Interview with Nigerian gay rights activist Davis Mac-Iyalla by Steven Hummer and Johanna Heuveling, August 2014

In Nigeria, like in many African countries, homosexual acts are punished with long prison terms or even the death penalty. Christian churches play a crucial role in promoting anti-homosexuality sentiments and mob violence.

While in Europe religion plays a minor role in everyday life, churches in Africa are influential and booming. People regularly attend worship and donate money, many of them not looking for salvation but magical overnight prosperity.

On a continent where former football players or music stars form their own congregations as a second career choice this oversupply only shows the trivial aspects of faith and may mark the beginning of its decay. One could ask what those bogus pastors and megachurches have to do with spirituality and if belief is maybe no more than a business.

Davis Mac-Iyalla is a Nigerian gay rights activist and lay minister which sounds like an oxymoron in itself. He was baptised, sang in the choir and was made a Knight of the Anglican Church. That he still belongs to the organisation, which is most responsible for turning individuals like him into monsters and promoting homophobic violence, as he says himself, might seem a bit contradictory.

Tired of lying about his own sexuality, which was an open secret anyway, he told his truth 2003 on national television and began to campaign for gay rights. Being a proud Kalabari and bearer of his cultural heritage his activism for LGBT issues could not easily be misinterpreted as an attack on traditional values. His public coming out also showed the false claim that there are no homosexuals in Nigeria and acknowledged their existence. Ever since he has continued to fight for human rights by giving lectures at conferences and preaching at churches that allow him to do so. “To promote a dialogue is always a starting point,” he explains. “Without communication the door to the possibility of change can never be opened.”

LGBT in Nigeria are victims of psychological, economic and physical violence

“When you come out as a gay in Nigeria you will be outcast, you will become isolated, and your family will turn away from you as well as friends, teachers, your church.” But for many there is also the loss of their livelihood. They are dismissed from their job and disowned by their parents. This great problem, Mac-Iyalla says, is rarely addressed by organisations that seek to help LGBT people. There is only a tiny minority that give economic support. “You must empower homosexuals to be able to earn their living if you want to empower them to defend their human rights.”

Another issue is, as he explains, that once you come out you have no access to health service provision anymore, which is truly life threatening if you suffer from HIV and other contagious diseases. “It’s because you are stigmatized and criminalized.”

A crisis of African identity as the Origin of homophobia

“In Africa we have lost our identity. What people claim as their African identity is what was brought to us by the colonial powers. We do not have enough data or information about what we have lost. Africans need to embrace their identity. Africa needs to reclaim its culture, its voice.” He continues, that, when European countries conquered Africa, they imposed their moral values on Africans and introduced the British, French or whatever laws, which in these days forbade same-sex relations, as well as other practices like polygamy.

It was only in 1992 that the WHO crossed homosexuality off its list of internationally recognized diseases. While LGBT activists in the countries of the former colonizers undertook a long struggle and just a few decades ago – the British in the late 60s and others followed later – succeeded in changing the laws to tolerate their sexual orientation, African countries persist with colonial era legislation. “Today in Europe you talk about if homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt a child while in Nigeria homosexuality is still punished by prison or death.”

Trying to explain the irrational fears of ordinary African people, he says: “Many Africans think that when homosexuality is allowed, there will be no reproduction anymore, families will break apart and the world is coming to an end.”

“I am a Christian of the Anglican Church, I have studied the bible intensely and I want to emphasize that nowhere is written anything about banning of homosexual love. No bishop could ever tell me where it is written. There are quotes which condemn certain practices or male prostitution but do not speak about homosexuality as such.”

“We all know there are numerous texts in the bible to support slavery and discriminate women and other form of punishment to activities we no longer think of as taboo or criminal. To use the good book as an indictment of LGBT people is the greatest blasphemy,” he writes in his autobiography “FIYABO (Survivor)” which was published in June this year.

Asked what made the topic of homosexuality boil up quite suddenly in the last decade, especially in Africa, Mac-Iyalla argues that it is even possible to put an exact date to the beginning: “In 1998 there was the 13th Lambeth Conference of the Global Anglican Community. In this conference the effort was taken to define a position towards homosexuality. But no agreement could be found among the church members, as the African bishops claimed “No”, there was not such a thing as homosexuality in Africa.

“This debate on homosexuality may also be about to split the Anglican Church as there are many supporters amongst the clergy,” he says. “ I, as a member of the Anglican Church and a lay minister at that time, being aware of my sexual orientation, decided in 2003 that I cannot take it anymore.”

“Somebody had to do this”, he comments on his courageous outing on a nation-wide TV station whereupon he lost his job as a school principal. The Nigerian Anglican Church published a disclaimer against him and a smear campaign was started. Soon after he received numerous death threats and was stabbed on the street. 2008 he finally had to seek asylum in the UK as his life was at risk.

“I hope to be a positive role model and confidence boost for young gays who may even doubt if they are valid human beings. We need role models.” By living openly gay with pride he hopes to counter the prejudices. “For example, I have high moral values for my sexuality. Gay does not mean that I’m promiscuous. Sex is something sacred. I don’t want to have sex with everyone I see.”

Laws must be challenged to decriminalize the people

“The gospel means for me, as a human rights activist, to have compassion for the poor, for the human. It is not for me to judge others. It is God who will judge. When people abuse me, I don’t waste my energy to take an individual to court. Instead I want to challenge the source, where it comes from.”

“We must fight the existing laws on a constitutional level, in order to decriminalize the people. This is the biggest issue at the moment in Africa,” Mac-Iyalla emphasizes.

The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act that was signed into law in Nigeria this year also criminalizes homosexual clubs, associations and organisations, with penalties of up to 14 years in jail. It is infringing the basic human rights of its citizens. If we use a scientifically estimated worldwide average percentage of 6-8% of Nigerians being gay we are talking about 10 million individuals. This might be still a minority but not a small number.

“Western politicians rarely address these harsh anti-gay-laws in Nigeria, as they don’t want to threaten economic relations with a government that controls large resources of petroleum reserves. They tend to take the easy way and concentrate on Uganda, which is a small and poor country”, Mac-Iyalla explains.

Religious homophobia is a huge threat in his home country, he continues. This is where he envisions his main role in the struggle. As a believer in the message of Jesus Christ, he searches for open-minded Christians in Nigeria and elsewhere to build up an “LGBT human rights Christian Network”. “You cannot fight homophobia in Africa without understanding religion. Religion is an important aspect of human rights.”

Many celebrities are helping behind the scenes

Asked if LGBT people in Nigeria also do find support, Mac-Iyalla says he will always be grateful to the persons that helped him in difficult times, so he was able to stand up for his rights. But his case was different, he admits. Other LGBTs have no financial back-up and no possibility to escape. He comes from an influential family. His father was a diplomat. “The name of my family is known in Nigeria. We all have a high level of education and many members have travelled or live in foreign countries.” When he came out, his family first responded negatively. “But, you know, coming out helps the others to define their place, either they support you, or they take distance.” In general, he could say, that his family came to accept him. Especially his mother never let him down.

Celebrities in Nigeria, Mac-Iyalla states, do not speak out a lot for LGBT rights. “But behind the scenes very influential people, even within the parliament, also lawyers give us support.” Of course there are rare examples, like Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina who came out this year, Desmond Tutu or Bishop Christopher Senyonjo in Uganda who have publicly demanded a stop to human rights violation against LGBT.

We can’t walk alone

What can we in “the West” do? Mac-Iyalla says that for example what Pressenza is doing is very helpful. Trying to really understand what the LGBT issue is all about, to bring out the stories, to inform people, to build up networks. “The freedom of Gays in Germany, is the hope of Gays in Nigeria.” Then, also to influence the diplomatic channels, is important. “The homosexuals in Nigeria cannot do that alone. It is a global issue. We can’t walk alone.”

How does he perceive the situation of LGBT people in Nigeria in 20 or 30 years? “It will be freedom. We will have the protection of human rights for LGBT people by then. It will be faster than it took in Europe. It is a process that cannot be stopped.”

The success of propagation of hate and discrimination against minorities by religious institutions as well as superstition in general is – as we experience in Europe – much depending on educational level and economic injustice. How long will it take until Africa’s poor majority experiences an economic boom is questionable. However, as the world is getting more interconnected the big majority of young people in African countries might develop in a way less naïve and submissive to authorities and more open to alternative forms of  lifestyle.

For the time being, bribe-proof religious men like Mr. Mac-Iyalla who won`t tell tales of monsters for a handful of dollars are maybe the biggest hope in the fight against homophobia.