Godfrey George takes a journey into the lives of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in Nigeria
If anyone had told a gay identified only as Stephen that his mother would one day disown him, he would have laughed it off as a dry joke. But reality dawned on him when she openly declared that she had no son after she found him naked and engaging in a sexual activity with another boy in her sitting room. Then, he was 16 and about to sit the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations.
Stephen was supposed to be in church that Sunday morning, but he left much earlier to meet up with Cosmas, a neighbour’s son, who was about his age, to play video games, which resulted in an erotic adventure.
“It was the most terrible day of my life, having to finally show a part of me I thought I had hidden so well from my mother. She couldn’t say a word after she screamed my name. She held the door frame and sobbed as we dressed up and ran away to no destination in mind. I was running, not just from my mother, but from the reality that I must have disappointed her. I cried as I did,” he said.
Stephen returned home the next day to meet his clothes dumped outside the house. It rained overnight and the bag swam in the mud outside the house as his mother shouted to neighbours that she had no son.
After what Stephen termed as ‘compound torture,’ he was thrown out to fend for himself since he wanted to ‘tarnish the family name.’
On the other hand, Stephen disclosed that Cosmas was sent abroad to stay with a relative so as not to constantly remind his family of the incident.
“Not everyone would be like Cosmas. His parents could afford it; mine couldn’t,” Stephen said, asserting a demarcation between the privileged and the poor.
Stephen was a happy child, born to Evelyn Ejike, whose husband left home one Thursday morning, in 2001 and never came back. It was rumoured that Ejike was with another woman in Nsukka, Enugu State and that his concubine was pregnant for him.
Evelyn had to care for six children alone, roasting corn in the evening and teaching at a school during the day to give her kids sound education.
He said, “My mother is a good woman. I don’t hate her, even after everything she did to me. I don’t hate her.’’ He stretched, lounging in a chair submissively.
“I just don’t know why she didn’t look back, to see that I was always like this, that I was born this way. She gave birth to me like this,” he continued, his eyes welled up in tears.
“I had always liked boys from when I was younger. When I was seven, I went to swim at a stream in our village with a few boys. Another boy and I swam to a corner to touch ourselves. I didn’t know what we were doing, but I liked it.
“Somebody saw us and took us to the village square, reported us to the elders and our parents. But somehow, a few people dismissed the case on the grounds that we were children. I was a child and didn’t know what I was doing or what it was called, but I knew what I felt when I was with that boy in the river; It was nothing I had felt before,” he said excitedly as his eyes glowed.
Hiding from the law
The Nigerian law and that of most African countries prohibit same sex unions, relationships and/or representations. Defaulters can be jailed for 14 years, according to the 2014 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Despite this law, with such grave punishment, many Nigerians still indulge in same sex activities.
Currently, in 12 states in Nigeria, homosexual acts among men are punishable by death, including canning or imprisonment for women.
Apart from the law enacted on January 7, 2014, Nigerians belonging to a gay organisation, supporting same sex marriages or displaying same sex affection in public are liable to a prison sentence up to 10 years.
This indicates that anyone who marries a member of the same sex in Nigeria risks 14-year prison term upon conviction.
Notwithstanding, there are members of the LGBTQ community who live underground lives to evade the long arm of the law.
They operate a hidden system, a closed-door life pattern to be able to exist among other Nigerians without being victimised, brutalised, abused or maligned in any way.
Some, like Stephen, are abandoned by their families and consistently haunted by the law in their country.
This situation puts them in constant fear for their lives or attacks from heterosexual Nigerians if they are caught.
Many have been ostracised and/or disowned by family and persistently being haunted by the law which prohibits same-sex unions in Nigeria.
A 2015 report from PEN America and PEN Nigeria used potent and poignant individual testimonies by LGBTQ Nigerians to demonstrate how the 2014 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act distorted Nigeria’s cultural and political landscape by silencing the country’s LGBTQ community through state-sanctioned intimidation and marginalisation.
Similarly, a 2017 report titled, “Not dancing to their music: The effects of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Nigeria,’’ focuses on the lives of LGBTs in Nigeria after Jonathan signed the SSMPA in 2014. This report documents the stigma, shame and sanctions facing LGBT communities across the country and, often, in the Diaspora.
‘Our ways, a sin to Nigeria’
All identities in the report have been protected to shield them from victimisation and ostracisation. Unlike Stephen who found love with another gay man, Tope is not so lucky.
“Finding love as a gay man is almost impossible. It is not as free and regular as straight people have it,” Tope said, looking over his shoulders as though evading arrest.
He stated, “My father was in the army, so when he caught me watching gay porn on his phone, he took me outside the barracks, stripped me naked and whipped me thoroughly with a horse whip. He held to cut my manhood but for the intervention of a senior officer. He locked my mother in our block and vowed to throw us out of the house if she made any noise. It was the day I cried as I was tied to the pole behind the blocks undergoing renovation.”
Tope took off his shirt to show our correspondent the scars and wore it immediately. His back was crusty and revealed marks from torture.
“That night, I was left there, naked. At intervals, some junior soldiers poured some water on me. It felt like my body was on fire again. I saw a few children who glanced at me and muttered a few words as they walked back to their quarters. I was treated like an animal for being myself. I didn’t make myself gay,” his eyes probed into our correspondent’s seeking validation.
He added, “My father came before it was daylight the next day, took me in, boiled some hot water to nurse my wounds together with my mum. They sobbed as they did, asking me why I chose to disgrace them and bring my family name to disrepute. Our existence is sin to Nigeria,” he added.
Tope further said that he left home to meet a lover after his mother’s death and his father had retired and left the barracks in Enugu State. That day, he said he underwent horror.
He narrated, “We met on one of the gay dating sites. He didn’t know I was coming. I just told him I was around the area and he told me to come over. We made love much later, and I slept, and didn’t know that would be the worst day of my life.
“I heard banging on the door and some young boys, up to seven of them, in masks walked in. I thought they were thieves. They told me not to shout, that if I did, they would kill me and dump my body in the river. They turned the lights off and called me a bloody faggot, promising to teach me a lesson of my life. They had a carnal knowledge of me one by one, about seven of them. I counted. They dispossessed me and filmed me saying ‘I am a faggot. I am gay.’’
Tope said he found his way to Lagos through a pastor who took him in to work in his church as a cleaner. He added that he left Lagos after his second month’s pay and had a close shave with death the third time.
“I cannot say why I always get into the wrong hands,” he said dejectedly, interjecting each word with a clap. “I went to see another person whom I had met before and we had had some stuff together. This time, he said we should meet somewhere around a plaza and I did. This guy led me to a group of guys in the middle of nowhere, who threatened to kill me if I moved. But I managed to escape with only my boxers and that was the worst mistake of my life.
“They pursued after me and screamed ‘Homo! Homo! Kill it like I was an insignificant being. Before I knew it, I was surrounded. They hit me with sticks and one even suggested I be burnt to death. I was already used to being beaten, so honestly, I didn’t feel anything. The police came to my rescue before they could finish me up.’’
He stated that he was taken to a police station where he was asked to write a statement that he was caught in robbery and ‘unnatural process’ with a minor, where he spent three weeks and was eventually released when no one came for his bail.
Gayism and genetic implications
A 2017 report by lgbtnet.dk revealed that 91 per cent of Nigerians do not believe that people are born homosexual, indicating that there is little belief in scientific and genetic justification or explanations.
The survey also shows that nine in 10 adult Nigerians are in support of the 2014 Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. The survey includes a random nationwide sampling of 2,000 interviewed respondents.
Differing views on genetics
A lecturer at the Department of Biology Education, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Irene Ibiwari Ikiriko, stated that the only sex chromosome which scientists had discovered for now were the XX and XY chromosome.
Ikiriko said, “I used the phrase ‘for now’ because things keep changing. XX indicates the female. XY indicates the male. There is no proof in Biology that says that being gay is genetic or heritable.
“Yes, there are genes that determine sex. Genes tend to come in pairs and are made up of parts known as alleles. For example, the sex (or gender gene) is made up of an X allele and a Y allele. We can either have two XXs or an X and a Y. When both alleles that form a gene occur in a pair (XX) a girl child is born. We call this homozygous (having the same). However when it is paired with a Y instead, we call this heterozygous -then we have males. Genes generally affect how we look physically and what is expressed. But I maintain that to the best of my knowledge, a gene hasn’t been discovered. But then science progresses every day,” she added.
She stated further that for a gene which determines sexuality to be realised, it would require a third chromosome discovery of some sort which would add to the existing XX and XY chromosomes.
Also speaking, a London-trained geneticist and molecular biologist at the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State, Violet Nwoke, said that sexuality was a complex trait influenced by genetic and environmental factors, noting that insufficient data abound.
According to her, there are research findings but not as far-reaching and holistic because of the small sample size.
She, however, suggested extensive research with multi-omics and interdisciplinary approaches to unravel the exact causal mechanisms of the genes affecting sexual orientation.
In a research she cited, the findings revealed that genetics regulates sexuality with a ‘strong linkage to the X chromosome.’
“In the past decades, twin and family studies (identical and non-identical) revealed that genetics regulates sexuality with a strong linkage to the X chromosome. Another study reported a statistical significance between sexuality and genetically determined physical traits (blood type and Rhesus factor), inferring that the genes that influence sexuality co-localise with these traits on chromosomes nine and one respectively.
“More recently, Genome-wide Association Study has been used to identify relevant genetic markers. In one of such studies, an association was found with chromosomes 8, 13 and 14. However, the major limitation of these studies is the relatively small sample size. Subsequently, a larger GWAS was performed and five different genetic markers were identified. Nonetheless, the study focused on sexual behaviour rather than sexual orientation and the demographics used were skewed.
“Moreover, sexuality is a complex trait, influenced by genetic and environmental – intra-uterine and external – factors. Therefore, extensive research with multi-omics and interdisciplinary approaches will be beneficial in unravelling the exact causal mechanisms,” she noted.
On his part, a graduate research assistant at the Molecular Biology and Simulations Centre, Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Adebowale Alade, stated that research suggested that about 25 per cent of the variation in sexuality could be genetically explained.
Alade, however, added that no single gene had a large effect on sexuality as it was usually a communication of genes and/or hormones.
“This is a big research gap to be explored, because there’s insufficient data to establish one or more culprit genes affecting sexuality,” he stated.
Lesbian but married to a man
For a married woman, Boma who has two boys, her sexuality is something she has embraced notwithstanding her marriage bond and ties with her children.
“I love my husband so much. That was why I agreed to marry him. In fact, I felt I was going to change when I got into the marriage, but here I am; I am still the same – I love women.
“I love women in a way that I can never love a man and that is the truth I am not sure my husband and children are ready to face,” she said choking on her words.
She said, “My mother found out because she saw me and my lover then on my phone. She threatened fire and brimstone and took me for deliverance and all that. I left the house for her. This marriage I am in, I am in it so she would accept that I have changed, but I know I haven’t. I pray my husband finds out who I really am. I am not scared. I think he even knows. The only people I am afraid of are my lovely boys. I don’t know if they would forgive me. But I have to live and not just exist.”
A transgender, Uche, has gone into depression for some years after he told his mother, Mrs Chinwe, about his sexuality who dragged him to a spiritual home for deliverance. Uche stated that the man constantly physically and sexually abused him on the premises of his prayer house.
“The pastor would cane me with a broom after tying my hands tied to the back and my eyes blindfolded and he would ask me to confess. Confess what? I told him that I felt there was a woman trapped inside my body and he wanted me to confess? They starved me for days and said I was fasting so God and his angels would come down and deliver me from every ‘transgender spirit’.”
“On one occasion, my mum was in the pastor’s living room and the spiritualist took me to the deliverance room, ordered his boys to tie me up, blindfold me as usual and he told me to lick whatever he put in my mouth. I knew what he put in my mouth was not food or anointing oil; it was his manhood. I tasted it and spat out and screamed for my mum to rescue me. What broke me was when I came out to the sitting room after he had sodomised me was that my mum was praying for my deliverance. She had no idea what the man who conducted the deliverance did to me.
“I absconded from the house and have been living as a woman ever since. I have been on dates with men who don’t even know I was a man. I haven’t completed my gender reassignment surgery. When I do, I will be happy.”
Paying the price
A gay man identified only as Bide would have been a medical student at a federal university in the South-South if his mother had not found out that he preferred men to women.
He had always been a pious child, having grown up in the Catholic Church. His uncle, Father Erasmus, was a respected parish priest but it was under his roof that Bide and a manservant, Ndubuisi, began to fondly touch their vital parts as they slept together.
Bide said the act went on for some time before Father Erasmus noticed the undue closeness and cautioned them against the ‘spirit of ungodliness.’
“I don’t know if he saw us, but one night, he sat us down and warned us to be wary of ungodliness and the tactics of the devil,” Bide said, reeling out a booming laughter.
“He eventually saw us one night as we kissed ourselves in the corridor. He didn’t shout. He quietly called our parents and had a private meeting with them as we packed our belongings and left, It happened 10 years ago,” he added.
Bide further stated that his mother changed from what he used to know as she stopped him from attending mass and joining other boys to go out.
“One day, she told me he would stop me from going to school if I didn’t stop what I was doing. Confused, I asked, “What, mummy? What are you talking about?” She responded, “Father Erasmus told me everything.”
Though he passed UTME and is awaiting university admission, Bide told our correspondent that his mum vowed to see positive changes in his behaviour before she could allow him seek university admission.
Bide said, “I am a gay. I see my mates doing a lot of things, but here I am in my mother’s house, eating her food and wasting away.”
If life had permitted, Esther, who revealed she’s a lesbian, would have taken her life after three attempts.
She told Saturday PUNCH that she was filmed making out with a lover and was blackmailed into paying lots of money which she didn’t disclose the amount.
Esther said, “Despite paying the money, they sent the videos to my contacts and my father saw it. Calls came in from everywhere that morning asking me how I got myself involved in a mess. I couldn’t take it. I mixed a few pills with kerosene and drank it but I didn’t die.”
She added that she hadn’t returned home since then as her mother told her not to step foot in her house after the scandal resulted in her father’s death.
Some pro-LGBTQ activists expressed displeasure regarding abandonment and disownment of some of their members by family, friends and loved ones based on their sexual orientation.
A programme officer at the Mobile Foundation for Health Security and Rehabilitation, Nigeria, Gilbert Victor, linked the reason to religion and tradition.
Victor said, “The rate at which Nigerian families disown their loved ones is alarming. This is because everything in this country, including sexuality, is linked to religion and tradition. It is obvious that Nigerian families are more religious than actual people who brought the religion to them.’’
He also noted that the law against same-sex message was the ‘backbone’ on which law enforcement agent leveraged to abuse members of the community.
“It was almost as if they were waiting for the act to be signed so they’d use that as ground to perform all manner of atrocities and abuse. The rate of abuse and violence towards community members has increased since the law took off in 2014,” he added.
For a Nigerian novelist, Kingsley Adrian, being gay in Nigeria is tied to morality, adding that with the signing of the law against same-sex marriage, it became tougher for LGBTQ people to survive in the country.
The author of ‘Behind Closed Doors’, a novel on homosexuality and gender non-conformity in Nigeria, said, “Being gay was a morality issue in Nigeria, one that had people pulling the morality card—that’s, in the past. However, from the moment the law came, the tide changed. Gay people who lived in the “open” fled underground; suspected gay people were often set-up, beaten, arrested, harassed and extorted by members of police who understood the kind of power they wielded over queer people in Nigeria and were overly willing to exercise that power.’’
Also, the Founder, Queercitypodcast.com, an online queer podcast, Olaide Timileyin, said being queer in Nigeria was not the best for anyone especially when it had to do with human rights protection and fighting injustice.
“Anybody in Nigeria is empowered by the system to kill you, literally take your life and you won’t get justice,” he said.
Timileyin added that some LGBTQ in Nigeria were denied jobs based on their perceived sexual orientation as they were seen as ‘threats’ to the company’s economic growth.
Same-sex relationships from diverse lenses
The issue of historical link between homosexuality and Africa has been topical. Some writers have argued its un-Africanness, while other scholars’ studies indicated that homosexuality had been in Africa from inception and not imported into the country.
Dwelling on the issue, a Professor of History, at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Akin Alao, said, “The concept of homosexuality has not been historicised adequately in Nigeria. What is available is limited to stories and hearsay accounts, especially in Northern Nigeria. Kunle Afolayan’s movie ‘October 1’ should have provided more insight into homosexuality in colonial Nigeria and among the elite. It did not, however, go deep enough.
For Asiogu Ugochukwu, an independent researcher and historian, homosexuality both as behaviour and an act is in no way un-Africa and it had existed among Africans in the past.
“As a practice and behaviour, it had existed among Africans in the past. Hence, the Yoruba and Hausa words for it: Adofuro and Yan daudu. In Igbo language, it is also known as Idina udi onwe, which is loosely interpreted to be ‘same sex.’
He added, “In the pre-colonial times, homosexualiy had existed but was not given much preference, maybe because it was anti-African culture and therefore was practised secretly or because people simply ignored it and took it as a normal behaviour that further expressed the dynamics of human nature.’’
Another historian, Abiola Omosaye, who is also researcher at Academia.edu, said that homosexuality in Africa had always been there as its root could be traced to different African practices.
He noted, “Although the newness of the field of study on the continent may bring some major contradictions largely because most of her history was undocumented. However, alienation of the fact speaks a whole lot about domestic deprivation of knowledge. In pre-colonial Africa, there existed major homosexual practices but most of these were largely regarded as sacred and may not be permitted to be documented by explorers, or missionaries at the time, and those that weren’t flourished upon the African culture of acceptance and peculiarities.’’
On homosexuality and psychology, a behavioural psychologist and independent researcher, Usen Essien, stated that homosexuality was not a disorder and no research found any association between any sexual orientations and psychopathology.
He noted, “Lesbian, gay and bisexual orientations are not disorders. Research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology. Both heterosexual behaviour and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality. Despite the persistence of stereotypes that portray lesbian, gay and bisexual people as disturbed, several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organisations in this country to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience. Lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships are normal forms of human bonding.’’
He added that no agreement among researchers about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation.
In the aspect of religion, an Islamic scholar, Adeyefe Abdulfatai, said even if the two principal books guiding the operations of Islam – the Qur’an and the Hadith – do not explicitly spell out homosexuality, every Muslim is expected to abstain from all sexual lusts or face punishment from Allah.
“In the Qur’an, it is not explicitly stated that Muslims should stay away or not. There is no ban talking about the homosexuality per se. We are meant to know from the story of Prophet Lut, which the Christians call Lot, that some of the villagers tried to initiate anal sex during his time in which the Qur’an frowned at that.
“That’s the only place you can see the issue of gay itself. But lesbianism, transgender and others were not explicitly stated in the Qur’an. However, there are some teachings and jurisdictions that made it clear that Muslims should not partake in such. So, as a Muslim, this means we are not expected to indulge in such acts. This is why as Muslims we don’t encourage celibacy.”
On deliverance in Islam for someone involved in same-sex relationship, Abdulfatai said it would be a failure on the path of the parents if a child turned out to a gay.
He stated, “For a child to engage in such, it would be a failure on the path of the parents. In Islam, we are meant to enjoy what is good and forbid what is bad. So, as a Muslim, if a child engages in such, he or she would be called and cautioned that what he or she did is not good. He or she would also seek forgiveness from Allah the Islam way.’’
On his part, Bishop Rodson Emmanuel of the Cathedral of Faith, Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, stated that God’s permanent position to all humans, including LGBTQ people, was love.
“God’s position has always been love. That’s God’s position, because that is what his nature is. God does not see people in the eyes of what they do, through the lens of nature. He sees people through the lenses of who he is – love. What you do – your sexual orientation, psychology on sex, whatever it is that you believe in – does not and will not change the fact that God has a permanent position which is love. God loves you irrespective of who you are or what you do. Our mission as preachers is to teach the word of God and the word in turn builds character.”