In the second interview of the series, Bisi Alimi, a prolific human rights campaigner talks to Elnathan about his life and work. He started his advocacy work at the height of the HIV epidemic within the Nigerian MSM community in the late 90s. He worked as Program Director for the country’s foremost MSM organization “The Alliance Rights Nigeria.”
In 2004, Bisi became the first Nigerian to openly declare his sexuality on National Television, and that incident caused a turning point in the discussion on sex and sexuality in Nigeria. The same year he became the first openly gay man in Nigeria to address the National AIDS conference in Abuja.
In July this year, he was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama for his work with Black Gay men in Europe and was listed number 90 on theIndependent on Sunday’s most influential LGBT in the UK 2012.**********************************************************************************
Elnathan John: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me Bisi.
Bisi Alimi: It’s a pleasure.
Elnathan John: In 2004, on Funmi Iyanda’s show, New Dawnyou became the first Nigerian to openly declare his sexuality on National Television. How did you get on the show?
Bisi Alimi:It was my own way of being a rebel, but more importantly of making sure that people understand there are two sides to a story. I got in touch with Funmi after [Olusegun] Obasanjo in 2004 made the comment that there are no "homosexuals" in Nigeria. I felt that I either had to keep quiet and forever hold my rage, or speak up, and start a conversation on human sexuality in Nigeria. So I got in touch with the program and told them I want to talk about the issue. But after they agreed, I got really scared and was not ready to go on. After months of talking and all I went on the show. Also I wanted it to be Funmi Iyanda I will be speaking to. I had watched New Dawn all my life, and if there was any show on Nigeria television that was ready for such conversation, it was New Dawn.
Elnathan John: Prior to this time, did your family know you were gay?
Bisi Alimi: Yes and No. They knew I had certain feelings for guys and had seen me in compromising positions with guys. They had also seen my friends. But they didn’t understand what was happening as much as I did not. Also they hardly saw me with girls. I did have girlfriends- they were just friends.
I remember my mum always saying, “Whatever you are doing that god is not happy with stop doing it.” Also I never knew what I was doing had a name; I never really knew there were people all over the world like me. To me I was just this weird and confused young man with alien feelings.
Elnathan John: Interesting. So did you first come out to your family or on the show?
Bisi Alimi: I came out to everyone I knew and who knew me the same time I came out to everyone who knew nothing about me; I first came out publicly on the show.
Elnathan John: How did your family react?
Bisi Alimi: It was crazy! Unlike other New Dawnshows, the show was not actually live. So I was watching it the same time everyone in Nigeria was watching; at same time my mum was watching it at work, my dad at home and my brother at work. My family were actually big fans of New Dawn. Just mid way into the show I got a call from my mum crying. Apparently, she had watched the show with her colleagues at work and there I was, her son on TV, saying I am gay.
My dad was also at home with his friends. It was really a bad time for me. I think it was the shock of the moment that made them get really mad at me. I was called to the family house and told off. Furthermore, they agreed that it would be best if I didn’t come to the family house anymore and that they wouldn’t have anything to do with me. It was pretty crazy time for everyone. But I look back and I wouldn’t change anything if I had to do it again.
Elnathan John: Did you worry for your safety?
Bisi Alimi: Yes, I was worried for my safety. But prior to that time, my safety had already been compromised when my university students' union published a story about me. Before that I was indicted in a case I knew nothing about. The only evidence against me was that my friend then was gay.
Elnathan John: Did you think you would get the kind of reaction you got from friends and family?
Bisi Alimi: As for the reactions, I was not really surprised by my family’s, though I was not expecting such rude shock. But it was not really surprising and to be honest, my childhood and relationship within my family had kind of prepared me for the worst in life.
What was really shocking, though, was the reaction from the gay community in Nigeria. Many accused me of seeking fame, many of my friends stopped talking to me. But in all the madness, the only person who stood by me was my best friend who is straight. He would call me and tell me he was there for me if I wanted to talk. It was really shocking but amazing at the same time.
Elnathan John: So you mentioned your childhood preparing you for the worst. Could you expatiate?
Bisi Alimi: I was not the favorite child. We were just two boys from my mum. My older brother and I. So I grew up in childhood rivalry. It was a battle I could never win. He was loved by everyone and I was not. My survival tactics was to put all my energy into my studies. I spent most of my childhood either fighting him and getting punished or just all alone. Also this experience helped me learn to stand up for myself. I reached into my inner self. The reason I don’t take shit from anyone is that I came to a conclusion in my life that the most important person to me in this world is me:If I am happy and fulfilled then I will be able to make others happy and fulfilled. I question things a lot and I am very stubborn. You can never make me do things I don’t want to do. So when I went to New Dawn, it was about me. I was not thinking of my family. When the hostility came however, I reached out to my inner self, I reached out to those painful childhood memories and I found succor in them- I found the courage to tell everyone to “fuck off”.
Elnathan John: So wasn’t your coming out publicly selfish and insensitive to your family?
Bisi Alimi: People have a right to say what they want to say. I have learnt to be responsible to myself. I am sure the same people would accuse me if after many years of lying I married a woman and had children, then got outed by the press. I don’t live a lie. I refuse to live my life for others. I came out because I needed to fight the demons inside me. I came out because I needed to give a face to the truth and challenge the lies. It doesn’t matter who did the coming out. It could have been someone else and people would have said the same thing. I really don’t care what people think. I also think I owe my family the sincerity of who I am as I owe it to many young people in Nigeria struggling with their sexuality to tell them they are not alone.
Elnathan John: How did you move to the UK?
Bisi Alimi: My coming to the UK was not deliberate. I never even thought I would ever find myself here. It was just a matter of fate. In 2006, I was introduced to an organisation here in the UK through a very good friend of mine. It was an HIV organisation. After few months of exchanging emails, I was invited to the UK to attend the CHAPS conference. (That’s UK gay men conference). It was really liberating for me to be with all these gay people from all over the world. I could not hide my excitement. As part of my trip I was invited as the guest of BBC on "BBC Network Africa". I will say that I used the platform to raise the issues of HIV, continuous criminalisation of same sex behavior and relationships and lack of sexual health programs for men who have sex with men.
Well with that I got under the skin of Baba Iyabo* and his cohorts in Abuja. On arrival I was arrested and detained at the airport. After a few hours I was allowed to go and then got picked up again few days later. Between March and April when I left, my life was hell. But the catalyst for my leaving was on the 9th of April 2007 when my house was broken into. I was tied up with my then boyfriend, beaten and almost killed. All my things were taken including my passport. I escaped and as fate will have it, they could not move with all the things they had taken as I raised alarm before they could go too far.
It’s important that I state here that after the coming out drama in 2004, my family really struggled. Mostly my mum, and though she wouldn’t forgive what I did and who I claimed I was, she still reached out to me. It was through her help and that of my older brother that I was able to raise money and I had to run away. That was the only option I had left if I still wanted to remain alive.
Elnathan John: You have struggled with depression. Tell me about it.
Bisi Alimi: Ummm…I hardly talk about it. There any many things in my life I don’t talk about. It took me over 7 years to be able to start talking about my HIV status. I feel so very afraid wanting to talk about my depression because in Nigeria depression equates to "madness" and/or being possessed and i know I am not this.
Throughout my childhood I spent most of my time either alone or fighting my big brother. Growing up I had to struggle with being different. It was even harder than having to fight my brother or for our parents’ attention. Throughout secondary school and university I constantly put myself under pressure to be better than I was the night before. This was driving me to the edge.
After coming out, getting a job and a life was really hard. I could not get a job as everyone has seen my face on TV. It was really hard. I had no money. I was practically living off friends. To pay my rent was really hard. All the while there was no support. Though I have not been diagnosed, I won’t be surprised if I am bipolar. There are days in my life I just get over excited about things, happy and out there and there are days I spend all my times at home, blinds closed and I just cry.
When I came to UK, I met a great guy who gave me a chance to love and be loved and just 7 months into the relationship he died. At that point I knew I could not deal with it anymore. I started self harm, over dosing and attempting suicide. I remembered the day after his burial waking up in a mental home all tied up. It was really scary. I was losing my mind and though I know this is not me, I know that I have become the result of other peoples hate and discrimination, I could not help myself. It was really hard. However, through all this period, I refused to take anti-depressants. I refused counseling at some point- I knew that the only person who can help me is me.
I still have my days, I still feel on the edge but I am better off. I feel that we can start a conversation around mental health in Nigeria. I wish I can let people in Nigeria know that people that have mental health issues need support. Many times it’s all about someone saying it’s going to be okay, someone saying‘I have traveled that road before’. I am happy now that I have good friends and I will say I am one lucky person with over 7 mentors. My boyfriend is also an angel. I wonder what my life would have been without him and all my mentors.
Elnathan John: What would you say is the greatest challenge to a gay person?
Bisi Alimi: There are many of them and to be honest they are all great. Everyone wants and longs for love, from family most importantly and from people whom you love. If the issue of love is resolved, I know others will fit in well as seen in Western countries. There are also the issues of health. Mental health links seriously with sexual health and rights. All these issues are really interconnected. I have seen in the lives of my friends who are loved by their families, they are happier and more fulfilled. They have good control of all areas of their lives. Even the meanest person in the world will change in the face of love. Love does not speak the language of ‘understand’ or ‘tolerate’. Love speaks the language of compassion and inclusion. Hate is the only thing that is selfish and self-centered. It is very destructive.
Elnathan John: Some people say, we don't hate gay people, we just want them to stay out of our faces and business- we don't want to know what they are doing.
Bisi Alimi: Haha... I have heard that many times. And the question is who really is getting into other people's business? The moment we are so concerned to think for others, choose the way other people should live their lives, what is right and what is wrong, then we are putting ourselves in the position of authority. In that case the other person being oppressed will react. It depends on what people mean by "in our face” or “our business”. Straight people kiss and hold hands all the time - that is purely in my face. They tell me who I should have sex with, when I should have sex and how I should have sex - that’s being in my business. They dictate how I should love, who I should love, how I should dress, which god to serve. But the moment you refuse to be told how to do your business, people scream you are putting things in their faces. It’s just pure hypocrisy.
Elnathan John: What do you think about having children?
Bisi Alimi: I really want to have children. I am so looking forward to it and my boyfriend and I are working towards that for now. We are not ready to live together yet and I am so occupied with work. I travel a lot with my work and my boyfriend is also very busy. We think it is not fair to have children when we can’t give him/her 100% of our time. So I am sure with time and good financial base, we will have our children. We are hoping for two as my boyfriend is against having just one child. So we shall see and when it happens I will let you know.
Elnathan John: What do you say to those who say, because you are gay, you have given up the right to have children, or that kids shouldn't be exposed to homosexuality?
Bisi Alimi: The argument that gay people should not have children comes from the myth that gay people are paedophiles. This bogus claim is false and it has been proved as such. It is an argument used by people who cannot take their brain on an intellectual journey. Also there is the belief that if gay people have children they will make their children gay. Hello, I was raised by straight parents and I am gay! Is that not enough proof that these are lame excuses?
The status quo knows that the moment you use the "children" agenda people will get on board, but it is ok as long as it is not the child abuse they do like; child marriage, child labour and child poverty and refusing to educate girl children in 2012.
I am happy to be living in a country where adoption is open to all irrespective of marital status, gender or sexual orientation. There is more proof coming from the West that LGBT people make better parents. I just wish Nigeria and African can stop being the laughing object of other people and wake up to 21st century.
Elnathan John: What do you think of the anti same -sex marriage bill?
Bisi Alimi: It’s a shame we have this bill in Nigeria. What really pains me is that many Nigerian people do not know that this bill has become political machinery for the political class to play on the innocence of the people. Why is it that the bill always comes up during elections? Also I have realised that many Nigerians do not know what really the bill says and what it means. The bill will take Nigeria to the situation we had in Nazi Germany. The bill states that, if you know someone who is gay and you do not report to the State, you will be jailed as well. It doesn’t matter if that person is your sister/brother, son/daughter, or uncle/aunt.
This is a very dangerous thing. I wish that the Nigerian people could stand up and speak against this bill. It is a collaboration between the state and religion to keep Nigeria in total darkness.
I love Nigeria so much and I hope that as the most populous black nation in the world, she will take her place and lead on the issue of equal opportunity that will focus on protecting the rights of vulnerable groups including women, girl children, the physically challenged and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people.
Many a time, I worry for young people in Nigeria who are struggling with their sexuality and constantly being bullied at school, punished and shouted at at home by their parents and told every Sunday by the pastors or on Friday by the imam that they will end up in hell.
Those young people just want someone to tell them they are not alone and that there is nothing wrong with them. I want to see a Nigeria where preservation of fundamental human rights is the principle of our humanity. Where the state is separate from religion and where there is faith in governance. I am sure it is not too much to ask.
Elnathan John: Do you miss home?
Bisi Alimi: Yes I really do miss Nigeria. I even miss Mushin more. I remember my childhood experience growing up in Mushin- those were the days. Since I left Nigeria I have had great opportunities in life to go to places I would never have thought of. I have met people I would never have thought I would meet.
|Bisi and Elio di Rupo (current Prime Minister of Belgium)|
In the midst of all these experiences, I missed home so much. I missed the rough fast lane of Mushin and Lagos. Can you imagine, for almost 6 years I have not been on Okada?
Bisi Alimi: I run a small consultancy firm in London. After over 10 years working in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights, I can stop working for someone take a lead in research, policy and lobbying as well.As for advocacy, I am putting my energy into raising awareness about the increasing intolerance towards LGBT people in Africa. If and when I have the opportunities, I discuss this with world leaders and also with African leaders themselves. I also use my advocacy work to promote the sexual and reproductive health and right of Black gay men in Europe. This is something I am very passionate about. Importantly in the areas of HIV and cancer.
And when I am not doing this, I am either at home playing Mario Kart on my Wii, watching Family Guy, playing Angry Birds on my iPad or just relaxing with a bottle of wine with my boyfriend having a nice evening. He mostly serves as my neutralizer. After all the travelling and stress of it, you just want to come back home into the arms of someone that truly loves you. His arms are my safe place in the world.
Elnathan John: Thank you for talking with me Bisi.
Bisi Alimi: You’re welcome