Cultural and religious beliefs are a powerful force in shaping the sexual practices of a society. In Nigeria, one of Africa’s most populous countries, conservative interpretations of religious texts have framed same-sex relationships and the larger LGBTI community as “un-African”. This belief system greatly impacts sexual minorities throughout the country and fuels discriminatory practices in addition to violent policing of sexuality.
Last year, former Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, passed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (2014). The law prescribes prison terms of up to 14 years for anyone engaging in or endorsing homosexual activity, same-sex marriage, or social affiliations that advocate publicly for LGBTI issues. Legislating lifestyles and ultimately, love, not only violates the constitutional rights of the Nigerian LGBTI community, but has wide-spread deleterious effects that endanger the health and freedoms of all Nigerian citizens.
Discriminatory policies like the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act impact the ability of all Nigerian people to ensure that they can lead healthy and safe lives. The structure of the law restricts health organizations from being able to provide medically necessary care to the LGBTI community which is vital for the fight against HIV/AIDS. The climate of fear and violence brought about by the law further marginalizes LGBTI individuals forcing them underground where they are more likely to avoid medical treatment and potentially worsen the spread and transmission of STDs and HIV. It is particularly critical that communities of men who have sex with men (MSM) and trans people are able to readily access medically necessary resources due to an increased prevalence of HIV within these demographics. If LGBTI Nigerians do not have access to effective healthcare and preventative HIV interventions, HIV and other diseases will continue to progress throughout all communities in Nigeria. The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act is single handedly dismantling Nigeria’s advances in the fight against HIV/AIDS and is undermining the health and healthcare resources of all Nigerians by stigmatizing the LGBTI community.
Aside from the public health implications of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, the law directly contradicts the Nigerian Constitution of 1999. While purporting to target same-sex marriage, the law infringes upon the constitutional rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association. This law has created an upsurge of mob violence and unlawful arrests against the LGBTI community. The distressing and violent environment that LGBTI people face impacts their ability to sustain housing and employment, to ensure their right to safety and protection, and to have meaningful relationships with the ones they love. If we impede on the constitutional rights of LGBTI people, we are setting up a system where it becomes easier to impede on the rights of other communities. By excluding LGBTI folks from the protections guaranteed to all citizens under the Nigerian constitution, the social fabric that binds all people of Nigeria begins to unravel at its very core.
Political leaders use homophobia and anti-homosexuality rhetoric to distract from pressing inequalities within Nigeria and to divide the nation, rather than to unify the people they are sworn to protect equally under the law. The discriminatory nature of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act creates an imagined sinfulness around same-sex relationships and LGBTI identities and uses it as a tool to justify the ills of Nigerian society. Instead of concentrating on government corruption or addressing inadequate healthcare, high unemployment rates, and crumbling infrastructure, the Nigerian people are encouraged to target LGBTI people as a means to morally rectify the country.
However, the issues facing the nation are clearly not the result of LGBTI moral inadequacies: they are the direct result of government policies that fail to invest and provide for the Nigerian people. By shifting the burden of the country’s shortcomings onto the shoulders of LGBTI individuals, the government is able to absolve themselves of any wrongdoings while simultaneously not having to enact the legislative changes necessary to improve the lives of Nigerian citizens. The people must demand that the Nigerian government put an end to their bigoted persecution of the LGBTI community and begin working towards the progress and change the country needs.
And segments of the population are already championing these demands. It is important to recognize and applaud the supportive attitudes of the Nigerian people who stand in solidarity with the Nigerian LGBTI community and speak out against the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. The LGBTI liberation movement understands how the bill illustrates the failures of Nigerian leaders to protect the free speech, equitable access to health care, housing, employment, and civil and political rights of their citizens. Continued efforts to spread education about the LGBTI community are the means by which a shift in societal consciousness can take place. We must propagate new modes of communicating in order to address homophobia and transphobia directly.
We must fight to create a safe space for LGBTI Nigerians to live and love freely. It is only through the dismantling of fear, violence, and persecution that a better, richer understanding of sexuality, gender, and ultimately humanity can become integrated into every fiber of our culture. If we do not, we are not only failing the LGBTI community, but we are failing to liberate ourselves as a nation. The right to live as a wholly complex individual and celebrate the truth of our identities is a fundamental principal of being a member of a just, humane and equitable society.
The Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says it best when she states, “we cannot legislate into existence a world that does not exist: the truth of our human condition is that we are a diverse, multi-faceted species. The measure of our humanity lies, in part, in how we think of those different from us. We cannot – should not – have empathy only for people who are like us” (2014).