meet nigeria’s most famous gay activist
Nigerian LGBT campaigner Bisi Alimi talks about coming out on national TV, escape to the UK and the ballroom scene in his homeland.
Bisi Alimi grew up gay in Nigeria, home to some of most draconian laws against LGBT people. The law currently forbids same sex relationships, same sex shows of affection in public and criminalises anyone who does not report known homosexuals. It was in that highly intolerant culture that Alimi, already a vocal HIV activist, took the extraordinary step of coming out as gay on Nigerian national television in 2004. He was immediately ostracised and his life threatened.
Alimi sought refugee status in the UK where he has remained, gaining citizenship and becoming a campaigner for change in his homeland where the law has become increasingly homophobic. Now he is subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Joe Cohen called The Boy from Mushin (currently the subject of a Kickstarter campaign to complete), which charts his extraordinary life journey from Nigeria and his new life as a black, gay immigrant in Britain. Here, Alimi talks to i-D about his life, the film and how the LGBT community at home survives by way of extravaganzas.
Can you tell us about growing up in Nigeria?
I was born into a mixed religion family - my mum is Christian and my dad Muslim - in a highly deprived area of Lagos. I was creative from an early age. I knew I was into acting from age seven. Being creative got me into a lot of trouble but was also my escape route. When I experienced my first depression because of my sexuality at 16, which then led me to attempt suicide, creativity was the only thing I could turn to. Drama and dance helped me deal with who I was.
When did you realise you were gay?
I had no language to describe it. The first time I realised was my final year in primary school when I kissed a boy, my classmate. In my first year of secondary school I completely fell in love with another boy, but I didn't understand what was going on. I made friends with other boys with the same tendencies at school. I was 18 when I went to my first gay party.
Before this, you fought that realisation?
My mum was an evangelical Christian and that added a lot of questions. I became born again, I was preaching on the buses and bible bashing. I was dealing with a demon in me. At 16 I went to look for a cure. I fasted, I was locked away, I prayed. I was anointed with oil. Every hour I would drink this prayer oil to cleanse and fight the demons. In the slum where I grew up there were different obstacles in my way. We didn't know where the airport was because people like me were never meant to travel out of the country. We were made to hustle, to deal drugs, to rob and then die. I was lucky there was a path for me. By the time I got into university to study theatre arts, my path in life was emerging. I began hanging out more and more with the underground gay culture in Nigeria.
Can you describe the gay scene in Nigeria at that time?
The gay culture in Nigeria is just like being in the ballroom scene in New York. It's highly extravagant. You have queens, beautiful men dressed up. You have to come from a House, to have a Mother to attend gay parties. It was extremely underground. There are little families dotted around Lagos and you have to be brought in by a friend who is a member of the family. You have to be accepted by the Mother of the House before you can start going to gay parties. When I went to my first gay party and saw these men dressed in headgear like traditional Nigerian women, I was just blown away. Many times we were beaten up at our parties by mobs but we would just go to another party the next week. It was the only thing keeping us going because it was the only place we could find like-minded people.
How did you become a HIV activist?
We were ravaged by HIV in the late 90s. I lost a lot of friends. It was when I lost my best friend that I became an activist. I was 24 when I started doing HIV work, so I couldn't separate my sexuality from the work. Two years later, in 2004, I was also diagnosed. The same year I came out.
Why did you decide to come out?
I came out in my final year of university. I had a successful audition for a TV drama series. The media were going to out me. That was when I came out on national television. Two weeks before I went on the programme the Nigerian President said there were no homosexuals in Nigeria. The presenter was saying that the kind of gays she had seen when she visited London, they didn't exist in London. I thought to myself, "This is the biggest breakfast TV show in the country, she's talking about gay issues, maybe I want to come out."
How did that change your life?
Oh my god. Coming out on that programme was like a bomb exploding. The producers were told to take the show off air. The presenter Funmi Lyanda had to remove herself from being seen as supporting me because it was getting very scary outside. I faced the most difficult of my time. I lost my job. I couldn't get a job. The presenter struggled to get her show back and when it did come back it was extremely censored. I became depressed, I lost friends, my family told me not to come to the house anymore. I'd experienced homophobic attacks before but it was three times as bad after coming out.
Why did you move to the UK in 2007?
At one point, my house was broken into and I was beaten for two hours. My neighbour saved my life. I was arrested based on the [false] premise that my house was a recruiting ground for homosexuals. I had been in England once [before] for a conference where I spoke about HIV. My mother said you have a visa on your passport, you should go to England. I didn't know anybody there. I'd only been there for three days, staying in a hotel. But in April 2007, I found myself in London.
The new documentary in development, The Boy from Mushin, will also reflect on your time in the UK from 2007 to present day. Why is it important to show your refugee experience in the film?
I had the support of the United Kingdom when I needed it most. I didn't even know people could come here and claim asylum. To a great extent, that is why I am politically active in this country. It gave me a second chance and I have to do as much as I can to make this country great - to show that Britain has evolved into a great multicultural society and to make people aware of the beauty of that multiculturalism.
You went back to Nigeria late last year to speak at an arts festival, an experience which was recorded for the new documentary about you. How was going there for you?
I've never been removed from the experience of Nigerians. They still write about me, still troll me online. I thought it would be stupid of me to go back. But I also thought I couldn't keep running and I needed to go back. No one knew I went there until I began my talk [at the festival]. Going back was like closure. When I say closure I don't mean about Nigeria. I'm still very passionate about the country. I think it's a very lovely country, very promising. There are a lot of good things that come out of it. But I realised I can still make Nigeria great, make Nigeria proud. I just don't have to do it in Nigeria.
Text Colin Crummy