TIA: For those who don’t know who you are, tell us where you’re from and where you grew up.
Michael: I’m from Benin City, Edo State in Nigeria. I grew up in Benin City. I moved to Abuja when I was 19, and I spent the next 7 years in Nigeria before I moved to the US in 2012. I lived in Benin City for most of my life before I moved to Abuja.
TIA: What was life like as a young gay man in Nigeria? Did people know?
Michael: I always felt like some people knew. Sometimes they would say this boy behaves like a woman, or they would call me ‘woman wrapper’. People pretty much accepted it because I was just a boy. I had never thought about sex because I was a kid. My parents knew very early on. They tried to do all they could to stop it. That clearly didn’t work. My neighbors knew and it was fun for them. They would want to plait my hair. I was friends with my neighbor’s daughters. It was fun. It was nothing serious to them, and they would say “this boy is a woman wrapper”. That’s what they called a boy or man that sort of behaves like a woman in Nigeria.
Video shot by Akin Oyedele
TIA: What were the circumstances behind you leaving your parent’s house?
Michael: My parents knew I was gay from when I was very young. When I was 17, my mom and my dad asked me to leave because they didn’t want a gay son living in their house. My mom said she can’t have me staying in the house with her anymore. I was asked to move out, so that’s why I moved out.
TIA: After you moved out, where did you go? Is this when you got involved with activism?
Michael: I moved in with my friends, and they were living in one small room. The room was offered to us by one of our friend’s parents who had an extra room in their house. My friend spoke to his mom and she said we could stay there if it was needed. There were five of us living in that small room, and all were thrown out of their homes by their parents. At that time, we were all looking for a support system and a way to support ourselves. These were kids between 14 to 17 years old out of their parent’s house without anyone taking care of or looking after them, helping with school and that sort of thing. That was when I started looking at these issues and how people like us can support ourselves. We started holding meetings, discussing how we could help ourselves and that’s how I got into activism. Apart from supporting young people who had been kicked out by their parents, we also tried to get them to go back to school, so that they would have some kind of independence and something to fall back on. Most of us who got kicked out had to struggle, so we made sure that those who were having issues with their parents still tried to at least finish high school. I was doing that in Benin City, and then when I moved to Abuja I started doing activism work on a more official basis.
TIA: You gained asylum in the US. How did that come about?
Michael: I was in the US for an international AIDS conference in 2012. While here, I was interviewed by the Washington Post. The interview got back to Nigeria and it became a big issue. It was on local Nigerian tv stations and on the radio. I started receiving phone calls and death threats. When I got back home from the conference, I was attacked and severely beaten. I had to leave Nigeria at that point because it wasn’t safe for me. I came here again for a second time in October of 2012, and I got asylum in March 2013.
TIA: The anti-gay law passed with overwhelming support from the Nigerian population. How do we combat this mindset and the lack of humanity shown towards Nigerian LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals? How do we make the populace understand that this law is a violation of human rights?
Michael: I think the first thing Nigerians have to recognize is that this law is not something the country needs. There are other issues we need to focus on like corruption, poor infrastructure and other serious problems. Why are we talking about gays who aren’t affecting anyone? How will sending gays to jail benefit anyone in Nigeria? How does a man in a relationship with another man affect anyone else? The gay marriage angle is just a distraction. Gays in Nigeria aren’t asking for marriage. The government is trying to make an issue where there is none. Many Nigerians don’t even know what the bill actually says and how it affects everyone. They don’t understand that there are parts of the bill that state you can’t hug a man or have two men stay in the same hotel at night, which is something people in Nigeria normally do. There are people who go on business trips or students who stay in the same room to offset expenses, or maybe you’re just hugging your fellow man on the street that you haven’t seen in a while. With this law, these are crimes as well and you can go to jail for it. It’s ridiculous.
Gay people are just like everyone else. Being gay is not a choice. Why would someone choose a life where they know they will be discriminated against and have people hate them? Even here in the US it’s a problem. Some Africans feel like it’s the US and the West pushing homosexuality. If that was true, how come only a few of the 50 states in the US accept gay marriages? Gay people are discriminated all over the world. The fact that Nigerians think homosexuality is imported from the west or that it’s unAfrican makes no sense.
Who is an African then? I grew up in Nigeria; I grew up in Benin City. I lived in Nigeria until I was 26 before I left. How can I be unAfrican? Does that mean that a young man who is gay in Nigeria is unAfrican? The west didn’t contact these gay people who were born and raised in Africa. There are cultures in Nigeria like in Benin City where I come from that accept gay people. There are women who live with women. It wasn’t a big deal. So how come right now gays are the problem? This law is causing problems. People are being attacked. A few weeks ago some people were beaten up in their homes because they were perceived to be gay. Nigerians should think twice and really look at this bill as something President Jonathan is using to distract them from real issues. Gay people want to live their lives just like everyone else.
TIA: Absolutely. Not to mention the stigmatization of people living with HIV in Nigeria. This law will affect and criminalize caretakers. People will be afraid to come forward and get tested. Like you mentioned, people aren’t thinking or don’t know the severe consequences this law will have.
Michael: Of course. If you are a gay man in Nigeria who is living with HIV, the organizations that are providing care for you can no longer operate as usual. Some of these men might be forced into the closet because society wants them to marry a woman. Then you keep quiet and don’t tell your family about what is going on out of fear of the consequences of telling them you’re gay or your HIV positive status. What if you don’t know your status and you’re pressured into marrying a woman and then infect her? Who is to be blamed for that? People don’t look at these issues. This bill affects everyone, not just gay people. When people don’t get care and services, they will go back underground.
In the next two to three years, the HIV rate in Nigeria will be much higher. Gay men in Nigeria have an HIV rate 4 times higher than the general population, so these services are needed. The fact that NACA (National Agency for the Control of AIDS ) is not talking about this sickens me. They feel like it doesn’t have anything to do with HIV in Nigeria, but that is a full-blown lie. This bill affects everyone. If you ignore it or keep quiet about it, it will come back to affect you.
TIA: Well said. Thank you for your time Michael.
Michael: You’re welcome.