FOREWORD: Nigerian LGBT rights activist, Bisi Alimi, being the first man to give face to the LGBT identity on national television, remains pivotal to any conversation for the rights and dignities of non-heterosexual and gender-queer persons in Nigeria. In November, Mr Alimi, surrounded by friends and family, got married to his then-fiancé Anthony Davis, in a small but wildly celebrated ceremony in London. In this interview, the ever generous Alimi discusses with Absalom the implications of LGBT rights activism in Nigeria following his wedding, his concerns about a Donald Trump Presidency and, of course, his opinion of Nigeria’s King of Snapchat, Bobrisky. Oya oh, enjoy!
Q: Your wedding is, no doubt, a reference point for LGBT activism in Nigeria. Are there any interesting reactions you’ve gotten, particularly from home, which fill you with hope that in a few years, we could be having meaningful conversations about LGBT rights down here?
Bisi: It feels good to hear my wedding being regarded as an LGBT “reference point”. However, that was not the plan. I was marrying the man I love, and although we both knew our marriage was a political “fuck you” to our countries, the most important thing that day was two people in love getting married. My husband is from Australia, where same-sex marriage is a crime, but not the LGBT identity or behaviour. I am from a country where the identity is as much a crime as the behaviour and the “madness” of marriage. So we couldn’t deny the bigger picture, but we didn’t get married for the bigger picture; we got married for us.
The reactions to the event have been mind-blowing and humbling. There were, of course, the hate messages and the incoherent arguments of marriage being “only between a man and a woman.” I will be stupid to think these bigots will not crawl out of their caves to have an opinion on other people’s happiness, but they are picking on the wrong candidate, because I am too strong for them.
However, I am not blind to the unintended consequences of their hate on closeted LGBT people on my Instagram and Twitter pages, brethren who see these bigots ranting and throwing tantrums as if my marriage means the end of their lives. It is these people I am more concerned about. They are the reason I am strong, as I know my strength gives them hope.
Q: Whenever we talk about the rights and dignities of LGBT persons in Nigeria, a lot of Nigerians are quick to say we are asking for “gay marriage”. And when we say, “No, no, that’s not what we are discussing at this time”, they are like, “Na from clap na im dance dey start!” It’s probably going to be difficult for us now to argue that we are not looking at marriage ultimately, right?
Bisi: I have had to deal with this many times and it is going to get harder now that I am married. How can I say that marriage is NOT the ultimate for my activism? The reality is, it is part of the indicators for progress! I see no reason why that man who loves a man the same way as that man who loves a woman cannot marry that man he loves—the same way the other [heterosexual] man will marry the woman he loves.
But the road to marriage is far and even I am not ready to travel it. The argument then has to be centred around what is important. Bigots will always have an excuse. But the question is: how many distractions can we afford? Do we let them set the agenda or do we focus on our message? They will talk marriage, but we must stick to the script. Our message is mainly about dignity and a fundamental respect for our humanity; to be Nigerians; to be in love and to be loved. My job has never been to play the script of the attacker; that is what they want and they will never get it with me, nor should they with you. You have to work hard to set the agenda. Their argument is reactionary and always will be. The people who win the argument set the agenda; they don’t react to it.
I did an article for The Guardian last year where I talked about marriage for LGBT persons in Nigeria taking about 60 years, or even longer, to be actualised. I don’t even think we should put marriage in the minds of LGBT people in Nigeria just yet. I know this seems hypocritical of me, but can we, first, get rid of Sections 4-6 of the stupid law [which restrict assembly, homosexual affection and the open expression of it]? Then we can push for non-discriminatory laws; and then talk about education in schools, age of consent and so on. We need to prepare Nigeria for this. Unfortunately, we spend more time either running after white-elephant projects or checking to see who is more famous among us. This is not the time for reality television! We have work to do and we all have to push our differences aside and work together, even if that means some of us will have to cover our noses to do that.
Q: The novelist, Jude Dibia, argued in an article about “a new form of engagement”, in which he proposed that we find people in government who are “quietly” sympathetic to the LGBT and engage them. He also said activism will work best if it is coming from Nigerians themselves not from Obama or other foreign activists. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Bisi: I agree with him. We have to understand that we cannot use the same approach [as other societies] to arrive at the same results. There are many of us with the skill and know-how to do political lobbying and engagement and we need to put that into use. The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS) is using film to do this and it is brilliant. The Bisi Alimi Foundation is using research and data collection; we need that too. Kenny Brandmuse is using his creative license to effect change. And Jide Macaulay’s House of Rainbow is engaging with religious leaders. At the end of the day, all we want is a Nigeria that is homely to LGBT people.
As for global involvement, I will disagree a little bit here. I would rather call for cautious engagement than a ban on engagement. The battle is not just ours to fight and win. The most important thing is that we must be seen to lead the battle and the voice must be ours.
Q: You came out “dangerously” and I recall you once advised that no one should do it the way you did.
Bisi: You are such a drama queen! I love how you use the word “dangerously”; makes it sound like some explosive scene in a badly made porn flick.
Q: LMAO!… So while I know that the choice to come out is personal and will—sadly—not be available to everyone, I have also observed that activists seem coy when asked about the possibility of an LGBT Nigerian taking this step; they give some general advice about how coming out is an individual journey and leave it at that. It seems, also, that the best examples our community has of the Out LGBT Man/Woman is the one who goes on to become described as an “activist”, a tag a lot in the community are reluctant to wear. As an activist, would you say that there has been adequate emphasis on the need for Nigerian LGBT men and women to, at least, consider coming out at some point in our lives? Has activism addressed this process as strongly as it has done for, say, HIV prevention?
Bisi: I will not be polite here: coming out is a personal decision. You have to weigh the consequences and, believe me, some of them are extremely dangerous. When I came out, I was trying to save myself from killing myself; I was depressed, my career was on the line, as was my income. I didn’t come out because I wanted to be an “activist”, and on this I completely agree with you.
Then again, how do we define the term “activism”? If you come out in Nigeria, where you risk 14 years in jail, you are practically raising a middle finger to the system and that makes you an activist. You might not set up a charity after that; you might still have your job, but the reality is, you said “fuck you” to the system, and it takes guts to do that. There is nothing wrong with being an activist.
Meanwhile, the Bisi Alimi Foundation just finished collating the responses from our survey on “The Impact of Homophobia.” We collected data from over 500 Nigerians, the largest of such surveys.
Now to my point: we experienced a catch-22 scenario. When we did the public opinion study last year, we found that most Nigerians who are accepting of LGBT people are that way because they know someone who is LGBT. At the same time—with this current study—we are seeing that LGBT people are scared of coming out because of their experience with homophobic violence. So, yes, coming out helps, but there is always a price to pay. And who am I to tell someone to go and pay that price when they are not ready?
When I came out, I lost a lot of gay friends. It was one of the most depressing times of my life. I was lonely, scared and grumpy. I really thank my boyfriend at the time. Despite the fact that he was very young and living in the same estate as I was, he stood by me. Don’t forget, my coming out was not just about me; I outed him too, along with our families, friends, and everyone else close to me.
While self-care is important and coming out is about self-care, it is also important to think about the people that will be outed in the process and what plans we have put in place to cushion the effect on them.
Q: So what would your specific advice be to any Nigerian who feels ready to come out to their family right now?
Bisi: Do you want to do it? Do you think, deep down inside of you, that it is a good idea? Is it the last option you have? Is your family ready? If yes, then do it. Don’t overthink it. Just do it. Do it your way. There is no guidebook to coming out. Please don’t go on YouTube looking for videos on how to come out; those might not speak to the dynamics in your life.
Also if you have an ally in your family, try and make sure the person is around and aware while you are doing this as they will be the voice of reason the others in the family might need to listen to.
Outside of the closet is full of beautiful rainbows!
Q: Amen! So, when can we expect to see the results of the “Impact of Homophobia” published?
Bisi: The result will be launched on the 13th of January 2017, to coincide with the anniversary of the signing of the Anti-Same Sex Marriage Act 2013. There will be an online version on the Bisi Alimi Foundation’s website.
Q: Recently, Bobrisky pissed off nearly every gay person in Nigeria with his “support” for the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act and you called him out on that. Perhaps this is a good time to talk about conduct when an LGBT person finds himself/herself on the spot, questioned publicly about their sexuality. How should one handle the situation?
Bisi: I called Bobrisky out because he said he supported the law. I didn’t call him out because he said he is not gay. That is not my business. He can be whatever he wants to be, but he must be human and shouldn’t call for the death of people who are trying to not lie about their lives. This is one thing that upsets me about our community: we have a way of throwing others under the bus just to prove we are “not like that.” Anyway, at least he has apologised, and he is learning. I watched his interview with Sahara Reporters and he has really cooled down. I really wish someone would mentor and support him; he needs it. Yes he might not be the person most of us gays want to associate with, but the reality is, in the liberation and public discourse around sexuality, he is playing a role and is doing it well. All you have to do is go on Instagram and see many young gay men he has inspired to be their authentic selves, and it doesn’t matter if that means bleaching, cross-dressing, or wearing make-up. We are not a homogenous people.
So Bobrisky, if you are reading this, I will be very happy to be there for you. You are on the right path and history will remember you, but choose your role carefully because change is coming.
Q: Are you worried that a Donald Trump presidency might affect LGBT welfare in Nigeria?
Bisi: Yes, I am deeply worried. And I am working on a piece on that now. We have achieved a lot in Nigeria, thanks to US foreign policy on LGBT rights and the funding Nigeria gets. Knowing that we will lose that leadership and funding makes me sad. Over 45 percent of HIV treatment and prevention funding comes from the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). There is every evidence that this Orange Man will divert the money for that programme to something else. We have government and politicians in Nigeria that don’t give a fuck about HIV/AIDS, not to talk of gay men living with the virus. Where are we going to get the money to fill up that hole?
And this is just the tip of it. What kind of ambassadors are we going to be getting from the US to Nigeria? What will America’s position be at the World Bank and UN on this issue? So, darling, we have sad days ahead. I know there are a lot of people looking for a silver lining in Trump’s gloomy sky and I wish them the best, but until someone can prove me wrong, I just can’t wait for 2020.
Q: Your LGBT rights initiative, the Bisi Alimi Foundation, talked about setting up a library in Nigeria for the LGBT. Personally, I’m interested in this one— front-row seat! What’s holding up that project?
Bisi: We will still set up the library. It is very technical and we are working on it. For now, we are more concerned about establishing ourselves and doing the other things that are easier to accomplish. So please don’t give up your seat yet; we are coming. ■