by Mazi Emeka
Picture this: A young man is filled with a burning love for God, but still, there is emptiness in him – an emptiness that even he, at the time, cannot explain. Lost to himself, he doesn’t fit in. His desires do not jive completely with his reality or religion.
It is Lagos, in 1993, and he is a Bible carrying, fire-breathing 19-year-old Christian (Scripture Union member) zealot who – by chance – finds himself at a gay-themed birthday party for a friend. He stays at the party, because it feels like home – for some reason he finds comfort amongst these queer people dressed in gender-bending fashion.
In the coming years, he will question his faith in God, in humanity and he will try several times to take his own life; but he will fail. Finding his questions in God never answered, he will hate himself more and more, falling deeper and deeper into that dark place from where few people return whole. In those years, he’ll spend his days praying to God, asking to be saved. His nights? Finding love in the arms of a man. His faith will soon wither even as he understands himself and finds his place in the world. He will learn how to speak out for himself first and then others because right before him, his friends were dying from HIV/AIDS.
“I don’t do political correctness,” says Bisi Alimi, “especially when it comes to human life.”
Alimi’s voice is raised a notch higher than it was minutes ago, his eyes wide, holding mine steady, never blinking. In this state, Alimi is near scary, the way he speaks I imagine him berating homophobes on human sexuality in the same way a teacher would punish an erring student. He is talking about former President Goodluck Jonathan’s speech at Bloomberg’s London headquarters last year.
Alimi, as always, insists that Jonathan must apologize to Nigerians – not just the LGBT community, but all Nigerians – for the Same Sex Prohibition Law signed by his administration. This law, Alimi argues, gave impetus to the wanton killings and jungle justice faced by LGBT persons from 2014 till date.
But still, he agrees with me that the law, despite the nefarious intention that birthed it, has its advantages and that it is a part of the journey towards normalizing homosexuality. This to a large extent is true, the law has brought discussions of human [Nigerian] sexuality to the mainstream unlike before when it was a topic discussed at the fringes and in whispers.
Alimi is in Nigeria after a decade absence (he had fled from his home country to save his life, getting an asylum in the UK and citizenship years later). He says he came back to do some work for his Foundation, The Bisi Alimi Foundation. Through this foundation, Alimi is raising awareness about the plight of LGBTs while trying to stir up conversations about human sexuality. A number of fellows have been inducted into The Bisi Alimi Foundation. Alimi is incredibly proud of this, his eyes lose that scary, commanding intensity, shown before, the sides draw into lines, as he smiles.
We are in his hotel room, where Alimi has been in marathon interviews with different new media platforms. He appears to be effortlessly comfortable both on and off camera, speaking on a range of topics in a way that calls into question the popular perception that he might just be an airhead who was blessed with an undeserved platform; never mind that he put his life on the line to get said platform and to have his voice heard. Alimi is passionate about his course, so passionate that it sometimes appears as if he is aggressive or angry. He isn’t. He just has a problem with being tactful, preferring instead to say it as it is regardless of where he is and who he is speaking to.
Minutes before our interview started, Tosin Ajibade (Olorisupergal) walks into the hotel room. Alimi jumps from his seat, drawing Olori into a tight embrace, their laughter bouncing off the white walls of the room. As Olori makes herself comfortable on the bed in the center of the room -which is the only available seating position-, Alimi disappears for a couple of minutes, he reappears again, sits on his chair facing me. He is finally ready for our talk.
His finger nails are painted black, he makes no effort to hide them, while his dreadlocks are decorated haphazardly with coral beads. Alimi is forty-two, but he looks nothing like it: his face is youngish, his body slim and there are no fat spilling out of his sides. He favours his right side, as he leans, all so subtly, always to his right when he sits on the less than 3 feet wide brownish sofa. Alimi has on a silver ring which he shows off liberally as a testament of his wedding last year to his fiancé – now husband.
Like his mouth and eyes, Alimi’s entire body tells a story too. His hands are constantly busy, serving as an extension of his words as he gestures. Watching Alimi talk is like watching a drama: his facial expressions change so often as he navigates through the questions my colleague, Chukwukere and I throw at him.
Alimi is arguably the most prominent face of LGBT community in Nigeria and as such he is perhaps the most vilified activist, often making comments that are divisive even amongst other members of his community.
I ask him about his audacious 2004 television interview, where he outed himself on live TV watched by millions across Nigeria. Alimi leans back on his chair, raises his left hand to his hair, and brushes it back. For the first time, Alimi’s eyes don’t hold mine; he looks away for about 20 seconds before holding my gaze again, with less intensity.
“That show saved my life,” Alimi began, “it was my salvation. I would have killed myself without it”.
Alimi, then a final year student at University of Lagos, came on the breakfast show of Funmi Iyanda, and outed himself, sending shock waves across Nigeria. He was suicidal at the time, and despite the consequences his actions brought on host of the show, Alimi insists that coming on that show saved his life as he was suicidal and self-harming at the time. He needed to shed the weight he was carrying. But most importantly Alimi, who at the time had become an actor, wanted to own his story, not let media propaganda control his narrative and by extension, his life.
Months before, a campus magazine had published a story on him being a gay man. A national newspaper was about to do same. Alimi wasn’t ready to let his life be controlled by narratives that were incomplete and unfavourable. So he acted in the most Bisi Alimi way: coming out on live TV.
Pictures of him and his then boyfriend – who lived out of Eko Hotel – were leaked. The pictures, Alimi explained, were of both of them sitting at the pool side and it would be used against him later on when he contested for an election in his final year.
Speaking of his experience in UNILAG, Alimi puts it simply: “It was really hard. I struggled with it.”
I point out to Alimi that he is partly responsible for the Same Sex Prohibition Law signed by the Jonathan administration. It was, after all, his decision to shock Nigerians with his coming out story that gave impetus to the 2006 anti-same sex bill which birthed the Same Sex Prohibition Law.
Alimi doesn’t agree with me, he points out that even though the then administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo and Nigerians reacted the way they did to his interview, it was the media – with our sensationalized and half-truth headlines – that is to blame for the law and all the injustices faced by LGBTs in Nigeria.
“You have to do better,” Alimi says, “the media made the whole thing look much more serious than it actually was”. His argument, though incomplete, holds water chiefly because the media in Nigeria is a platform through which Nigerian leaders interact with their people, judging the need of the public through hotly debated issues in the media even though it isn’t always reflective of the thoughts of million others. It is also instructive that discussions about Anti-Same Sex bills always come up a year before elections (2006 and 2014).
It is widely argued – and believed in some parts – that President Jonathan had signed that law hurriedly as an election-winning strategy.
Alimi is thankful that Jonathan lost that election.
Journalist Harry Itie, who appears to be Alimi’s media manager, hands me a note to wrap up the interview. There is a tinge of regret; I still had a lot to ask Alimi especially what it feels like to be the target of so much hate online.
Alimi agrees that it used to hurt when people attacked him so unfairly. He tells a story of how Funmi Iyanda had pointed out to him that his haters have nothing on him; they couldn’t achieve the things he has achieved in life. And over the years, Alimi has become a property shared by millions across the globe: people who find comfort in his words and people who look up to him. And because of these people, Alimi has begun to delete, block and engage detractors on and offline. “It is important to shield young LGBTs from the hate, to let them know that they are not rejects,” he says.
Alimi started his journey for himself, to redeem himself, but now his journey and story have grown past him.