Last month, the Nigerian government passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which criminalized gay clubs and meetings. It also made it an offense to not report known homosexuals, and banned "indirect" public demonstrations of same-sex affection. What exactly that means is anyone's guess, but one thing is certain: while being gay has always been illegal in Nigeria, it's now genuinely dangerous. In fact, this morning there have been unconfirmed reports of gay people being arrested, beaten up and robbed in Oyo state, southwestern Nigeria.
For a short amount of time, the country's LGBT community had the world's attention. Now, since the Sochi Winter Olympics kicked off, all that focus has been turned to Russia and its own anti-gay laws. But there are still people in Nigeria speaking out against homophobia and discrimination; while writing about the implications and origins of the legislation last month, I spoke to two young gay men about their lives. One is Rashidi Williams, the founder of Queer Alliance Nigeria, the other is Julius (not his real name).
VICE: Do you both feel as though you've had to hide your sexuality?
Rashidi Williams: Growing up as a child in Nigeria, I knew I was different. But I never understood this difference until my late teens. Why? Because there was no information on the issue and I grew up with a very conservative mother. My liberal father was always away. But since coming to know what exactly this difference is, I never felt like I had to hide my sexuality. I came out when I was 20, so I don't think that I've had to hide my sexuality.
Julius: The answer is YES. It has always been that way, even before this new bill was signed into law. Being gay isn't something you parade before family and friends, because the chances that they won't understand are very high.
What's the gay scene like in Lagos? Where do you go and are these places ever raided by the police?
Rashidi: The gay scene went from being overtly closed to being somewhat open in the past decade. But with the passage of the bill into law, the scene will become hidden. How long that will be, we don't know. The visibility we've been able to create as a community has again been taken away from us in the name of protecting religion and cultural practices. Some people in Lagos can tell you where LGBT people gather to socialize on a weekend. Some can even name the gay-friendly bars around town. Simply put, the gay scene in Lagos was relatively free and peaceful. The law jeopardizes that.
So there was never any trouble before?
Rashidi: In the past we had the police and other security agencies raid gay parties in Lagos. But that was a long time ago. The last raid was about five years ago – at least to my knowledge. LGBT communities usually gathered every now and then to celebrate their sexuality and, at times, the police knew about it. However, because there's a law that expressly bans [gay clubs], we should expect to see more raids on gay places of abode, parties and other such events. The main aim is usually not to arrest, but to extort people by blackmailing them.
Julius: You see, a majority of gays – in a bid to keep their sexuality under wraps and not risk exposure – hardly go out to places that offer homosexual pleasures. In fact, I didn't even know there were gay bars and stuff like that until a few years ago. That's how deeply secret these establishments are. In the past, there used to be gay parties with strictly coded invitations, but I've never been to one. I simply hear about them. I'm just much too protective of my identity.
Do you think it would be easier for you to live in another country?
Rashidi: Why do some non-LGBT Nigerians seek to live and work outside this country? It's because it is easier and living is more pleasant. Living as a gay man outside of Nigeria would be the most pleasant thing, but then you think about your country and the country you want to live in. People in other countries fought for the freedoms they now enjoy. They never give up on the idea of a better, egalitarian society. We need to push through and make Nigeria better. Living abroad would not bring the change we need. I think it's temporarily satisfying.
Julius: Yeah, I feel like it would be easier to exist in another country as a gay person. I have a friend who recently traveled to Europe. He's been moving from one city to another and he's full of exciting news about how relaxed the gay atmosphere is in these places. He absolutely does not seem interested in returning to Nigeria. And he's got to the point where he's comfortable forsaking his nationality based on his sexual orientation.
Do you blame religion for homophobia in Nigeria?
Rashidi: Religion is a top priority problem for the country. The new law has its bearing in religion; it can't be separated from religion. The senator who introduced the bill into parliament is of the conservative Anglican faith, and we all know what that stands for. We are clouded in extreme religious philosophies. Religious leaders brainwash us every now and then, and all we do is sit and swallow the religious ideas they preach without ever questioning them. Religion led to legislation against homosexuals in the colonial era.
How would you improve the situation
Rashidi: Nigerians should wake up from their sleep. Our politicians and religious leaders are busy piling up wealth for themselves, and we follow them with our brains under our feet. They use the issue of homosexuality to constantly deceive us, as if homosexuals are the ones closing the doors of development for the country.
Julius: Religion is one major thing I blame for Nigeria's homophobia. Culture is a close second. The arguments always revolve around two ideologies: Old Testament teachings and the belief that it's not African to be gay.
I've heard rumors about a number of Nigerian politicians and military officials being gay, but I doubt this law would affect them.
Rashidi: It's not rumor; the truth is that they're closeted homosexual bigots. They have all the resources at their disposal to protect themselves from the heinousness of the law. The damage is actually for the ordinary Nigerian LGBT citizen whose right to health is taken away, exposed to violence, deprived of association and peaceful assembly, invaded of their privacy, robbed of their sense of self-determination, condemned to the annals of hell and society and damaged psychosocially – that is why we speak out. It's not about marriage; it's about our lives – heterosexuals and homosexuals.
Julius: This law is a dangerous one. And it empowers anyone who has an axe to grind against a gay person. The homophobes don't need to be cautious any more, they just have to be suspicious. They simply have to notify the police or incite a mob. There are reports that the police are now infiltrating gay dating sites and posing as interested parties in order to nab unsuspecting gays. Where before gays had to live carefully but comfortably, now they have to live by looking over their shoulders. The law doesn't protect them and neither do our rulers.
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