Being a speech by Chude Jideonwo, founder of Joy, Inc. at 3rd LGBT Human Rights Defenders Workshop for the Center for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa
September 4, 2018
Did you hear about it? Barely three weeks ago, the spokesperson of the police force in Lagos, Nigeria, invited journalists to witness a triumphant feat of investigative brilliance.
Using the best words – covert operations, intelligence, investigation, tip-off, subterfuge, operatives – he announced the result of this historic slice of security history in Nigeria, celebrating the brilliance of his men and the fruits of their intensive labour.
“Intelligence gathered revealed that some youths will be initiated into a Gay/Homosexual Club between 1 a.m and 2 a.m., at Kelly Ann Hotel/ Event Centre, located at No. 3-7, Adenrele St., Egbeda, an action contrary to Section 1 (1) of Same Sex Marriage, Act 2014.
“Consequent upon this, some operatives from the Shasha and Idimu Police Stations led by CSP Oke Olufunmilayo and SP Solomon Fayomi stormed the venue and met no less than 80 young men. “They were taking different types of drinks including banned substances like Tramadol, Shisha laced with substances suspected to be Marijuana. “As soon as they sighted the police, they ran into different directions but the team arrested 57 of them.”
Gay initiation, for newly recruited members, the Nigerian Vanguard newspaper called it. In Nigeria, this is shorthand for the wanton arrest and dehumanisation of innocent and helpless young men simply because of the possibility that they are different from the ‘norm’.
I don’t read the news so I heard about this about 3 or 4 days after it happened, and I was distressed. Upon being told, I assumed that plenty of work had been done on the issue, and I rushed online to read up on what advocates and rights activists were doing and saying about this injustice. Injustice on three levels, one – other than hearsay, no tangible evidence of homosexual activity was recorded at these events; two – even if these people were homosexual, Nigeria doesn’t criminalise being, by nature or nurture homosexuality, only certain activities, and of course three – because the world has gotten to a place of awareness as to the immorality of persecuting people for their sexuality.
Unfortunately, even as I scanned the Twitter handles of those who understand the urgency of this issue, all I heard was silence. Save for the activist, Bisi Alimi – the range of voices given to amplifying rights issues were muted, distracted or silent. Muted, mostly, because while there were murmurs and grumbling, there was a clear lack of strong voicing on the matter. This was very confusing to me.
It hit me of course at that point that maybe others were also scouring my timeline the way I was scouring theirs, and so I got into consultation, trying to find a way to use my influence to help them. In that time, however, something remarkable was happening.
A young, erstwhile political Nigerian named Sega Awosanya, who has now evolved into a prominent, and effective, voice against human rights abuses in Nigeria, was informed about this abuse. In response, he reminded people – not incorrectly – that homosexual activity is largely interpretable as against the law in Nigeria, and his advocacy focuses on actual illegal activity. Then sadly revealing his biases, he proceeded to link homosexuality with paedophilia, and to claim that the only basis on which he could advocate for the release of the 57 unfairly arrested young men (all the women at the party released without incident, revealing that the police doesn’t yet understand that lesbians are also homosexual) was because some of them did not have what he called “suspicious mannerism.”
I was proud to observe that a Nigerian online newspaper, YNaija.com, which I co-founded – through its Sexuality Blog which, again I am proud to say, is the only such section on a major news platform in the country, had challenged him already, forcing him to wriggle uncomfortably and to decry intolerance. However, this pressure became a focal point for other voices to come together in response to him. He listened. In a matter of hours, he had come back to his powerful Twitter page to announce that the suspects had now been released on bail.
It is easy to focus on what we may call his biases but that would be missing the point of what I learnt from observing keenly these events unfold. First, what I feel is gratitude to him. While there was silence from inside the cone and whilst some of us were at a loss on how exactly to proceed, this man – however imperfectly – proceeded to use his legal skills network and voice to do a good deed. I will take an imperfectly served good deed over silence any day.
What is more striking are the conditions under which his turn about occurred. It was conversation by everyday Nigerians, challenging his prejudice and his range of motions on human rights. At the same time, it turns out that many were silent because many were unaware of what had in fact happened. It took a London-based comedian, who also stands firm on human rights in Nigeria, Wale Gates to draw popular attention to this cause. Between Sega, YNaija.com and Wale, they managed to draw the attention of both public and power structures.
It wasn’t the established activists or donors or the network of well-funded resistance groups against discrimination across the country that led this change, however imperfect, to happen. It was the culture itself that stood up to be counted.
And that is fascinating to me.
It calls to mind the truth that the cerebral and impressive Ghanaian president said to the BBC early this year about the homophobia in his country, before he was attacked, shut down and forced to recant in other to maintain popular electoral bonafides, it is the culture that must rise up and stand for any rights that are important for society to protect. It is the culture.
Those who want the law to change must focus on the culture, let the culture influence political outcomes, and then those political outcomes will automatically lead to legal transformation bending the moral arc of that universe towards justice for all.
That makes it even more fascinating that, while a state in Nigeria- Benue – has panicked and re-criminalised gay marriage despite a standing national law already covering that matter, and while the police in Lagos leave actual security to patrol morality – because this is not an isolated case – something else has been happening at the other end of the culture.
A new TV show in Nigeria has spent the past few weeks interviewing presidential candidates, both minor and major. And for some reason central to its questions to all of them has been questioning about their posture towards and policy for homosexuals in Nigeria, in the context of this law.
What has been remarkable is how on the defensive these politicians have been. While all of them have claimed not to understand homosexuality. , the interviewees, including a popular former Nigerian governor, have all stated they do not support discrimination or the criminalisation of homosexual people or activity. The only one candidate who hedged on the matter was ruthlessly pilloried across social media.
It made it clear on what side momentum has been shifting over the past decade, accelerated over the past few years: towards equality, towards, rights, towards a wholesome justice for all.
And the major driver for this shift is the culture. We are a society whose cultural imperatives are shaped and driven by a Western thought architecture, its ideas of defined freedoms and rights, and its activism to expand the fields of identity possibilities, and inclusion is the global culture now. In addition to its governments and academia, has been its art and entertainment – where everything from books to movies has made it clear that it’s a new day and a new reality across the world.
Of course, that’s not to undersell the very crucial, expansive work that advocates and activists locally and from Africa have done to make this an easier world for people to be respected and to be allowed to live whole, rich lives. Without especially the bravery of people who have pushed open the closet across the continent and outside on behalf of African LGBT people, platforms like this; the global culture would have found no soil to thrive,
So our jobs have in fact been made easier for us. How do we proceed from here?
Well, I think I have made it clear what I think will be the most important tool for the work of advocacy, which is the focus of this workshop – the culture.
And it is one of the three crucial levers I find urgent, indispensable in driving the imperative of LGBT advocacy across the continent:
B: Internal direction and autonomy
For the former, the work that an organization that I have advised over the past couple of years, The Initiative for Equal Rights has done in Nigeria has been deeply instructive. It has been resolute about deploying the culture in both obtrusive and unobtrusive ways to make the point clearly about the unfairness of bad laws, and the evils of discrimination. But more than that it has focused on a positive message of experience affirmation – normalizing and humanize the experience of the ‘other’, in this case LGBT people.
Through a cascade of TV talk shows, public polling, short films, documentaries, and now a full length movie, working with highly visible strong, positive images across the country, it has managed to force a public conversation that would otherwise not come to the light.
The results of that strategic, long-term thinking have been obvious in the kinds of conversations that we have seen over the past few weeks in Nigeria.
It is the kind of thinking that the Ghanaian president was referring to when he gave that answer to the BBC about how his country can turn the page the same way that Britain turned the page. And it is the same answer that any society that wants to change, sustainably, the minds of its people – when prejudice has been sustained by culture and mummified by religion. If culture is the vehicle for prejudice, then culture must be the vehicle for pushing back on prejudice.
But the second lever is what I have learnt from the past few weeks: autonomy.
This may be seen as a criticism of the incredibly important and hard work that actors in the advocacy space have been doing to expand the conversation on gender and sexuality, and to expand the playing field for rights, but I hope it more importantly triggers thought that leads to action.
It appears that too many times, external and international donor funding defines our imperatives on the ground, and to this extent it can limit both range of motion and reflex when important issues, like the random and continuous arrest of young people, happens.
Whilst the partnered work that advocates too is crucial because there are very many different directions that these terrible injustices have to be dealt from, we have to ensure that our capacity isn’t ever limited, in any way, by anything. We have to be able to build co-ordinated, cohesive internal and local networks that are able to respond on the ground, in the immediate, when issues that are short to long term rear their heads.
This for instance is important for a conversation about funding. If Nigeria has a considerable elite population that understands the imperative of fighting for rights, then it is important that that nucleus is transformed into an engaged community that provides an alternative to institutional funding and allows organisations on the ground to do more and to be more. Cracking the resource code is a difficult one for Nigerian CSOs, but it is no less an important challenge for it.
We must begin to expand the field of play and the field of possibilities for people who care enough about our shared humanity. It is not enough to play within the boundaries that we have been given or that we have seen modeled in other contexts. It is important for us to find our own paths, and resources are crucial both to the capacity to respond and to the capacity to create solutions that matter.
While institutional engagement is important, and has to continue, and partnered conversations help with that, we must not lose sight of the things that lie in our field of immediate possibility. Sustained cultural engagement in a disintermediated media age is the most crucial of those. It allows us to develop programmes, platforms and strategies that help tell stories, help bring the other into mainstream conversation and help force the inevitably uncomfortable exchange that expands the space for human rights.
It allows for us to have the flexibility and agility to spring into action when 57 young men are captured and dehumanized whether it aligns with donor strategic imperatives or not.
The third component is language. The author Chimamanda Adichie, responding to criticism over the way she chose to answer questions about the identities (not the rights or humanity) of transgender women made mention of an oft ignored issue she called ‘language-orthodoxy’. I would call it a West-paradigm language orthodoxy. The idea that the way the world’s leader societies have framed the important questions of our time are the most and perhaps only legitimate ways to ask those questions.
In contexts that are not Western, this can become a considerable problem.
This portion of today’s paper needs to be focused on as an issue all on its own, but I want to use this opportunity to hint at the imperative. While the language that to describe the battle we have to fight must necessary proceed from paradigms we already have, it is useful to spend some time considering if we have a need to-rephrase the imperatives of gender, sexuality and related progress in ways that make sense to the societies that we live in, and the way they see the world.
Perhaps a more expansive language is required that refuses to draw us unto restrictive categories but instead inspires us towards the ideal that animates many African societies, elegantly popularized re: Ubuntu. ‘I am through other people. I am through difference. I am beyond category. I am because you are too.’
The West has given us the gift of properly defined or at least effectively spread definitions of rights, freedoms and possibilities. It is time for us to process them, own them and direct them in the ways that our hearts and minds know to be truest, and best for our realities.
This journey is of course going to be a long one, for our foreseeable future so I understand the balancing of immediate and long-term imperatives that underpins the work that most of you do, and it is appreciated. My job today was to force to confront those things that limit our range of motions, and that lie ahead.
In a couple of decades, more than half the world will be a safe space for people of the differences that we have today. And our children will look back, just like we do now on injustice based on gender or race, and they will wonder at the madness that once seized the world. But then, they too will be facing new questions of difference of their own, and they may – like our world today – have too many blind spots about they must answer the questions that reality asks of them.
The work we do now, the questions we ask now, and the answers that we provide to the world will help shape the ways that they solve the problems that they face. It is my hope that our contributions to the ongoing cosmic epic will be strong, will be clear, and will be enduring.