By Chude Jideonwo
The senators probably didn't know that there were homosexuals in their midst. But by the time Rashidi Williams, who works with a sexual rights organisation, was through with his presentation against the Assembly's bill against gays in 2007, they had met one openly gay man.
"There was no decision to speak at the National Assembly in the first place," he said in an interview with NEXT. "But on getting there, I felt that submitting a memorandum and not presenting it will be worthless. To be candid I was scared at first, but after the presentation it was just a tap of my fingers in the air. I had done what was to me the most noble of all things."
Nobility might indeed have been a factor in that courageous step, but part of it must have been a certain comfort with the fact that, for all the talk of Nigeria being a homophobic nation, we are far more tolerant than we are ready to accept.
Take Ifeanyi Orazulike, who runs a non-governmental organisation called Alliance Rights, for instance. "I am an out gay man," he said in an exclusive interview in October. He paints a picture of normalcy. He has been interviewed more than once by the Nigerian Television Authority. He also works closely with the National Action Committee on Aids (NACA) and the UNFPA in Nigeria, organisations that have made it possible to bring gay issues into the medical and social mainstream.
It is indeed a long way from the situation in 2004. At the time, Bisi Alimi, then a student of the University of Lagos, was invited on Funmi Iyanda's national TV show (this writer was producer of the show at the time, and invited Mr. Alimi) - the first openly gay person to be interviewed on a Nigerian TV.
And the reaction was swift. Hate mail was sent to both of them, he was thrown out of his home and his job, and New Dawn's Friday edition was cancelled by the NTA. He eventually had to seek asylum in the United Kingdom.
One of his friends, Chinedu (not his real name) who was also in the same university, had to leave the country as well, for Central Switzerland where he now lives with a boyfriend. "In Nigeria, I had to act straight," he said. "Thank God I don't live in Nigeria, but if I did, I'd certainly lead a double life else I commit suicide."
Toyin (not her real name), who lives in the United States, called the life of a gay Nigerian "stressed and sad". The reaction from family and friends who know is uniformly negative. "Their reactions vary from shock," she said, "to condemnation to pity to the urge to get religious deliverance because the fanatical Christians call you demon-possessed."
Still, Chinedu reveals that gays (known in Nigeria as ‘TiBi' - coined from ‘Top' and ‘Bottom', the two gay sexual roles) in Nigeria are able to "have sex, do parties, clubs, lazy talk and every other thing that is having fun."
And he is absolutely right. Over a period of almost six months, a NEXT investigation revealed that in Lagos and Abuja at the very least, despite the stigma, gays are able to meet and interact through three major media: clubs, private parties and the internet.
There are two major clubs in Lagos. One, a popular hangout for both gays and heterosexuals, is located in Victoria Island. The other, which has a monthly gay party, is located in Surulere; though it is important to note that they are not really gay bars, but "gay friendly".
At the former, according to a number of respondents, it appears that professionals and otherwise moneyed men go there to meet with younger men. Kenneth (not his real name), barely in his 20s, is one of them. "They go to the bathroom to talk," he said. "Because most of the younger dudes are effeminate and these men don't want to be seen interacting with them. Sometimes they have sex there."
The secret of coordination
"Word always spreads," a friend of Kenneth's said in a telephone interview. "Gay people everywhere are always conscious about parties since they don't have such opportunities regularly. I have seen at these parties 40-something year old men, some of them married. And they invite guys to their homes all the time."
Private parties still remain the most popular means of socialisation. "Just recently, there was a truth and dare party of about 24 people in Surulere, in the flat of a gay guy who is a bank manager," he continued. "There was alcohol, smoking of ‘weed', loud music, oral sex - overnight."
Major malls like the Silverbird Galleria, The Palms and the E-Centre are also popular hangouts. At a famous Ikeja hotel young boys go swimming with friends, hoping to get picked up by older guys. "For a gay person, everyday is a day to meet someone new," Kenneth said.
In Abuja, an uncorroborated article from the United Nations (UN) Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) also notes the existence of a few clubs that accept gays. Mr. Orazulike confirmed this; that there are gay clubs - mostly for the rich and mighty - all over the capital city.
Things are slightly different for lesbians though. According to Toyin: "There are underground gay networks where some of us meet to talk and share our problems and experiences. We try to assist those of us who may be in danger or who may have problems - from emotional to social. We assure and console one another."
Apparently, this is no fringe lifestyle. Even celebrities play a huge role: at parties and in magazines, the list of "alleged" gay celebrities have included A-list musicians, actors and TV presenters. Some names are repeated so frequently that, just like with Hollywood and PerezHilton.com, everyone seems to know who's gay and who's not.
The internet is also a sprawling estate of freedom for gays. Websites like manjam.com and globalgayz.com are a big meeting point. A visit to the sites is revealing. Nigerians with pictures, profiles, addresses and phone numbers meet daily for sex and relationships.
However, it is the social networking site, Facebook, that provides the ultimate opportunity for gay expression. It is also not unusual these days to find Facebook names such as Tolu Gay, Chineye Gay, or other suggestive names usually with pictures of body parts, openly soliciting for partners. One, called Long John, born 1985, had a belly down picture of him in underwear and described himself as "Young. Handsome. Dynamic. Gay. Nigerian."
In a Facebook conversation with him, he said: "My orientation is bi (sexual). I'm a Lagos dude trying to make ends meet. Schooling in Polytechnic, Ibadan, living in Festac."
"So where are the pictures with your face - why aren't you showing that?"
He responded in Pidgin. "Show face ke? Make my papa catch me abi?"