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The gay taboo in Nigeria: "I don't lose sight of the struggle"

It’s now nearly nine years since Bisi Alimi made the decision to come out as gay on national Nigerian television. He hasn't stopped fighting since.

New Statesman
Gay pride activism in London, where Bisi Alimi is now resident. Image: Getty

Bisi Alimi had trouble getting people to come and talk to me: “When I sent a text about this interview people asked if you’d have a camera or would take their names. Still people wouldn’t turn up. Most of these people are miles from home but you can feel the impact on their lives, even in a liberal country like the UK.”

In the end, only one has shown up: a young man called John* (name changed). He came to England from Nigeria as a student in business management: “I started to think I might be gay when I was 11, in Nigeria. I never discussed it with my family. I discussed it with them when I was in London. They just don’t think that’s what I am. They think I have to be normal, get a girlfriend. It’s a disgrace to them. It’s difficult to change - I enjoyed being gay in England. I’m proud of myself. If I want to go back I have to pretend to be straight. That’s the difficulty with my life.”

It was a meeting with Alimi that helped him: “Bisi welcomed me any time I needed him - always advised me to call him. He’s just always been there for me. He’s also pushed me to speak up: I can be who I want to be.”

It’s now nearly nine years since Alimi made the decision to come out as gay on national Nigerian television: “I’ve talked about it over and over again - it was about wanting to save myself the pain of being outed by an organisation bent on writing falsehood about me - I could either take the power from them or let them write about me in destructive language. It was also about me wanting to break the silence on sexuality. The time was right to stop pretending this doesn’t exist. The backlash was horrendous. It almost cost me my life. I was lucky enough to escape in 2007 and I ran to the UK. I got asylum in 2008 and have been living here since then.”

The guilt of his flight, he says, never leaves him: “My friend David Kato was killed in Uganda, and another friend was killed in Cameroon. They were brave men who could have run. I look back and I say maybe I should have stayed. But he who fights and runs, lives to fight another day. I’m still fighting. I didn’t lose sight of the battle. I’m still involved in the struggle. The Nigerian media won’t talk about this issue without reaching out to me, so I must be doing something worthwhile.”.

Alimi senses a change is coming: “Ten years ago Nigeria didn’t understand sexual orientation and gender identity. Now people are challenging the language and challenging their pastors. There’ll be a time - like in the UK - where gay rights could be a winning ticket for a politician. You forget it was only 40 years ago homosexual acts were decriminalised in the UK - most African countries are only 50 years old. We’re expecting so much from them, despite the fact they’re beclouded by the struggle of colonialisation. Our identity was eroded by years of colonial manipulation - we expect countries to change because there’s social media, American sit coms and British dramas, but it won’t happen overnight.”

From England, Alimi is doing what he can to help recent immigrants: “With time we started to get people who were black British who didn’t recognise themselves as Africans so we changed our name to Black Gay Men’s Initiative. The whole idea was that this was something we wanted for ourselves - not some organised NGO attempting to rescue people. It’s run by everyone who attends the meeting. Even the refreshments involve contributions from members and that’s what matters to me.”

The main aim, he says, is to improve people’s confidence: “I remembered when we started in 2012: there were eight of us: and I remember we were going to take pictures. Half the men didn’t want that. The core of conversation that day was the struggles they were going through with sexuality and identity. The group has grown and the conversation is moving on. I feel like I can share what I feel and get more support from them. It comes back to the issue of confidence because there’s so many intersections. Now you have to keep them quiet.”

In the future, Alimi wants to move beyond the sole issue of homosexuality: “I look forward to a day where there’s a conversation of sexuality and race which takes on this gay group and also lesbian and trans people. I want politicians and policymakers to start developing an interest in issues that affect this population. Our challenge is to talk about sexuality from the black perspective. The question of why you’d want to become a woman or a man - these conversations are hugely influenced by religion. In that context it’s hard to have a rational conversation.”

And Alimi tells me that this influence can make the kind of charitable work he does more difficult: “Most organisations that provide social services for Africans in the UK are religious. A lot of them don’t want to get involved because of religious doctrine - groups are afraid of being involved with the larger picture because of the fear of stigma. We need to engage with people more.”

John seems much less shy when Bisi’s with us: “We’ve gained the confidence to speak - we feel like this is our family,” he says.

To learn more about Bisi Alimi’s initiative, visit http://www.bisialimi.com/