I was judging a competition for young people somewhere in the southeast of Nigeria earlier this year, when one of the judges asked a contestant a taboo question: “Are you gay?”
It’s three words. It’s a simple question. In some parts of the world, it’s as simple as asking: “Do you believe in God?” “Are you married?” “Ketchup or mayonnaise?”
But not here, not in my country of birth and residence. Here, it can be a matter of life and death. It can be a question of being thrown out of your home and being detained by the police. It can mean being attacked on the streets or being attacked on social media. It can mean losing your job, or being ostracized from your faith.
“You don’t have to answer,” she told him. “And if it’s an uncomfortable question, I understand.” But merely by introducing that question, she knew what she was doing. She was holding space. She was opening up possibilities. She was daring to make the possibility of his difference normal, accepted, safe.
That 15-minute conversation — especially those first three minutes — led me to make an important decision almost on the spot: I would endow a prize for diversity and difference, for Nigeria and eventually Africa.
Nigeria is still a very dangerous place to be different. Feminism is still a dirty word here, atheism we pretend not to understand, non mainstream religions are treated like cults, mental health issues are severely stigmatized and when it comes to sexuality — that may be the worst of taboos. People can be found all over social media threatening death to people who are gay, or people like myself who speak up in favour of gay rights.
Across the continent, the Ghanaian president is carefully holding space for difference, Kenya is making tentative steps towards inclusion and countries such as Botswana have already fully embraced the diversity of its population. Nigeria, meanwhile, continues to shut down — and kill — gay people.
The state criminalises difference (the infamous Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act that prescribes 14 years in jail for homosexual relations and Sharia Law in 12 states that prescribe death for men), the society punishes it, and all of these create the conditions that led to the entrapment and murder of a 20-something-year-old in Anambra, southeastern Nigeria in March this year — for being gay.
Thankfully, there is a ray of sunlight. The fourth biennial Social Perception Survey on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) rights in Nigeria shows an increase in the acceptance of LGBT+ persons. Where in 2017, 83% of the population would not accept a gay or transgender family member, the number is now possibly 60%. And where 90% of the population supported the anti-same sex legislation in 2015, only about 75% do so now.
Although this statistical progress warms the heart, for the overwhelming majority of Nigeria’s many minorities, it is cold comfort. Change is coming too slowly and the lack of speed is costing lives, liberty and happiness.
We are long overdue a more open, accepting and inclusive nation, one that is a collective of safe spaces for people to express diversity and difference across sexuality, gender, spirituality and other expressions of our common humanity. And that is why I made that decision in January to launch The Nigeria Prize for Diversity and Difference, which entries open up across the 36 states of the country this month.
We will go across the country — including, and especially, in those states that prescribe death for those who dare to be different — and find those young people based in Nigeria and working in Nigeria who are giving voice, holding space and creating platforms for those whose identities need to be protected and supported, and we will accelerate their work through funding, guide sustainability through training and create communities for collaboration, insight and impact.
Why is it so important to recognise and protect this space?
Well, think of the young man at the start of the story. He never did answer the question. But then, he also didn’t say no.
It was easy for him to say no. Actually, that would have been his wisest recourse in a nation where, according to statistics, all three judges could well be homophobic.
Instead, he replied with silence and a smile. That silent, stoic smile remains etched in my heart to this day.
Maybe — just maybe — with this prize, I can help hold space for a day, soon, when the answer can be a vocal yes. Yes. Right here in my home country.
So that he, if he was a minority, doesn’t need to run off to or lust after another country that can love him and hold him even better than his own.
This piece was first published on Mail & Guardian on June 27, 2020.