LAGOS, NIGERIA (THE GUARDIAN) -- At a private party, held late at night in a small Lagos hotel far from any main road, men find solace in being openly gay. It is one of the few places in Nigeria’s largest city that affords them such licence.
On chairs outside the hall, which is guarded by security, men sit languidly playing with one another’s hair. It is a few hours since the party started, but so far only a dozen people have turned up. Inside, bar tables, music and disco lights fill an otherwise empty space. “People will come later on,” says the organiser. “Many people wait to hear that everything is fine and then, after a while, they show up.”
In July 2017, at club Owode in Lagos, 70 men and boys were arrested by police. The area had been on alert after a spate of violence. According to Daniel Okoye, a paralegal helping LGBTQ people in Nigeria, the police saw the arrests as an easy way of extorting money.
“In the majority of these cases the police extort funds from them, knowing that any court case will out their sexuality,” says Okoye. “For most of them, their single wish is to pay and get out, and the police use it against them.”
After the Owode arrests, similar gatherings went deeper underground. “Many parties cancelled out of fear, but this one continued in the same month,” explains another organiser. “Less people come now but, ultimately, people just want to live their lives.”
The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which banned gay relationships and entrenched intolerance to sexual minorities in Nigerian society, was signed by President Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014.
Omolara Oriye, a director at the Initiative for Equal Rights, says the nature of crimes has changed in recent years. “We’ve been documenting cases since 2015. Violence is very common … but from 2016-17 we saw a decrease in violent acts,” she said. “What has risen significantly is extortion, blackmail, infringement of rights to assembly, and police malpractice. This is happening through apps like Grindr and social media.”
The initiative launched a helpline in 2015 that has received more than 200 calls to date. “Some of the most troubling come from states that are more conservative and where LGBTQ people are even more alone, where there is even less access to help than in Lagos or Abuja,” says Oriye.
According to Oriye, police regularly arrest people who attend gay meet-ups, or simply for being gay – even though it isn’t illegal. “A huge problem we have is that people don’t know their rights and, even when they do, they are too afraid to challenge the police,” she says.
Gay people in Nigeria mostly socialise in homes, where gatherings take place between friends and networks of friends. But the trust afforded by these closed spaces is increasingly fragile.
For over three years, gay friends of Samson Ndem* stayed at his home in Lagos. “Some of them had lost or left jobs because people had found out about their sexuality, some of them weren’t allowed to be around their own family,” says Ndem.
“I was paying for everything, our food and bills, even giving them money to go to places they needed to, until some of them got jobs again.”
Last March, one of his friends held a party at his home while he was away. One attendee took pictures and threatened to report them to the police.
“I had to kick everyone out, people were blackmailing them and then they would try to blackmail me. It happens frequently when people in the our community are desperate.”
Dr Ade Toyin, a former case worker at the International Centre for the Advocacy of Rights to Health in Abuja, says substance abuse and self harm is common, and there is no help available. “If you’re gay in Nigeria, and you’re rich enough to even afford therapy, can you really tell your therapist and be open? You can’t.”
She pushed for her organisation to begin mental health therapy. “There was this joke in the office of calling me ‘Dr Mad’ because people thought that, because of ideas around mental health, no one would show up to our sessions. Actually, in the three months that I was involved in the programme, we saw about 3,000 people.”
Toyin explains that while there is a blanket need for mental health services, the few that exist in Nigeria are more available to men. “Many NGOs who do work in the LGBTQ community do so under the cover of human rights and many through HIV awareness. But that has meant that their focus is largely on men, because HIV awareness is focused on gay men.”
Azeenarh Mohammed, a 32-year old lawyer, worked with hundreds of gay Nigerian women for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation in Abuja. She says relationships are rare. “Firstly, people have internalised homophobia, so they say to themselves ‘Oh, this is just a phase for me, I’ll grow out of it, get married and have children.’ It takes some people a while to accept themselves.
“Then you also have this pressure on women to marry by a certain age. Men really experience violent homophobia here, but I’d say a key difference for women is that, because of our patriarchal structures, women are easier to control or dominate. Men still have a greater freedom to be independent and find themselves.”
Mohammed is one of the few gay women now living openly in Nigeria. “You live life here as a gay person, knowing that there is no future in Nigeria if you want to live an open life, but I really wanted to change that.
“For every 10 gay women in Nigeria, seven want to leave eventually and go abroad. But I came back because this was something I want to fight to change.”
In 2011, shortly after the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill was passed by Nigeria’s Senate, Mohammed spoke at a hearing in the National Assembly. The legislators and senators were expecting a speech on the environment; Mohammed instead spoke on gay rights. “They were quite shocked, as you can imagine. Afterwards, some said the bill was already passed so we should move on, others were calling for me to be arrested for being gay. But I know my rights, being gay is not yet illegal in Nigeria.”