She is the second child in a family of seven (six girls and a boy). In fact, Yemisi Ilesanmi was born in Lagos to a normal middle class family. However, by her late 20s she said she had come to the realization that she was bisexual, meaning she was sexually attracted to both men and women. Today, she is the coordinator of the Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual, LGBT community and has travelled extensively as guest speaker to promote gender and youth issues, sexuality rights, human rights and labour rights. Little wonder her debut book is titled, “Freedom to Love for All: Homosexuality Is not Un-African.” Before relocating to the UK where she studied for a Masters of Law (LL.M) degree in Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights, Ilesanmi had worked with the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC. In this interview with Tundun Adeyemo, Special Correspondent, she talks about her sexual orientation, how her family has handled it and why LGBTs should be treated with respect and not criminalized for reasons of their sexual preferences.
In terms of educating the Nigerian populace about gays, lesbian, bisexual rights, what are the core foundational facts Nigerians need to know about the science of homosexuality?
The very first thing we need to understand is that homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality are all as natural as heterosexuality. Our sexual orientation differs; we are born with an innate ability to be emotionally or sexually attracted or not be sexually or emotionally attracted to same sex or opposite sex. Unfortunately, many African societies do not provide enabling environments to discuss sexual orientation. Sexual orientation does not harm anyone. A person who is attracted to opposite sex does not harm anyone so far it is a consensual adult relationship. A homosexual who is attracted to the same sex does not harm anybody so far it is a consensual adult relationship. A Bisexual or Pansexual who can be attracted to all sexes harms no one so far it is an adult consensual relationship. Even an Asexual who is not sexually attracted to any gender harms no one. We are all different, and non-harmful lifestyle of adults should not be criminalised. It is like criminalising a left-handed person for being born left-handed, or criminalising a girl for being born a girl. Also we must recognise that even if you claimed that homosexuality or bisexuality is a choice, you are also saying heterosexuality is a choice. Which means, somehow you woke up and decided, well, I am going to be a heterosexual. Well, I do not ever recollect a day I chose to be bisexual, neither has any heterosexual confessed that they remember the day they chose to only be attracted to opposite sex. However, even if our sexual orientation is a choice, then we must recognise that adults have the right to choose who they want to have a romantic, emotional or sexual relationship with. If you have the right to choose to be in an emotional or sexual relationship with an adult of opposite sex, then it stands to reason that others also have the right to choose to be in an emotional or sexual relationship with a same sex adult partner.
Do you really think Nigerians would ever accept that LGBT rights are human rights? Most people in Nigeria view homosexuality as a sin.
Whether Nigerians accept it or not, LGBT rights are recognised human rights. Unless, you can prove that Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals are not human beings, well, you have no reason to deny them their fundamental human rights. Unfortunately many Nigerians believe in the concept of sin. First, we must understand that sin is a religious concept. Not every Nigerian is religious. Your religion is also a personal matter, why drag other people into your personal relationship with Jesus, Mohamed or Obatala? When I am told that homosexuality is a sin, I just tell them their religion is not my law. The Bible or Quran is not my constitution, so why is that even coming up? It is absurd when Christian gay bashers gleefully quote Leviticus 18:22 to justify why they want to jail and stone gays. Anyone who wants to quote from Leviticus should at least read the book to make sure they are not guilty of any of the things condemned in the book. Leviticus also says you should not shave, you should not interact with a woman in her menstrual cycle, thou shall not eat shrimps or shell fish, Lev. 11:10,11:6-8 thou shall not touch the skin of a dead pig (therefore touching football without wearing gloves makes you unclean!) Lev.19: 19 – thou shall not plant two different crops in the same field, thou shall not wear garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). Thou shall gather the whole town together to stone those who curse or blaspheme, Lev.24: 10-16. So, when Christians throw Leviticus at me, I simply throw Leviticus right back in their face. And I watch pitifully as they try to explain how one verse has different interpretation but the one they want to defend means exactly what is written. If you use Leviticus as a reason to stone gays and you wear clothes made of blended fabrics as most clothes are, work on the Sabbath day, eat shrimp, you are a hypocrite.
What more do you think the Nigerian government could do to aid tolerance of the LGBT community and where do you think the anti gay legislation will take Nigeria in about 5 to 10 years?
The government must decriminalize homosexuality, bisexuality or any other sexual orientation or gender identity. The government must educate its citizens on sexual orientation. People must understand that we are different but equal. There is no harm in diversity, and people who are different from us are not automatically evil! The Nigerian ‘Jail the gays’ bill if signed into law would definitely worsen the plight of Nigerian Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and Transsexuals. The law will lead to a clampdown on human rights that will not only affect Lesbian, gays, bisexuals and Trans, but also every Nigerian. Politicians will accuse their opponents of being gay, landlord will accuse their tenants of homosexuality, NGOs who oppose the government in power will be accused of advocating for LGBT rights, an offence which is punishable with 10 years imprisonment under the bill. There will be blatant abuses of fundamental human rights, like freedom of expression, freedom of association, right to privacy. Many will be blackmailed or even lynched based on mere suspicion of homosexuality. This is already happening in Nigeria without the law. With the law, it will be a haven for those who want to blackmail gays, stone or burn them to death. This is a Nigeria I hope to never see, but which unfortunately, we are heading towards.
How has your immediate family and friends reacted to your sexual orientation and the publicity you attract?
What makes a family is love, tolerance and acceptance. Anyone who shows me love and welcomes me into their heart is my family. Love is one thing that is thicker than blood. My immediate family knows my sexual orientation, my father is late, and my mother is accepting of whom I am and has shown me love and support. To continue to be an important part of my life, you cannot be homophobic, biphobic or transphobic. You cannot wish others be beaten, imprisoned or stoned to death just because of whom they love. I will never proudly call anyone with such a mindset my family member.
Is your atheism connected to your bisexuality and what role does religion play in aggravating homophobic sentiments?
My atheism has nothing to do with my bisexuality. Atheism is simply a non-belief in God. My bisexuality is my sexual orientation, no connection. However, I must say, my atheism has helped me to stand up against religious bullies, who use the bible and the Quran to justify their hate for gays, lesbians, transsexual and bisexuals. Religion carries a lot of unwarranted weight in Nigeria and Africa generally. This should not be so. In fact, this is one reason the African continent is still very backward. When religion carried so much weight in Europe during middle Ages, it was wrought with wars, jihads, killings and ethnic cleansings. Religion is the main ground that proponents of the ‘Jail the Gays’ bill are using to support the bill. Catholics and Anglicans who attended the public hearing of the bill at the National Assembly even threatened to beat up the few LGBT rights supporters at the hearing! Some religious leaders argue that homosexuality is un-African and a western imposition; how so? Logic points to the fact that foreign impositions in Nigeria include Christianity and Islam and religious festivals like Christmas, Ileya and Easter. It is quite incongruous that those that are quick to embrace foreign religions are also the ones that are quick to condemn homosexuality on the trump up charge of ‘un-African’. Africans now defend the same holy books that were used to justify the slavery, exploitations and indignities suffered by their ancestors. Many religious Africans now use the ‘holy’ books to justify the oppression of members of their own society. Even when the original owners of the religion inform them that the book has been updated and some parts are no longer applicable, Africans still insist that it is must be applicable because it says so in the book they were given. How pathetic!
In a previous interview you had insisted that evangelical Christians and Muslims incite hatred for homosexuality, would a return to the traditional religion offer a breath of fresh air?
As I said in my book, Freedom To Love For All: Homosexuality is Not Un-African. Unfortunately, neo-colonialism and mental slavery continue in Africa through the heavy influence of evangelical missionaries who, having lost ground in their western countries to equality rights Acts, have now invaded African churches and are inciting members against homosexuals. Sadly, this nation is held spellbound by political and religious leaders who are averse to education and scientific knowledge.