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Pandemics
8 min

How Nigeria’s COVID-19 lockdown affected queer folks

For some, it was marked by a return to homophobic homes. For others, it was a chance to reflect on their reprieve

On Mar. 29, Nigerian officials ordered a two-week lockdown in two of the country’s states majorly affected by COVID-19: Ogun and Lagos, where I live, as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. When my sister heard the news, she called me to ask if I’d like to spend the week with her and her family. But she wasn’t exactly leaving me the chance to say no. She was worried, naturally, of the uncertainty of not seeing any of her siblings again for a while. And though I have a wealth of unpleasant memories in her house—particularly because of my sexuality,  for which I was forced to attend months-long sessions of conversion therapy veiled as counselling—I also hate to see or hear her worried. So, on the morning of Mar. 30 when  the lockdown order took effect, I left my place for hers.

I figured it wouldn’t be so bad: The lockdown, I thought, would last for only two weeks. But that was naive; the lockdown was extended for another two weeks, and I was stuck in a place I had spent most of my adult life running away from for much longer than I expected.

I cannot stop thinking of other queer people also stuck with family members who share viciously opposing views on our sexuality—relatives who have a history of weaponizing our queerness against us. During lockdown, many vulnerable queer people have no choice but to remain in spaces where acts of homophobia were carried out, knowing they cannot leave no matter how much they want to.

I have also been thinking about queer people on the other side of this spectrum—folks who have been able to stay put, away from their homophobic relatives and acquaintances. For them, this period is a great opportunity to assess the importance of a safe space in their lives.

Finding that safe space is integral given the status of LGBTQ rights in this country. In 2014, the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act was passed in Nigeria by former president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. The law prescribes up to 14 years in prison for those found officiating a same-sex union, setting up an establishment that caters to queer people or gathering with other queer people, and 10 years for simply supporting any of these activities. This legislation has enabled an incalculable level of homophobia, that is as violent as it is unchecked.

Given the obstacles we face outside of a pandemic, I wanted to know how lockdown—an extraordinary measure—was affecting LGBTQ Nigerians. I talked to people dealing with the complicated relationships they share with their families, like me. I talked to people negotiating the state of their mental health, or, as I have multiple times, seriously contemplated suicide. And I talked to people who are in healthier situations—either with trusted friends or alone—without the looming dread that comes with being around homophobic family members. (All of their names have been changed to protect their safety.)

For all of us, this pandemic has intensified the struggle queer folks must endure to live out our truths.

During any other time, Bade would have been in Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State in southwestern Nigeria. Instead, he went home to his parent’s house in Ogun State before the lockdown, concerned about his sparse finances and being away from his family during the pandemic. Bade describes his relationship with his folks as “mostly loving.” “Things go on fine, but a big source of friction between my mum and me is my sexuality,” he says. “My dad is somewhere between indifference and acceptance.”

Bade tells me that the tension between him and his mother often leads to her praying about him, quoting the Bible and holding on strongly to the possibility that her son could one day stop being gay. It’s a reality I know firsthand: When our mother died, I began living with my sister. In early 2017, my brother outed me to her. The memory of the morning she told me I disgusted her and that she had me signed me up for conversion therapy at her church that Sunday returns with a sharpness that throws me off balance. Even today, she still makes references to me getting married to a woman.

For Bade, “The peace of knowing I’m home with people who care for me is there. But there’s always anxiety that at any point I could be alone or be called, and will have to listen to [her] anti-gay rhetoric.”

Fiyin also thought he would be spending a short time at home when he returned to his parents’ place. He moved back home in mid-March due to a university strike with the intention of staying for a week. But the strike coincided with the COVID-19 lockdown. Now, he’s stuck.

Fiyin’s relationship with his parents is also complicated. He’s not out to them, and so much of their amicable candor is thanks to his keeping that part of his identity hidden. Fiyin, who is effeminate, believes that if his parents learned about his sexuality, it would greatly affect their established fondness. But he still longs to open up to them about his queer identity. “Over the past few weeks, I’ve been having this urge to come out to my family. I feel like with the level of closeness I have with them, I at least owe them the truth,” he says. “Sometimes I feel guilty that they don’t know that part of me. So most times I withdraw, and I’m always in my room.”

Withdrawal is a tactic I have had to employ; a matter of being present without actually being present. I often carve out my space away from everyone around me, because to engage too much might tear at the seams of a carefully stitched trauma. During lockdown with my sister, I knew any reference to my sexuality would have made living with her even more unbearable. So I kept my head down.

A health worker sprays disinfectant in an informal roadside market, in an attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19, in Lagos, Nigeria.
A health worker sprays disinfectant in an informal roadside market, in an attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19, in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

This kind of self-censorship is a familiar concept for many queer people. It is a survival tactic we grow into once those in our environment show us how they see our identities.

Ronke, who is staying with her queer friend and her friend’s religious parents, has had to self-censor on many occasions. “My best friend is queer so I feel safe in that aspect with her, but that’s just her. We don’t talk loud at all once the Q-word comes up out of fear,” she says. “I’m also slightly masculine-presenting, so I stay physically distant from my friend when around her parents and other family members.”

But these survival tactics don’t always work. Tohan has long had a fraught relationship with his parents, with whom he lived two years ago. It prompted him to leave and live with a friend before moving out on his own. “Living with them wasn’t great at all. They reminded me of so much trauma I was trying to heal from. Also, they made me go to church, talk to people, go to places I didn’t want to go,” he says. “All this has a very negative impact on my mental health. I never felt a sense of security around them.”

But living alone and finding a safe space, Tohan says, has been a lifesaver—especially during the pandemic. “I’m grateful to be in a place where I can be free and fully express myself. I’m far from my parents and the people that take joy in hurting me,” he says. “Having a place like this feels like bliss. It seems like an altar I could always run to when I’m stranded somewhere.”

With COVID-19 keeping many Nigerians at home, issues around housing are a main concern for young and socially vulnerable queer folks. There are few statistics available to show just how dire the situation is, but many young queer people are kicked out of their homes for being queer, or are harassed while living with homophobic family members. To make matters more precarious, there are currently no active safe houses or housing projects for LGBTQ folks in Nigeria—and the ones that claim to be active haven’t been accessible to many who have tried to use them.

Emmanuel Sadi is the founder of Advogaycy, an Instagram-based queer publication, works at The Initiative For Equal Rights (TIERS), Nigeria’s foremost human rights organization. “I have tried to access safe housing initiatives that advertise space for LGBT+ youths in Lagos when I was in a homeless situation,” he explains. “None of those organizations or facilities respond to emails or have working phone numbers.” Through his work with TIERS, he has been able to access safe housing space in another state to provide temporary shelter for LGBTQ youth rendered homeless. But, Emmanuel says, “The shelter’s capacity is low and it is only available to victims of the most severe circumstances.”

People stand at a bus stop after curfew in Lagos Nigeria.
People stand at a bus stop after curfew in Lagos Nigeria. Credit: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

And staying in a queer-positive space isn’t always so straightforward. Nasif, who is also with his parents during the lockdown, says that, despite his family’s issues with his sexuality, he’d rather spend this time in a safe house. He fears he’d still be treated poorly, or even become a target for staying at a safe house.

“Basically, [my family and I] try to keep things cordial. Everyone is just trying to keep the peace, no conversations about my sexuality,” he says. “To be honest, I’d still have gone home even if there’d been any arrangement in place.  Maybe because I come from a middle-class family and my parents are quite educated. The environment here is not quite toxic—there are only passive-aggressive prayer sessions. They also provide well for me, so I wouldn’t want to take up the space that could really help someone else.”

Nasif adds that he doesn’t trust that organizations would be able to adequately support LGBTQ folks regardless of their best efforts. “NGOs that support LGBT healthcare are dropping the ball everyday,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be at anyone’s mercy like that when I have a good alternative [at home].”

Although the Nigerian government has since eased the lockdown in these three areas, movement remains restricted, with an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in place. With the possibility that work will soon resume, I have returned back to my own place—a flat I share with other people around my age, and for whom my sexuality is no problem. Every day away from my sister’s house is a sort of healing that brings with it a peculiar kind of sadness that comes from the blind homophobia that has consumed the people I love. It’s homophobia that stopped me from telling them more about me during those weeks stuck inside together. The limited time we shared during this pandemic did not suffice, not even the familial bond we share from bearing the same grief; my queerness disrupts their idea of normal.

I am reminded of the importance of safe spaces, especially in a time like this. I am grateful to have a place to come back to where my language isn’t checked and where I can create healthy memories. I have been on the other side, and it is crushing to have to perform and hide even when we are experiencing a global, life-altering event. It is sad that while many things are changing, homophobia remains, like the virus, hardly bending.