Country Watch · Guest writer

Nigeria human rights, reflective poetry & the thoughts of a Nigerian gay male. 

By @Akpa_Arinze

In 2009, a Ugandan MP, David Bahati, drafted a bill named Kill the Gays. In late 2013, this was called the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014, and was passed as law in parliament. This Act changed the previously held “imprisonment” sentence, to the death penalty. In 2014, the Nigerian government also criminalised homosexuality, and many other African nations took it upon themselves to follow in the footsteps of these two countries.

I was in the undergrad school for my BA and was also facing labelling. Some of my mates (male colleagues) took it as fun to say “He behaves like a woman – he is gay”.

Because of the tension in the country during this period, there was no gay person I knew that was ever “so gay” (going with people’s views on who is gay, and who is not). Every one of them went into hiding. Many took to fake lifestyles, pretending to be who they were not. Society became vigilant. Everyone seen acting as the law stipulated was caught and sanctioned. To be gay in Nigeria within this period was to be stoned, ridiculed, brutalised, or beheaded.

During this time, I sought comfort in several works of poetry. I loved the work of Jericho Brown, Francine J. Harris, Kaveh Akbar, June Jordan, Danez Smith, Roxanne Gay and Ocean Vuong. I admired their courage in the documentation of the “goings-on” of the society – the hostile attitudes towards gays and transgender, or any member of the ‘Rainbow Family’.

The want or need to belong drives people to social places. It can also drive gay men to clubs – though some of these clubs are hidden in Nigeria. I witnessed the death of friend when police raided one such club. I then came across this poem by Danez Smith – The 17-Year-Old & The Gay Bar:

this gin-heavy heaven, blessed ground to think gay & mean we.

bless the fake id & the bouncer who knew

this need to be needed, to belong, to know how

a man taste full on vodka & free of sin.

At once, I thought of all the things the gays I know in Nigeria do to stay hidden and be who they are – everything that had backlashed – that had claimed their lives in the process. All of this, because someone somewhere thinks that homosexuality is “sin”, but whose definition are we using? Words given meaning by fellow human? Like the way “heterosexual” formerly meant “perv”?

As a child, I fancied my sisters’ clothes – I’d never wear any clothes but theirs. I’d walk in my mother’s shoes, tied her head scarf, and paraded myself in the village as a grown woman. Other times relatives mistook me as a new person in the family and would ask my mum when she gave birth to another girl. Other times too, I’d be caught and made to remove the attire. It was fun for a child of eight through twelve, but then I was sent to a high school that was bent on instilling morals into young ones by threatening the students with hell.

Bring back to life the son
Who glories in the sin
Of immediacy, calling it love.
God, save the man whose arm
Like an angel’s invisible wing
May fly backward in fury
Whether or not his son stands near.
Help me hold in place my blazing jaw
As I think to say, excuse me.

Jericho Brown’s poem (above), Prayer of the Backhanded, makes me weep every time I read it. It haunts me as I try decoding the meaning of every figure of speech encountered. What prayer is the next gay man facing execution saying? How does God approach it? I know the things that will kill a man like me (either in Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe or any other country of the world criminalising LGBTQIA+) – this thought alone makes me sweat.

I grew up in a religious home, which meant that every one of my footsteps must be ordered in the way of Jesus, as written in the Bible, but not as he might have lived the said life. I have found myself in arguments about whether gays are God’s children or not. I’d shriek and shriek to no end sometimes.

…men when they cannot change anything

Jet themselves indoors and feed on what is left

Of a magic mushroom and watch the world dance

Like a bereaved widow –

Before I had the courage to choose who I was, people already defined it for me – the sexuality question was all over me. I saw myself fighting this often in my teens and finally, in my current 20s. In Nigeria, you are either gay or straight, no one knows of pansexuals, bisexuals, transgender, intersex, asexuals, etc. No one cared, everyone who is conceived of not being straight is bundled and thrown into this “gay” frame, and persecuted as expected. Families disown their children or wards or whatever. Anyone who comes out is reported to the police or sent to be stoned by the mob outside. I used to think I was asexual because I wanted to stay away from all of this. I like my life peaceful. I stayed this way for years before finally admitting that I am pansexual. Which leaves me explaining to people that “I am not so gay, neither am I so straight”. No one listened to that, so, I joined the other young Nigerian creatives to make some people hear it, and keep hearing the story until everything is changed.

Everyone fights for something, but I don’t see myself fighting for anything – I’d lived six years of my life in denial and lying to myself. This, of course, led to excessive drinking and engaging. I had failing health, but I lived an unhealthy lifestyle. I stayed out with friends of all types to keep sane of whatever thing that was happening. This experience is better captured in:

Fellow young angels and I

Hallucinated upon Angel Dust –

We saw the world coming to an end

In 2013 before it ever did –

We all believed in the powers of resurrection –

Two angels leapt off the 3rdMainland Bridge

And now it is my turn to show the city of Lagos

How disco lights flicker

Every one of us – young as we were, had something to hide from, think about, and forget. So, some mornings, it wouldn’t be news whenever I heard any of my friends had died – I always knew the cause of death.

In 2016, I came online for the first time, to show my support to the loved ones of the victims of the Orlando Club shooting. With millions of people, I condemned the act and ever since have been active in the decriminalisation of gay people. We are all humans. Let love lead.

In 2017, a gay poet friend of mine won a Brunel Prize for Poetry, and young Nigerians took to the media to slander this award, and ever since, have targeted the LGBTQIA+ advocates. Another poet was kidnapped, another friend was shot, another in the police custody, another disappeared – me? My phones never stopped beeping with threats, and on three occasions, I was beaten with my devices confiscated and run over a motorcycle. Other times, hungry youths have come asking me for money, or else I’d be reported for supporting gays.

This is the Nigeria I live in. This is not the Nigeria we want, or the future we dreamed. My poems, or that of the poets I mentioned earlier may not do that much, but let them teach, as well as inspire people to embrace love. How much dead do you want to witness before you start accepting what you cannot change?

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