By Bisi Alimi

17 March 2016 - 19:07

'This battle has to be fought, owned and championed by Africans.' Image (cropped) (c) David Campbell Morrison
'This battle has to be fought, owned and championed by Africans.' Image (cropped) ©

David Campbell Morrison

Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian activist who received death threats after he came out tells us about his experience growing up in his home country.

Some people present being gay and being African as incompatible. What's your response?

I am unapologetically proud of being African. I'm proud of the resilience and beauty of the people, their songs and festivals, the beautiful animals grazing beneath the moonlight and the rising sun in the morning. Despite its conflicts, I think it is a blessing to come from the continent.

At the same time, I am also unapologetically gay. I happily accept myself as a gay African. So I just combine the two.

What was it like to grow up in Nigeria as gay?

It was challenging. I mean, I had serious questions about my sexuality, but there were no pointers. There was no-one I could look to and say, 'oh, I am like that person'. I was lonely and sad.

I was raised in a mixed religious home, and it was really hard trying to understand myself within that framework. There was a huge conflict between what I learnt from religion, and the reality of my life. When I got to secondary school, I made my first gay friends, and then, when I was 18, I went to my first ever gay party in Lagos. It was a different world.

How do you absorb the hatred LGBTQI+ people face without giving up hope?

It was a very difficult journey. For a young man living in Lagos, it was always very hard to get away from people calling you names, because your business was everyone’s business. Many times, my friends and I were physically assaulted, even on my doorstep. You just start to expect it as the norm. You can’t do anything about it, as there is no protection from the state. You get bullied, beaten and called names by people; or you get locked up in police cells and have to pay your way out. Those were my choices back then.

Then the internet came along, and with it, social media. I wasn't expecting the level of attention I would get, so I didn't anticipate the level of hate. I cried many nights. Sometimes, just logging into my accounts felt like the biggest challenge. But as time went on, some vocal supporters got together to help me, and thanks to them, I realised that I didn't have to reply to trolls. Even now, there are still people who think they have a right to tell me how to live my life, but it doesn't touch me. I haven't absorbed the hatred; but it took me a long time to get here.

Since then, social media has become a platform for us to get our issues out. We don't have sympathetic media in Nigeria, so we are left to do the educating ourselves, most of the time in a very hostile environment. That is where social media helps. It allows us to share our stories.

Why did you become an LGBTQI+ activist?

I've always been aware of what matters to me. I want a world in which I can live freely with my husband, and children if they come along, a world where I will not be judged by the colour of my skin, my religion or lack of it, my sexuality, or my gender. But to have such a world, I need to work for it. I'm not doing this because I wanted to be an activist. I became an activist because I want a world that treats me better.

I'm a trained actor, and I still look forward to the day I can get back to acting. I never wanted to be an activist; I just don't want to live a lie. It's as simple as that.

There is also the bigger picture. A more tolerant world would improve everyone's lives, not just mine. Girls could go to school instead of being married off; women could call the police to seek protection from domestic violence instead of being mistreated; transsexual people could have access to medical support instead of hiding who they are; and gay and lesbian people could fall in love and lead lives worth living, instead of being strangled by society.

I hope things will get better. Last year, my charity partnered on a survey, which found that support for Nigeria's Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013, signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan, is declining. The study also found that 30 per cent of Nigerian young people between 16 and 26 years old would accept a friend, family member or someone they know, if that person came out to them as lesbian, gay or bisexual. I hold on to these rays of light.

What’s the current situation like for Africa’s LBGTQI+ people?

Well, it is a mixed bag. Mozambique just decriminalised gay sex, and the Seychelles is considering doing the same. In Botswana, activists and the legal system are leading the way, and there's similar progress in Kenya. In Ghana, some homophobic noise is being crowded out by a show of love and support from many other quarters.

It's worth mentioning these examples to defuse the hate coming out of places like Nigeria, Uganda, the Gambia and Zimbabwe; and to counteract the skewed image of Africans as some sort of barbarians who want to kill all gays. This is what's often portrayed in the media, but it is not true. Homophobes exist in Western countries too. I've even heard racist comments by people in the Western LGBTQI+ community towards Africans. Racism is just as bad as homophobia. The journey to sexual liberty for Africa will arrive, but it will be led by, owned by, and claimed by Africans.

Why do you think there’s so much anti-gay sentiment in Africa today?

Before the early 2000s, I had never heard African government officials make strongly anti-gay comments. I think the trend began partly in reaction to the increasing acceptance of equal marriage across Europe and the US.

Historically, African society was not homophobic. Many will argue that this is an assumption, and I'll accept that it is, to a certain degree, as there are no written records before colonialism. However, there are records written by colonists of seeing homosexual behaviour among the African 'natives' - men and women taking members of the same sex as 'wives', or men 'behaving like women'. I'd argue that this says that homosexuality was more accepted in Africa before colonialism. There are no colonial accounts of gay Africans being stoned to death or hanged by other Africans.

What can be done to improve things?

We have to recognise this battle has to be fought, owned and championed by Africans. Western involvement should be through support, if and when needed.

If we want social change, we must be ready to pay for it. Many activists on the continent are doing the job for little or no money because they are passionate and selfless, but they still have to buy food, pay for rent and take transportation. I hope we can get more funding to LGBTQI+ organisations in Africa and for Africans in the diaspora, not funding via Western organisations, but direct funding.

Companies should get involved, beyond just paying lip service to equality. Businesses thrive where people can be true to themselves. If they don't support LGBTQI+ rights and talk to government and civil society about these issues, they lose valuable employees and customers.

There is also a need for grass-roots education programmes that challenge religious fundamentalism and help people question what they've been told.

When was the first time you saw LGBTQI+ characters on screen?

I can’t remember any gay characters on screen from when I was growing up in Nigeria in the late '70s and '80s. As I grew older, I started seeing gay characters in Nollywood films, but there was never an emotional connection or humane angle. They were shown drugging people, raping them and using them in rituals later. This inaccurate portrayal worked very well, as, even now, one of the greatest fears in Nigeria about homosexuals is that they will use you for rituals. It has been hard to convince people otherwise.

That said, today's pop culture has changed things slightly. Two years ago, Google ranked Nigeria as one of the highest consumers of gay porn. Nigeria is also one of the highest consumers of the US sitcom Modern Family, which has a gay family in it. I am trying to get my head around that inconsistency.

Is it important to see gay characters on screen?

How it's done matters. No-one can dispute the power of film and stories; they shape the way we think about historical events. If there were Nollywood films that showed LGBTQI+ people as humane, loving, caring, and in stable, happy relationships, the perception would change. Look at Europe and America. A lot changed through activism, but also through films.

Unfortunately, many Nigerian film projects are self-funded. So if someone like me wants to produce and direct a film, I have to find the money first. That's a tall order. There's no financial mechanism in Nigeria that would fund my idea, but I also wouldn't want to get international film companies on board, because then I'd be attacked for pushing Western propaganda. It's really a tough call.

However, there is an increasing number of documentaries coming out of Africa. A few years back we saw Call Me Kuchu, and last year at Film Africa, the Royal Africa Society's annual film festival, we saw two LGBTQI+ films and a collection of LGBTQI+ stories from Kenya titled Stories Of Our Lives. A UK film-maker is working on The Boy from Mushin, a film about my coming out, what has changed since then, and what impact it is having on the LGBTQI+ movement in Nigeria. There's a Kickstarter campaign supporting it. There was also Veil of Silence from Nigeria, which was an entry at the BFI Flare film festival two years ago.

We need more investment in story-telling workshops to develop ideas into films. But if we are expecting some messiah to come fix it for us, it won't work. We need to do it ourselves.

I am also working with a group of friends to buy the film rights to the novel Walking with Shadows by Nigerian author Jude Dibia. It's the biggest gay-themed book to have come out of Nigeria, with a beautiful storyline. That's the kind of content we need to get on our screens.

Can film truly change the way people think?

Yes, there's no doubt about it. If an actor plays a villain a lot, in real life, people tend to think he is who he portrays in films. The biggest social changes in human history were often encouraged through films as much as activism. Film has played a huge role in challenging people’s perception of an issue.

What would you say to young LGBTQI+ people in Africa who might be reading this?

I know you may have been told it will get better. The reality is, it doesn't always get better, you just get stronger.

At the age of 17, I attempted my first suicide. Had I been successful, I wouldn't be here today and have the chance to see beautiful places, meet inspiring people, or do the challenging things I've been able to do. Use this time to talk to your older self, see beyond the cloudiness of today. I know it is hard, but it is possible. Stand up for what you believe in, work hard for it, fight for it, because nothing comes by giving up.

I also want to use this opportunity to reach out to many people in Nigeria and across Africa that are opposed to same-sex relationships. Please take time to look beyond the hate. If you do, you will see two genuine people in love. Ask yourself this simple question, 'what do I gain by hating someone I hardly know?'

Bisi Alimi runs the Bisi Alimi Foundation. He has taught at the Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität in Berlin on pre- and post-colonial sexual orientation and gender identity in Africa. He has been included in the fiveFilms4freedom 2016 Global List - 33 inspiring people promoting freedom, equality and LGBTQI+ rights.

From 16 to 27 March 2016, join the world’s biggest online LGBTQI+ film festival from the British Council and the British Film Institute (BFI), and watch #fiveFilms4freedom for free.

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