I grew up in Nigeria. In Lagos, to be exact. And I have known since I was 8 years old that I am transgender. I was born as a girl but knew in my heart that I was meant to be a boy, and it is only now, 28 years later, that I am truly coming to live as my authentic self. Part of the reason for this? I hate to say it, but my homeland is not a safe place for any member of the LGBT community. It has not been for a long time; there has always been discrimination, bigotry, and even violence committed against gay and transgender Nigerians. The issue now, however, is that this inhuman treatment has been written into law.
On January 7, 2014, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, under which any gay couple who seeks to be married or engages in a relationship can be sentenced to up to fourteen years in prison. Anyone who belongs to or even encourages a gay club, society, or organization may be imprisoned for up to ten years. Sodomy is already illegal under Nigerian federal law, but this new act will give the authorities a much broader hammer with which to strike down the LGBT community, which already lives largely in silence. To speak about their lives could incur serious (though of course unwarranted) punishments.
On the surface, of course, it's easy to see just how wrong this all is. In fact it goes against Section 40 of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999, which ensures the right to peaceful assembly and association. However, when we dig deeper, we find how truly sinister this act and the people who support it are. Nigeria, on the whole, sees itself as a religious nation, and that is what, in part, has fueled this anti-LGBT sentiment. Homosexuality is a sin, they say. However, they seem to have no problem with adultery, which is rampant all across the country despite its being expressly forbidden by God in the Ten Commandments. What's more, another bill recently passed in Nigeria allows men to marry underage girls. No moral problem there, right? But if two men or two women want to live in a peaceful, loving relationship, that is now against the law.
So why is there all this anti-homosexuality hate in Nigeria? Part of the reason is Nigerians think the concept itself is a Western phenomenon -- in other words, something that does not happen in their society, only in other heathen lands. This, of course, is far from true. Same-sex relationships and even marriages have existed back to prehistoric times, particularly in African history. We did not know real homophobia until the colonials brought it to us -- a practice that is continued today by so-called Christian missionaries who come to "save" but only end up spreading hate. We could forever examine how this state of affairs has come to pass, but the reasons are myriad, and the path Nigeria has followed to this point has been rough. Its people continue to suffer from poverty, hunger, and illiteracy as well as malaria, cholera, and typhoid epidemics; crime is rampant, as is governmental corruption; there is tribalism, religious bigotry, sectionalism, and internal terrorism; clean water is hard to come by; and there is no secure electricity or road infrastructure. Yet we're talking about a nation that boasts the continent's highest GDP due to its oil production. And this is what it focuses on? Who people love or who they're in bed with?
I am disappointed in my country. This law is backward, and the harm it will do to so many people could be irreparable. Mass arrests have already been reported; right now there are people in jail simply for being themselves. Some Western nations have threatened to cut aid to Nigeria if the law is not repealed, but I'm not sure what good that will do to a nation that puts out two million barrels of oil a day. Perhaps a stronger show of force would work; I'll call on President Obama to intervene in this breach of human and civil rights.
But mostly I will pray for my brothers and sisters in the LGBT community back home and remind them it is always darkest before the dawn. Change will come. Just please hold on.
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Dr. Rizi Xavier Timane is a minister, a social worker, an author, a recording artist, and an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community. In his memoir, An Unspoken Compromise, now on sale on Amazon, he shares his journey to self-acceptance as a trans man of faith; he also writes for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance blog, is a sought-after public speaker on the intersection of religion and LGBT civil rights, and holds a master's in social work and a PhD in Christian counseling. As the founder of Rizi Timane Ministries (), he provides affirming spiritual support to people of all faiths, sexual orientations, and gender identities. To learn more about Rizi's work, please visit his website.