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Passion for Change: the Queer Rights Struggle in Nigeria

by | November 9, 2021

Having criminalized queerness, the Nigerian state ruthlessly promotes homophobia. In response, LGBTQIA+ Nigerians continue to mobilize, committing to the struggle for queer rights. Organizers are working to equip activists, allies, and frontliners with the knowledge, tools, and confidence needed to increase participation in advocacy work. At trainings and workshops, activists and advocates gain access to information that is not readily available in a homophobic country.

How do these trainings happen?

Zazi Idodo, operations associate for an African human rights organization, says that the planning process usually begins by determining the type of training her organization would like to host. She explains that this choice is aided by the specific needs of potential participants. After focusing on which population is to be served, the organization issues a call for applications. It also develops a budget that lists costs of location, accommodation, transportation, and more. For an organization such as Idodo’s, which is driven by intersectionality and caters to the wider African region, workshops are often held across the continent. With an operations budget in mind, organizers make arrangements for food, writing materials, equipment, and facilities necessary for a specific event. This budget also includes French/English translators.

Clear political goals and concepts are equally important in determining the right participants to invite to each training. Kay, community mobilizer for an equal rights organization in Nigeria, says he selects training objectives before selecting suitable participants. Community mobilizers identify and invite potential attendees. Leaders within various communities reach people that the organization would not be able to reach otherwise.

With Nigeria in mind

The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), which the legislature passed in 2014, entrenched the criminalization of queerness in Nigeria. In addition to this law, tradition, culture, ideology, and religion have been used to create and sustain an environment that is hostile toward the LGBTQIA+ community. Altogether, these factors perpetuate heteronormative supremacy, preventing queers from living freely and loving openly. This supremacy makes hosting and conducting trainings that serve the queer community dangerous. Organizers must take precautions. Whether it is a 1-day training or an event that requires participants to be lodged for a longer time period, fear of exposure, homophobic attack, or outing of participants remain critical concerns.

Idodo and Harry Itie, former editor of Love Matters Naija, explain that they select queer friendly locations based upon careful research and referrals from other queer organizations that vouch for the safety of a space. These referrals are vital as they reduce the risk of exposure to violence. These referrals also establish social bonds that may prove useful in the future

Idodo says that she enters into agreements that guarantee the safety of her event’s participants. Attendees are told that as a precaution, self-expression may have to be curtailed in certain locations. Although the space itself might be designated as safe, other people present at the location may be queerphobic and openly hostile.

“We make them understand that they can’t do anything that shows they are gay,” says Idodo. “This might be in the way they dress or the things they say so there is need for them to be cautious and be mindful of their environment. For example, [at] the last training we had…we [told] participants to be careful and not give out anything that confirms that they are gay.”

Kay, on the other hand, says that his organization mostly uses their office to host training sessions. It is located in an exclusive neighborhood in Lagos. Kay’s organization does not disclose the venue until a day before the session and if guests do not reside within the state, they are lodged in a hotel and then chauffeured to the venue. He adds, “[We do this because] we don’t want to send information to your phone and [then for] someone [to get] into it and [use] it to trace you.”

Writer, journalist and podcast host Mariam Sule, a benefactor of these workshops, says that during the past five training sessions she has attended, she has always made sure to let someone know her location. She has also ensured that she could leave whenever she wanted. An emergency could cause her to have to flee.

While these training sessions are largely tailored to Nigerian queers, other groups, such as police and journalists, are also being addressed. Given the threat that both of these institutions pose to the lives and safety of queer people, their sensitization and reeducation is necessary.

Kay explains that the last time his organization held a training for police officers, leaders had to focus their lessons on human rights rather than queer rights: “We presented the topic in a way that we were not picking sides. We are just looking at a situation. We say that this is what we see happening in our society, and the police who are meant to be protectors of rights are the perpetrators of this crime. At the end of the day, you hear them saying, ‘Looking at it from the human rights perspective, I think it’s wrong.'”

What comes after these trainings

After each training session, participants leave with new knowledge. Many organizers use an assessment tool to measure learning and impact. Some organizers do this by administering a pre- and post-test system, inviting participants to answer an identical set of questions before and after the training. These evaluations allow participants to contrast what they knew with what they now know.

The impact of these training sessions does not only manifest in the advocacy work that participants may now do. The effects are also felt in their professional and personal lives.

For instance, Sule says that the training sessions on social media advocacy and responsible reporting helped her to see Nigeria from a different perspective. Her reports benefited from the education.

In addition to education, participants also benefit by joining communities. They now have a network of allies with whom they may discuss queer matters. This is what Esther* says the training sessions have given to her. She now belongs to both a community and a space. She feels safe with her network. She may now share the fears, as well as the joys, she has experienced as a result of being lesbian in Nigeria.

With a lot at stake, queer organizations continue to do the best the can to ensure that the LGBTQIA+ community is adequately cared for. Itie says that the trainings are important because, “they help give queer people the necessary tools to be able to carry out advocacy.” It is a continuous process that yields results and until the country becomes safe for everyone, organizations will continue to create impact within the spaces they can access.