On the Conversations series for this week, Abang Mercy Speaks with foremost gay rights activist Bisi Alimi, who calls for a revolution in Nigeria and insist that more Nigerians will vote in favour of a law protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT).
At what point in your life did you decide to be gay?
I get asked this question many times, but honestly it’s pretty hard. I knew I have same sex feeling as young as 8 years, I didn’t really act on it till I was around 10/11 years when I had my first male kiss and it felt so good.
I think many people will say this is what children do and I do agree as I have many friends who had same sex experience while they were young and they grew out of, so also I have friends who had heterosexual feelings while young and grew out of it. Children sexuality is very difficult things to predict and I think it boils down to dynamic around being a child as nothing is set in stone. My second kiss I remember very well was when I was in primary school and it was my final year, I was going to win a prize and I was going to perform as well. So there I was in the changing room with my crush in primary, he had come to see me get ready, when I was all dressed and ready to go on stage, he kissed and I think it lasted for about 1 minute, it was like heaven. I went on stage and I think in all my years of performing, that was one of the best in my life. Today he is married with children and I remembered few years back reminding him of that day, he smiled and said, it was fun while it lasted but that he had moved on.
I went on to secondary school and attending Eko Boys’ High was big time fun. I think I started reaching the conclusion about my sexuality from around age 13. Secondary school gave me the opportunity to see myself better.
I was with other boys, some of them loved girls, some loved boys and it was just normally. Unlike many young gay people being bullied at the playground, I will say to some extent I enjoyed a bit of pampering in secondary, well mostly in my first year as my school father was a very influential guy and he loved me to bits.
By the time I was getting to senior high, it was obvious that yes, I was very different from everyone. Also I have made friends with 4 other guys are we had became the “gay” rebels. We were representing our secondary school in cultural activities. I remembered once we went as far as representing Mushin Local Government in Lagos during the inter-council cultural festival acting as girls. Those were the days. I remembered acting as a pregnant woman and one of the judges saying even a woman won’t be able to do it better.
When I left secondary school, I had the biggest opportunity in my life to attend my first “same sex” party in Lagos, it was mind-blowing and an eye opener for me. And it was at this event I could say I actually used the word gay. I think from childhood I had always been a rebel, even against myself and using the word “gay” was something I was never comfortable with since I knew the word. It just doesn’t fit with me at that time.
So by the time I was 18 years, I have started accepting to use the term gay for myself and in a way trying to find myself with all the confusion around me as regards religion, my sexuality and the expectations of the society and where I found myself personally. My teenage years were the most difficult as well as the most liberating years of my life.
You were disowned by your family and most of your friends – including some in the gay community, what was it like for you?
I think that was one of the most difficult times in my life. You know the feeling when the world is crumbling around you and you just wanted someone to lift you up and everyone is turning their backs on you. Many because of their own shame and others just because of some funny religious belief. It was very hard. I came out when I was 29 years, that is like 11 years after attending my first gay party. It had taken me 11 years to actually say: fuck it, I am going to talk about my sexuality, I am going to own up and say I am gay. It was really hard and I think few years down the line when I thought about the many reactions I got, it was like, yes it took me bloody 11 years to actually look into the mirror with a smile on my face and yes I am gay. I came to a conclusion then that it will be unfair on my families and friends if I was expecting a quick turn around, but at the same time I was not expecting the hateful reactions I got.
However, those kind of things help you realise that you are in this world alone. It’s like in acting, there will be a time when you have to face the camera alone, you deliver a monologue and it’s you and your fate and honestly that moment can make or break you. I had my monologue moment in life and when people say I am a brave gave, I tell myself, boy you nailed your monologue moment. The time alone helped me to restructure myself and this is a process, it’s still a work in progress. Making the best of one self is a huge task as there will be many distraction, many people that don’t believe you, and many who are just bloody pretentious and many that are very sincere and you just have to know how to handle all the shits life might throw at you.
So the rejection helped me to see myself better, though hurtful, but it was also a blessing in disguise
What was your mum’s reaction as well as family members when they realized you were gay?
My mum has always thought I could be gay. She used to say that “whatever you are doing that God is not happy with, you have stop doing them”. I see my mum as a representative of the Nigerian society as whole. Remember she was born in the 50s, there was limited education around sexuality like we know today. Also as she grew older, she was experiencing a form of dissillusion everyone in Nigeria born before independence where experiencing. You know having seen your country coming out an a foreign rule with a promise of better tomorrow and just there right in your eyes you see all these things going to ruin. It must have been very hard for her. Also my grand-dad I was told was a big tyrant. He was very popular in Mushin then and I heard that he took on the government on many occasion.
So my mum background is one that thought there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel and when she grew older and could find the light she turned to the only thing that looked like a light, “religion”. I am very sure that my secular mum that I grew up knowing would have been at least a bit supportive compared to my religious mum who was looking at everything I did from a “mono-direction” informed by the religious normative. It was either right or wrong, nothing in the middle. If the Bible says no, then no questioning, but I also see a woman who is conscious of the reality that she has become an element in the game of chess. I love my mum so much, she is one the strongest woman I have ever seen. Everyone says I look very much like mum, the fierce, arrogant, sexy but determine look is something I got from her. I remembered once my mum walking out on my father, she was going to divorce him and move on with her life. You see, she is not like those Nigerian women who will say ” I will stay for the sake of my children”, she will do what is best for her. But the more she dive into religion the more I lose her. She stopped being rational and started looking at everything from religious perspective.
So by the time i came out as gay, my mum has gone deep into “head covering, Monday-Sunday god worshiping religious woman”, it was very hard to communicate with her, she rejected me not because she felt it was cool, though I had issue with everyone in my family while growing up, she rejected me because the bible said so, because she was looking at me from a humane point of view, but from the view of “what the bible” said and I think that was the last straw for me and my family, it’s sad really, knowing that you have families that you can’t connect with sometimes make the world a lonely place to be.
You became the first Nigerian to come out of the closet on television to declare your sexuality, on New Dawn with Funmi Iyanda. How did it feel?*
Haha… I think it was liberating as much as it was frightening…. It feels good and bad, it was very much a mix emotion. Wow that was one crazy thing to do. And really now we hear celebrating coming out and there is this huge press coverage and I wondered “really?” Not that I am against it, but honestly I celebrate more my friends from countries where your head will be on a plate the next minute you said you are gay and these guys will still risk this and come out. Honestly it’s not an easy thing to do. However, I also believed someone has got to do it.
I look back now almost 10 years I sat on that sofa with Funmi Iyanda talking about homosexuality and HIV, and realised that actually the two of us became the catalyst for sexual liberation in Nigeria. Take it or leave, Funmi and I shaped the conversation around sexual orientation in Nigeria and that is something I am proud of. I might not be a millionaire tomorrow or be nominated for any awards, but one thing is clear, I stood up when it matters and I think I should give myself a pat on the back for that.
You know, many people will say its borderline arrogance, and who am I to question their views about it, what I will say is, if you think it’s easy, stand up for something. There are many issues plaguing Nigeria today, there is corruption, lack of social infrastructure and social barriers like “girl child education, teenage pregnancy, child marriage, female genital mutilation, mob justice”, there are many issues to pick a battle line for, if you think I am being arrogant, stand up for something and see how easy it is….
Did you seek asylum to the United Kingdom for fear of not being killed in Nigeria?
Honestly, I just wanted to get out of Nigeria for good. The event of the 9th April was very frightening. It has left a lasting scar on my life in terms of my relationship with Nigeria. I am like a rape victim afraid of anything that looks like my rapist. You know I think about that event and though as much as I wish for the best, I think “what if”, you know, what if they were successful killing me that night? My family would be celebrating 6 years of my death by now.
So leaving for the UK knowing I have a visa on my passport was the wise thing to do. Even at the peak of Abacha tyranny, the likes of Soyinka sought refuge somewhere else. It was while I was in the UK that i realized that I can actually claim asylum. I got to the UK in April 2007, I didn’t claim asylum until Feb 28th 2008, so you see, asylum was never on the list.
I just wanted to run away as far as I could…
There are assumptions by persons in some quarters that Nigerians seek asylum just to acquire the United Kingdom Visa as most of them are not gay… What do you make of such assertion?
I cannot comment on that as it might affect the situation in the UK. Yes, there are dialogue going on at the moment as regards asylum in respect to sexual orientation and honestly if Nigerians are so desperate to lie that they are something they are not just so they can stay in the UK, that says a lot about the country Nigeria and not the people that are desperate. Many Nigerian are seeking greener pasture because the country is “fucked”. I know many patriotic Nigerians will be screaming at me now, but we need to once in a while look in the mirror and tell ourselves the truth. I remembered when I gained admission to University of Lagos when Omotola was the Chancellor. UNILAG was the only university in Nigeria that won’t go on strike. A certificate from UNILAG will guarantee you a better life. That was even till 2004, now what do we have? A university degree in Nigeria cannot even compete with a college degree from UK. That says a lot about the future of the country.
Politic is now the most lucrative job to do, you know what I mean? Ask a young Nigerian now what they will like to be, its either an actor or a politician. If you want to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer, you will want to ask yourself, what really does the future holds? What kind of job can I get? It’s a shame really. Nigerians spend more time in church expecting miracle rather than making things work. It’s like waiting for “godot”.
What are the challenges you’ve faced so far since moving to the United
Kingdom and how have you been able to overcome them?
Coming to the UK has been a mixed blessing for me. I have had the opportunities in life to not just live my life, but also to be able to contribute to a society meaningfully. You know I see London as my home.
Every time I travel around the world, I just want to come back to London.
It is like one place in the world I feel really safe.
However it has not always been a romantic experience with London. I have had some very challenging experience here too…. Life initially when I came to the UK was very hard, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
There was the cultural challenges. I remembered working in Topshop and being told that I shout when I talk. It took me time to understand that the English whispers when speaking. You know I had to deal with that. I think that dealt a big blow to my self confidence. You know everyone thinking you are like a Barbarian the way you talk.
The other challenges was living with my aunt and trying to cope with the religious talk I had to face everyday. It was very hard, really really hard and this was something that totally destroyed the relationship with my aunt till now. Then I had to deal with understanding the “gay” culture in the London. In Lagos where I was coming from, everything was pretty underground, nothing in your face unless you go to gay parties. Coming to the UK and experiencing gay culture for the first time, it was exciting and depressing at the same time.
Then there was the issue of sex. You know every where you turn there is a sexual connotation. Coming from Nigeria where secularism still has a bit of puritanism in it, I was finding myself judging people based on “right and wrong”, it was really hard to fit in.
Also there was the challenge of understanding the racism I was seeing in the gay community. There was the whole identity thing. I was never black, even in Nigeria, i was never Africa, I have always been the boy from mushin, my nationality was never an issue so also was the colour of my skin. Coming to the UK where I had to tick boxes, I found this very hard and difficult.
Also I had the perfect idea of what a relationship should be. I was brought up to believe that dating is an end to a means, the means being getting married. So when I get into relationship and it felt like I am being played, I felt really upset with everything.
Also certain feelings I had in Nigeria that i thought were normal, I had to learn to deal with them as mental health issues. You know in Nigeria when you mention mental health, you are talking about madness, and that means you are lunatic. So when I was diagnosed for having anxiety and mood swing, and told I am suffering from mental health, I just couldn’t deal with it as I know I am not mad. It was pretty hard.
The good thing is i have been able to face many challenges I faced on arrival in the UK. Six years down the line i think I am wiser for all of this. Its been a long trip, but an amazing and formative ones. Maybe it could have been easier if I had come here younger, but at 32 years, I sure congratulate myself on being able to pull my weight as well.
On the night of 9th Apr 2007, you were attacked in your house along with you boy friend, badly beaten for being gay.. Tell us about that story.
This is like asking a woman who experienced rape to tell you how it happened. I dont think its an easy tale to tell. I remembered on 12th calling my ex and having a chat with him to recount that experience, it was really hard for the two of us. I remembered the guys, knocking on my door that night and I opened and the next thing was a blinding slap across my face, I remembered being tied up and constantly beaten, my face down with one of them using his leg to press my head down so I cant look up. I was being beaten, and so was my ex, then I felt something cold to my head, i remembered the guy saying it was a gun and they talking about finishing me up.
You know there you were, this kind of things you seen thriller movies playing out right in front you, and you are not just some passive spectator, it was actually your life about to be taken. You are going to be the victim and you are so helpless and powerless. You kind of just say, that’s it, but at the same time you still think you are in dreamland and want to wake, everything happening in a flash. I can remember the incident happening for almost an hour. It was one of the longest one hour of my life. I was terrified, really really terrifying…
If anything, I think it has helped me to appreciate my life more and also the people I am lucky to have in my life. Today all I can say is that I survived the attack and I am here to tell the story. It is an ordeal I really want to forget, I know its hard but i wish Icould. Maybe one day I will have the courage to write down in a book.
You were nearly refused your Ogun State Polytechnic, certificate as it was believed that your morals were unacceptable, unworthy in character to be an alumnus of the university.. What does that say of the Nigerian system respecting the freedom of choice in the society?
I will like to correct that the incident happened in Unilag and not Ogun Poly. The reality of that incident in Unilag showed that our education institution has being compromised to not be a place where you learn liberalism and unbiased education, but one where religion has become the benchmark for morality.
I don’t think an average Nigerian understand the fundamental ideology of choice. Now I will never say my sexuality is a choice. Tell me, who will want to chose to be gay in Nigeria when you know you could get killed for it? That person must be really made. If many people who are gay could help it, if they could pray it away, fast it away or wish it away, I know many people that would do that. I think reducing something as serious as human sexuality to choice is to playing to the ignorance of bigotry. Is heterosexual a choice? I am sure everyone will say no.
As a gay rights activist, you have led several peaceful protests and social dialogues to demand acceptance of homosexuals in Nigeria. Have the campaigns been successful?
I will say yes it has been successful but it all depends on how you measure success. Prior to 2004, the discussion around homosexuality in the media was more about “the other people”, no one in Nigeria was talking publicly about the gays at home. Then gbam! all of a sudden, a mad boy came on tv and talked about his sexuality and suddenly we have a bill, the political landmark changed, religious debate started, it went into the mainstream and the whole country got into the conversation of good and bad about human sexuality. If that is not success I wont what it is. Now we have the likes of big mouthed Fani-Kayode talking about gay marriage. We have David Mark saying its immoral, despite the fact that he leads a senate that is full of the most corrupt crop of human beings on earth. Even the most educated of them Abike Dabiri has stooped so low started yarning rubbish about something she should know better. You know Abike is the most surprising of all. She is one woman I respected so much. Seeing her discussing very topical issues on News line back in the days, you will think someone like her will be a champion of change. Many people like me are happy to have the likes of Funmi Iyanda standing against all odds and speaking the truth even when it hurts so bad. Today if you sample Nigerians opinion as regards homosexuality, I am sure you will find more people in favour of a law protecting LGBT people compare to 10 years ago. The world of social media has transformed everything. Now an average Nigerian has a gay friend or a gay relatives. The visibility someone like me started way back in 2004 has paved the way for more proactive daredevils in Nigeria. We still have a long way to go, but I am happy that in the last 10 years, we have changed the landmark.
What is that one thing you will want to be remembered for when you are no longer on earth?
I want to be remembered as the guy that had the opportunity to make a change and went for it. I am not sure I can be classified as one of the most loved Nigerian, but at the same time it will be said of me that I chickened out when it matters
What is your relationship with the United State’s President Barrack Obama, you were invited to the White House.. How was the outing?
Hahah… I have no relationship whatsoever with Obama, I wish I do. You know, that man is amazing. His presence is not just overpowering, but it is inspiring as well. I was invited to the White House July last year as part of a reception organised by the white. One of my mentor, who is the special adviser to President Obama had dropped my name as his guest. When he told me about this, I was going mad. You its not every time you have the opportunity to be part of history. Obama is the first Black president of America, what better time to visit the white house of not then. I remembered after his speech and he was shaking hands with everyone, he got to me and he shook my hand, I had to kiss his hands, it was so surreal.. I remembered saying, you make my dream come true, and at that time, he was just moving on to the next person and he stopped and came back to me and said “dreams come true if you believe”, honestly I just broke down and started crying. You know here I am in the white house, a Nigerian gay man. Few years ago, I had no hope for the future, I was constantly beaten and molested, assaulted on many occasion not because I committed any crime, it was just because of my sexuality. There I was, a gay man that escaped being lynched and shot to death, being the guest of the President of the United State of America in the white house and shaking hands with him. It was unbelievable. For days I was shaking and just couldn’t control myself. So it was even a bigger experience when I was there again for the inauguration. There are few things that will beat that in my life, very few things. If I die today, honestly I will go to heaven if there is any. It was pretty funny reading Fani-Kayode article against Obama. Honestly I wonder want loony land that guy is living in. One thing is clear, he can never be known beyond the shores of Nigeria and honestly, I doubt if Obama has heard of a name like that before. Fani- Kayode is a local champion whose only claim to fame is his ability to open his mouth and speak without any iota of reasoning.
Are you currently married or are you in a relationship?
No I am not married…. I am sure if I am it wont be a secret. I am in a relationship. I have been going to 3 years now. My boyfriend is another wonderful thing that has happened to me. He is an amazing guy. He is picking up many Nigerian antics now. I just wish he could be more adventurous and start eating Yoruba food.
The national assembly, led by David Mark has a bill prohibiting same sex marriage, declaring that people found to have violated the law risked 14 years imprisonment. What do you make of the bill?
Honestly, I think Nigerians deserved better than this crop of politicians they have. A country of over 150 million people can do better than this bunch of misguided populations. Tell me are the gays responsible for bad roads, lack of electricity, university strike or the increasing unrest in the country? Are the gays responsible for bad governance? Poverty and the increasing anger in the country? What will sending the gays to 14 years imprisonment change in the country? Nigerians need to step back and ask themselves how will this law make things better for them? Will jailing the gays create a pathway to cure of homosexuality? I challenge people to answer this question, if the first person to be prosecuted is your brother or sister, how will you feel? Today they are coming for the gays, watch out tomorrow it will be for another group. Look at the case of Uganda. When the proposed the “kill the gay bill” many Ugandans took to the street supporting it. Now they have in Uganda a bill that will prosecute wearing of mini-skirts. Where will they stop? Nigerians need to take back the country. I challenge Nigerians to take back the base of power. I call for a revolution in Nigeria. No one will do it for Nigerians if they do not do it for themselves. The world is watching and waiting. I have come to learn something in life, if you want to see a change, do not wait for it to happen, make it happen.We need to demand more from our corrupt religious leaders that have become a shield for corrupt politicians. Nigerians need to stand up, and start all over again, taking their futures in their hands. God has better things to do and if indeed he has interest in Nigeria, he would have solved the problems a long time ago. Nigerians need to wise up, get up and be the change they want.