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.

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/

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

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era