My friend Grace Withers wore black to the Bristol Pride Protest march on 12th of July, the significance of her choice of clothes was first lost on me as I had always associated Pride with every colour on the rainbow spectrum. She went on to educate me on why she chose to look sombre, when she was done, I decided I would wear black for Nigeria’s first Pride protest march. But before I tell you why, allow me to bring you up to speed with the LGBTQ situation in Nigeria.
In 2013, a colleague – Rashidi Williams and I received a grant towards carrying out a community-based project, aimed at empowering young activists undertaking direct work with minority and marginalised groups such as persons with disabilities and those from the LGBTQ community. What we set out to do was simple, equip these activists on the frontlines with the tools they needed to promote and uphold the human rights and civil liberties of everyone irrespective of their sexual orientation, identity or disability, and to signpost service users to the most relevant organisations should a breach of these rights occur.
The reality, however, was a far cry. For the first time, the implication of the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, 2013 (SSMPA) which took effect in 2014, registered on me. This draconian law, according to Human Rights Watch, ‘presented opportunities for people to engage in homophobic violence without fear of legal consequences and contributed significantly to a climate of impunity for crimes against LGBTQ people.’ It was the permission some people and members of the Nigerian Police force needed to justify lynching, physically and sexually assaulting, extorting and the arbitrary arrest and detention of law-abiding citizens going about their daily lives, on suspicions of being gay or queer or ‘other’,
Even worse, organisations providing healthcare services to men who have sex with men and those advocating the fundamental human rights and civil liberties of the LGBTQ community were also targeted.
My recent conversation with Williams suggests the situation hasn’t changed on the frontlines. Between 2014 till date, his organisation, Equality Triangle, has handled more than 800 cases of human rights violation due to sexuality and gender identity. He estimates that seven persons have lost their lives as a result of homophobic attacks in Lagos and Delta State alone.
Yet, some people still argue homophobia is not ‘Nigerias’ problem. If upholding the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable and at risk among us is not Nigeria’s problem, what is?
Is LGBTQ Rights Nigeria’s problem?
I will go out on a limb and agree Nigeria has other pressing issues that needs to be tackled, such as insecurity, nonexistence of healthcare and mental health services, crippling lack of infrastructure, youth unemployment, inaccessibility of justice, widescale corruption, the list goes on. However, if one dared, a straight line could be drawn from the point where denigration of people because of their ‘otherness’ to blatantly trampling on the rights and the systemic erosion of the liberties of just about anyone who looks, acts or even presents a differing opinion becomes the norm.
The acid test for how committed a nation is to its growth, development and progress is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens and perhaps, Nigeria’s big problems as some perceive them to be, linger because we have failed woefully at the most fundamental task of being human - preserving and protecting those who otherwise could neither thrive nor survive without timely state intervention backed up by legislation. Those, who, with adequate support, may proffer solutions to some of the issues the nation has been grippling with.
LGBTQ rights and the Nigerian law
Nigeria is one of 70 countries that still criminalises consensual same sex relationships between adults.
Before 2014, when President Goodluck Jonathan signed the SSMPA into law, same-sex relationships were illegal, though violence against the LGBTQ community wasn’t as high as it became afterwards.
The SSMPA provides for prison terms of 14 years for anyone who enters a same-sex marriage or civil union which could be broadly interpreted to include any form of intimate co-habitation.
The law also punishes establishing, supporting, and participating in gay organizations and public displays of affection with up to 10 years in prison.
Many have never had their day in court, others have met violent deaths instead at the hands of a mob of self-appointed judges, jurors and executioners. There hasn’t been any arrests or prosecution related to LGBTQ hate crimes.
The SSMPA contravenes some very basic tenets of the Nigerian constitution and violates several human rights treaties Nigeria has ratified. Calls from the African Commission on Humans and Peoples Rights urging the Nigerian government to ‘review the law, to prohibit violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to ensure access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services for LGBTQ individuals,’ has been met with resounding silence.
The physical, psychological, or sexual violence against gay men and other men who have sex with men, hinders sustainable responses to HIV. This climate of fear also deters gay men and other men who have sex with men from seeking and adhering to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support services, Human Rights Watch reports.
What is Nigeria’s problem with the LGBTQ Community?
The most common answer I get to this question is ‘it is against our culture and religion…’ and I am tempted to ask, what exactly is our culture or religion? If this so-called culture and religion of ours has suddenly found its voice when it pertains to adults in a consensual same sex relationship, how come its silence is deafening when it involves calling out corruption, inequality, gender based violence, child sexual abuse and exploitation, youth restiveness, inaccessibility of justice for the poor, the brazen violence from herdsmen, a crippling lack of commitment from the government to the development of services and infrastructure, a blatant non-committal attitude towards accountability from public office holders?
Does our collective silence on these issues and disinterest in following through with investigating and prosecuting these cases indicate our culture and religion has acquiesced to us been this way?
The victimization, violence against and extrajudicial killings of members of the Nigerian LGBTQ community, to me, represents the canary in the goldmine, an ominous sign that none of us are neither free nor safe.
When Nigeria has her first Pride protest March, I will, like my friend Grace, wear black. For her education made me realise not just the importance of celebrating hard won victories but honouring those whose lives, death and sacrifices made the victories albeit small, possible.
I will wear black for all who fled for their lives by the skin of their teeth, who have had to relive the horror they thought they’ve left behind over and over again, just so they are believed, so they are not sent back to the places they fled.
I will wear black to mourn those who lost their lives, families, homes and all they held dear, because we first called them ‘other’, then evil, making our inhumane acts of violence against them somewhat easier on our collective consciences.
I will wear black because, while I would be celebrating the hard-earned victory of been able to gather under the inclusiveness of the rainbow, I know how easy it could be to forget those who sacrificed their lives and wellbeing for it, those on whose bones the gratitude alter stands, those whose lynching, whose death could have been prevented had they had access to HIV/AIDS treatment services. Those whose death should be justly nailed to the door of Nigeria lawmakers.
Vweta Chadwick is a Social Worker who has dedicated the last 15 years towards finding solutions to some of the most pertinent problems confronting women and girls in Africa, through Project ASHA.