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Nigerian Activist Chooses Exile Over Life In The Closet


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we'd like to go back to a story that we've turned to a number of times on this program. We're talking about the move in many countries in Africa to toughen legal penalties and increase the stigma against homosexuality.

Now a lot of the focus has been on Uganda, but earlier this year, Nigeria also passed strict new laws increasing the penalties for same-sex conduct and against anybody who tries to assist people in gay relationships - be that a doctor, a landlord or even a family member.

For one man, the laws mark a milestone on a journey that began 10 years ago. In 2004, Bisi Alimi became the first person to come out on Nigerian national television. Here's a clip.


BISI ALIMI: Once or twice in my life, I've actually been forced - because of societal factors, been forced into going into relationship with girls. But really, I (unintelligible) it wasn't right. Why should I go all the way with the girl, and later on, she gets to know that actually the interest is not from my heart?

MARTIN: But that interview led to the program being taken off the air and to three years of harassment, including an attempt on his life that caused Bisi Alimi to leave Nigeria for the U.K., where he was granted political asylum.

Since then, he's been working to promote human rights for gay black men and working on the prevention of HIV/AIDS. We caught up with him in Washington, D. C. when he was visiting the meeting of the World Bank IMF. And he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ALIMI: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: We just heard that clip of you from that interview 10 years ago. When you hear that, what does that bring up for you?

ALIMI: It brought back lots of memories. And I just had a picture in my head now - sitting there in the studio and being questioned by this very brave woman, who was breaking all barriers discussing these kind of issues. And it was a very, very scary process. We had no idea what was going to happen.

MARTIN: How quick was the reaction to the interview?

ALIMI: It was very immediate. I need to point out that that interview was not live. We had to record that interview just so that we were anticipating a very quick attack, and it happened. They came to the studio while we were not there.

MARTIN: People came to the studio looking for you, really.

ALIMI: They came to the studio. They came for us. We were not there. And after that, I got picked on. Then, the next day, she got a call from the director of the television station, and they cut off our show.

MARTIN: Just that quickly - the next day...

ALIMI: The next day.

MARTIN: ...The show was canceled.


MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, about what your life was like before you left Nigeria. I mean, it doesn't sound like you were ever really in the closet.

ALIMI: I was never.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

ALIMI: I was never. I think at some point in my life, I went in. It was too dark and ugly, and I just came out. And I just realized - no, it's not for me. I came out to my sister for the first time when I was 14. That was when I told my sister about it. I never called it gay.


ALIMI: And that - that's the thing. There was no label for me. I just told her that I know that I like boys. So it was more of describing what I was feeling. And I think one of the problems we're having is the name. There's an image that goes with the name. Then people revolt around it because we had days in our history, you know, it's well documented that this does exist. But the problem we have now is...

MARTIN: Oh, certainly documented in art.

ALIMI: Yes, exactly. But the problem we have is there's a name, and there's an identity to the name. And that identity does not fit into what we used to know. So we go against it. Going back...

MARTIN: What did you think your life was going to be when you realized that you are a man who prefers men - or a man, as you said, you like boys. So what did you think your life was going to be? Did you have a notion of it? Did you feel that you'd be able to marry, or did you feel you'd be able to have a family? Or what did you think you were going to do as an adult? Do you remember?

ALIMI: I think - well, what I was so much concerned about - because I come from a very religious family - so my father is still a Muslim, and my mother is still a Christian - and very strong. You hardly find that in Nigeria - but really, really strong in their views. And the first thing that came to my mind was I was going to hellfire.

And I dealt with that up until when I came out on the show. And before that, I attempted suicide about three, four times because the image of Hell was so strong, and I just have to kill myself before I act on that feeling so I don't have to go to hellfire.

My teenage years was very traumatic. I was very troublesome, though, I devoted a lot of time to my education, but I had no future of life. And that's why young people today, you know, are very lucky. They can look into the future and say, oh, I'm going to get a boyfriend, I'm going to marry my boyfriend and we'll raise a family. But it was never like that for me. The only picture I had was a picture of hellfire.

MARTIN: When did you start to feel that there was a way to live a positive life as a gay man, as an out gay men?

ALIMI: I've had series of relationships. And I think when that moment came was when I started dating a foreign correspondent for a major international newspaper - a white guy - and he gave me a different perspective to my sexuality. You know, when I was young, we used to say we're playing games.

And he made me understand that I wasn't really playing a game with who I am. And it was just, like, wow. So there's actually nothing wrong with me. So I struggled with that until that moment when I went on that show, and that was my eureka moment.

That was when I just said, this is who I am, I'm so proud of who I am, I'm going to let anybody that is ready to understand that there's nothing wrong with you. You're fabulous just the way you are. Just accept yourself and celebrate yourself.

MARTIN: How do you feel about it now that it led to this big chain of events? As we said, there were attempts on your life. There was a lot of physical, you know, harassment that finally ended up with your leaving the country. When you look back on it now, are you still glad that you did it?

ALIMI: Yes and no. I'm glad that it started a conversation, which was one of the things we wanted, and no because I've lost a lot, you know. I've lost my friends. I've lost my families. I lost being in Nigeria and being part of the democratic process. It's really painful. But I'm also glad that, living in the U.K., I can contribute - not as much I would have wanted, but I would've loved to have been in Nigeria to be able to be part of the conversation.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of the conversation, it just seems that over the past 10 years the animus toward LGBT people has increased in a number of countries, most notably Uganda and Nigeria, where these laws have been passed. Why do you think that is? Do you have a theory about this?

ALIMI: Yes. I do have my own theory. And I think one of the things is - one is a populist agenda - because you look across Africa, there's so much poverty. There's so much bad governance. Most African countries are not able to provide for the population. So there's so many things.

And gay issue is now something the politicians use to distract people - telling them that they have a problem, and their problem is their gay son or their gay daughter then creating a form of commotion. You need to target somebody, so who is very easy to target? The one everybody's against.

MARTIN: Speaking of family, have you been back to Nigeria at all? I mean, I know you'd be a candidate for arrest...

ALIMI: (Laughing).

MARTIN: ...Since you are openly gay, and you're an advocate. So you haven't been able to be back. Have you been able to see your family at all?

ALIMI: No. I've not been able to go back to Nigeria. But interestingly, in January, I saw my mom for the first time in seven years. I was in Benin Republic, which is just next door to Nigeria. I was there for a meeting. I called her when I got there two days later because I didn't want to let her know I would be around. And she came, and we spent over five minutes just crying and, you know, I've not seen her for seven years. She's grown older, but it was nice. The first thing she said is, you've not been eating well, which is so sweet.

MARTIN: (Laughing) It's a mom thing to say, right?

ALIMI: Yeah, I know. But it was very powerful for me to meet my mom, and it was a change in the relationship between the two of us. I think she also has come to the fact that - why do I have to lose my son for this long because of who he is? And the relationship has just changed since then.

MARTIN: Do they accept you? Does your family accept your sexual orientation?

ALIMI: Accept? No. Tolerate? Yes. I will put it that way. So it's - as far as you don't talk about it, as far as you're invisible - your sexuality's invisible to us. It's not something we really want to have a conversation about. And it's there.

But once in a while, they usually - are you ever going to get married to a woman would come up. And then I have to remind them that I'm gay, and that is not going to happen. And then we keep quiet, and after sometime, it comes up again, and I have to remind them that I'm still gay. I've not changed. It's not like some other friends that I know that get kicked out of their house or they don't have opportunities of talking to their parents anymore.

MARTIN: You mentioned to us that you were actually relieved when Nigeria passed these new laws. Why is that?

ALIMI: Yeah. You know, every time I say that people think I'm going mad. It's just that we spent seven years thinking, is this going to be law? Is it not going to be law? What do we do? You know, we do a lot of advocacy around it, but there was nothing to fight.

So we don't know who to talk to. We had no idea who to have a conversation with. But now we know. We know what to do. We know the strategies to take. That's was why, to me and so many of us, it was a huge relief that now there's something to attack.

MARTIN: As I mentioned - that we've caught up with you, and you're here for meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. What is your role at a gathering like this?

ALIMI: Well, basically, I've been talking about the effect of homophobia on economic situation of LGBT people. I happen to be an example of the situation I'm here talking about. Before I came out, I had a very promising acting career because I studied drama, and I had a TV show going on in Nigeria.

And I was doing really well. And then, my sexuality became an issue. My character was killed the day after I came out, as well. And everything just went downhill. I couldn't get a job. I became really, really poor. So I started looking at how does homophobia affect my ability to be able to pay my rent, buy my food, pay my bills. And so that's part of the conversation we're having with the World Bank.

And that's why I'm here - to let the World Bank know that homophobia is causing poverty. And in our drive to alleviate poverty, we must understand that it's not only about gender, but it's also about sexuality. And we need to start putting measures in place to create opportunities for LGBT people in deprived countries to be able to be economically empowered. So you're not interfering in the politics of the people or the government of the day, but what you're trying to do is to say, there is this young, gay guy or this lesbian woman who has been kicked out of his house or disowned by the family, so it's affecting his education.

This is a grant to allow you to go to university, to study up to university. So you don't have to worry about it because we know that when you come out with good grades, you can get a job. And if you cannot get a job, you can set up your own business and employ LGBT people like you and create the powerful pink naira, pink dollar or pink pound that we talk about, and then contribute to the economy because where there is money, there is respect. And we need to know that. Yes, it's good to talk about human rights - human rights will come. But before then, we have to acknowledge the power that comes with money.

MARTIN: You're saying that, in part, what you want to do is create kind of a LGBT people as an economic force, as they are in many places in the United States...

ALIMI: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...And in Western Europe.

ALIMI: Exactly.

MARTIN: Yeah. But how is that going to happen when you can't even go home? You can't go home.

ALIMI: I don't have to go home to have an impact, and that is why I'm here, you know. That's why I'm talking to people that are putting the structures in place. It's tapping into my network. It's tapping into my resources. Even away from Nigeria, I set up a small charity now that is raising fund and trying to sponsor young LGBT people through university. I don't have to be there to be able to do that.

MARTIN: Do you envision a time when you'll be able to go back?

ALIMI: I do want to go back, and I know there will be a point in my life that I will go back. I always look at the likes of Wallah Sharinka (ph). He went back after going into exile. He went back home. I know that there will be a point in history of Nigeria where we will look back, and we'll say we're really sorry for what we've done.

And that's what keeps me doing what I'm doing because if I don't believe there is a future, then I can as well just go to bed and do something else. And the future might not come when I'm here, but I know that, you know, the people coming behind will say, yes, he tried.

MARTIN: Bisi Alimi is a Nigerian LGBT advocate. He also works on the prevention of HIV and AIDS. He's an Aspen New Voices fellow. And he was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. on a visit to the city. Thank you so much for joining us.

ALIMI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.