Hostility towards gay and lesbian African men and women by the wider African community in the UK is reported to be widespread and on the increase. The story, first broken by Mambo, a UK based health and lifestyle magazine for Africans published by HIV and sexual health charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, has been carried widely, and not only in the gay press.
According to Mambo:
"There is just as much homophobia in the African community in the UK as there is in Africa. As a result many African gay men in the UK have kept their sexuality secret."
The current edition of the magazine reveals the experiences of gay men and lesbians in UK African communities, where people can experience lifelong victimisation, abuse and discrimination based on misconceptions and wrong beliefs about homosexuality. And although in the UK it is a criminal offence to discriminate against gay, lesbian or transgender people, Africans who are gay often silently suffer serious abuse, verbal and physical assault from their own community. Some have even been disowned by their family. The hostility means that only very few gay Africans have had the courage to openly declare their sexuality. And these are facts which I, the author of this blog, can attest to by my own personal experiences.
One of the benefits for the immigrant of the diverse and multicultural nature of modern British society, is that living in the UK can often feel like home away from home. The presence of an already existing large immigrant population guarantees that most new immigrants will find, and rely on, various forms of support from kith and kin.
I always knew that I would not live the whole of my life in the closet. My true nature was bursting to be revealed, to come out. But when I still lived in Nigeria it was almost impossible to 'come out', for the simple reason that there was no one to come out to, save for my brother with whom I enjoy a very close relationship. Growing up, I thought I was the only person in the world who experienced same-sex attraction, and it was not until after many years of lonesome self-enquiry that to my astonishment, I discovered scores of others who shared the same feelings as I did. I came across the "gay scene" in Lagos. But I also quickly realised that even though there were many others like me, almost all of them thought of their sexual orientation as something which was to be kept hidden. And of course I could understand why, since I too was well acquainted with our society's negative impression of homosexuality.
However, I did not share in that negative impression, nor did I agree with it. My thinking was that unless one agreed that to be gay is wrong, the gay person ought to embrace his sexuality and be proud of it even. I knew that there was nothing wrong with me, I was just different from most people. Meeting others who were like me only reaffirmed my conviction that it cannot be wrong for a person to be who he is. It was difficult living in Nigeria, because most others hid their sexuality and there was the requirement constantly to be careful not to reveal your true nature. This was especially essential if you were ambitious and career-minded and I found this problematic.
For me there was a sense of dread, because I knew deep down that I would not be able to maintain the facade indefinitely. And since pretence is not one of my strong points, it was not surprising that cracks began to appear in the facade. The rumour mill was rife with gossip about my sexuality, and it hurt. It hurt not because of what they were saying, but because there was no mechanism, no opportunity by which to confirm it to them once and for all, and quell the rumours. I desperately wanted to scream it at them: "YES, I AM GAY!" But I didn't, because I couldn't.
And so the opportunity, when it came, to relocate to a different country was seized with both hands, even though I had no inkling what it would be like to forge my way in a foreign land. Fortunately, I am blessed to have been born into an enlightened family. In this regard, I refer to my immediate family, and not to the wider extended family. Members of my immediate family have been supportive and very accepting of me. Unfortunately though, they are not present with me in the UK and I am deprived somewhat of that support. So I found that during the early days after I arrived in the UK to live, I had to seek out acquaintances and relatives, just as many other new arrivals have to do. And as you probably can imagine, these are people from back home in Nigeria who are now living in the UK. I soon found, however, that although I was in the UK, it was as if I was back in the same position that I was when I was still in Nigeria, people seizing the opportunity to demonstrate their hostility towards me, a person they thought might be homosexual.
I was verbally abused and I was snubbed at social events. I was even asked to leave a new job after only a few weeks, and although my boss, (a Nigerian), did not say so, I knew it was because he had heard about me. What they did not realise was that their actions only strengthened my resolve to live my life as the gay man that I am, a resolve that emboldened me to openly declare my sexuality. We are in a country where I can live my life free of their influence and I have adopted the deliberate policy of excluding them from my life. Sure, I am aware of the potential consequences, emotional and otherwise. The editor of Mambo magazine said:
"Being forced to live in the closet can have serious health and social consequences, not just for the individual, but for the wider African community. People who are subjected to abuse and ridicule can feel isolated (even from family members) and find it hard to cope emotionally, losing self-confidence or the ability to forge meaningful relationships.."
I do not feel forced to live in the closet, but there are social consequences of being openly gay too. Nevertheless, I would rather that I engaged in social contact only with those who know that I am gay, yet who accept and respect me regardless. And I believe that today I am happier for it. I have removed myself from the reach of those who will subject me to abuse and ridicule and I find myself in a relationship with the most amazing African man.
I think I can safely say that we can rise above our societies' negative attitudes. But it is also important for us to recognise that some of the responsibility for achieving change in these attitudes lies with us the gay Africans. If we accept that those negative attitudes are fed by misinformation and misconceptions about homosexuality, we owe a duty to ourselves and to future generations of gay Africans, to demonstrate through our lives that although we are different, we are normal too. As we do this, we provide to our people a more accurate description of who a homosexual person is. When we continue to hide and keep our sexuality secret, we contribute towards perpetuating the very attitudes that we deplore.
We are not immoral, many of us are upstanding and responsible individuals. Those of us who live in countries (like the UK, among others) where we need not fear criminal prosecution just for being who we are, should see this freedom from fear as an opportunity; an opportunity which must be exploited towards fostering a better understanding of homosexuality among the wider African community. It is quite possible to be gay and to be respectable at the same time. And it is our responsibility to make this known.