How to Be Gay and Safe in Nigeria
Text written by Hapuya Ononime*
“The singular duty you owe yourself is to be alive. Don’t jeopardize that for unsolvable peril.”
Last Sunday, at a weekly literary gathering in Kaduna, a bearded dark macho guy openly said, smiling with a perfect row of white teeth, “I am homophobic, so writing this story was very difficult for me” as if he expected the audience to give him a standing ovation.
I had to confirm what he had said by asking him to repeat himself, which he did in clearer terms. I couldn’t even wait to hear his short story.
I was so irritated I had to leave because nobody called him out. Not even the curator of this gathering. The silence, or laughter, from the audience gave approval to that kind of bigoted thinking. Once again I felt as if I was assaulted.
So I decided to write to you on how to stay safe as a gay Nigerian.
You should be familiar with our country’s fourteen-year law to lock up gays. This will hardly be your problem. The police will not be after you, looking for inappropriate attitudes to confirm their suspicions. Your initial problems will stem from your family. You will have heard a zillion times from your family members how demonic it is to be gay. You must learn to forgive them. They were born with the privilege of being straight.
On several occasions, as a guy, you should have been asked if you’re gay because you gesture a little bit too much, or that you like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or Adele a little bit too much, or that you’re fond of taking long periods in the bathroom. Desist from anything that will likely tag you as “feminine.” If possible, pray to the Lord to “heal” you from too much gesturing when you talk.
If you love the arts, you should reduce that “love” as much as possible. Like talking so aesthetically about the novel you recently read, or the latest art exhibition you attended or wish you could attend. Rather, why not talk about more serious topics like football, engineering, medicine, law etc.?
As a man, try not to become a feminist because it seems like, to straight men, only gay men can be radical feminists. Only someone who is not attracted to women can see women not as equal human beings but as people to satisfy some depraved desires of yours. Don’t even try to mention Chimamanda Adichie’s name in a conversation or you may out yourself.
If you happen to become computer literate and have those gay porn videos in your phone, I suggest you lock them or delete them if you can’t lock them. Google Play will help you with apps for that; most of them are free and very easy to use. You may have friends who claim that they don’t care about people being gay. But you will know they do on the day they discover you are one of the aliens. Don’t be surprised in the way they will recoil, try so hard to mask their homophobia, try so hard to act like they’re concerned by asking you if you have sought “assistance,” as if being gay is a mental illness. As the Nigerian saying goes: The friend of a thief is a thief. No one associates with someone who reeks of gaydar.
Try to avoid discussions on homosexual topics. Most of our discussions as Nigerians end up in arguments. Arguments that sooner spiral out of the control of the arguers, and sometimes lead to fights that sometimes lead to bloodletting. Don’t forget, your body is precious. You don’t want to get annoyed hearing a friend saying gays should be burnt stark-naked as is done to thieves in Lagos. Try to be on the straight side. If you can’t be, just remain silent. Your views are not worth the arguments. Religion is, at least, very indoctrinating. It has short-circuited even the minds of intelligent people, people you used to respect. I’ll advise you to stay away, if possible, from arguments with religious straight people. Even being on the neutral side can be dangerous.
Even as you avoid these discussions, delete the text messages you exchanged between men like you because one day, one sneaky person will peep into your secret world. The messages don’t even have to be of a sexual nature. I abstain from having sensual chats on my phone and yet, it has happened to me twice, and I had to defiantly deny the messages. Denial is a tedious task. You wouldn’t know how tedious it is until you are alone and start having to replay the conversation to yourself in your mind while realizing how stupid you must have sounded, defending yourself for something that, if you truly weren’t, you shouldn’t have to defend.
As a man, show how much you love women. You can start by declaring how you love holding your girlfriend’s breast even if you have never held one in your life. Establish beforehand that you have kissed several girls even if, like me, you have never done it. Though don’t delve into the vulgar parts. Be careful or you might need explanations you will not like when the questions start darting at you like rain. Be subtle in ways even the biblical snake would be envious. Hanging statements are okay, but when you have too much of them your friends will have cause to start suspecting you.
One thing, though—there is no way you can hide it from your immediate family. Somehow they know and just don’t want to believe or confirm it. My sister, to spite me, told my parents that I was gay, but they didn’t believe her. Perhaps they do but don’t want their convictions to be true. You should have seen how they interrogated me. My way of not saying the truth and also not lying was to keep quiet though I knew there was a conspiracy in silence. Sometimes I look at my mother and I know the suspicions are still in her mind, eating her up like a tumor. Disgust mixed with equal amounts of pity and love. You don’t want to live at the mercy of straight people. I have experienced it. Nothing is as painful. After the interrogation session, I cried. Mind you, keep your weakness to yourself. Don’t let anyone know that you, a man, cried because of questions that questioned your own existence.
A white gay man, not knowing where I lived, told me my remaining in the closet was in itself selfish and homophobic. I understand him. A black gay man living in the West told me not to come out in a homophobic country. I think this is the more rational choice. We as black gay men are used to being called heroes. For now, let’s be normal citizens. If you always have to say what you don’t mean to remain alive, do it until you get out to a queer-friendly country. The singular duty you owe yourself is to be alive. Don’t jeopardize that for unsolvable peril. Blend into the others though no one gave you a uniform.
Become the camouflage. People have died for much less, yet they didn’t change a thing. Recently, in Imo state, two men who were purported to be gay were paraded around the town, naked, beaten and forced to perform the kind of things that gay men in Nigeria do in secret, beaten until their blood draped their bodies like a frock. Never forget that your number one priority is to remain safe. In the land of the dead, human beings and apes are kin.
*Hapuya Ononime’s work has appeared in Commonwealth Writers, Threepenny Review, and Transition Magazine, and has been shortlisted for the 2018 Gerald Kraak Award.