In Nigeria, homosexuality not only is a taboo, it is illegal. In the north of the country, the maximum punishment is death by stoning. In southern Nigeria, people convicted of same-sex sexual activity can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison. Public attitudes towards gays and lesbians are also largely negative, even in the major cities. A group of Nigerians speaks about what it’s like to be gay in this West African nation.
Original broadcast: January 11, 2002
Siegenthaler Excellence in Audio Award, 2002
Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Nigerian Closet”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.
My grandmother used to tell me that there were men who to behave like I do in those days.
My family, none of my family knows. None of them knows, and I don’t wish them to know because [chuckle] you see it’s not accept to be known that you are a gay.
I even have straight friends, they know, and we’re still friends. My colleagues, some of them know, and still together, working together.
Sometimes I used to cry having noticed that I am gay. I would say, AHH! Why me? God, why me? Why was I chosen to be this kind of thing? God! What am I going to do, you know?
After years of military rule, Nigerians are re-discovering democracy. The country is vast, with a large and diverse population of 120 million people, religious and ethnic minorities are demanding a greater say. One area of discrimination that is still rarely discussed is sexual orientation. Homosexuality remains one of the biggest taboos almost everywhere in Africa. Nigeria – like many other former British colonies – still has laws dating back to the Victorian era that make sodomy punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In the northern state of Zamfara, which has introduced Islamic or sharia law, a man was recently flogged 36 times for having sex with another man. A group of homosexuals came together three years ago to form Alliance Rights Nigeria. Its goal is to advance gay rights and promote greater acceptance of homosexuals. I spoke to several gays about life in “The Nigerian Closet”.
My name is Charles. I am 30. When did you first realise that you may be a bit different from other people? I think I realised that when I was about 12 years old. I get to notice I am being attracted more to men than to the women. I thought it is something that I can deal with, and as the days goes by, I think I came to see that there was nothing I could do, you know, that I just have to accept it, though I tried to a kind of see if I can have a kind of a change-over, maybe change over to the other side and start doing it with the women and all that, but at the end of the day, I saw that it wasn’t working, and then I took the right path. When did you first act on these feelings? Maybe probably when I was 13 or 14, I can’t remember precisely. What happened? Oh dear, that is talking about my first experience? Foff… There was this guy, he fascinates me, I like him, and he was just about my age. We were playmates, and I just started it that way. We were playing one day and we got closer and it happened. We started touching ourselves, he responded, but I guess he wasn’t, because after that day, he never get to do it again. He just did it because he likes me. Up till today, he’s still my friend. I still see him but we don’t discuss such things again because he’s not gay.
Well, I remember those days, my parents, my father, we were staying in Kano. That was early 60s. I was just about 4 years. There’s a guy within our compound there in those days. He’s the one who introduced me. I was so small then, just 4 years. I didn’t even know anything but… What did he do? He came along, took me to his house, gave me some goodie-goodies, sweets and so and so forth, and was trying to rub my penis, and I had an erection. And that first experience, I still, it went into my memory and that’s how I started developing that love for other men. So it was a good experience for you? Well, I wouldn’t say so that too good experience. I wouldn’t say it’s bad either, it’s just that’s the first experience I had and I have no option.
I knew that something like that was in me, because the way I usually look at men, I appreciate men more than I appreciate women. Usually when we go to swimming pool, when I see boys of my age, I look at them, deeply, more than I take a look at women. What did you think of this, because is this not generally acceptable here in Nigeria? What did you think of the fact that you were, seemed to be more interested in men? Yes, before I noticed that it was in me, I’ve never travelled outside Nigeria, so nobody taught me that. It was me. It was me. Nobody gave me my right to chose what kind of life I want to live. Yeah, so I never thought anything about being African and being gay.
Looking at some cultures in Africa like in the northern part of Nigeria, we find out that there are people who are called Yendatus. Yendatus is a typical Hausa term. It has been existing even before the advent of the Europeans, and it has a meaning. It means men who are wives of men. In the olden days, to show your kind of riches, the immense wealth you had, it was easy for you to have lots of wives. But to show that you had immense wealth, you had to keep a stable of men, like keeping a harem of wives, to take care of them and their families, even if they had them, to be like a mentor to them. And in those days, you had these men having sexual relationships with them. What else is homosexuality?
I was trying to do it with a woman, but the satisfaction is not there. I just do it because of what people will say, you know, the societal whatever. So I have some couple of girlfriends then, but it wasn’t working out. It was when I entered the secondary school that I can say that I did it on a larger scale, something like that, I can call it larger scale! [laughter] So I have some boys in my class. They are my classmates. It happens, just like that. They are not, but the fact that they see some kind of effeminacy – if I should – some feminine traits in you, it always attracts them, though we don’t always try to show it that much that we are effeminate. No matter you get to hide it, it’s always there. So I guess it’s because of that effeminate traits they saw and they always come near and at the end of the day, you get to do it and that was that, you know.
In my village, I come from Ijebo which is about 40 kilometres from Lagos, about 25 minutes drive. And my grandmother used to tell me that there were men who used to behave like I do in those days. In an effeminate manner? Yes, effeminate, effeminate as in doing things in a much more softer way. She now told me that those men were called bowo, that’s the name in Ijebo. And bowo is not a language that was brought in by the Westerners. It’s a typical Ijebo language. And she used to say that those people were very good orators. They were those who were town criers. They were those who were the musicians. They were those who used to play well on musical instruments. They were the poets of society. They did the finer things in society. They were not the hunters, they were not the warriors, you know, the macho-type of people. But they were the ones who did the finer things, the things that made people enjoy themselves. That is in my own society and in many other societies in Nigeria like that.
I can’t say actually when I discovered that I am a gay, but I think I realised every of my action, everything I do, it’s feminine, and most of the time, people used to pass the comment that “oh, our Wisdom, he do behave like a woman, you know”. Was that a problem for you? Of course not. It cannot be a problem to me because I believe this is something that is within me. I’m not the cause. I mean, most of the time I go for women, but each time I go, they turn me down and of course that gives me the courage to say, “oh, I don’t know, maybe they’re feeling that I’m part of them”. So, I have to go to the one that I mean appeals to me. I’m attracted to men and men are attracted to me. And I enjoy everything about it. I enjoy the whole fun.
After my school, I left my village. I came to Lagos, and I went out with a friend one day. Then I was a little more 28 years old, and a white guy saw me because he was driving along and just said, “can I have a chat with you and your friend?” I said, “all right”. He said, “oh, let me take you people out”. We said OK. We were so happy. He took us out and we had a lot of good time, took some drinks, but I don’t know that he has other intention. Then later he started telling me that he loved me, he like me, he saw me and he was just in love with me. I said, “but I never done anything like this”. He said, “but there’s nothing wrong, I love you. I want to get to know you better.” He came along to my place. We become very familiar with each other and eventually we had fun together. Was that a one-time experience or did it happen numerous times with this man? Well after that, I find myself started having love for the whole thing. If I didn’t love the whole thing, I wouldn’t continue but rather I found that I loved it. Though I had girlfriends, but I never had any total passion for them. So I went along with this guy. After the first time, we continue like that, we became good friends, lovers and it lasted for a very long time. How long is a very long time? Up to two years or two years and a half. And then what happened? Well after that, he left finally to his place. He went back to France. Was it difficult when he left? Well it was difficult because really I was really in love with him. I found out that I was really in love. I didn’t know that, but it was when he left that I realised I was really in love with him. Would you have wanted to go with him back to France? Well, he made that proposal earlier. He said, “why not go with me to France? I said, my people will not want to admit that because I’m the only son, so my mother would say, oh, you cannot go anywhere. You must be here with me.” So I know the African mentality, so I had no option. I said, “I’m not going with you, but when you get there, you can write me, and maybe with time, I’ll get to come along and stay with you there.” But that never happened obviously. No, that never happened. That never happened at all. If it were later, I would have said, “OK, well I will go with you but it didn’t happen till then”.
There’s lots of gay bashing and gay hatred, and it’s terrible in Nigeria, you know. I don’t really blame them. It’s Africa, you know. We are so rigid here in Africa because of how we inherited it from our parents. Nobody wants to talk about it, nobody wants to hear about it. They believe it’s a Western way of life. They see some of our members that are so effeminate, you know they walk like woman, they catwalk and all those things, they call them names and bash them and call them different names.
My growing up years was a very trying period in my life because sometimes I used to cry having noticed that I am gay, I would say AHH!, why me? God, why me? Why was I chosen to be this kind of thing? God! What am I going to do, you know? There was even a point that I feel like [almost sounds like he’s crying] I don’t know, I don’t know, but I was fed up with life then. It was very difficult and it made me to lose my childhood because apart from the few friends that I have in my school, I never always get to get out of the house. I’m always inside. Throughout the holidays, I will be inside the house and all that. So it was very, very difficult for me. Have you told your family or your friends that you are gay? Ufff! You don’t always get to do that kind of thing! [laugh] They will skin you alive! Coming to talk about family, I thought that was the first thing I have to deal with. In the life of any African man that is gay, at least let me not talk about the Africans. Let me talk about from this side. I came from the south-eastern Nigeria. They are very, very conservative about such things. You don’t even get to discuss it. You don’t even get to. Wow! If they get to know, I think they will just ostracise you. That’s what it is. But when I was growing up, I was raised by my uncle, and I was living in his house, from the time I was 10 up to the time I was 19. What then separated us was the fact that he found out that I am. He did find out? Yes, he found out! He found out. Because he was a medical doctor, you know, he just found out somehow and that was it. In fact, he told me that I can’t go continue to live with him. You know. I left. So basically he threw you out? Of course he threw me out. Were you disappointed, were you surprised by the way he reacted? I can say that I wasn’t surprised at all. In fact, my first reaction was that of shame. I was so ashamed. Why did I let everything out? Why…though I never told him, he just got to know. But then I was feeling so guilty. In fact why should I even be doing this kind of a thing, you know? What if my uncle decides to tell the other members of the family, you know I will be trouble. In fact I begged him not to tell anybody. He scolded me. He in fact, he threatened to tell some other people in the family. So throughout that whole month, I wasn’t myself. It was hell, it was hell for me then.
I have a sister in London. She came one December. She now get down on her knees, and she’s begging me please, if I’m into homosexual activities, that I should please cut away from this, that abroad most of them that are the gays, they don’t get married. You see men going with men, women with women, men with animals, things like that. That it is ungodly. That most of them don’t get married, that she’s begging me, that God will somehow take it away from me. But I said, “OK, I don’t do it. I don’t know what you are talking about it” because nobody has caught me in the act, you know. She said, “it’s OK, that now we are going inside to go and talk, the whole family”. I said OK. So we now came to the sitting room. My senior brother which is the eldest, now said we are going to talk. She said that we should start from him first and then her, that she has her own faults too. Then everybody should say his or her mind, you know. He now said, oh, that it’s not fair that we can’t discuss what I’ve been doing, that he told her that I’m gay. She now said, even if I am gay, that prayers can make me stop it, that they should remember that the thing is in-built, they are born with it. But with prayers, that’s the only thing that can cut it off. But what she want to tell me now is no matter what I do, I should be very responsible. I should go to school, be well-educated, try all my possible best to get married.
In Nigeria, most people depend on their parents and all that. The social security system is terrible. There is nothing like that. We don’t have that here. There’s nothing to fall back on. So you really rely on your family. There’s this extensive family network and you have to be careful about the family name. I stress that name because I am not too bothered about that because I don’t believe because you are a homosexual, that means you’ve spoilt the family name. Even in my language, it’s ??, translated is “a robber that spoils or a thief that spoils the family name”. It’s not homosexual that spoils the family name. A brilliant child doesn’t spoil the family name. But it’s someone who steals who does that. And heterosexuals steal, homosexuals steal. That is a different ball game.
A year later, she came and she went to my friends that are close to the family and asked them. They denied that I am not gay, that they have never seen anything like that, no matter that I have friends that are like that. Most of them are hairdressers, some are into acting. Some are into showbiz. She now said even if I am, that she’s not too surprised, that when she was in Nigeria, I used to make her hairs, cook, which is the work she’s supposed to do. I cook, wash clothes, do everything, domestic work in their house. Even when she’s going to work, I press her clothes. The ones that has lining that are very difficult to press, that is difficult to do, even she takes them to the dry cleaner, they didn’t do better. When I handle it, I do it more better than they do. So she is very, very impressed with that.
For now, I kind of embroiled – if I should use that word – in this family thing, now. The business I’m doing now, it’s a family business and because my younger ones are there, I don’t always get to do what I wanted to do. You have to do this thing because of these people. They are looking out to you. You are their breadwinner. They have to go to school. So I am looking forward a time that I will be independent of them now. I want to have a good life, at least have some money, and maybe think of getting married, though that one I know is difficult, but I think I will still do it. But why would you want to get married if you are gay? Umm… I would want to get married because of the society, because of the importance our society attaches to marriage. If you are not married in this part of the country, you will be open to so much abuses. People will abuse you. People will talk to you anyhow. You will not have any respect, you will not have any prestige in this society. And above all, I think I will want to get married because I love children. So I always, I’ve always been looking forward to a day I will have one I can call mine, though I know it’ll be very, very difficult because it is always a question I always like to shy away from, because even now, even at these days, so many people have been telling me to go and get married. Some people in the family, though my mother has not supported that. But it’ll be difficult for you to get married, but it’ll also be difficult for your wife if you’re gay. We have a way of getting around it here. Because we have so many gays that have gotten married down here. They’re still there, living with their wife and the wife doesn’t always get to know that they are gay. And they’ve be living their lives, so I think I can manage, though it will be very, very difficult, frankly.
Did you eventually get married? Yes, I eventually got married. Are you married now? Yes, I’m married now. I had six kids. I’m happily married, but then, being a bisexual, I still have feelings for other men too sometimes. Does your wife know that you have sex sometimes with other men? Yes, I told her everything. I said, look, this is this, this is this, this is this. How do you feel about it? And she said, well, there is nothing too bad, it’s just that I should be a man, be responsible to take care of the family, the children and everything. Just be a man, do your duty as a man. So she has no qualms, no problems with the situation? Exactly. She has no qualms, she has no nothing. She’s just OK, just that I should fulfil my obligations as a man, that’s all. Does anyone else in your family besides your wife know that you have these relationships with other men? Of course, it’s even a family something and they know, they know. My father know, only my mother doesn’t know, but my father know… And it’s not a problem for him? My father is the kind of person that doesn’t talk so much, and you will not actually know what is in his mind at any given time, but he’s not feeling too biased or too bad about it.
My family want me to get married, everybody wants me. Even the last time I went to the village, I was surprised after around 10 o’clock, my four uncles came with my two aunties from my father’s side, that they want to see me, I should come out. They want to see me at the market square. We used to have a market square where you can gather to talk things over. I came thinking that there was something serious. They now called me. “When are you going to get married?” That all my mates, which is true, some has 4 kids, 3 kids, 2. They told me. I said, “I will get married when I have enough money and when I’m comfortable”. That has been the excuse I have been giving. “For how long will I get money and be comfortable?” Because the ones in the village, the rural area, money, no money they get married, have kids. So the only problem I have is if I can just leave them, get away. Escape Escape. Exactly, I need to escape, that’s it. I’m trying to go to South Africa, from there to find my way, so as I can forget about everybody. So you want to leave Nigeria. I want to leave Nigeria. If I have the opportunity to leave now, I will leave and live my life. I don’t want to get married to any woman!
Do your children know too? Well, my children are not all that too grown up. They are still very tender, so I feel that maybe in the near future, I will get to tell them too. You want to tell them? I would want to tell them because I wouldn’t want them to find out from another person. So I would want to tell them whenever they are up to that age, I would want to tell them. Are you afraid that your children might react badly if you told them about this? Well, they have no option because it’s already something that is already there. They may feel bad, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t want to hide that from them. Do your friends and colleagues also know? Of course, some of my friends, I even have straight friends, they know, and we’re still friends. My colleagues, some of them know, and still together, working together. You know, I don’t make myself too cheap or too foolish or get to get out of hand where people will start to say, ah, what kind of person is so or that kind of thing. I behave normally. I do things normally, maturally, and that is that. Has anyone reacted badly to this announcement? Yes. Some of my family members. They actually get offended and say all kinds of things they like to say and all that things, but that doesn’t bother me. It didn’t hurt you? It doesn’t hurt me one bit because I know, I have read a lot of books. I’ve read a lot of magazines. I have travelled overseas myself earlier, some many years back. I’ve seen the light there in Europe, about that gay life in Europe. I’ve been there. So it doesn’t bother me one bit because I know African culture and all what is. They’re kind of still at the background, somehow, because if they are more enlightened, they don’t want to bat an eye about these kind of things, because I think it’s just a way of life, that’s all.
Like we were trying to form our own group, Alliance Rights Nigeria. I think it’s a good move in trying to keep ourselves together, I mean fight for our rights, because these are rights, rights of expression. Everybody has rights of expression and I don’t think there has to be a limit on the way you express yourself, be it in terms of maybe sexual expression. I think it has to be free. Maybe the society will find himself and maybe it will be difficult for them to legalise it, because as far as I’m concerned, even if in the Senate, in the House of Reps, in any kinds of work, be in the church, you find that there are many people are gays but nobody will like to accept that. Everybody is trying to pretend, due to the fact that the society they find themselves in doesn’t accept that, which I don’t like. I hate pretention, I don’t like anything that has to do with pretention. I don’t like because it will not help you to be yourself.
A lot of people, they are frustrated that they are in the closet. They don’t even know to go left or to go right. They should not continue to suffer. They should not continue to be in the closet. They cannot wipe away what they are. It’s inborn in them and like Michael Jackson said sometimes, what you are and you don’t express it, it’s like you’re in a hell fire. So if they are there and they’re still in the closet and they’re frustrated. I don’t that is the best thing. My advice for them is to come out and try to be themselves, be decent, fight for their rights, and with time, they’ll eventually get settled. And from your experience in life, do you think that Nigerians, that Nigerian society would accept them if they were to do this? Of course, why not? I know it’s the same thing in Europe. It happened like that so many, many, many years in Europe. So I feel that Nigeria with time and development and civilisation, eventually – I know it will take time, but eventually, I know it will certainly come to be.
Since we’ve been coming through a lot of military rule, everybody has always been hiding under one cover or the other. There’s been a total security breakdown in those days, but right now that democracy is all around, people feel free to do a lot of things. Things are getting better. Of course, generally we cannot even compare to South Africa, that is trying to be over-ambitious, but we will get there because I believe Nigerians are bold. Given the push, Nigerians are very bold. We’ll get there.
“The Nigerian Closet” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.