There is a gift that Nelson Mandela gave Africa when he fought tirelessly for Black liberation in apartheid South Africa. This gift still resonates today, not just in Africa but also in the world as a whole. He gave us an insight into the fictitious realities that the oppressor bases their reasons for oppression. We also learnt how the oppressor could internalize and externalize their own 'superiority,' enslaving both them and the oppressed in a complex chain of dependency and discrimination. But, most importantly, he taught us the yearning that exists in all of us to fight for freedom, justice, and equity. It is at the core of this urge that I find the courage to write this letter to the Nigerian president and the Nigerian people in relation to LGBT rights in Nigeria.
History will show that the world always has a way of choosing a scapegoat. There is always a reason, why at a particular point in time, a group of people will think a subset of people to be not simply a minority but also of inferior status. These identities have ranged from the color of one's skin, to one's gender, to one's religion, amongst a wide range of other characteristics and identities. We project our own fear of inferiority unto other people that are 'different' from the norms that we have constructed within our society, instead of embracing the beauty that this variation conceives.
Openly LGBT persons in Nigeria are simply struggling to survive a culture that is hostile to them because of their sexual and gender orientation. The legal system criminalizes them, society ostracizes them, and politicians spit out negative demagogueries about them that further indoctrinate people into a culture of hostility towards LGBT persons. Their orientation is perceived as unnatural and un-African. I remember reading about the Stonewall riots that occurred in the United States of America as a result of the frustrations that piled up against the culture of homophobia that the LGBT persons were exposed to on a daily basis. They finally stood up for themselves and reclaimed their space in society, demanding that they be treated with as much dignity as we are willing to concede that every human being deserves to be treated with. I write this letter today as a way of reclaiming the space for LGBT persons in Nigeria.
No one deserves to be told off because of their sexual orientation, people deserve to be treated because of who they are, not because of an unchangeable identity that does not comprise of and define who they are as a whole. We have become the victims of our own prejudices, and it is such a shame, because we would never be more than these prejudices and intolerances, especially if we let it consume us from inside out. We would never truly be able to appreciate the worth of unique LGBT people because we will pre-judge him or her before we even get to know them. Imagine how detrimental such a loss will be, when we take out of the continuum of human beauty and rather leave spores and holes of hatred, intolerance, and discrimination.
We as a nation have become enslaved by our intolerance and until we learn to see the worth and dignity in others, we will forever be slaves to a reality that we create for ourselves. Nelson Mandela said, "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." As long as we belittle the persons we coexist with, as long as we allow our empathy gap towards LGBT people to continue to widen, we will continue to forever destroy our chances as a nation to both be free and to transcend this vain prejudices that lie at the very heart of the myths we tell ourselves in order to justify our ill-treatment of others.
The LGBT culture has been criminalized in Nigeria, and as of now another very draconian bill awaits presidential assent that is sure to worsen the quality of life for LGBT people. One of the main factors of this discrimination towards LGBT people is based on religious grounds. Nigeria is a country that exists as a tension between two very mainstream religions, and this has a bearing on both policy and societal contentions. I was raised Catholic and I served as an altar servant for six years for the church, and the one thing that I learnt from the Catholic Church was 'love' and 'acceptance.' And, I believe that other Christian, Islam, and religious dominations preach this as well. The question is how can we reconcile love and acceptance with judgment and discrimination? At a point in time, religion was used to justify slavery and racial inferiority, but if there is one thing we have learned, it is that archaic traditions that begun centuries before now deserve context in their application rather than the harsh reality of literality.
Over the past few months, I have done a few interviews with LGBT rights activists in Nigeria, and despite the danger that they face on a daily basis they simply refuse to give up. There is a fire in them, one that pushes them to strive to change the status quo that the Nigerian society is at. There has always been a dissonance between the values that we hold on to on an idealistic level, and how we apply those values on a very pragmatic level. We are all to willing to accept that all humans are equal both in and of themselves and as such should be treated so under the law. But, we only accept that philosophy when it applies to our comfort, our privileges and us, and yet, it is so easy for us to discard this ideology when it comes to other people. When we fought to free ourselves from the colonial England, we did so because we believed that no one deserves to be enslaved, dependent, and treated as inferior. How easy it is, that we become what we despise.
People deserve to be seen and understood not simply because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender, but because of the content of their character. LGBT people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. I just hope that one-day we as Nigerians will be able to shed ourselves of our cultural, social, religious, and political hostilities, and work together towards a common good, and a common humanity.
NB: This letter is dedicated to Nelson Mandela.