Nigerians: Gays, as long as they’re not our gays, are okay

Reflecting on the April 2017 visit of openly gay CNN business news presenter Richard Quest to Nigeria.

For a week in April 2017, Richard Quest was in Lagos, Nigeria. I have always been fascinated by him. Quest has a hoarse voice, an odd demeanor and a presentation style that isn’t a common sight on television. He draws you in, even if you are not interested in business. I have been a fan since the first time I saw him delivering the business report on CNN years ago. Until his visit, I did not know that he was gay. The truth is, even if I had known, it wouldn’t have mattered. “Quest Means Business” is a brilliant show – and the sexual identity of its presenter makes not one jot of difference.

I was however, fascinated by the many Nigerians hobnobbing with him.

Quest was at Oshodi, the heart of Lagos mainland. He visited Tejuosho market, the main market on the Island. He spoke with industry experts. He took selfies with cleaners on Lagos roads. He ate jollof rice at a local arts center. He jogged on Lekkoyi Bridge with media entrepreneur, Mo Abudu, and interviewed key Nigerian ministers. He was welcomed so warmly that he even took to Twitter to talk about Nigerian “friendliness.”

I would like to see this as a win in the fight against homophobia. It could be interpreted as a huge step forward that Nigerians interacted with an openly gay person without contracting “gayism” – one of my personal favorites in the informal homophobia dictionary. Nigerians breathed the same air as Quest, an openly gay man and no one died.

Sadly, this sudden “friendliness” of a largely homophobic society has raised several questions. Nigerian-born LGBTI activist Bisi Alimi, who lives in United Kingdom, suggests there is more at play. In a Facebook post, Alimi wrote, “Richard Quest is in Nigeria and getting a hero’s welcome. Lest we forget, he is a man living openly as gay, but what we do to our LGBT? Either kill them or imprison them. Shame on you hypocrites!”

Loaded in this are questions: would Nigerians still have welcomed him if they knew he was gay? Would they still have shone their teeth into the cameras for selfies? Quest’s visit to Nigeria perhaps may actually be pointing a finger at the double standards in Nigeria, especially for the LGBT bashers aware of his sexuality.

As many Nigerians who have been open about their homosexuality in Nigeria can attest, once you are out, the doors to opportunity start shutting. Alimi knows this all too well. In 2004, he came out on television show called “New Dawn with Funmi.” That singular act triggered off series of (re)actions. Firstly, it killed his acting career. As if that was not enough, he was physically assaulted on numerous occasions, and victimized to such an extent that he was forced to leave the country. It had a wider effect too: New Dawn was pulled off the air, and viewers were denied the opportunity to explore crucial issues that affect the rights of all Nigerians.

In 2103 Nigeria adopted the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), which effectively legalized homophobia. Recently, Romeo Oriogun, a Nigerian poet who identifies as queer won the Brunel International Poetry Prize; he was celebrated by many in the literary community. Yet at home in Nigeria, he experienced a wave of hatred. So it is fascinating that within weeks we have two stark examples of intolerance towards a fellow Nigerian who happens to be gay, and high levels of acceptance and tolerance towards a gay British man. Reports of the effects of the SSMPA leave a bad aftertaste. With increasing mob violence, there are few places LGBT people can go for shelter and legal support.

After his visit, Quest tweeted, “The youth of Nigeria are the country’s secret weapon. I’ve been impressed with the young people I’ve met there.” Quest is right about youths being Nigeria’s secret weapon. It is something many Nigerians know. However every weapon has both the power to protect and the power to harm. Homophobia is on the increase, even among young people. Recently, there were reports of attacks at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Like Alimi, and Kenny Bademosi – the founder of Orange Academy who left in 2015 after coming out – too many young talented Nigerians are getting on the next boat, bus or plane to escape homophobia.

As he filmed “Nigeria at Crossroads,” Quest interviewed the who-is-who in Nigeria. Each of them suggested ways for the country to move forward – pointing out new directions for the economy, for education and health, even the environment. The one issue Quest and his guests did not touch on was human rights. For the LGBT people in Nigeria, navigating these crossroads may not be as easy as Quest made it seem as he meandered the Lagos markets. The truth is, most LGBT people in Nigeria can’t simply walk through our streets as Quest did with their rights protected. Few LGBT people can simply be who they are – as Quest is – and just wander into our hearts. Quest may mean business but the question is, does Nigeria? Countries that mean business keep their citizens’ humanity intact. They certainly don’t ostracize their best and their brightest.

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