During a visit to Nigeria in 2004, my mother told me about a massive row she had recently had with her neighbour. The row had started because the neighbour had put up some cables in front of my mother’s apartment without her permission. My mother in anger had pulled down the cables and hence this massive row – during which they shouted and called each other names. It went on for ages. My mother said, out of nowhere the neighbour shouted “Don’t take your frustrations out on me, just because your son is a homosexual”. My mother said “that just destroyed me and I went inside and started crying”.
As I listened to my mother tell the story, I remember thinking, the neighbour had simply pointed out a fact, for I am ‘homosexual’ and that’s okay. But it was not okay in the eyes of my mother, it was something to be ashamed of and hidden.
Earlier this week, news broke that the Nigerian president had signed the infamous “Anti-Gay” Bill. This new piece of legislation amongst many things, “criminalizes gay marriage and civil unions, imposing punishment of up to 14 years in prison for same-sex couples who openly display their relationship”. In a country where mothers hide their heads in shame at the news that their son is gay, it is hard to imagine a situation where a ‘same-sex couple will openly display their relationship’; for to do so means shaming, ridicule and alienation.
As I reflect on the impact of this piece of legislation on many of my same-gender loving brothers and sisters in Nigeria, I find myself thinking back to what I now dub ‘My second coming out’ conversation with my mother. In 2010, during a visit to Nigeria I decided that I needed to have another ‘mum, I am gay’ talk. You see following her revelation to me about the row with the neighbour in 2004, neither of us had again raised the issue of me being gay. From time-to-time, she would ask ‘when are you going to get married’ or ‘when are you going to have children’ and I would sigh and say something along the lines ‘you know that’s not going to happen’ and I’d get in response ‘It will happen in Jesus name’.
And so I sat down with my mother late one evening and during that conversation said ‘I know you are not happy that I am gay, but I want you to know that I am happy and in a good place’. She asked whether I’d ever get married, I told her that I’d like to one day get married to a man, she said if that ever happened I must never return to Nigeria, because if I did it would mean I had no shame. She said if I got married to man, I should consider myself an orphan.
My mother passed away in July 2012, sadly we never got to a place where we saw eye to eye on the issue of my sexuality. I know for sure that she loved me, but living in a culture that constantly tells its inhabitants that ‘homosexuality is a sin, un-African and an abomination’ it is difficult to swim again the current. This new piece of Nigerian legislation simply fuels those entrenched beliefs and teaches fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, friends, colleagues and neighbours to reject, shame and report any same gender loving person that crosses their path.
After my mother’s funeral, her pastor told me that I still had a responsibility to get married, otherwise my mother was not going to rest in peace. He told me that “yes, homosexuals existed in Nigeria, but part of the culture was to still get married”. This new piece of legislation simply fuels this practice and sadly normalizes the suppression and repression of an individual’s authentic self.
So, what needs to happen for things to change? I do not think there is any quick solution – for we are dealing with entrenched beliefs here. What I do know is that it will take the voices of many to bring about radical change – even if the law is repealed, there is still the issue of attitudes that needs to be addressed.
Reflecting on my own journey, one of the things that I feel certainly needs to happen now is that more fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, friends of those who are same-gender loving need to stand up and let neighbours, colleagues and the Government know that they will not accept a piece of legislation that teaches them to hate the people that they love; for that is what this legislation does at its core – it promotes hate, fear and disconnection. Surely we all, regardless of our sexuality, yearn to live in a world that is more loving and connected. This is not the time for heads to go in the sand, for nothing will change if the voices of those who know same-gender loving people remain silent.