What it means when we tell LGBT+ Nigerians: “Keep it to yourselves, no one cares”

If you have ever had the strength to challenge a Nigerian to a discourse on their complacency in the systemic oppression of LGBT+ Nigerians, then you’ve at least once had this retort fired back at you, “I don’t care what LGBT+ people do, just keep it away from me.”

If you are an LGBT+ person or an ally with a deep understanding of the realities of the LGBT+ in Nigeria you can already see through this knee-jerk response that seeks to distance guilt away from the person using it. If you belong to neither group you likely belong in one of two camps:

  1. The camp of strong agreement: You agree that the problems of LGBT+ Nigerians start and end with their constant nagging to be seen and treated with dignity – like any human being. They are everywhere – in your favorite Hollywood movies, in commercials, and in the mouth of every Western leader. There is a gay agenda and you wish people will just keep their ‘ways’ private.
  1. The camp of tentative uncertainty: You are sure something is different these days, LGBT+ representation in art – books, films, and music – is after all ubiquitous nowadays. You understand the diversity in nature, but you aren’t quite sure about this particular diversity regarding sexuality. One way or another however it doesn’t concern you, so you just carry on with your life unbothered.

What does it mean to keep it to yourself and not shove it down the throats of the non-LGBT+?

Far from being too vocal about their oppression the LGBT+ community in Nigeria is in truth more often than not silent about the ways homophobia seeks them out and punishes them unprovoked. Partly because there is often no legal recourse for them to seek and partly because speaking out about their oppression often tends to open them up for more violence.

The case of a dear friend comes to mind. He kept it to himself well enough to get through university without incident, got a job with a renowned second-generation Nigerian bank and set out to build a career in finance, and kept to himself well enough in his neigbourhood too.

When James (not real name) was finally outed first to his employer, then to his landlord, the retribution that followed was swift. He lost both job and housing within a week and, humiliated, he was forced to leave town. He will get another job in the human rights activism space, but his dream of a career in finance was halted. If he ever is to go back to it he will have to start from square one.

And the case of an acquaintance who after being chased from her home in Lagos, following a public outing that made her landlord threaten to report her to the police for lesbianism if she doesn’t pack and leave unceremoniously, she moved to Abuja to face yet another outing.

Mary‘s crime in Abuja, as in Lagos, was falling in love. Where she only lost her home in Lagos, Abuja came with a more harrowing twist. She was physically assaulted, her and her lover had their lives threatened, leaving them only one option – to elope to yet another Nigerian city and start again. It is hard enough to be a queer and Nigerian, and living in Nigeria. Harder still when you are a queer Nigerian woman living in Nigeria.

Popular YouTuber, AmaraTheLesbian, tweeted in May about losing a chance at renting a place in Abuja because the landlady had checked her social media handles and established that she is a lesbian. It did not matter that she is paying her hard-earned money like any Nigerian, nor that whatever she chooses to do with her body will be confined to the privacy of a bedroom she is seeking to pay to live in. Her silence, like her vocal existence, also gets in the way of living her life without facing discrimination based on her perceived or actual sexuality.

As I write this, a transwoman living in Kano is in hiding following the arrest of her boyfriend who was accomodating her after she had to leave her parents’. A neighbour had reported them to the Shari’a police for existing. Keeping it to themselves, within the privacy of the home, was not enough to shield them from violence. Her lover will likely lose his job and home, and once again we will have the story of yet another queer person who despite keeping it to themselves is sought out, ruined by homophobic violence, and forced to start from scratch. Or take the easy way out and end it by suicide.

Every so often I think about two dear friends who died less than two weeks apart. They were to my knowledge then as a 13-year-old the only representation of queerness that existed in my universe. Reported to be lovers, they were hounded apart or together, so they stayed with each other often because it was easier to bear the taunts and the threats of violence that way. 

I wonder if Jameel, who died barely two weeks after his friend died so suddenly, took his own life because he couldn’t bear living alone in a world that never allowed him a moment of lucid peace. I know grief is powerful enough by itself to wring the life out of even the strongest of us, but I still wonder.

LGBT+ Nigerians have mastered the art of keeping it to themselves, it is why the enactment of a law like the Same-Sex Prohibition Act (SSMPA) feels like a graver injustice than words can adequately convey. That, as well as the continued human rights violation of LGBT+ Nigerians – by the police as well as fellow civilians – is a testament to how useless the call to ‘keep it to yourself,’ is.

Silence doesn’t protect anyone. Least of all a minority human group. If anything, the LGBT+ are nowhere near loud enough for the level of violence they have historically endured and continue to endure to this day.

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