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LGBTQ+: walking the tightrope of social exclusion in Nigeria

IN Nigeria, discrimination against members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ+) community exposes them to attacks, abduction, and sometimes leaving them without adequate access to healthcare. This report takes an in-depth look.

You can also read Homosexuals: Living On The Wrong Side Of The Law


By the time Amirah Anderson turned 14, he had begun to admit that he felt more female than male.

Although his mother gave birth to two male children, Amirah tells The ICIR that he was assigned the wrong gender at birth, a situation known as gender dysphoria, where a person feels a disconnection between their biological sex and gender identity.

Such persons usually identify as transgender and may transition to their preferred gender or not. When a person transitions, they identify as transsexual. 

As a teenage boy, Amirah loved female clothing, which caused friction in his family. As a young adult, he liked other men.

It did not help that Amirah was born into a deeply religious home in Nigeria to a Pentecostal church pastor as father and a deaconess as mother. Both termed the femininity displayed by him as demonic.

Amirah’s turbulent relationship with his father continued until the latter died eight years ago. The gap between him and his only sibling also widened and he stayed away from home for a long time.

Acceptance is critical to the health and well-being of young adults, but the reverse is a consequence of being queer in Nigeria, a largely homophobic country.

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People are considered queer when they have different gender identities or sexual orientations from heterosexual persons.

Sometimes, queer persons are forced into conversion therapies organised by family or friends to “fix” them.

Ogundele Gloria Andrew is a masculine-presenting 20-year-old woman, who resides in Ekiti and identifies as a lesbian.

Since her mother became aware of her sexual orientation, she has made unpleasant attempts to change it.

Gloria recounted to The ICIR that a deliverance session was organised by her mother and religious leader, during which she spent days away from home, fasting and praying to “cast out the spirit of lesbianism.”

But the spirit did not leave Gloria, and when her mother realised this, she subjected her to what the 20-year-old described as the beating of her life.

The experience forced Gloria to withdraw her confessions of being attracted to women. She now pretends to be straight around her mother.

According to a study, young people who have been rejected by their families are more likely to battle depression.

The difficulties associated with being queer have made Gloria to contemplate suicide. She has no explanation for being attracted to women and cannot comprehend why she faces discrimination for it.

“Sometimes, people just don’t want to talk to me, saying I am going to influence them into lesbianism. I am just a normal girl living a normal life. I’m human too,” she told The ICIR.

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Scientists and researchers have not found a comprehensive reason behind same-sex sexual attraction. Previous studies attributed it to a particular gene, but recent research shows that there are no single genes responsible, as several factors determine a person’s sexual orientation.

Researchers have continued to swing between genetics and choice as causative factors and queer people remain targets of discrimination.

Emmanuella David-Ette, who is nearly 40 years old, says she is a transgender/intersex woman, though she grew up as a boy. She told The ICIR that she looked feminine as a child, and enjoyed watching people guess if she was male or female.

“But as you grow older, the hate becomes real. And you don’t know why they are hating, because you didn’t create yourself. They look at you and call you ‘homo.’ Then, I didn’t even know the word transgender. I just knew that I was different,” she said.

She said there was feminisation of her body as puberty approached. Even before she began to identify as a woman, Emmnuella knew she was attracted to men, which left her confused and searching for answers.

“I decided to do a series of tests on my own, and they found female hormones higher than male hormones,” she said.

Medical experts say that intersex persons are born with atypical traits which do not conform to the usual male and female sexes. Their sexual anatomy or chromosomes are often different from what is considered normal.

This difference can be noticed at birth due to the presence of ambiguous genitalia or during puberty. Sometimes, intersex persons grow old and die without realising that the make-up of their chromosomes or internal organs places them in this category.

Definition of LGBTQ terms.
Definition of LGBTQ terms.

Those who find out about this condition in their lifetime, sometimes resort to surgeries or hormonal therapy, which help their bodies conform to whatever gender they identify with.

Questions around gender identity and sexual orientation have led many LGBTQI persons into online spaces in search of answers or expression; a move that proved costly for Janet Chimeziem, who identifies as a queer man. Janet is the name he has adopted and that is what he is known by now.

Quest for justice

Threats and attacks linked to his gender identity are no longer new to Janet. Being queer, he dresses in female clothing, which has constantly exposed him to harassment.

Before he moved to Ibadan for studies, Janet lived in Onitsha, Anambra with his family. He had endured catcalling from people around, but things came to a head when he was abducted in 2019, shortly after he became vocal online about being queer.

On the day of his kidnap, Janet was in a tricycle with other passengers when he lost consciousness. By the time he came to, he found himself in a strange, dilapidated building.

“I think they used some sort of chemical to make me sleep. I was severely beaten and lost some amount of blood.

“That was about the time I was talking about queer rights on my social media platforms. When I was being beaten, they told me the reason was my being queer and all that. I knew perhaps one of them had seen my posts,” he told The ICIR.

Janet stayed in captivity for a day, and his parents were forced to pay a ransom before his release, but he did not seek redress.

For queer people, access to justice in such cases is limited, as they are often faced with threats of being prosecuted under the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA), 2013.

The Act criminalises any marriage or public display of amorous relationships between persons of the same sex and punishes supporters of these.

Section 5(1) of the Act reads: “A person who enters into a same sex marriage contract or civil union commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of 14 years’ imprisonment.”

According to section 5(2), “a person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation, or directly or indirectly makes public show of same sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of 10 years’ imprisonment.”

Since it was passed, the law has hindered access to justice for some queer Nigerians.

The first sexual encounter Gloria (earlier mentioned) had with a man was when she was drugged and raped in January 2024.

That day, Gloria arrived at the residence of her female friend, where she planned to spend the night ahead of a performance the following day.

She did not know that her host also invited a male friend, who had previously asked for a relationship despite being aware of her sexual orientation, to spend the night in the same room.

While she has no clear memory of the incident, Gloria woke up the next morning to realise she had been raped. A visit to the hospital confirmed that she was drugged.

She relayed the incident to her stepmother who filed a police report.

Although the abuser was arrested and arraigned, he threatened to reveal to the court that Gloria is a lesbian and after being advised by the police to settle out of court, the suit was withdrawn.

“They told me I had to withdraw the case because he would bring it up in court and instead of the guy ending up in prison, I could be the one to end up in prison,” she said.

In August 2018, 57 suspected homosexuals were arrested by the police at a gay club in Lagos.

While being paraded, one of the suspects, now a popular cross-dresser in Nigeria, James Brown, who disclosed that he had tested positive for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) at birth, said he was denied access to his anti-retroviral medication since the arrest.

In 2023, at least two gay weddings were disrupted during raids by security operatives in Delta and Gombe states. About 137 guests were arrested at both scenes.

Amirah (earlier mentioned) told The ICIR that such restrictions push many people into switching genders, despite how lonely the journey can be. Now transwoman, she is less secretive about her relationship with a man. She is also familiar with members of the lover’s family, though they are unaware of her identity.

For Emmanuella, who now presents as a woman, looking feminine played a significant role in the success of her wedding to a man in Nigeria.

“When you look at me, what do you see? A woman. So, I was hoping to use my story as a form of advocacy for others because it’s like saying an intersex person deserves love; a trans person deserves love,” she said.

However, the marriage was short-lived due to domestic violence. While Emmanuella was able to get married, most queer persons hardly take the risk for fear of prosecution.

The American Bar Association (ABA) documented observations during criminal proceedings against 47 Nigerians prosecuted for public displays of same-sex affection under the SSMPA between 2019 and 2020.

Although the case was struck out, the report noted that the process breached international and regional standards, by violating rights to non-discrimination.

In Northern Nigeria, where Islam is a dominant religion and the Shari’a law obtains, prosecution of suspected queer persons is usually more draconian.

An Islamic Shari’a court in Bauchi state condemned a septuagenarian and two others to death by stoning in 2022.

Religion and the case against queer rights

Speaking on the issue, Islamic cleric and Executive Director of the Al-habibiyyah Islamic Academy, Fuad Adeyemi, told The ICIR that being queer is anti-Islam.

“Islam does not recognise it at all. In fact, if you want to follow Islamic injunction, that person should be killed. But to us, there is nothing like that in Islam. Human opinion does not count in Islam. Where it counts is where Allah has given us the opportunity, but there are some things we don’t do to insult God,” Adeyemi said.

Also speaking on the issue, Christian cleric and Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Mangu local government, Plateau state Timothy Daluk described it as unbiblical.

“The New Testament said it is a taboo. It is unacceptable. It is contrary to the teachings of the bible. These verses have made the church discourage it in totality. The Bible also said in the beginning, God made man and woman. If he chose to make man and a man to get married, he could have made a man for Adam or a woman for Eve,” he said.

In December 2023, the Catholic Pope Francis who is global head of the church said the church can bless same-sex couples, although such blessings should not be taken to mean a validation or acceptance of their marriage.

Reacting to this, Catholic Bishops in Nigeria said there was no possibility of blessing same-sex unions or marriages in the church.

“Homosexual acts are of grave depravity which are intrinsically disordered and, above all, contrary to natural law. In furtherance of our pastoral and prophetic mission, we must also continue to stress that God loves the sinner unconditionally and calls him to repentance so that he might live,” president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) Lucious Ugorji was quoted as saying.

Due to religious sentiments, Amirah was suspended from the choir by his pastor’s wife for “not leading an exemplary life.” He has stayed away from religious institutions since then.

Beyond religion, many heterosexual and cisgender persons have also shared concerns about the community in Nigeria.

An FCT resident, Bibian Anekwe, described the demand for queer rights as an infringement of women and children’s rights.

“When we accept these things as normal, children can grow up to think it is okay to decide to switch genders.

“I am not against them, but we should not be forced to accept this because it is not normal. We should not be forced into accepting transsexuals as real women or men. As a woman, I should not be made to share toilets or private facilities with transwomen, especially since many of them are still in the process and still have male organs. What if I get raped? Changing your body does not automatically make you female,” she said.

Regardless of these concerns, several organisations, including Human Rights Watch have urged the government to repeal the SSMPA.

A Nigerian gay man who fled the country after openly coming out in the early 2000s, Bisi Alimi, now runs a training programme, the Rainbow Academy, where queer Nigerians are trained to challenge homophobia.

Born into a Muslim family, Alimi has also sworn off religion due to anti-LGBTQI sentiments among other reasons, and has social media platforms where queer Nigerians find community.

Beyond being a platform for community and activism, social media is also a lifeline to access healthcare resources, especially for those negotiating the complex journey of gender transition.

Getting medical help online

Emeka Ogechi Oji, otherwise known as Oge Classic, was a man who found other men attractive. As with most Nigerians in this situation, he has endured attacks from people around him in Lagos, including being pelted with stones, unprovoked.

When he decided to transition into a woman, it was not exactly inspired by the need to escape the attacks.

Oge Classic had two main reasons; the more significant being what he described as special treatment given to women by society.

“For me, the case was gender equality. They treat females different from the way they treat males. Sometimes we go out to places and they say females should go there for free, but males should pay. They pay more attention to the females than males,” he told The ICIR.

The second reason was to fit in with society.

“Let me just be what I am acting as,” he said.

Now, Oge Classic identifies as a transwoman and has been on hormonal medication for about a year. Yet, he has never physically consulted with any medical doctor throughout this time.

His medications are “prescribed” via social media by transsexual friends he met online, who live abroad.

Although he has been on hormonal therapy for about a year, he does not have plans to surgically reconstruct his male genitalia.

Transsexual persons sometimes undergo gender-affirming surgeries such as vaginoplasty, where the penis and testes are removed and the tissues, used to construct a vagina, or phalloplasty, where vaginal or other tissues or tissues are used to create a penis.

This helps ease psychological distress associated with gender dysphoria, but Oge Classic is not bothered by this.

Uncontrolled use of hormones for gender transitioning has been described as a significant health hazard for transsexuals.

According to a study, the use of these hormones can increase the risk of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer, and cardiovascular diseases among others, and the risk is higher without adequate supervision.

However, a significant reason for self-prescription in Nigeria is the inadequate access to specialised care and discrimination by medical workers; a situation that Amirah is very familiar with.

Despite the turbulent relationship with the now-deceased father and brother, Amirah embarked on the journey to transitioning into a woman. The journey began two years ago at 27.

He also has no immediate plans to surgically modify his male genitalia.

“I am taking it one step at a time. I just want others see me the way I want them to see me,” Amirah said.

Unlike Oge Classic, Amirah consults and uses medics in Nigeria. But before successfully finding them, he was confronted at different times with discrimination by health workers.

“Back then, I had this medical condition I wanted to treat. When the man was examining me, he almost disgraced me. He started calling the nurses to come and see me. They started preaching, telling me ‘you will have cancer, you will die’” he said.

Amirah initially resorted to reading about hormones and buying medicines based on research. However, this led to complications which forced him to confide in a medical acquaintance.

But there are organisations that provide healthcare services exclusively to queer Nigerians, including the Olive Rights to Health Initiative in Nasarawa.

A nurse at the organisation, Emmanuel Sunday, who spoke on the importance of healthcare for LGBTQI people said there are ailments common with queer persons, especially men and transwomen, which may escalate within and beyond the community and cause an outbreak.

Pointing out that HIV, Hepatitis B and C and syphilis are some of the diseases ravaging the community, Emmanuel said other ailments peculiar to gay, bi-sexual and transsexuals are anal fistula and warts.

However, a shortage of funds is limiting the organisation from providing adequate care.

“We have anal fistula that is ravaging the bi-sexual men and gay men in Nigeria and we don’t provide those services anymore. So we can’t really provide holistic medical care for these people and we are left with no other option than to refer them to general facilities,” he said.

Sunday described anal fistula as a case where a different hole develops close to the anus and discharges pus due to infection of the area.

The pus, usually infectious, can find its way into the penis of a male sexual partner, especially if there are cuts during sexual activity.

“A bisexual man may also have a wife at home, if he goes back and penetrates the wife, she can come down with an infection. It is a concern. If we just look at it as an LGBTQ thing, then it goes down to the general community and still comes back to society,” he said.

Organisations like these sometimes operate quietly to avoid backlash from the government, therefore, some queer persons are unaware of their existence.

Amirah also identified a lack of resources as another factor that makes transsexuals turn to self-prescription.

“Most of us are not working. Most of us in the community are sex workers, it is not something we are proud of but we are just trying to survive,” he said.

One problem with securing employment as a transsexual person in Nigeria is the gender marker. Transsexual Nigerians are usually unable to reflect their new gender identities in documents used before transitioning.

“At the bank, most of us use our birth names and gender. When you go to the court to change it, it’s a whole process. Sometimes, you have to know somebody who knows somebody who can help you and it’s not easy.

“When you go to someone to employ you, they will ask you for your account details and when you bring them and it doesn’t rhyme and that’s an issue,” Amirah said.




     

     

    Transitioning cost Amirah many relationships, including what he once shared with extended family members.

    When extended relatives discovered he was transitioning, he was summoned to several family meetings and berated. He, however, stopped attending upon getting tipped off by a cousin that they were attempting to kill him for bringing disgrace to them.

    The chaos that trailed being outed in his hometown, birthed a new cordial relationship between him and his brother, who defended him against attacks by the extended family.

    But there were tears in his eyes as he recounted the experience, while fiddling with the nose mask that covered his face, he said: “It really hurts.”

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    Ijeoma Opara is a journalist with The ICIR. Reach her via [email protected] or @ije_le on Twitter.

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