‘Use your head’ is a very popular phrase in Nigeria, one that almost every Nigerian has used at some point. It means ‘be smart’ ‘be cunning’ and for queer Nigerians living in Nigeria ‘use your head’ becomes something a little more. It becomes one of the pillars of queer culture. Born or living in country where significant parts of your existence is outlawed, criminalized, and considered otherworldly and demonic teaches you how to use your head – to know when you have to exist invisibly, when you have to hide yourself, when you have to tell your friends and family that the reason they haven’t seen any romantic partner come over is that you are focusing on your career and when you have to create an anonymous account where you tweet and retweet queer things without stirring suspicion in the minds of your co-workers, classmates or cis-het friends. In recent times, this part of Nigerian queer culture – which exists directly as a result of the mainstream homophobia in the country – is one many queer Nigerians are fighting against: from ditching anonymous queer accounts in favor of placing a face to the voice to coming out ti their families. Queer Nigerians – especially those of the younger generation – are choosing to take to the streets, to publicly claim their queerness and to exist fully regardless of what society has to say.
So when news broke on October 2019 that activist Bisi Alimi had held what he tagged ‘A Night of Diversity’ which was also being framed as Lagos’ First Pride and had only a select number of people in attendance, it was met with social media uproar, criticism and from some anger mostly from members of the queer community. The reason? It is almost regressive for Lagos’ first pride to be an anonymous event, one that many members of the Nigerian queer community – specifically members who were in Lagos at the time of the event and were very plugged into the queer side of the Nigerian internet and had even developed deep connections in the community offline – were unaware of.
Bisi Has Always Existed Loudly and Bravely
It is interesting to note that anonymity isn’t particularly on brand for Bisi Alimi as many would think. The activist came into the spotlight in 2004 when he came out as gay on live National television, an action which would lead to his being disowned by famiy and ostracized by many as well as New Dawn With Funmi – the show he had come out live on – to cancel it’s live format in order to prevent what was considered public offence. Prior to and after coming out on live television, Bisi successfully led protests and dialogues on queerness, HIV/AIDS and equality despite the death threats and ostracism that came with it which eventually led to his seeking asylum in 2007. Bisi has always existed loudly, bravely. Which makes him hosting a pride event in Lagos – a city he had once protested in and damned the consequences – surprising and borderline oxymoronic. When NewsWireNGR reached out to Bisi, we asked him what he thought of the criticism and social media uproar the event and by extension himself had found themselves in the middle of. Bisi is understanding, he understands their concerns and tells me that they have addressed and he will still address it again.
In as much as we want to break down the status quo that holds us back as LGBT people. It is equally our responsibility to not put anyone’s life at risk. We have a very strong do-no-harm policy and I will be honest, we won’t have been able to invite the millions of LGBT people in Lagos. We have also learnt a lot from the process. This is the first we have hosted. We are not opening the event up to the community to join in organising and coming up with ideas that will make it safer, bolder and more inclusive’.Bisi Alimi
Bisi’s concern about security and the lives of other queer Nigerian’s is very founded in the reality of queer people in Nigeria – it is important to note that it actually is illegal in Nigeria to form associations with queer agenda and often times, law enforcement agencies have gotten wind of queer parties and arrested the attendees. His concerns and worries are definitely valid and rooted in Nigeria’s reality. It is easy to see Bisi opening his event to everyone, that leading to the event being infiltrated by law enforcement bodies, it is also easy to see the public turning on Bisi and blaming him for putting the lives of queer people in danger. However, one does have to wonder: is conforming to a homophobic law and society by excluding actual queer Nigerians from what is now being framed as the first Nigerian pride the best way to go?
“We had a list of LGBT organizations in Nigeria, their email address”
NewsWireNGR interviewed Judith, who had worked with Bisi Alimi in making The Night Of Diversity a reality, she reiterates Bisi’s worries about the safety of the attendees and the do-no-harm policy of the event, she also provides answers to one question that many asked ‘how were the attendees selected?’
We had a list of LGBT organizations in Nigeria, their email address. We combined a list of celebrities, we had a list of journalists, we had people in the media, bloggers that were part of the guest list.’’ Judith tells me, ‘’we had community members, we had a whole host of people. We had over two hundred names and emails sent out. It was not on a I-know-this-person basis…. just to put to note, more than seventy percent of the invitees were LGBT members.Judith
Varied Responses From Nigerian Online Queer Community
The reaction from majority of the Nigerian online queer community varied from indifference, confusion and to anger. Many were vocal, demanding answers from Bisi especially as media houses took the story and ran with it, calling Bisi Alimi’s Night of Diversity ‘the first LGBT event held in Nigeria’ – which is outright erasure of the work of LGBT+ non-governmental organizations in Nigeria who have held several events in Nigerua to further queer rights in Nigeria and conservations that centered queer people in Nigeria. Ife Stark was one of many who had a lot to say as regards Bisi’s Night Of Diversityt. Within minutes of Bisi Alimi’s first couple of tweets – which is how majority of Nigeria’s online queer community discovered that there had been a pride in Nigeria and in Lagos nonetheless – Ife made a poll-thread, asking a series of questions. When NewsWireNGR interviewed her, she was asked what the thread tells her.
‘’They say that A Night of Diversity was an event for Bisi and Friends’’ Ife Stark tells me, she credits the phrase ‘Bisi and Friends’ to Timinepere Cole ‘`The polls says it shouldn’t have been called Lagos Pride. The polls say that pride is an inclusive term and it should not be used to promote exclusivity’’.
While there is nothing about pride itself that says it can not be exclusive, pride is inherently revolutionary and pride is for the community and not select members of the community. Bisi’s concerns are legitimate, grounded in the actual reality of queer Nigerians. However, conforming to these concerns takes away the radicality that is an essential element of pride. This leaves us with an anonymous LGBT party – a thing that is neither new nor particularly revolutionary and frankly, just another Friday for many of us (I recently spent two weeks in Lagos and within that time I attended at least three anonymous LGBT+ parties and events).
“I don’t think that was pride. Pride is built on the idea of public declaration“
Cynthia Ugwudike, who had previously gone viral when she had tweeted about the necessity of hosting an LGBT pride parade in Nigeria, told me
I don’t think that was pride. Pride is built on the idea of public declaration, telling the world hey I’m here and I’m queer. Organizing a rainbow themed party that almost no-one knew about is not pride. My problem was the lack of inclusivity and the erasure of other organizations that organise queer themed meetings. Imagine calling something the gays woke up to find out happen a pride parade, how can you have a pride event without the gays? He should have called the event, a themed party, he shouldn’t have erased the previous work of others with his language.Cynthia Ugwudike
Beyond the anonymity of the event, beyond the fact that it lacks particular elements that many would consider essential for it be called Pride, there is the question of whether or not the event translates into real life changes for queer Nigerians or makes an impact in the bigger picture. This is a lot trickier to answer: the event has triggered many important conversations into taking place, the event is also indicative of something more revolutionary bigger than Bisi or any individual queer Nigeria but the event in itself doesn’t change much of the queer reality in Nigeria, neither does it bring to light anything particularly new and – more importantly to some – it isn’t the first LGBT event to be held in Nigeria. It isn’t even the first Bisi himself has held.