Lagos (AFP) – It was a life-changing moment for David when five police officers in Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, locked him in the back of a van two years ago.
The officers scrolled through the photos on his mobile phone and mocked the hand gestures he used when he spoke. They also threatened to ring his father to tell him his son was gay.
Eventually, they asked for a bribe so he could leave.
“I didn’t give them anything. A-ny-thing,” he stressed, recalling the incident.
“If they caught me while I was with another man, maybe… but I knew my rights. You don’t arrest someone because you don’t like the way he walks,” he told AFP.
“I kept strong in front of them,” he added. “But the truth is I cried in my room. It was a life-turning point… Something inside of me broke.”
David, who comes from a working-class area of Lagos, was 19 when he was detained.
He had only just come to understand and accept that he was gay in a country where homosexuality is banned.
Now he takes care to cultivate what he says is an “androgenous look”, watching how he walks, talks and what clothes he wears.
He has even grown a thin beard over his delicate features.
“I’m going to keep myself alive, so I can make a difference,” he told AFP defiantly, dressed in a black T-shirt and washed-out jeans, just like any other student in the city.
– ‘Gay activities’ –
Memories of that day in 2015 came flooding back to David when he heard that more than 80 people had been arrested at a Lagos hotel in early August.
The Lagos state government said those detained had been engaging in “gay activities” and “permitting male persons to have carnal knowledge of themselves against the order of nature”.
Twenty-eight are expected to appear in court in the coming days and risk up to 14 years in prison if they are convicted.
Twelve minors have been tried behind closed doors but it is unclear what has happened to them.
Cases involving the remainder appear to have been lost in the judicial system.
Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian gay rights activist who came out on television in 2004 and now lives in London, said cases often disappear if someone has the means or connections.
Legislation against gay marriage and same-sex unions was passed in early 2014, reinforcing existing laws on homosexuality.
The legislation, which imposes a maximum 14-year sentence, was condemned by human rights groups but was widely applauded in religiously conservative Nigeria, both Christian and Muslim.
No-one has yet been convicted but activists say it encourages corruption and extortion.
“If you’re gay and rich you can get away with it. But if you’re gay and poor, you’ll end up rotting in jail for the rest of your life,” said David.
– Yahoo Boys –
If police abuse homosexuals, so too do the “Yahoo Boys” — the name for Nigerian internet fraudsters who have taken to posting fake profiles on gay dating and meet-up sites such as Grindr.
When an unknowing victim arrives at the rendezvous point for a date, he is forced to pay money to prevent his family being told he’s gay.
“Dating online is so stressful, you just become paranoid,” said Wale, the founder of kitodiaries.com, which resembles other gay lifestyle websites around the world.
But Kito Diaries is different in that its nearly 3,000 anonymous subscribers share details of Yahoo Boys to be avoided and what precautions to take.
“There must be gay friends who know him otherwise it’s a big ‘No’,” said Wale.
“You need to meet up in public spaces, this is rule number one. And there are places in Lagos that are no-go areas, you hear too many stories there.”
Secret parties in hotels, like the one police raided in August, or in the northern city of Zaria where 53 men were arrested in April, happen regularly, according to Alimi.
“They (hotels) are one of the few places where it’s possible for gay people to meet and to be who they really are for a few hours,” he said.
But he added he always advised people not to go because the risk was too high.
Despite paranoia, tears and fear, both Wale and David, now in their early 20s, have no desire to leave Nigeria.
“I want things to move here,” said Wale. “The law was made to keep us quiet out of fear. But actually it enabled us to come together, to fight together, to discuss.
“I’ve had three years to learn to be afraid but the fear is now anger. And anyway, if they (the government) came up with a law, it means they finally realised that we exist.”