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Udoka Okafor Headshot

Exclusive Interview With Davis Mac-Iyalla, the Nigerian LGBT Rights Activist Fighting to Redefine Religion

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Flickr: scottgunn
Flickr: scottgunn

Udoka Okafor: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your likes, your dislikes, your philosophies, and your early life.

Davis Mac-Iyalla: I am a kind and honest person. I like swimming and cooking for my friends. I dislike lies and any form of homophobic behaviors. My philosophy is equality and fairness, and a consequence of that philosophy is a hope to see the day when gay and straight persons would live together peacefully, without any form of discrimination. I started my early life in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. My life was good, and my family was the best. My growing up, my community and my network of friends were all amazing, as well.

Okafor: You and one of your closest friends from Changing Attitudes Nigeria were brutally attacked. Is that the event that made you seek asylum in the United Kingdom?

Mac-Iyalla: I started getting homophobic attacks as early as 2005 and had to relocate to Togo in West Africa for a while. Then my sister Akoliba died in 2008, and I could not attend the funeral because of the profile that my sexuality had attracted, but my good friend Stephen, who was also leading the local Changing Attitude group, was there to represent me. Those after me, maybe because I was not there, violently attacked my friend and told him to tell me that there was no hiding place for me, and that homosexuality is a taboo and those who promote it will suffer for it. When I got the news, I was so terrified, but a few weeks after that incident, I was physically attacked and assaulted, and the scars of that attack still reside on and within me. Those that attacked me did not stop me from attending the Lamberth Confrence 2008, where I wanted the African LGBT voices to be heard. While in the UK, I got a threatening email telling me to never come back to Africa again or I would be attacked again, to my death. I showed this to the police and sought advice, one which revealed that asylum was my only option, having been attacked in both Nigeria and Togo. West Africa was not safe for me anymore; seeking asylum was one of the most painful decisions I have ever had to make in my whole life.

Okafor: What impact do you believe Gene Robinson's ordination as a bishop had on your activism? What other events instigated your activism for LGBT rights, beyond your sexual orientation?

Mac-Iyalla: I and some other persons started organizing the LGBT Nigeria movement since 1998. Some of us had ties with ILGA [International Association of Gay and Lesbians] before the media became aware that there was any movement for gay rights activism in Nigeria. Most of our work then was done discreetly. The first openly LGBT organization in Nigeria is Alliance Rights, which I was a part of it. Bishop Robinson's ordination had a great impact on my faith and activism, because before his ordination, all we hear from the Nigerian bishops and Church of Nigeria is that homosexuality is a sin. Gene Robinson's ordination gave me faith and hope as a gay Christian. It stirred up within me the desire to start campaigning for LGBT rights within and outside the church.

Okafor: Do you think that the more people that come out as LGBT people in Nigeria, the weaker the discrimination against the LGBT community will be? I ask because you mentioned in one of your articles in The Guardian that Archbishop Akinola was, at that time, not even willing to accept that LGBT people exist in Africa.

Mac-Iyalla: Absolutely, yes. Because of family and social acceptability, most gay and lesbian Nigerians are still living in denial, a life that exists in a closet. The more people that know the persons behind the masks, the more tolerance and acceptance they might show towards us. It's not easy to change attitudes, but I know that coming out is one of the routes to change attitudes in Nigeria towards LGBT people.

Okafor: People tend to use religious justifications as a means to heighten discrimination in Africa. Based on your understanding of the Bible, should this be the case? Also, are some of the values in the Bible, when considered in their literal sense, obsolete? Do they not need to be contextualized to our contemporary times, or ignored altogether?

Mac-Iyalla: As for the Bible and scripture, I just try to do my best to live the way I believe a good person should and leave "the book" to others who do a great job twisting it into what they want to believe. I do use pieces to point out their imperfections, though, when they use it as a weapon against homosexuals. I have said it before, and I would say it again: If you want to live completely by the principal of the Ten Commandments, then show me where it was written that "thou shall not be gay."

Okafor: In your opinion, what are the next steps that ought to be taken by the church, and the states in Africa, to further propel the discussion of LGBT rights and ensure that their debate has policy impacts on the legislative, judicial, and cultural system?

Mac-Iyalla: The African church must open its mind to honest conversations. The African bishops need to stop doing the talking and start listening to the LGBT people. We are not making much progress with the debate in Africa because most of our African bishops have affiliated themselves with right-wing conservative Christians from the United States and other parts of the Western world, people that are telling them not to reason with the LGBT community, but rather to use the old understanding of the scriptures as a means to its interpretation.

Okafor: How do you think that the LGBT community in Nigeria can claim back their space within the African community and cease to be alienated from the African scene by phrases such as "being gay is un-African"? And what role do you think that youth activists can play in this progression?

Mac-Iyalla: The Nigerian LGBT community is not united. We must first find a way to settle our differences. I have never believed that being gay is un-African, but we need to educate our people. LGBT youth need role models that they can look up to. Lastly, and most importantly, before you talk to and demand that people should accept and respect you, please learn to accept yourself first.