite a riot in real life.
Off the internet, LGBTI-friendly advocates are also hosting events to continue the conversation offline.
TIERS hosts an annual symposium on human rights and the law aimed at informing people about the rights that all LGBT persons should enjoy.
Ultimately, the emergence of these platforms and the willingness to converse, is inspiring young Nigerians to reconsider, or at least adjust an attitude that is embedded in the public psyche.
“Generally, there has been a culture of silence around this subject. One of the things that have happened in the last decade and a half is that it has become quite public and I think that’s what needs to happen.”, Olumide Makanjuola says.
“The younger generation is having conversations, generally, even beyond LGBT. There are a lot of conversations we couldn’t have a decade ago. Social media has also made it easier.”, he continues. “There’s a central place where we’re all talking. We were talking in the past, but where were we connecting?”
“Now, your offline conversation solidifies the online conversation in a better way. The good thing is whether the conversation is positive or negative, we’re having a conversation and that’s important.”, he adds.
A long way to go
Still, for all the conversations that have been had and the editorials that have been created, the status quo is largely the same.
Nowhere does this show much than in the reaction to Nigeria’s favourite cross-dresser, Bobrisky.
Weeks, Bobrisky, who often makes references to a male “bae”, was arrested by persons believed to be officers of the Nigerian Police.
Not many people were aware of the details of his arrest or why he was apprehended in the first place but that did not stop the conversation from erupting in a murky cauldron of distasteful opinions and insensitive banter.
Bobrisky may be an especially loud and somewhat divisive personality, but his near-senile rants or the colour of his skin are not the main reason for the conversations that have followed his arrest.
In this social-media age, the eccentric personality has been made a common enemy; the cream-bleached, semi-literate face of homosexuality in Nigeria. It is why reactions to his arrest mostly contained mockery.
Some were more extreme, there were crude anecdotes about what would happen to him in detention.
Perhaps the most ironic thing is that at no point has Bobrisky affirmed that he is gay.
Still, this takes little away from the change in attitude and perception that many millennials share. The question is how strong are the factors that incited that change and what is the possibility of a non-homophobic Nigeria.
“Globally, we don’t even have it”, Olumide says, “I think a lot of the time we associate social acceptance with legal progression”
“It took Europe, America and the rest of these guys 40, 50 years, this is a conversation is barely 10, 12 years in Nigeria, openly. So it’s a long journey.”
“It’s been a long journey and we’re just starting. Whether we will achieve it, we will. The problem is we don’t know when it’s going to be”, he adds.
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Many may not share Olumide’s optimism. As things stand, access to the factors driving this change in attitude and perception is restricted to only a relative few.
Most TIERS activities take place in Lagos, for instance. Merely a fraction of social media users has an account on Twitter where the most intense of these debates tend to happen.
It is why, when it’s all said and done, there is a long way between adjusting the perception and actually changing the way the law and society treat homosexuals.
The sorry truth is that Olumide’s ideal society may be farther off than we think because as more gays and lesbians come out of the colloquial closet across Africa, homophobia is likely to grow stronger, and more defiant.