A day ago, a tweet to the account of The Initiative for Equal Rights said: “as far as I know homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria.” It was just a random tweet, and the offending tweeter was swiftly corrected, but it does point to a large problem of language, law and understanding amongst Nigerians, and more broadly in common understandings of legislation on sexuality in Africa. While over the past decade many states have attempted to, or successfully enacted legislation on same-sex relationships and conduct, these laws specifically target behaviours and actions that you presumably are only likely to engage in if you’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual; for example, entering a same-sex marriage. The purpose of these laws is, of course, to criminalize and stigmatize anyone who engages in such acts – but they necessarily fall short of criminalizing homosexual identity. In other words, in Nigeria, as elsewhere in the world with such draconian legislation, it is not a crime to be homosexual, which is to identify with the description as a human being with a stable, consistent, romantic attraction to people of the same sex.
Much as many people may wish it, it is impossible to legislate against an identity – or at least, impossible to do so without becoming the worst of states. The last government to criminalize an actual identity were the Nazis, and look how that turned out. Yet, the impression persists in Nigeria that homosexuality per se – is against the law. There are a few reasons why this remains the case. Certainly, poor public understanding of the legislation that exists is a contributing factor, as is a general social climate where religious and cultural prejudices against homosexuality remain prevalent. More to that, in the general populace and media, there is little attempt to distinguish between those who might identify as homosexual and same-sex acts; a person can very easily identify as homosexual – and not engage in any acts of same sex affection. It is the poverty of our national imagination around this issue that reduces LGBT people to the physical expression of sexuality, whereas identity is much more than that. Such are the reasons, yet the implications are far-reaching.
For those people in Nigeria who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and have an ignorance of the law, in addition to the daily struggles of being aware of the prejudices of the general populace, there is the added burden of ‘feeling illegal’. For their loved ones, whether in sympathy or not, there is the burden of uncertainty about the danger their loved ones are in.
So, for the record, the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, problematic as it is, does not criminalize being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender as an identity. Even though it does not, many are interpreting it as if it does, disregarding the need for due legal process, and the presumption innocence, until proven ‘guilty’. This is not an issue that affects only LGBT Nigerians; anyone, as others have so ably written about before, can be harassed because of perceived sexual orientation, or be the unfortunate victim of scurrilous accusations. Such a situation, makes us all, as Nigerians, more unsafe.
Dele Meiji is Director of Research and Knowledge Management at The Initiative for Equal Rights.