ABUJA — Nigeria is a dangerous place to be gay. Activists say homosexuals are hunted, threatened and ostracized. Last year, a bill passed through both the Nigerian house and the senate that would punish homosexuality, or even supporting gay rights, with up to 14 years in prison. The bill has yet to be signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan. Despite the dangers in Nigeria, a handful of activists operate publicly in the hope that eventually more people will come out and demand equal rights.
In the Nigerian capital, there are no gay bars, clubs or "cruising," strips and many locals will tell you there are also no gay people.
But in an unassuming house in an unassuming neighborhood, gay-rights activists say that despite hate messages and death threats via text, email, telephone and Facebook, and the constant fear of being attacked, they want their message to be public.
“Someone has to stand up for the community. Someone has to stand up to say, ‘This is what we need. We are not aliens. We are human beings. We deserve our right to be respected and to be recognizedv'" says Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike, the executive director of the International Center for Advocacy on Rights to Health, an organization that provides HIV/AIDS care and prevention for sexual minorities.
Orazulike says last year he was struck on the head near his Nigeria home after staging a protest in the United States against a bill that criminalizes same-sex marriage, and essentially would criminalize being gay or advocating for gay rights.
Under the current law in Nigeria, he says, gay sex is a criminal offense that carries a 14-year jail sentence. If passed, the new law additionally criminalizes gay marriage and says that merely "aiding and abetting" gay marriage would carry a punishment of 10 years in jail.
"Human rights violations of sexual minorities would increase," he says. "The prevalence rate of HIV infection would also increase because people would no longer be comfortable to come out to access services and it would drive people underground."
John Adeniyi, the human rights and advocacy officer at the HIV/AIDS care and prevention organization, says if the gay marriage bill becomes law it would also shut down the seven to 10 organizations that openly support gay rights in the country.
He says the debate about stricter laws has made gay rights activists more prominent, encouraging some people to speak openly about their sexuality while scaring others.
“A lot of people are going back into the closet while some people who weren’t out before are coming out to say, ‘Wow, this is human rights and we really need to talk about it,’” says Adeniyi.
He says the vast majority of people in Nigeria would never tell people if they were gay. Adeniyi says openly gay or even suspected-to-be-gay people could be fired from their jobs or thrown out of their family homes.
About two months ago, a 60-year-old man known to be gay was beaten to death on the streets, he says.
Thaddeus Ugoh, the head of Sexual Minorities Against Aids in Nigeria, says homophobia in Nigeria comes from many sources, including deep religious convictions, both Christian and Muslim.
“The key factor is religious sentiment, that’s one. Second is ignorance - which goes to education, actually. Thirdly, I could say on the basis of the leaders, political pressure [on] traditions,” he says.
Ugoh says Nigeria has one church that openly accepts gay parishioners in Lagos. The House of Rainbow quietly reopened last year after it closed in 2008 when stories in local newspapers prompted the founder, the Reverend Rowland Jide Macaulay, to flee the country, saying he feared for his life.
Ugoh says despite the dangers, activists are making progress. More and more often, he says, his countrymen will admit that there are gay citizens of Nigeria.