'I didn't want my mum to know': The men and boys arrested for being gay in Nigeria

'I didn't want my mum to know': The men and boys arrested for being gay in Nigeria

'I didn't want my mum to know': The men and boys arrested for being gay in Nigeria

Updated 22 October 2017, 14:10 AEDT

When police raided a gay nightspot in the back blocks of Lagos, the lives of 40 men and boys, some as young as 13, changed forever.

For 23-year-old Femi*, a night out celebrating a birthday with friends ended with a month and two days in jail because of his sexuality.

In late July, Femi and his friends were among 40 gay men and boys, some as young as 13, who were arrested at a gay nightspot in a hotel in the back blocks of Nigeria's economic capital, Lagos.

They were charged with engaging in "gay activities" by allowing other men "to have carnal knowledge of themselves against the order of nature".

Since his arrest, Femi has been kicked out of home and now shuttles between friends' lounges and lovers' beds.

He has lost his job as a cleaner, left his studies at university and had sex for money to help pay for a ticket to Ghana where he hopes he can slip into obscurity.

He wanted me to 'die in jail'

Femi says he "became gay" at 14 when he fell in love with the man who raped him, an older man who was close friends with his father. He kept the relationship a secret until his father accused him of being "gay and acting girly".

In a country like Nigeria where 91 per cent of people believe homosexuality should be criminalised, his confession only led to more frequent and ferocious beatings from his father.

"When he was angry he would start flogging me," Femi says.

"Any mistake and he would hit me. Every minute, every hour."

After a month and two days in jail following his arrest, an NGO bailed him out.

"I tried to bribe my way out of it and members of the [LGBTI] community went to speak with my father...[he] asked them to let me die in [jail]," Femi says.

Eternal damnation or prison

Gay sex has been outlawed in Nigeria since the time of British rule but recently the situation has become more dire for Nigeria's LGBTI community.

In 2014 former president Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill which proscribed penalties of 14 years' jail for same-sex marriage and 10 years' for same-sex "amorous relationships".

In the country's Muslim north, 12 states have adopted Sharia, with punishment for gay sex including lashings, jail and death by stoning.

So far no-one has been sentenced to death and convictions are rare.

Days after the hotel arrests, the Lagos State Attorney-General Adeniji Kazeem said the tough stance taken with the men was to help put "a stop to the exploitation of under-aged children" by gay men.

But Doyin*, 15, says no sex with minors took place.

Doyin was in jail for seven days before he was released, but unlike many, he wasn't fazed by the consequences.

"My parents know I'm gay. This is my lifestyle. This is what I choose and they say I should live my life," he says.

"A gay is a human being and it's God that created me like this.

"I don't have feelings for women. I have feelings for men. A gay is a human being [and that's] why I'm bold."

'I didn't want my mum to know'

For Tunde*, the consequences were foremost in his mind.

"The police came through and started beating us so I covered my face because I didn't want my mum to know," he says.

Bundled into a cell with hardened criminals, Tunde says he was beaten up by another prisoner, called the President, who was instructed by police to extract confessions.

"This is when I had no choice … I said I was gay," he says.

Along with the other men, Tunde pleaded not guilty to the charge in court, but his picture, name and HIV status were taken by local media and splashed across newspapers around the nation.

"When I came out my mum found out and the people I work with were abusing me saying I'm a girl," he says.

"My grandma bought the newspaper and said I was not part of their family anymore and that I should leave the house."

The men return to court on November 22.

Everything has a price

Nigeria is an incredibly divided country but Lagos activist Peter Kass says hostility towards gay people was one issue that cut across region and religion.

His NGO — Access to Health and Rights Development Initiative — was at the hotel conducting HIV tests for some of the patrons on the night of the arrests.

Nigeria has the highest rate of HIV in west and central Africa, according to the United Nations, with an estimated 3.5 million people infected with the virus.

Akin* and his team conducted 25 HIV tests that night — they all came back positive.

He spent a night in lock up where he says he was "beaten with a stick, hammer and plywood".

"There was a hall in the police station premises and they gathered us and stripped us and said we should sleep on the floor."

About 70 people were arrested that night, but according to Akin about 30 men were able to pay between $18 and $36 for police to let them out.

Bisi Alimi was the first gay man in Nigeria to come out on national television, later seeking asylum in England. He returned to Nigeria to support these men in court.

He says that had local media not found out about the arrest the police would have been paid off and "the boys would be home".

"These are poor gay men. Class and economic power play a part here," he says.

Anti-gay vigilantes and cat-fishers

The situation for LGBTI people in northern Nigeria is more difficult than for those living in the south, with at least 114 gay men and women having been arrested since January this year.

"What we've seen are people arming themselves with these laws and arresting people indiscriminately," LGBT and women's rights activist Dorothy Aken`Ova says.

"Any time the Hisbah (religious police) catch wind of any gathering they'll bust up the party and arrest and torture them."

In August, she says, a 17-year-old schoolboy was allegedly beaten to death by some of his classmates in Jigawa state because they suspected he was gay.

"The [classmates] were taken to police custody but in their statements they said they did it to correct [the student who died] from the social vice because he was suspected to be gay."

Back in Lagos, Mr Kass says gangs used social media to catch unsuspecting gay men out to either beat them up or exhort money from them.

"What people do is ping you or you get chatting and then you talk about hooking up," he says.

"When you get there you discover the person isn't even gay and there are six or seven men there … who are just out there to beat up gay men."

'I'm going to be killed'

The struggle faced by gay Nigerian women is often overlooked.

Rita*, 39, says it was no "excuse" that because gay men make up the majority of those arrested and abused that "lesbian and bisexual rights violations" should be neglected.

She says she knew she was attracted to women when she was 15 but "came to terms that loving in Nigeria was going to be tough because of religious and cultural influences".

To please her parents she married a man four years ago but after her father died she divorced.

Rita says her ex-husband vowed to teach her "a lesson [she] would never forget" and last month came to her house with two policemen, where she was caught in bed with her partner.

She says the police slapped and kicked her and forced her to sleep on the floor of the police station for four days before a friend negotiated her release for $225.

But her ex-husband didn't stop there. On September 17 Rita said she was walking home at night when she was attacked by four men.

"They kept hitting me with sticks and stones," she says.

"I was thinking this is my end. I am going to be killed.

"I heard them saying, 'So, I left my marriage for a woman? Do I know it is a crime [to be gay] and 14 years' jail?'

"One said they should burn me alive with a car tyre. I was just crying, pleading for my life."

Nearby security guards scared the attackers away but Rita says her ex-husband sent her a message saying that next time she would be attacked with acid.

Battered and bruised, Rita fled to Canada and is currently seeking asylum.

* Names have been changed