Exiled from home, Nigeria’s gay community builds new life in US

NYC community of Nigerian gay refugees grows in response to law criminalizing same-sex relationships back home

Michael Ighodaro, right, organized a Global Day of Action in support of gay rights in Nigeria.
Elizabeth D. Herman for Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK — Michael Ighodaro slowly rose to his feet, his bloodshot eyes scanning the room for support. The young man, who is HIV-positive, is a regular at these meetings, where he works with advocates of New York City’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to address issues of HIV education. Tonight, he invited those in attendance to participate in an international protest against Nigeria’s anti-gay legislation to be held on Friday, drawing encouraging comments from the audience.

“We want to get the world to know what’s going on in Nigeria,” he said. “Make it more aware that it’s a serious issue and that they should do something about it.”

In his native Nigeria, participation in such a protest would get the 27-year-old Ighodaro jailed for 10 years or possibly even killed.

In January, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill into law that criminalizes homosexual relationships and advocating for LGBT rights. Dozens of people were arrested following the implementation of the law, many were beaten and some were killed by angry mobs.

There are increasing numbers of reports of extortion and attacks on homosexuals by police and what Kent Klindera, director of amfAR, the foundation for AIDS research that provides support to Nigerian communities working to reduce HIV, said are “neighborhood vigilantes” who are seeking to purge the country of gays. Such reports compelled Ighodaro to organize a Global Day of Action at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and other cities in a global stand against homophobia.

The attacks he continues to hear about in Nigeria are a not-so-distant memory.

Posters created by LGBT advocates for an upcoming protest against Nigeria's anti-gay law.
Elizabeth D. Herman for Al Jazeera America

A new life

One September evening in 2012 in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, Ighodaro’s ribs and hand were broken in what he believes was a homophobic attack. The following morning, a barrage of death threats filled his phone and email inboxes. Fearing for his life, he left his homeland and sought asylum in the United States. The multiple-entry visa stamped in his passport from an earlier visit to Washington, D.C., to attend an international AIDS conference became his entry ticket to a new life.

“I came here without any preplanning, without nothing, I just came here,” he told Al Jazeera. “Staying (in Nigeria) was getting more serious than everyone thought it would be.”

After fleeing for his life from Nigeria, Ighodaro, 27, sought asylum in the United States.
Elizabeth D. Herman for Al Jazeera America

For two months after his arrival, he wasn’t able to sleep. Processing the violence he experienced kept him awake as he moved from couch to couch in the homes of friends of friends. When his third roommate was shot on the street in Brooklyn, Ighodaro was forced to move and find a place in the Bronx.

“That got me really scared,” he said.

He now lives in a government-subsidized apartment, where a stew of chicken, plantains and spicy herbs regularly simmers on the stove.

The heady aroma is a reminder of his nanny who taught him how to cook back in Nigeria. She knew he was gay “long before my parents did,” he said, smiling. After visits to witch doctors and other attempts to “make (him) become straight,” his mother told her teenage son to leave.

“So I went inside, packed my stuff and left,” he said. They haven’t been in touch since.

Ighodaro joined an underground community of gay rights activists in Abuja who offered him a place to stay and a new purpose in life. He replaced his old aspirations of getting married and becoming an engineer with a determination to become a passionate activist for gay rights, educating people about HIV and the risk of infection. Four men of similar backgrounds became his roommates and, in time, his family.

Growing community

Now they’re all gone, he said. Two left Nigeria; two others have moved from the home they shared.

“People who are leaving, it's increasing on a daily basis,” Ighodaro said. 

“You don’t want to stay back in a country where right now there’s a law that can send you to jail for 14 years or you can get beaten to death or you can’t get access to health care services if you’re gay,” he said. "You don't want to live there."

Aaron Morris, legal director at Immigration Equality, a national advocacy organization that assists LGBT individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. and promotes HIV immigration rights, told Al Jazeera he expected the number of Nigerians in the U.S. seeking his help to increase next month in response to the new law. In the first two months of 2014, 35 Nigerians contacted the organization for help, said communication director Diego Ortiz, compared with 52 in all of 2013.

Photo Gallery: LGBT activists in New York City

Even though “it was not safe before the law changed in Nigeria,” Morris said, “they’ve become a lot more scared.”

One 37-year-old bisexual LGBT-rights activist from Abuja who arrived in New York City last month is one of those seeking assistance from Immigration Equality. Stuck in a shelter with no money or job, he asked to remain anonymous. He plans to wear a mask to Friday’s protest to protect his family in Nigeria — two daughters and a wife — whom he hopes to bring to the U.S. if his asylum application is successful.

Anebi, a 38-year-old immigrant who goes by a nickname — given to him by his grandmother — for fear of retribution, is also a member of the growing community of gay refugees in the U.S. Like Ighodaro, he fled Nigeria after being beaten “a lot of times” and receiving death threats on his phone. As with Ighodaro, a visa for an international conference on HIV/AIDS became his safe passage to the U.S.

“I came because I wanted to leave everything behind and start a new life,” he told Al Jazeera.

His struggle for survival since arriving in New York two years ago has left its mark. “Activism has cost me so much that I don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore,” he said. But, he added, when it comes to Friday’s global day of action for Nigeria, “I can’t sit still.”

An international network of activists will stage protests at Nigerian consulates in cities such as Johannesburg, Sydney, Cape Town, Nairobi and London.

They’re counting on the support of hundreds of people worldwide, as well as celebrities such as Ellen Page, who publicly came out last month, and Janet Jackson to join their cause. Bisi Alimi, who became the first Nigerian gay man to publicly come out on television, is leading the protest in the United Kingdom. The activists plan to collect signatures for a petition to challenge the anti-gay law in a Nigerian court.

Alimi told Al Jazeera he was lucky to escape to London in 2007 after receiving death threats. He was always “in and out of police cells,” he said.

“I lost so many friends, many of them killed — male and female.”

Through the campaign, he hopes the world will take notice of their suffering.

“This is very much like a war for the LGBT community in Nigeria,” he said.

Culture shock

For Ighodaro, life outside activism goes on. He found a job as a social worker at Housing Works, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit dedicated to providing social services to people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. It is also a portal for Nigerian refugees through which he, Anebi and others passed as they sought and received assistance.

Up at 6 a.m. and in bed by 11 p.m., Ighodaro crisscrosses New York in search of the homeless and sick, and spends his evenings at meetings, such as the ACT UP activists' group where he rallied support for Friday’s protest. He is a member of the organization's HIV education unit, and finds ample opportunity for putting his skills to work.

“What they do is somewhat the same as what I did in Nigeria,” he said. Even the poverty felt bizarrely familiar, he added.

“I thought everything was gold and silver here,” Ighodaro said. But now only weekend trips to Times Square remind him of the New York of his dreams.

Still, if his activism is much the same, the style and risks involved are very different.

“Activism is stronger in Africa,” he said.

“Here, it’s less grassroots. It’s less peer-to-peer” than what he’s used to in Nigeria, where he personally handed out condoms and lubricants to people on the streets, and helped administer HIV tests to individuals at risk. In the U.S. the information on HIV prevention is out there, but doesn’t always reach the mostly black, impoverished communities in New York, he said, blaming class differences between social workers and beneficiaries for the perceived lack of impact.

One day, Ighodaro hopes to return to Nigeria “but in a different capacity,” he said. Having dropped out of school for fear of persecution, he is applying to colleges because he believes a degree will help him find work as a “professional activist.” And, he added, he can go back only “when I become a U.S. citizen.” 

“That’s something to look forward to.”

After a long day of planning, Ighodaro heads back home on the New York City subway.
Elizabeth D. Herman for Al Jazeera America

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