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“We see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves…”
—Mahershala Ali, 2017 SAG Awards Acceptance Speech
On 29th of July 2017, a relatively hot Saturday, around 3:30pm, police raided the Vintage Hotel at Weigh Bridge in Owode Onirin area of Lagos State. According to witnesses the Nigeria Police had been tipped about the hotel harbouring gay people, and on that day as the men gathered, the police swooned in and the men were caught in the “act”.
The Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer, Olarinde Famouse-Cole confirmed the arrest by saying: It is true. About 42 suspected homosexuals were arrested and the hotel has been cordoned off while investigation continues. They are in custody of the Lagos State Task Force and will be charged to court soon.
The forty-two people were paraded before the media, meaning they appeared in all the local news media, meaning also that friends and families saw them.
No attempts were made to blur their faces during the broadcast or reports.
What the police didn’t tell the public was that the forty-two men and boys were between the ages of twelve and twenty-eight, and were arrested while attending a HIV intervention programme organised by Access to Health and Rights Development Initiative, led by an LGBTI and AIDS activist, Peter Kass.
The United Nations reported that Nigeria has the highest rate of HIV in west and central Africa, with an estimated 3.5 million people infected with the virus, and according to Avert.org, “…punitive laws against homosexuality [in Nigeria] have meant that men who have sex with men are now even more vulnerable to HIV infection and face many difficulties accessing HIV services.”
When the media got a hold on the HIV status of the men arrested, they splashed the results on the screen and in the papers.
“It was shocking,” Friday (not real name) said. “I mean, my life ended that day.”
Most teens and adults involved in the raid lost their homes and jobs. Some were physically attacked on the streets they lived. Others went into “self-imposed” exile; running from the state.
Ademola is waiting for me at the other end of the road as the city of Lagos hugs me. I am not sure what to expect (we’ve been Facebook friends for almost a year), tall, black and handsome, or just some fake person with a real Facebook account, luring me into a trap. I do not want to believe my negative thoughts. I have few options and one of them isn’t surviving. Two weeks before, I woke in the hospital. I had done something to myself and was ashamed to tell anyone. I had ingested some drugs into my system hoping to be found dead any moment someone walked in, instead I was found writhing in bed. I didn’t know how people found my personal contact, took it upon them to dish customised threats to me. I felt someone was watching every step I made. On the phone with my partner, I cried like a baby. And even though they tried lifting my spirit, I knew I was gone. My predators had won.
“Come to Lagos, I’ll play the host. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
The phone beeped, Ademola had texted after hearing what happened. “We could go to Fela’s shrine, Patabah Bookstore; watch Okey Ndibe read from his books, take random walks or do everything you wanted. LOL.”
I dropped the phone.
“Hey, what do you think?”
Still no reply, till finally the midnight of that day, I said would take the offer. That was actually a way of confirming that I was still alive and had the right to choose where to die: some doggone small stuffy city overpopulated by both ghosts and humans wasn’t a bad choice – where no one would give an account of me. It sounded interesting.
Chibùihè Obi, the queer Nigerian writer, had gone missing after publishing an essay on Brittle Paper, We Are Queer, and We Are Here. A month earlier I had called to tell him how some group of guys ran over me with a motorbike, confiscated my gadgets, and issued threats. He said I shouldn’t worry, everything would be alright. The only suggestion he frowned upon out of many I made was leaving Nigeria. Two weeks later my partner called to inform me Chibùihè had gone missing since June 1st. He was abducted by unknown men who sent his friends messages, accusing him of preaching “Satanism”.
At the end of the road is sunset, is Ajah, Surulere, Iyana Ipaja, like that, going back and forth till I am hitting on the Diamond Bank along the Abeokuta Express Road.
It is a minute past twelve in the morning, Saturday, but Lagos isn’t tired yet. Not even hungry or dreamy like Abakaliki, the place I had left behind, walking in between shadows to avoid lurking dangers till I was on the bus. Abakaliki sleeps at ten in the night. I am going to know how long Lagos has to stay awake before it kills its own.
I was singing Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” when I left Abakaliki. I am leaving the burning river to the sea, all on that day. If Lagos hears this, perchance I’d get a new life.
Don’t you see me down here praying?
I’ll tell your crime & I’ll tell you very well. Have a seat, take this drink if you like, look into my eyes & tell me you never fell in love. Just say it.
Your crime is outrageous. You have deflowered the constitution. Tell, what do you want my goons and I to do you?
Don’t look at me that way. Plead guilty as I read these offences to you.
1. You have fallen in love in the most awkward ways against nature.
2. Your name is Peter not Lizzy.
3. Why are you always in the shadows? Are you afraid we are going to kill you? Don’t you want to be stoned? It is your civic right & you dare run away from it?
4. You have preached against the sacred truth.
5. Who are you to fall in love with a fellow man?
6. You are even poor. Tueh! Are you a ritualist? I know it. Homo!
The arrested gay men spoke of their stay in the police custody as “hellish”. They were beaten with a stick, hammer and plywood. At night when it was time to sleep, they were stripped naked and asked to sleep on the floor bare till when thirty of them were bailed.
I lost my one room apartment after leaving the university. I couldn’t afford it anymore, there were debts to settle. The naira had taken a dramatic fall against the dollar. One thousand naira could get you absolutely nothing. I was going blind, walked in and out of Eye Clinics, wandered the streets of Abakaliki, barely getting bread with mayonnaise or cooked groundnut for breakfast. The country’s suicide rate had skyrocketed, students, business people, and etcetera.
I couldn’t go to mum’s because I had failed her. There were many things I could never tell or make her understand, and two of them were my sexuality and why I left university without a degree.
2017, I am on the road. There’s no home & if there was I’d have started from there, I started from my mum’s instead. There’s a haunting Facebook article I read about gay teenagers or youths in Nigeria living in the streets or being murdered for coming out, or the gay adults who got arrested for loving differently.
“Everything is different in Lagos. No one has the time to point out who is gay or not,” Ademola assures in a chat while he tries saving me from myself. I think I understand how quick he is moved to come to my rescue; to avoid another newspaper headline.
I feel so about these gay men, bringing their stories to the world. I have promised to travel the breadths of Nigeria with a question: how do queer people survive in this place (do they have the kind of protection Lagos promises as my friend pointed)?
It is because of this that made me accept the “Lagos offer” from Ademola.
I can’t tell what exactly I wanted to do with that story when I left (to know I wasn’t the only one who would be killed soon or risk going to jail for fourteen years?), maybe, add it as one of life’s experiences because I was also on the street or add it to the horrors one has to know before death. I think though, I know better now, a broken person going after broken affairs in a broken country.
Many are dead. Sometimes I think am too.
I wish this essay was written in the voice of the dead to which I have sought. All efforts to reach them proved futile. None of the victims answered the phone or replied to their Twitter mentions or emails.
We are at Soluchuks Nightclub. Me, Ademola, and two friends of his – one had just returned from Ghana. We spend some minutes talking about what we both like about Ghana. We are laughing, I am wondering when was the last time I laughed so well without pretence. Ademola had told them I am in Lagos just to cool off. They comment that it is needed. “The young have to leave their comfort to know what is or not working in their life.”
The only thing not working now is the president of the country. You wake to the news of politicians found with cash belonging to the people or buildings gotten from the state’s coffers, and to your dismay none of them is ever tried or sentenced or fined.
The media comes next to say those recovered loots are now in the possession of the EFCC and soon the government would flush them into the system, and with that done, the economy would bounce right back.
None has ever happened. Instead those loots fund the president’s medical tourism to the United Kingdom. And while no one questions that, the media houses in Nigeria, along with the Nigeria police and the Minister of Information and Culture, devise a means of manipulating and keeping Nigerians busy, anything to make them understand there’s a common enemy to exterminate:
Nigerian gays: swimming in shark infested sea
28 adults being arraigned for engaging in homosexuality before the Yaba Magistrate Court by Lagos State Government…
Prosecutors in the northern Nigeria state of Kaduna have charged 53 people with conspiring to celebrate a gay wedding…
The government is working; at least the people are one with their leaders on this. This is a good sign, Ade and I joke.
According to a 2015 poll conducted by NOIPolls, 87% of Nigerians are not willing to accept a family member that is homosexual. Same percentage supports the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. And 90% do not think people are born homosexuals – that it is a learned behaviour which could be corrected by beating or lynching or getting locked up in a prayer house. This also reaffirms the 2013 survey in which 60% of respondents believe homosexuality is a “sinful” act.
Also on the 22nd of July, 2015, while the president was visiting the United States, his media aide, Femi Adesina tweeted: “The issue of gay marriage came up here yesterday. PMB [President Muhammadu Buhari] was point blank. Sodomy is against the law in Nigeria, and abhorrent to our culture.”
“I know some people who might help,” Ade chirps as we leave the club temporarily to buy Nescafé from the man selling hot coffees outside the block.
“When you are ready, we can talk to them.”
“Won’t they run from me?”
I hear myself, the awkwardness of what I just said. “Do you think they’d be open to discuss these issues with me?” I correct myself.
“They are my friends, if they don’t trust you, at least they trust me.”
Some hidden speakers stuff the air with King Sunny Ade’s Merciful God as Ademola and I leaf through the suburbs of Iyana Ipaja to Ozone Cinema, Surulere, where my partner joins us. We are waiting for friends: one a writer, the other has a flair for the written word too, but has hardly ventured, Ade informs me. We are here, tempted to order something while waiting for their arrival. We resist the temptation because we are mostly broke. A dollar is three hundred and sixty-five naira. We count our teeth with our tongues before we make orders or purchases.
Our friends call with a new venue, maybe because of security concerns. We leave to meet them. While we place orders we take turns scanning ourselves, we were strangers till now. How on earth did we make it, why even?
“What is your story?” KC, the one with the bag asks me. And while I talk it occurs to me that outside my partner and Ademola, this is the first time am talking about myself without pausing to think. I used to think there are few of us on earth.
“I assure you we are many,” KC corrects.
“Well, there’s no place for my love,” Soma declares. Till now, Ademola, KC and I had been doing the talking; KC counts his words though.
There’s this thing that without trying a man who’s been made a fugitive by the law does: in every situation he creates an exit strategy by not speaking freely and observing the room. KC is not relaxed. I might as well be a member of the DSS, Ademola has come to sell them like Judas. No one voices this, I know because I feel the same immediately I stopped talking.
“Nobody understands. Sometimes I just want to run, hide from the stars. I am tired of everyone’s eyes – looking at me like some dude who emerged from the trashcan.”
He stops to drink from the bottle of Star Radler tired of waiting for his touch. He is sweating under the ceiling fan pretending to be in motion. He is battling with some un-fond memories.
“Everyone makes jest of my butt, how big stuff is and how I behave like a woman.”
The content of the bottle is exhausted. I offer him more over the chicken and crisps. He doesn’t accept the drink yet.
“I don’t know what to say, there are lots of stories, what exactly do you want to hear?”
I don’t want to hear anymore. There’s much said already in the silence bordering where we sit, the silence is enormous. We know what we are saying without moving our lips.
“The guy accommodating me found out about my sexuality,” Soma says suddenly. I shoot my eyes at him from across the bar cum restaurant. “He is scared of me now; he is afraid I’d fuck him.”
“That’s absurd,” I say.
“We’d been friends for years and I hadn’t fucked him. How come he thinks that now? I know he wants me to leave the house but doesn’t know how to say it. He doesn’t eat anything from me anymore. It is depressing. I have lost everything.”
King Sunny Ade must really be the King of Lagos; “Let Them Say” comes up immediately, albeit not loudly, like the former on the street.
“Love will come,” Ademola assures. We hope.
Last night I did two things: told the random boy I met on Facebook he could be anything he wanted, dared the homophobe who fantasised raping and beating me.
“We are winning the war,” president Buhari assures Nigerians. Maybe the war against the right to live…
The next day on Facebook friends are posting RIP on the wall of the boy I had a chat with. He had committed suicide. Another boy who had been unknown to me till now has been flogged, punched and kicked multiple times by people who accused him of being gay. Another had run off their family house because he didn’t want anyone to know what he had been trying to hide.
I am in the streets looking for the rainbows, they are scattered all over, something about them, beautiful, reminding me of my childhood when I hid only from aunties and not from a country, the lost innocence.
Four days in Lagos, it is still raining and the roads are useless but the court of justice, the last hope of the common man, is still executing the common man.
My phone rings. It is one p.m. in the afternoon. Soma, he is calling to tell me that sometimes our angels are Lucifer in different shades.
“Our mutual friend is avoiding me. I told him I loved him, he said to give him some time. He avoids me everywhere; in the public, in a group chat. He dodges my greetings even. He pretends never knowing me.”
He sounds stressed. He wishes things are different. I assure him. I assure, hoping that the things I say to him make sense, even to me. They don’t.
One of the arrested boys, when he was released said: “I wish something could be done … about me. I am tired; I just want to live like every normal person.”
Jericho Brown’s “Homeland”, though maybe written as a result of the racial injustice in America, resonates with the situation of queer Nigerians.
Nobody in this nation feels safe, and I’m still a reason why.
Every day, something gets thrown away on account of long History or hair or fingernails or, yes, of course, my fangs.
At Oshodi, some people are gathered, not in a communal festive way, in a communal violent way. According to all the people I ask, said boy being torn apart is a renowned gay. I am staring at the stark naked beautiful man reduced to nothing.
In time of war we often pick a side. I look at all the people cheering for the head of the “animal”, the number is up compared to the few people advocating the boy being handed to the police. I am talking but my voice is not heard. I can’t even hear myself. It is my fear overcoming me. I am planning my exit.
No place is safe. I was a fool to have believed that some place was without a sin. All the bad things happening to people against the promise of a better life are happening in Lagos, in my own very presence. Maybe I had sung Nina Simone for Lagos to hear because of my brothers who came to make money but got lost in their pursuits. Never because of this, or I sang it hoping it would confess its sins by itself and now it has, I think.
There’s no place for my softness, my brokenness, my love. No place for my dreams. Nobody cares whether I live or die.
In “La Prieta”, Gloria E. Anzaldúa wonders why people enact violence on each other. I still haven’t figured the correlation between love and violence – familial bond and rejection. Why God had to demand blood before making Abraham the father of the world? Why in the movies witnesses seldom survive the night?
I am not the messiah. I am not the Moses. I dived into this river hoping to save the fishes from pollution. It is me against the tides now. I am drowning.
Maybe one day, as I pack my belongings into this backpack, stealing myself out the way I came, I’ll return, not in Lagos, but in Abuja, at the doorstep of the President, asking him why the country is not safe for even his cattle, asking why I have to die whenever I say love like rainfall, asking him how laws are made and how no one is even safe to say a prayer to their desires or deities.
One day I’ll ask the president a question, and it won’t be about the secret behind the erection of more religious buildings from the government’s purse, but why this essay has to be written in the first place.