“Kill them!”: The beginner’s guide to Nigerian homophobia (YNaija Long Read)

by Elnathan John

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“He is supposed to be killed.”

– Nuhu Idris Mohammed, Sharia Court Judge in Bauchi who sentenced a man to 20 lashes for being a homosexual. (Source: “Wielding Whip and a Hard New Law, Nigeria Tries to ‘Sanitize’ Itself of Gays”, New York Times, 8 February, 2014.)

Kill them. This sentiment has been expressed about homosexuals in Nigeria, both in the streets and in the media, especially since the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act came into operation on January 7, 2014 – again, and again. And again.

Many have hailed the new piece of legislation as being in line with Nigerian religious and cultural values, chiding the West for double standards on democracy and the will of the majority. In a rare moment of countrywide support, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan received praise from Christian and Muslim groups and well as from lawyers, and even the opposition.

Take Abike Dabiri-Erewa; a journalist and federal legislator from Lagos State who is described on her Wikipedia page as having “warmed her way into the hearts of many with her gallantry efforts of using television as an effective tool to draw attention to the millions of Nigerians suffering from the pains of poverty and injustice.” (Dabiri-Erewa has also sponsored a bill for the elimination for violence against women. According to her website, “The bill also seeks compensation for victims of rape. It also deals with domestic violence, political violence, harmful traditional practices, and protection of widows among others”). When the anti-gay bill came up for debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, this champion of justice and protection said same-sex activity has “no place in Nigerian culture” and is “repulsive”.

The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, one of the scantiest pieces of legislation in the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (7 sections and less than 600 words), is a remarkable law in many ways. For the first time, actions outside the act of homosexuality itself (albeit corollaries to it) are being punished. For example, the law punishes the direct or indirect “public show of same sex amorous relationship”, a nebulous term not defined in the legislation, as well as the “registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, their sustenance, processions and meetings”.

President-Goodluck-Jonathan1

Further widening the scope of persons capable of being punished, the law prescribes a 10 year jail term for persons who simply witness any of the offences, whether the solemnization of a gay marriage, the registration of a gay club or a meeting of a gay society.

Government of the people?

It is safe to say that a majority of Nigerians, sold to the idea of the legislation primarily by its title are in support of the law – indeed of anything that makes life difficult for homosexuals. Nigeria, a country deeply divided along crisscrossed ethnic and religious lines, is fanatical about religion and the profession of religion. Most persons, whether active or not, claim some affiliation to one of the two major religions, Christianity or Islam – whether at social events, in the workplace or even for the purpose of filling political quotas. Even among persons in the gay community, these religious affiliations exist. Perhaps for this reason activist and writer Azeenarh Mohammed, who in an uncommon act of bravery revealed her gay sexuality, titled her coming out piece “gay, Muslim…and Nigeria[n]”.

Many applauding the new legislation cite the preservation of culture and religion. The head of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Rev. Felix Omobude, hailed the law because same sex unions are “contrary to Nigeria’s culture”. “If you even remove Christianity and Islam, and to the very tradition of the people, we abhor same sex marriage,” he said.

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The head of one of the branches of the Nigerian Bar Association, Nigeria’s umbrella body for lawyers, told an interviewer that “[Nigerian] culture supports sexual purity and natural means of conception.”

This, however, might be a narrow reading of ‘Nigerian culture’, at least outside the influences Christianity and Islam. In at least one example from Northern Nigeria, there are rich historical, even contemporary sources that suggest this narrow reading excludes a large part of the history of pre-Islamic culture and tradition. In a study dealing with the role of ‘yan daudu, ‘transgendering men’ in Hausa society and more precisely in Bori cult – an old spirit possession cult where the practice of homosexuality is rife – scholar Maarit Sinikangas makes several references to respected sources in explaining how the Bori religion operated (and still operates) in parts of Northern Nigeria. (“‘Yan daudu” is the plural form of “‘Dan daudu”).

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Drawing reference from Fremont E. Besmer’s ‘Horses, Musicians & Gods: The Hausa Cult of Possession-Trance’ (1983), Sinikangas writes in his 2004 thesis ‘Yan Daudu -A Study of Transgendering Men in Hausaland West Africa’:

 

Bori is fundamentally a communication between this world and the other world. It is a set of beliefs in supernatural spirits that can communicate with the people in terms of good or evil will. The spirits, always being present in people’s lives, can cause several misfortunes and make the people ill, but they have also the power to cure and bring luck.

He also points out that even in contemporary times, “some Muslims take part [in] Bori ceremonies or seek medical help from Bori practitioners.”

Many ‘yan daudu participate in Bori performances and dance like women, donating money to cult-adepts, “especially when the spirit Dan Galadima appears”. J.H. Greenberg, in ‘The influence of Islam on a Sudanese Religion’ suggests that the origin of the term ‘dan daudu is from Dan Galadima, a son of Galadima in the spirit pantheon, Dan Galadima being a loose living, handsome man who is popular among women.

Umar H. D. Danfulani, in ‘Factors Contributing To The Survival Of The Bori Cult In Northern Nigeria’ notes that “dancing, sex orgies and daudu homosexuality” are often associated with Bori dances even though he argues that “daudu homosexual relationships found in some sections of Hausa society is not a particular characteristic of the Bori cult.”

There has been argument that ‘yan daudu are not homosexuals, in the strict sense of the word but merely transsexuals or transvestites. But Sinikangas argues that while partaking in same-sex actions is neither necessary nor a sufficient criteria for the status of ‘dan daudu, their status being defined through their work and their most visible feature- gender crossing-, many of the ‘yan daudu do have sexual relations with other men.

This argument is reinforced in Rudolph Gaudio’s much quoted scholarly article, ‘Male Lesbians and Other Queer Notions in Hausa’. Gaudio, a scholar and linguistic anthropologist who himself is gay, has spent decades living in, visiting and researching in Northern Nigeria. He asserts that although “‘dan daudu” is an occupational categorisation, most ‘yan daudu are in fact homosexual.

 

He explains the only minor difference between the homosexual ‘dan daudu and the Western ‘gay’ sexual identity:

 

Despite the lack of significant contacts between Hausa and North American gay communities, certain similarities in the discourses of both groups are sufficient to justify my use here of ‘gay’ and related terms to refer the Hausa men who have sex with men. If ‘gay’ is seen to refer only to the overt, politicized gay communities that have emerged in the West in the past one hundred years, it surely does not apply to the Hausa I met in Nigeria, most of whom have little if any knowledge of Western gay life. If, however, ‘gay’ is understood to refer to men who are conscious of themselves as men who have sex with men, and who consider themselves to be socially (if not temperamentally) distinct from men who do not have this kind of sex, then these Hausa men are undoubtedly gay, and it is in this sense that I use it. This is not to say that Hausa men understand sexuality as do North American gay men. For example, Hausa people generally refer to homosexuality as an act rather than a psychological drive or predisposition, and homosexual men are more often described as men who do homosexuality than as men who want other men sexually. The most common in-group term for men who have sex with men is masu harka, ‘those who do the business’, often abbreviated to masu yi, ‘those who do [it]’. Moreover, homosexuality is not seen to be incompatible with heterosexuality, marriage or parenthood, which constitute strong normative values in Hausa Muslim society.

 

There is ample scholarship on Bori, ‘yan daudu and homosexuality as an undeniable sub culture in (Nigerian) Hausa society as well as on several other non-traditional gender and sexuality expressions across cultures in Nigeria and Africa. Indeed, the Bori, straddling both culture and religion, is one glaring response to the claim that homosexuality is alien to Nigerian culture.

Apparently, much of the modern homophobia in Nigeria, and indeed many parts of Africa, seem to be connected to the incursion of monotheistic religions into the continent. These influences supplanted existing cultures and the polytheistic religions that accommodated a plurality of belief systems.

There have been well documented reports of American evangelists who, unable to achieve any success in their home countries, have recently sponsored and lobbied for gay crackdowns in Africa.

Scott Lively, a controversial Massachusetts based anti-LGBT evangelist, is well known for his role in Uganda, where as a result of his aggressive advocacy to the Ugandan parliament, the Anti-Homosexuality bill was proposed. Lively has been known for asserting, in ‘The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party’, that “homosexuals (are) the true inventors of Nazism and the guiding force behind many Nazi atrocities.” This in spite of several sources recording the imprisonment, torture and killing of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. He further links homosexuality to murder by arguing that eight of the top ten US serial killers were homosexuals. Despite Nigeria’s propensity to host America’s loudest preachers however, there is no evidence that anti-gay campaigners like Scott Lively directly influenced the passage of the Nigerian anti-gay law.

No country for gay men

In Northern Nigeria, the Sharia Penal Code, re-introduced in a stricter version in 1999 starting with the Zamfara State Government and spreading to as many as 12 Northern states, prescribes the death penalty for homosexuality. Many of the recently arrested suspected homosexuals in these Northern states, (notably Bauchi) have been charged under that code.

In a country where self-help violence is often the preferred method of solving issues from land disputes to religious slights, mobs have become emboldened to carry out targeted acts of violence against persons perceived to be gay.

In Rivers State last month, barely three weeks after the anti-gay law was passed, a viral video showed two alleged male homosexuals molested by a mob and forced to have sex with each other.  On 12 February, coordinated attacks on the homes of several activists and others perceived to be gay were carried out by a mob in a suburb of Abuja in the Federal Capital Territory. Nearly 14 persons had their property stolen or destroyed and were rendered homeless. The mob promised they will be killed if they return home. Many more attacks are rumoured daily across the country.

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It might require a struggle to understand the root of this bold violence, but this much is certain: many do not relate with homosexuality as a human issue. They simply refuse to believe there are ‘normal’ people who have a sexual orientation different from the majority.

Lydia Polgreen, who is Deputy International Editor of the New York Times, tweeted on 12 April 2012: “I interviewed arch-conservative Nigerian Anglican Bishop, Peter Akinola, who told me he had never met a gay person.”

Decades of living in the closet as a necessity as well as complex notions of sexuality not quite fitting foreign labels like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ have forced many who have same sex relationships to fit into culturally assigned roles for males and females.

Routinely, anecdotal evidence shows homosexual men and women get married and bear children while maintaining closeted same sex relationships. The result is the absence of mainstream gay visibility, beyond the odd activist, the cross-dresser mocked on blogs, or the caricature of the butch female or effeminate male.

This visibility of gay-as-freak-show makes it easy for people to insist homosexuality is a Western concept and alien to our culture. Even ‘yan daudu, while sometimes referring to themselves with feminine pronouns in Hausa stick to a male identity – for example they follow the strict Islamic rules which prevent men from entering houses which seclude women.

But, as Azeenarh Mohammed writes in her brave piece, visibility matters in the discourse around homosexuality.

I am hoping that attitudes will change after spending time with a real life gay person and leaving with their humanity, religion, relationship and heterosexuality still intact. I usually have the one question for them: now that you know me, do you still think I should be in jail for 14 years?

However there are those who will point out that it is easier for Azeenarh, a woman, to come out in Nigeria and face no violence – especially in light of this new legislation that appears silent on lesbianism.

Indeed, Nigerian homophobia appears to be very gender specific, expressing disgust mostly at men who have sex with men.

“I can understand two women,” a friend, who asked not to be named, said as this piece was being written. “But two men? How do they even do it? What pleasure do they derive?”

Not surprisingly, almost all of the persons arrested by authorities or attacked and beaten by mobs have been males.

The white man’s disease

Homophobia gets a lot of support from what some will call nationalism.

Much of the expressed distaste by the general Nigerian public finds roots in popular myths, stereotypes and misconceptions, but foremost among these underline the often repeated claim that homosexuality is a Western perversion seeking inroads into Nigerian society. The stated evidence against this is irrelevant to the majority. An aberration is an aberration.

Many Nigerians, in newspapers and online, claim homosexuality leads to a long range of diseases including uncontrollable incontinence.

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There are a few problems with this thesis. First, this claim is simplistic in limiting homosexual behavior to anal sex, totally cutting off lesbian practices or even non-anal male homosexual practices. It is also based upon the premise that only homosexuals engage in anal sex, which is untrue based on any number of sex and sexuality studies. A random sampling of heterosexual pornography, for example, shows that anal sex also underlines this reality.

And while it is fact that the HIV prevalence is much higher among male homosexuals, all unprotected sex – vaginal, anal, even oral – creates exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

Murray Lipp, who is a social justice activist, reminds us that “the core feature of male homosexuality is sexual attraction to other men, not an exclusive focus on a particular behavior [like anal sex]”. He explains that while anal sex is one possible sexual activity between gay men, it is not “an activity that all gay men participate in, nor is it one that heterosexual people never engage in.”

But perhaps the most dangerous of all the myths is that which compares, even equates, homosexuality with pedophilia.

Historically, it is common to have minority groups who are hated by the majority branded as being dangerous to the community or worse to the vulnerable persons of that community. This makes it easier to justify and legitimise the public expression of hate.

In this way, as Dr. Gregory M. Herek writes in his article “Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation”,Jews in the Middle Ages were accused of murdering Christian babies in ritual sacrifices [and] black men in the United States were often lynched after being falsely accused of raping white women.”

He writes further:

…the mainstream view among researchers and professionals who work in the area of child sexual abuse is that homosexual and bisexual men do not pose any special threat to children. For example, in one review of the scientific literature, noted authority Dr. A. Nicholas Groth wrote:

Are homosexual adults in general sexually attracted to children and are preadolescent children at greater risk of molestation from homosexual adults than from heterosexual adults? There is no reason to believe so. The research to date all points to there being no significant relationship between a homosexual lifestyle and child molestation. The… adult male who sexually molests young boys is not likely to be homosexual (Groth & Gary, 1982, p. 147).

In a later literature review, Dr. Nathaniel McConaghy (1998) similarly cautioned against confusing homosexuality with pedophilia. He noted, “The man who offends against prepubertal or immediately postpubertal boys is typically not sexually interested in older men or in women” (p. 259 [McConaghy, N. (1998). Paedophilia: A review of the evidence. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 32(2), 252-265.]).

On the most basic level, the attempt to link homosexuality with pedophilia ignores one of the most common child sexual abuse scenarios: the sexual abuse of girl children by male adults. It also disregards the sexual abuse of male children by female adults.

This is not to say, however, that persons who have previously identified as gay or homosexual cannot molest children. Homosexuality does not confer sainthood upon individuals. There exists, just as among heterosexual populations, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ homosexuals. Indeed, the entire spectrum of general human behavior among heterosexuals is replicated among homosexuals.

Unfortunately, because gays are not allowed to live freely amongst us, if they are so identified, it is almost impossible to see them as more than rumored perverts. Freaks.

In at least one report from victims of homophobic mob attacks in Abuja following the anti-gay law, an apparently fascinated policeman made one of the suspected gay persons show him his anus and penis. It is not clear what the policeman sought to achieve from that exercise.

***

This is not an issue only for Nigeria, of course. Debates around homosexuality and its acceptance, tolerance or otherwise continue around the world, even in more liberal and secular countries where respect for human rights is less selective. The problem is that, until now and perhaps even hence due to the wide-ranging provisions of the law, many Nigerians would rather not even have the conversation.

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Azeenarh Mohammed sees her sudden refusal to hide who she as a necessity to force many to confront their biases, their stereotypes, their hate. She believes that the more visible gay persons are, the sooner Nigerians will cease to speak of them in the abstract.

Then, perhaps, there will be a critical mass of Nigerians who understand that, in Ms. Mohammed’s words, gay persons “exist, eat, laugh, love, sleep and work: just like heterosexuals do.”

They are here – human like the rest of us. They won’t go away.

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