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By Prince Charles Dickson
In a country contentiously split among Muslims and Christians, leaders of Nigeria’s mosques and churches are united in their condemnation of same-sex relationships.
So, too, are lawmakers, who’ve criminalized sodomy, civil unions and gay marriages, with a 14-year prison sentence as punishment. In some northern regions, flogging and the death penalty comes into play.
Since the anti-gay laws were passed, stories of people being arrested for violating them are a common occurrence. At the same time, gay rights activists are becoming more vocal. Even churches formed by the LGBT community can be found.
So what’s life like for Nigerians who are attracted to people of the same gender? Can they practice their faith in a country where religion and culture overwhelmingly condemn their sexual identities?
To better understand, I interviewed a range of Nigerians from across the country who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight. They came from many walks of life – writers, ministers, government officials, food vendors, etc.
In Ikoyia, an upscale suburb of Lagos in southwest Nigeria, I caught up with a gay man who works in finance. He took me to party, where I observed gay men socializing.
“We informally gather for dinner parties, at restaurants and beaches,” the man said.
Wealthy gays in his suburb are said to live more openly than anywhere else in Nigeria. I asked: Did he consider himself both gay and Christian?
“My faith is a personnal matter,” said the man, who described himself as a Pentecostal Christian. “Besides, many people won’t understand.”
He’s right. Christians account for nearly half of Nigeria’s population and all major denominations denounce same-sex intimacy as sinful, at least in their doctrines.
Nigeria’s Anglican bishops are especially vocal. They’ve long threatened to break away from the worldwide Anglican Communion over the issue, most recently at an October conference in Nairobi that drew 331 conservative bishops from across the globe.
The bishops want the U.S., Canadian and European members of the Anglican Communion to denounce stances on homosexuality contrary to their own. Canada’s Anglican Church began blessing same-sex couples in 2002, a few months before the U.S. Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay bishop.
More recently, the Church of England dropped a ban on gay clergy in civil partnerships from becoming bishops. Nicholas Okoh, primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, says the West is ignoring Scripture and insisting on imposing its views on other countries.
“They want to push it down everybody’s throat,” he said in March at an ordination service. “And as far as they are concerned, it is a matter of human right. But God’s right is not discussed.”
Many of the gay Nigerians I interviewed said they didn’t abandon their faith because of the sexual identity.
“I am a saved Christian and proud gay,” the man in Ikoyia told me.
A country divided
The level of openness found in Lagos wasn’t as evident just 154 miles west in Benin and elsewhere in Nigeria. For much of the country, it seems that religion, profession, family, the laws as well as class status factor into how openly members of the LGBT community choose to live.
An architect in Kano who is straight and attends a Methodist Church told me that he has friends who are gay. He said he’d come to terms with their sexual orientations.
“I don’t see myself better than they are,” he said. “I believe that can practice their faith, even though the Bible condemns it.”
At the same time, he doesn’t want them showing public displays of affection. Nor does he believe that same-sex couple should be allowed to adopt children.
“I’m not saying being a gay is good,” he said. “I’m a Christian and I also have a culture that condemns it.”
In northern Nigeria, many people said they were aware of LGBT communities Kano and Kaduna, but rarely gave them a thought. A Muslim told me that he grew up with some of them.
“The only thing I do not like is that as Muslims, we don’t allow them pray with us,” he said. “Some of them want to, but you know we can’t allow that.”
In Abuja, Nigeria’s capitol city, I heard a slightly different view.
“I don’t care if a gay person comes to a church or mosque,” a man said. “However, for me, everything is wrong with a union between gay people being called a marriage”.
Ash-Shiekh Muhammad Sani Yahaya, the national chairman, Ulama’u Council of JIBWIS, said Islam condemns homosexuality.
“It is an abomination, it is a crime,” he said. Lesbian relationships aren’t mentioned in the Qur’an, but that’s not true of gay men, citing the following verses:
“Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.”
The global view
Britain and some other Western nations threaten to suspend aid to Nigeria and other countries where homosexuality is criminalized. They consider the laws discriminatory and grounded in bigotry and prejudice.
In November, the European Union’s top court ruled that gays and lesbians in countries that outlaw homosexual relations are eligible for asylum. Days later, the Malta Refugees Appeals Board granted asylum to an 18-year-old Nigerian teen.
“The dominant role of religion is widely seen as the root of the country’s homophobic culture,” the board said, quoting from a border agency report.
“Punishing gays is one of the few common themes that politicians can promote with equal zest in the mainly Christian south and the largely Muslim north,” the board said.
Homosexual intimacy is criminalized in 78 countries, including 38 of 54 African countries. That’s why Africa is often pointed to as the most homophobic of continents.
The death penalty is at play in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen as well as parts of Somalia.
“Same-sex marriage may be acceptable in some countries of the world, but in Nigeria, the majority of the people – by words and deeds – have shown it to be an abomination that they must stand against,” wrote Emma Madaubuch, an assistant editor, in the Daily Independent.
The same sex bill passed by the Congress in Nigeria, waiting assent provides that a marriage contract or civil union entered by persons of same sex by a virtue a certificate issued by a foreign country shall be void in Nigeria.
The bill provides that persons that enter into such union are jointly liable to 14years imprisonment each, and those that administer, witnesses, screens, aid and abets, supports, operates gay clubs, societies, procession or organization in Nigeria commits an offense and liable on conviction to a 10 year jail term.
Nigerian President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, has aligned himself with the country’s majority view and the anti-gay laws adopted by the National Assembly.
While Nigeria has dug in its heels on the issue, attitudes and polices in other countries are softening and shifting toward greater acceptance. In 2001, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution supporting equal rights for all, no matter their sexual orientation
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 16 countries: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Uruguay, and New Zealand. In addition, gay couples can wed in England and Wales beginning in March 2014.
They can also marry in some regions of Mexico and the United States, though President Obama didn’t support legalization until May 2012.
The spiritual view
The Rev. Rumo James, a Baptist pastor in Jos, told me that homosexuality is affliction and disease for which no compassion should be extended.
“Homosexualism is a virus that degrades the family and its values, corrupts human cohabitation and offends God,” he said. “It eventually leads to social decline.”
Nigeria’s Christian population is Africa’s largest, with 80 million followers, according to the Pew Research Center in the United States. Clergy cite Bible-passages as the God-given reason for their condemnation of same-sex relationships.
Two of the most frequent verses cited are from Leviticus. One states: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” (18:22).
The other says: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (20:13).
Christians supportive of same-sex couples say those Old Testament Bible verses are misinterpreted, made obsolete by the New Testament or simply out of touch with modern life.
They also argue that all people, gay and straight, are made in the image of God. Besides, they point out, Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.
‘I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,” retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate from South Africa, said this year in response to Russia’s anti-gay laws.
The Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals are intrinsically disordered and should live celibate lives. But Pope Francis also made headlines when he offered a softened tone on homosexuality than that heard from the Vatican in decades.
“Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?” the pope told reporters. Many Catholic bishops, priests and church members take a harsher view.
Bishop Hassan Kukah of the Sokoto Diocese in northwestern Nigeria isn’t one of them. Like the pope, he strikes a conciliatory tone.
Would the bishop welcome gays and lesbians in church? “
“The church is a place for everyone,” he said. “I would not chase one out. I would not report that person either.”
It should be noted that people who help conceal same-sex couples can be punished by up to 10 years in prison under Nigerian law. Some consider those who choose not to report defiant and others see them as courageous.
As in all repressively homophobic cultures, LGBT people continue to find ways to express and to live out their authentic selves.
They are part of Nigerian society at all levels. Some hold prominent jobs in government, businesses, the military and even as religious leaders.
But it’s not a leap to suggest that the majority keep their sexuality a secret for fear of losing their families, friends, jobs, freedom or even their lives.
Despite Nigeria’s strict laws, the debate over LGBT rights and same-sex relationships is nowhere near resolution. My reporting reveals Nigeria’s gay culture, though largely silent, isn’t going away.
On this vexatious issue, I believe in windows of possibility. Nigerians and other Africans need to strike a balance.
Might the day come when Nigerians respect the rights of its LGBT community and the LGBT community be respectful to those who uphold heterosexual relationships exclusively?
Learning to live in peace doesn’t mean we will agree with one another on all matters. Nor does being civil toward one another mean we endorse one another’s behavior or beliefs.
Change is a part of life and throughout life we change and accommodate new understandings of behavior and circumstances.
As a journalist and writer, I strongly believe there’s need for understanding and that understanding is key to Nigeria’s path forward on this issue.
Should the LGBT community be discriminated against? Should their human rights be abused?
Should they face imprisonment? Should they be flogged?
Should they be put to death?
My answer is NO!
Read from Nigerian Village Square
Prince Charles Dickson is a Nigerian Journalist.
LGBT Rights– God’s Laws, Nigeria’s Laws is a reportorial for the ICFJ/Henry Luce Reporting Fellowship
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