“We are not asking for sanctions”
– by Rowland Jide Macaulay, Friederike Wyrwich
© Kim Ludbrook/picture-alliance/dpa
South Africa is an exception: participants in Johannesburg’s gay-pride parade in October last year
Why was it necessary to found House of Rainbow in Nigeria?
A lot of the churches in Nigeria fail to welcome gay and lesbian people in their congregation. The words “abomination” and “sin” are used to describe homosexuals. We don’t use those words to describe ourselves. In fact, we describe ourselves as children of the living God. We describe ourselves as GAY, which stands for: God Accepts You, God Adores You and God Accompanies You. The other thing is that the Christian community and other religious communities in Nigeria do not pay attention to our needs, they do not even try to understand the needs of people who love people of the same sex. Everyone is afraid to deal with the issue.
Please give an example of how gay people live.
It’s very difficult for people to be open about being gay or lesbian in Nigeria. The greatest worries are how will society react and how will the family react. Such concerns have a serious impact on mental health and well being in general. Nigeria doesn’t have a welfare state that would really support people, so everyone depends on their family. If I myself, even at the age of 40, depended entirely on my family, I could not come out as gay. Fear und hiding of course make healthy relationships between two lovers very difficult. Ultimately, repression contributes to destructive and dangerous behaviour, which can lead to mental as well as physical health problems, including sexually transmitted diseases. There is an economic angle to it too. In Nigeria, a person who wants to try to live a homosexual identity has to become self-sufficient first. It is impossible to rely on the welfare state. Basically, you need to be a successful entrepreneur before coming out, because employers are likely to fire homosexual staff.
What happens to people who are recognised as gay or lesbian in the streets?
The history of one particular person is especially disturbing. She is a male to female transgender, a very dedicated member of our church. She was attacked many, many times and beaten up with bruises. But only a small percentage of the gay community worldwide is effeminate outwardly. That is no different in Nigeria. People have often been attacked on the way to our church programmes. Some were beaten. Many need counselling. I have been abused in Nigerian streets myself, I have been attacked. My property was vandalised and damaged. Unfortunately, the police are not on our side, nor is the law. People live in fear every single day.
What does the law say on homosexuality in Nigeria?
Nigerian law criminalises same-sex relationships. We inherited that form British colonialism. Chapter 21, articles 214 and 217 of our penal code actually prohibit same sex relationships. The punishment is up to 14 years of imprisonment. In northern Nigeria, things are even worse. Sharia law was introduced there, and even death sentences are possible. Nigeria is really a very dangerous place for gay and lesbian people.
How does your church operate in such a hostile environment?
First we used a hall in a hotel, later the front room of my flat. There were 32 people at our first meeting. We were quite surprised at that number, and it kept growing. Soon there were more than 100 people at regular meetings. In 2006, we organised a few bigger events with around 400 people. But to be associated with the House of Rainbow is risky, so in our second year, the hotel raised its rates by 100 per cent. We had to move the church into my home, and attendance dropped, to around 20 first, but then it went up to 50 or so again. My home is in a residential area, the hotel is in a business district.
Who are the people that come to your church?
They are mostly young men, from teenagers to their early 30s, an age at which Nigerian men are supposed to be married. Once a gay man in Nigeria is married to a woman, however, he is likely to stay away from the gay community or whatever might put him at risk of being identified as a man who sleeps with men.
Do some people in your congregation manage to actually live a
same-sex love relationship?
It is very difficult. Bear in mind how young many of them are. There are relationships, but they are not declared in public, and people outside the gay community definitely do not know about these relationships. For lesbian women in Nigeria, things are even more difficult because women get married much younger than men. Men can postpone marriage to some extent, making excuses to their families. Women hardly have that option.
Is the House of Rainbow MCC still operational?
We still exist. After I left Nigeria we set up an interactive website and we use Facebook and Youtube. I provide messages that people can access online. We also have pockets of smaller groups in Nigeria. In fact, the number of those who participate in House of Rainbow has increased and they are wide spread all over Nigeria. Part of our future plan is to actually develop local leaders for small groups of up to ten members. We want to keep the numbers small so that they don’t raise suspicion.
Does being gay or lesbian in Nigeria differ from being gay or lesbian
in the West in any way?
The individual experience of being homosexual is not different, but the social environment is. It is much harsher in Africa. Amazingly, there are individual cases of lesbians and gays in Nigeria who told their families about their sexual orientation without getting into trouble. But that is less likely than in Britain or France, for instance. Coming out in society and particularly one’s neighbourhood is much, much tougher in Nigeria. There are no role models like you have in Germany, for instance. Guido Westerwelle, your foreign minister, is openly gay, and so are some other western leaders. To a young homosexual who is unsure about his fate, such a role model is very encouraging. Another big difference is that a lot of western countries have begun to provide protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Apart from South Africa, we don’t have that in Africa.
So is the international gay and lesbian movement a model?
The international gay and lesbian movement is not a model for Africa. The way we approach things is very, very different. Our culture is different. One of the things we keep telling our European friends is: Bear with us, travel the slow pace with us. Recognise our issues. Consult us before you act on our behalf.
But western civil-society organisations and even governments have
put pressure on African countries on behalf of gay rights.
Yes, but they must make sure that their interference is not counterproductive – which it often is. When the first Nigerian bill to prohibit same-sex marriage went to parliament in 2006, people in the West campaigned against it without consulting Nigerians. The backlash in our country was huge and painful. The crises in Uganda, where there was a bill in parliament to introduce the death penalty for homosexuals, and Malawi, where two homosexuals were about to be executed, were handled in a better and more successful way. In both cases, there was much closer interaction with people living in the countries concerned. Success really depends on listening to each other and sharing experiences.
But do Africans speak up?
We certainly need to show our leaders that there are gays and lesbians in Africa. In 2009, I started to attend the UN Human Rights Council. I was invited to represent Africa as an African. If someone from a white European background speaks on behalf of Africans that only reinforces the stereotype of homosexuality being a phenomenon of western “decadence”. Standing up and saying “I am gay, I’m from Nigeria” makes a difference. It tells African leaders that there are gay and lesbian people in Africa, and some are prepared to speak out. The only way that we can tackle the issue is from within Africa. That said, we value the support of our brothers and sisters in the West.
What can and should they do?
One thing Western human-rights activists and governments can do is to help with lobbying and advocacy. It is essential to make African governments understand that gays and lesbians are entitled to human rights, which include the right to self expression and the pursuit of happiness. We are not asking for sanctions, we are asking for a diplomatic process to convince our governments.
Questions by Friederike Wyrwich. The interview took place after an event at the Foreign Office in Berlin last year.