Nigeria’s queer history told by those who lived through it
Queer Nigerians are under attack from its government, but in the shadows, their vibrant existence – once ignored by the powers that be – lives on.
When Goodluck Jonathan, the former president of Nigeria, passed a bill into law that criminalised any active part of gayness in January 2014, he was lauded by many in the country for being a custodian of Nigerian culture. By others, namely international human rights activists, he was criticised, his actions were seen as a destructive ploy to garner votes by appealing himself to the conservative majority in Nigeria. But, ironically, despite the overwhelming public support for the law, the deliberations and eventual signing of the bill were one of the first moments of actual LGBT+ recognition on a national level in Nigeria.
Known as the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), the law prohibits every aspect of LGBT+ existence and imposes strict sentences for acts and support of homosexuality -- including the death penalty in some Shari'a states. As such, life for queer Nigerians became divided into two that day: before the SSMPA, and after the SSMPA.
Because of this, in reportage of what it was like being a queer person in Nigeria, 2014 and the passage of the SSMPA is often quoted as a starting point for queer struggle in the country. Yet, while it may have been when homophobia within the country was legitimised and enshrined in law, it certainly wasn’t when queer culture in Nigeria began.
Under the new laws, "A person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies or organizations, or directly or indirectly makes public show of same-sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offense and is liable on conviction to a term of 10 years." But for queer people who lived in Nigeria in the years before the SSMPA, club nights, parties and mixers were how they chiefly met new and old connections in the community.
In the years leading to SSMPA, exclusively queer clubs -- particularly in Lagos -- rose in popularity. These clubs were mostly underground, earmarked as a safe space for queer people to go to without fearing attack or scrutiny. Sometimes these queer spaces were identified as such by their owners, and other times merely by the customers themselves through word of mouth. Of course, as this happened alongside a rise in scrutiny into the lives of members of the LGBT+ community.
‘‘There was an underground party scene when I came to the scene in Abuja,’’ Edafe Okporo, a gay man and writer who was among the first publicly out queer people in Nigeria, says. ‘‘We were creating space for people to come together for the sole purpose to get them tested for HIV. In Wuse 2 [a district in Abuja, Nigeria], there are bars you would go to for cruising because the gays go there. Everything was underground, kiss and don’t tell, bring your clothes over in your bag when you get to the party, throw out your wig and put on your heels. After the party is over rearrange yourself like it never happened.’’
Nigeria’s drag scene also thrived here, a space for trans Nigerians to exist without having their existence prodded. It was where they could don brightly-coloured wigs and dance to Afrobeats to the early hours of the morning. To protect themselves, knowledge of these parties and clubs -- timings, locations -- were not made public. To gain entry, potential attendees needed to have someone who could vouch for them.
‘‘I lived in Lagos for years but I did not even know there was queer club scene,’’ Chineme* a bisexual Nigerian woman tells me. ‘‘The first time I ever went to a queer party or club in Nigeria was in 2005, in the city of Port Harcourt. There was a place in the heart of the city where every Sunday evening, the community would come to and drink and dance. It was where many of us learned we weren’t alone.’’ Chineme recalls that the club only admitted people who were signed off by recognised regulars: ‘‘It was very lowkey, it had to be. It was the only way to keep the club safe. They rented the venue for the duration that they used it, because keeping a queer club running every day of the week was too risky. A few months later, when I had moved back to Lagos, I heard there was a police incident so they stopped using the place and started picking a new place every other Sunday until the organiser moved away from Nigeria.’’
“Cohabiting then, for some reason, did not have as much stigma as I think it does now. Now that I am just a single man in his forties, I get more raised brows than I did when I was happily partnered and living with a man.”
Ade*, a 40-year-old gay man and businessman who lives in Lagos, lived through the years preceding the SSMPA. He met his late partner, who he cohabited with throughout the 2000s, at a party. “I met my partner in 2002, a few months after I came back to Nigeria,” says Ade, who went to school in London. “Parties... were how you could meet people and hang around. We started dating not long after that and started living together about a year or so into our relationship. It was not necessarily uncommon to cohabit, it was like getting married. Obviously, some people were braver and secretly got married, especially towards the 2010s but cohabiting was a more hassle-free way to ‘get married’, sort of.” Cohabiting and secret marriages between same-gender couples was not a rarity in the 00s and the early 10s -- especially in Nigerian megacities like Abuja and Lagos. “Cohabiting then, for some reason, did not have as much stigma as I think it does now,” Ade adds. “Now that I am just a single man in his forties, I get more raised brows than I did when I was happily partnered and living with a man who was, in many ways, my husband. Back then a lot of people knew or guessed, but for some reason were okay with just leaving us alone. I wonder if my partner was alive and we were together now that would still have happened.”
Attendance to the marriages Ade refers to were often by invitation only and photos were banned to prevent unwanted attention. Since the SSMPA, covert gay weddings have been even harder to perform and, in 2017, over fifty-three people were arrested for attending a gay wedding and were asked to pay a sum of N500,000 to be released on bail, a hefty sum in Nigeria. Chike Frankie-Edozien explored this phenomenon of secret marriages and domestic partnerships across the diaspora in his acclaimed memoir Lives of Great Men. ‘‘Many queer people back then lived with partners but couldn't be open about it,’’ Chike says. “To the neighbours they could be housemates or relatives or any matter of folks living together in the big city. All of them remain hidden in plain sight.’’
While homosexuality was not accepted, neighbours often choose to leave suspected queer couples alone -- due to both a lack of evidence to support their suspicions and the lack of a law that explicitly criminalised homosexuality. Ade describes it as an era of “Don’t kiss and tell, mind your business and pretend you don’t know what is going on”. However, this unspoken arrangement that had allowed many queer people and queer couples to live largely quiet lives went to shambles in the months following the SSMPA being signed into existence. Homophobic violence spiked within the country following media sensationalisation and government-fuelled conspiracy theories. As reported in The New York Times, activists said “the mob violence was a sign that the new law appeared to have given mobs license to act on widespread antigay sentiment in Nigeria”, instilling fear in the community.
“Immediately after [the law] was passed, any safe haven for queer people was raided, as the majority were living together as roommates,” Edafe says. “They pulled folks out of their houses and started beating them on the street, their plan was to burn these men alive.”
Being lowkey has always been a huge part of queer culture in Nigeria throughout the years, but when the SSMPA effectively criminalised queer associations, people were forced to think even further outside the box to keep LGBT+ nightlife alive. Nightlife in Nigeria today is still largely modelled on what it was like in the early 00s and late 90s -- but technology plays a crucial role to keep things below the radar. AirBnB has made the option of booking a location easier, as it allows the organisers to host the party without needing to come in contact with the property’s owner, nor return to the venue, reducing the risks for both attendees and organisers drastically.
‘‘I don’t use [Grindr] because I am looking for a boyfriend,” party organiser Solomon says, ‘‘I simply come on here to tell gay and bisexual men about parties I have coming up and if I can vouch that they aren’t a kito (a homophobe catfishing as a queer person on social media) while talking to them, I invite them to one.
“I started doing it after I saw a viral tweet of a white guy using the app to advertise his barbecue or something. That’s the only new part,’’ Solomon adds. ‘‘Gay Nigerians have always an amazing party and club scene. People always forget that there were gay people before now and they lived full lives.’’
This is a history that risks being forgotten, should Goodluck Jonathan’s anti-LGBT+ laws continue to push queer existence into the shadows. We rely on the people who have survived the pushback, and NGOs like TIERs (The Initiative for Equal Rights) Nigeria to document how life used to be before the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, and how that act has changed it. The existence of queer Nigerians is undeniable, but their rights to safety is less so. To acknowledge the past is vital in informing the future.