Today, as many of my friends await for their family members to gather in communal love and celebration for Thanksgiving, I’m sitting alone in my room, glued to my near dying laptop, awaiting some very important news. I’m monitoring Twitter, Facebook, and obsessively trolling the web for information. The scenario is eerily familiar; the last holiday I celebrated like this happened almost exactly two months ago.
As a queer Nigerian, October marks two very important occasions: Nigeria’s Independence Day (October 1st) and LGBT History month.So, on the first day of October this year, I found myself searching all morning for content on the web that celebrated both of these occasions. After just a few minutes, I got my wish. But it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped it would be. Glaring at me from a Google search page was the link to an article that read, “Nigeria Celebrates 50 Years of Independence with New Anti-Homosexuality Bill”.
Flash forward almost two months later, and I am on the edge of my seat: The Nigerian Senate is voting on this bill today.
Nigeria’s Criminal Code already criminalizes homosexuality, punishing offenders by imprisonment of up to 14 years (and under Sharia Law, death by stoning) for acts that go “against the order of nature.” But this new bill, officially named the “Same Gender Marriage Prohibition Bill”, proposes further criminalization by targeting same gender marriages; punishment of an additional three years imprisonment for anyone (including friends, family, churches and supportive organizational entities) that takes part in the marriage of two people of the same gender.
Will this new bill be the final proof that Nigeria has joined the ranks of Ghana, Uganda, Malawi, and other African countries to silence and/or purge its LGBT citizens? Is my country really taking steps to make it impossible for LGBT Nigerians (including me) to live peacefully by now threatening the lives of our families and friends as well? Nigeria isn’t a culture of individualists. Self-sufficiency is encouraged to the extent that it doesn’t turn into obstinate independence unlike in many other western cultures.
In the United States, for instance, I often hear LGBT people talk about dissociating from their families, becoming financially independent, and thus being capable of living their lives as “out and proud” gay people with relatively minimal consequence. This is not the case in places like Nigeria, where the culture is inherently community-centric. People rely very heavily on their relationships with other people to access even the most basic of resources. No one exists in a silo; someone must vouch for you. Hence, a bill that threatens an individuals’ personal relationships will immediately lead to social ostracization, and reduce their capacity for survival by limiting their access to crucial support networks.
We’ve seen some of the effects of this with so many homeless LGBT youth forced to live in the streets, and are especially impacted during the holidays. Think of this plight replicated in Africa, under way harsher environmental and economical conditions. For LGBT people living in Nigeria — young and adult alike — this bill is no less harsh than a death sentence.
Because it’s Thanksgiving, my American friends keep telling me to be grateful that I live here, in the land of the free… sure, where LGBT asylum seekers are treated like pet projects for donor hungry non-profits looking to up their diversity quotient.
My friends who live in Nigeria continually send me references to out gay celebrities in Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry to placate me — as though we should assume that the perceived eccentricities of the entertainment industry and/or privilege of upper class gay people to “be themselves” is a luxury that is also readily granted to poorer and more marginalized populations.
Despite these well-intentioned messages, I’m just really finding it hard to deal with the reality of what this bill could mean if it should come to pass — not just for some distant, far away community of women in South Africa, or group of activists in Uganda, but for me. Not a “hashtag” on Twitter, or tag on BBC — me, my partner, my parents, my family, my friends. This bill will permanently exile me from my home.
So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, can I say to you all that I am indeed Thankful to be here? That I am Thankful to be far away from harm, from the threat of violence and imprisonment just for being who I am? I would like to, but today, I can’t.
Today, as I await further news, I feel like an abandoned child who belongs nowhere — it has nothing to do with not having a place to eat Turkey.
Today, I feel like a foreigner in my own apartment, though this is as close to home as the American Dream has granted me.
Today, I remember that I do not live here on this land by choice. I was not part of the genocide of the people of North America; I do not wish to watch genocide be signed into action from the safe harbor of my colonizers. I do not wish to occupy a land that is not my own. I do not wish to be turned into a refugee. I cannot be thankful for circumstances that permanently exile me from my country. I wish to return home. I just wish to return home.
So, at your tables today, I ask that you please pray for me — for all of us. And be thankful that you have a safe space to love, on behalf of so many who cannot.