Nigerian-American Artist and LGBT Activist Addresses Nigeria’s Criminalizing of Gays

24 Jan

Editors Note:   This piece by GAPW’s Lia Petridis Maiello, originally written for The Huffington Post, represents another effort to explore the ways in which state-sanctioned discrimination violates human rights obligations but also poses security threats — specifically to those being discriminated against, but also to others who might find themselves the next to be ‘singled out.’   

As an immediate reaction, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry deplored the “Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act” in Nigeria, signed into law this month by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, calling it a “dangerous” restriction on freedom. “The United States is deeply concerned by Nigeria’s enactment of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act,” Kerry explained. “Beyond even prohibiting same-sex marriage, this law dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association, and expression for all Nigerians.”

Ever since, arrests have risen quite dramatically in Nigeria where dozens more people that have been under the suspicion of being homosexual have been herded up and interrogated. In the last few days, more than 30 people were arrested, with a higher number coming from the Southern states of Nigeria that are predominantly Christian. So far prosecution of gay people had largely been centered on the Muslim North, where gays can get lynched and beaten to death under Shariah law.

Nigeria’s more than 160 million citizens are almost equally scattered in the North and mainly Christian South, with a widespread damnation of homosexuality all over the country. “Under the Islamic Shariah law that prevails in nine of its 36 states gay people can get lynched and beaten to death, or legally executed by stoning for the offense. Sodomy was already illegal, but the bill signed into law January 7 bans all gay associations and gay marriage, with penalties of up to 14 years’ imprisonment for marriage”, AP reports.

Nigerian-American artist and LGBT activist Ade has been residing in Lagos on a Fulbright scholarship when the law came into effect. Her project AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Latercaptures some of her impressions and feelings related to queer life in Nigeria, impacted severely by religious fanaticism, equally practiced by Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. “I just completed an experimental short-film entitled AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later, which plays with images, figures and objects that help us critique religion’s subtle and/or overt machinations within Nigerian society,” Ade explains.

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Picture: Ade from AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later

What was your first reaction to the “Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act” that was signed into law by Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan this month?

My first reaction to the signing of the bill was pure rage. I felt as though someone had just doused my body with boiled water. I also felt wildly perplexed, like someone who had suddenly been transported back in time to the Middle Ages. In the year 2014, Nigeria’s 100th birth-year (it was amalgamated in 1914 by the British), this country decided to move backwards in its evolutionary process. What a shame! The same country that just allowed a senator to marry an innocent fourteen year-old girl, has now criminalized homosexuality under the false disguise of same-sex marriage. Whose rights are they planning to go after next?

History teaches us that the target criminals next in line are women, after innocent children and gay people. Especially if the Bible and the Koran guide the law. So if you are an unmarried woman, beware! If you are married but have no children, beware! If you have ever cheated on your husband, beware! If you dress a little too sexy, beware! If you have your own opinion about anything as a woman, beware!

What were the immediate consequences for the gay/lesbian community in Lagos?

The queer community is keeping a low profile. The streets have been rendered unsafe by this bill. Anyone who even looks like he or she may be queer could be subject to violent mob action, talk less of jail. The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), a human rights organization based in Lagos, has created a 24-hour hotline for people to call into in case of an emergency.
There are scary stories coming from Northern and Eastern Nigeria of police targets and gay-lists being used to round up members of the community. We have also heard that people are being arrested in Oyo and Ibadan. Gay people are terrified and thus playing it safe should the same start happening in Lagos.

Have you been personally affected by it?

I started getting sick. Since the bill was signed into law I have had diarrhea, headaches, sleep deprivation and low-appetite. I did not anticipate the physical reactions to my emotional and mental states. I choose to treat myself at home, because a trip to the hospital would mean I would have to tell the doctor why I started getting sick in the first place.

As soon as he or she hears that I was stressed out by my opposition to the bill, they could refuse treatment or worse, report me to the police. On the other hand, my sickness doesn’t even come close to the problems of those who have been picked up by the police and whisked off to jail simply because they were born gay. I don’t envy those whose parents recently kicked them out of the house so that their gay child doesn’t bring shame to the family, rendering their child homeless. The list goes on.

You have been in Nigeria for several months now. How have you experienced gay/lesbian life so far?

I have attended community meetings, gay parties, LGBT film screenings, but most importantly made a few good friends. This has allowed me to watch how the queer community supports each other on a daily basis. I truly feel like they are now part of my family. During this stressful time, we have constantly been checking on each other’s well-being.

Apparently, I am not the only one who has gotten sick! An entire community exists underground that most Nigerians are not aware of, and it mirrors the same experiences in mainstream society to a large extent. Lately, the gay community is feeling traumatized. While some people are looking for a way out of Nigeria, others are contemplating suicide. The community is in a lot of pain.

How do homosexuals meet or organize under these circumstances?

When physical space is threatened, virtual spaces takes over. Virtual sites have become the stage for debate. It is the place where friendships become null and void and when new alliances can be formed. This is what is happening within the queer community here. Gay people have already been operating largely underground for years now. And I am talking about those who accept themselves as gay and live a gay lifestyle. There are others who hide their sexuality behind a spouse and five children. I suspect there are many of them in the federal government.

For openly gay people, meeting up will become even more secretive than it was before. Organizing is a totally different story. Organizing would require the emergence of a leader or several leaders, who can rally the community in a way that inspires them to stand up and challenge authority. While there are several individuals doing important human rights/gay rights work in their own way, I have not yet come across anyone who is actively bringing all the different sub-groups of the queer community together to come up with a clear strategic plan for action. That does not mean this person or organization could not emerge in the coming months.

In what way has your sexual orientation impacted your artwork so far and how does this oppressive situation in Nigeria impact it currently?

To some degree, I can relate to the loss of family ties based on sexual orientation. I came out of the closet as an adult after being married previously to a man. My experience with family was largely governed by “what the bible says.” It was and still is very hard for me to accept or swallow that religion is the basis of ignorance. I could not have a reasonable, logical conversation with certain family members because of how literally they interpreted the Bible and their inability to put it in historical context. I find the same problem among Nigerians and here in Lagos, it is even more magnified. Religious institutions play a major role in all aspects of people’s lives and are the site of moral teaching on everything from marriage to entrepreneurship.

So of course, it was rather easy to convince the masses to accept this oppressive bill. Because of my personal experiences prior to coming to Nigeria, my research focused mainly on how queer Nigerians navigated though the antagonistic worlds called spirituality and sexuality. I just completed an experimental short-film entitled AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later, which plays with images, figures and objects that help us critique religion’s subtle and/or overt machinations within Nigerian society.

The mosquito is a metaphor for the corrupt nature of government, which continues to suck the blood of its citizenry. The interpretative dancers speak to emotions within day-to-day queer experience, against the backdrop of traditional drummers, traditional church bells, and organ music. Throughout the film the church is both the site of struggle as well as warmth and embrace. Outside of the church, an underground scene thrives in Lagos.

The gay scene is not in mainstream view just as traditional Yoruba spirituality has to hide from the damnation of mainstream religious institutions. There are churches in Lagos that actively burn “wooden idols “(that is, traditional Yoruba sculpture) in front of thousands of people. This film challenges such beliefs/practices and attempts to educate viewers on contemporary queer life in Nigeria. It will screen in several countries in 2014 including the United States, Spain, Germany and Nigeria.

You are of Nigerian decent, but were raised in the U.S. I am assuming that you strongly identify with both countries. How would you define your role or obligations as a Nigerian at the moment?

I am torn between wanting to fight for a new Nigeria, and disowning it all-together. My family left Nigeria during the military dictatorship in the mid-eighties, just like many middle-class families that created a brain-drain across the country. Having been born in New York, growing up in the United States, yet having ancestral roots here, I came to Nigeria because I wanted being Nigerian to mean more to me than simply loving the taste of jollof rice and fried plantain. I have been having much fun while researching and in fact, my pidgin is getting better. This bill has nearly erased all the joy I have experienced since coming here. Before the bill, I used to wake up early, call a bike-man to take me to Obalende or call a driver to take me to the movies at Ozone.

Now, I have to force myself to leave the house. The energy I once had to go out and explore is now being used to write this very response/article. The bill nearly zapped all my motivation, and I can clearly see how any brilliant, hardworking Nigerian can easily lose motivation in a country that calls him or her a criminal. However, I do feel a sense of duty to speak truth to justice at times like this. People need to be seriously educated on what it means to be homosexual, before accepting draconian laws into their country. My late uncle used to say, “when a man is tired of learning, he is tired of life.” Is the federal government of Nigeria filled with a bunch of walking zombies?

And on the other hand, how is your U.S.-American identity affecting your thoughts and actions?

In America we like to say — Freedom ain’t free! America has many good lessons Nigeria can learn from when it comes to the fight for civil rights. I keep this in mind while I am here. What Nigeria is attempting to do to its people is set the stage for mass incarceration of homosexuals.

Ask yourself — why wouldn’t the government do this, when they have never apologized for the genocide of Biafra? History should not repeat itself. But it seems Nigeria, whether it realizes it or not, has laid the grounds for another disastrous situation which will affect millions of people.

Lia Petridis Maiello, GAPW Media Consultant

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