Exclusive Interview With Rashidi Williams

"[W]e can compel the Nigerian public to sit back and ask questions themselves as to the normality of heterosexuality and what makes homosexuality deviant, but that starts with LGBT people accepting themselves. I do not force people to come out, but I am a huge fan of coming out."
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Udoka Okafor: Tell me a little bit about yourself: your likes, your dislikes, and your philosophies.

Rashidi Williams: Rashidi Williams is a social entrepreneur, HIV and sexual health educator, and a human rights defender for people marginalized and discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. I love to play and dance in the rain, but I am grown past that now. But I like traveling, music, reading and cooking. I detest, with passion, lies. I am someone who strongly believes in the philosophy that says, "Do unto others as you want them to do unto you." If we all can abide by this simply rule or logic, the world would be a better place for us all. We would not consider skin color, religion, HIV status, nationality and what have you as a criterion in judging other people. What would be principal in our rationality is that humanity comes first, and that life after conception and its living is sacred. We would live with others in the full comprehension that our living experiences and realities are diverse, and that we need to respect and recognize these experiences and realities as a valid variation of humanity.

Okafor: A gang of men attacked you and a friend because of your sexual orientation, but you could not report the crime or tell the hospitals what incited the attack, out of fear. How trapped and let down did you feel in that moment?

Williams: That moment, it took away the dignity of my humanity. It was another form of crucifixion that I could not comprehend. But then when homophobia stares at you in face and you have the opportunity of confronting it without going to the police, you better do it. That was what my friend and I did. We confronted the attackers, turned it into a street fight, and they flew one after the other. An impact of this confrontation was that sense of respect within the community. Yes, we are homosexuals, but also have it in mind that we are proud of who we are. That was our point to the community. One reason why we never went to the police was that it could become a point of extortion; I guess you know the Nigerian police.

Okafor: Based on that experience, how do you think that discrimination and marginalization have secluded the gay community from access to police services, health care services, and other public services, and do you project that such restrictions, if any, would only increase in the future?

Williams: You just nailed it. How can you have access to the police and other state agencies when the law brands you a criminal? If Nigeria does not deal with all the discriminatory and repressive laws within its statues, and those that are in conflict with the provisions of Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution, the trajectory will be increased attacks on members of the LGBT community and those whose sexuality is constantly being questioned. I do not think we need a demigod to teach us that. The law protects the lives of people, and where these laws put people's lives in danger, a democratic and right-thinking government will act swiftly to expunge such laws and legislate laws that will protect the most vulnerable in the society, even though it is in conflict with the religious dogma found within its society.

Going back to the issue of the police, it is not common sense to go report yourself to the police as a homosexual person, where existing legislative provisions says you are criminal. In as much as some of us have come to the acceptance of our sexuality, we still fear stigmatization and discrimination. So we would all rather be on the down and access state services in secrecy. The repercussion is on public health and development. The consequence is that our police force is not competent enough to handle matters relating to safety and security for all citizens, because there are cases where one's imputed sexuality have resulted in attacks and violation.

Okafor: I read an article on BBC News titled "Inside Nigeria's secret gay club," one that you were featured in. This secret gay club is used as a shield from the world, both in its discreetness and in its ability to provide a comfortable haven for gay people. Do you think that this secret gay club is symptomatic of a larger problem wherein the gay community in Nigeria is unconstitutionally repressed of their freedom of expression?

Williams: Yes, it is symptomatic of the larger problem that the Nigerian society is faced with. The places are secret because the people are still hiding. Change the law and see what happens to these secrets hideouts. I must add that these secret places are for the so-called highly placed in the society. There are other places where LGBT people meet and socialize that are known of by state agencies.

Okafor: In the aforementioned article, Abike Dabiri, a member of the House of Representatives, said, "You have a right to your sexual preference but by trying to turn it into marriage do you realise you could be infringing on the human rights of the other person who finds it repulsive?" Doesn't that statement sound a bit one-sided in that the human rights of the gay community are being violated every single day and nothing is being done to address that?

Williams: Abike Dabiri contradicts herself. Yes, people have a right to their sexual preference, but where that sexual preference infringes on the rights of others, the state has to act to protect the most vulnerable. That is not the case you have in Nigeria. Heterosexuals do not want to respect the sexual preferences and/or orientation of homosexuals, trans and bisexual people, whilst homosexuals have always respected heterosexuality. On the issue of marriage, it is also a preference, so if I have a right to my sexual preference, should I not also have the sole right to decide the gender of my partner?

We are quick to forget that marriage is a conscious choice that we make, whilst sexual preference is not. Sexual orientation/preference is an intrinsic part of a human being and marriage in itself; the gender of the persons involved is not repulsive whatsoever. I must be quick to add here that this is not advocacy for gay marriage in Nigeria. It is simply advocacy against discrimination and repression on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is the attitude of those who view same-sex marriage as offensive and repulsive that is indeed repulsive and infringes on the rights of LGBT people to live life in a dignifying way and in confirmation to their sexuality. This fear of gay marriage have led them to draft this proposition with stricter punitive measures, and it is appalling to find persons such as Abike Dabiri in support of discrimination and incarceration of LGBT people.

Okafor: You are the executive director of Queer Alliance Nigeria. Can you tell me about the organization and its objectives?

Williams: Queer Alliance envisions a Nigerian society that is recognizing of sexual diversity and embraces human rights for all citizens without recourse to any status. Our mission is to promote the human rights of sexual minorities by enhancing, supporting and promoting knowledge on issues of sexual diversity and gender justice, whilst aiming to improve the living realities of LGBT people in Nigeria through advocacy, leadership development, research and media.

A driving force for us at Queer Alliance is that for change to happen, LGBT people need be involved in the polity. This is on the low, and where we are still forced by the law and religion to conform to heterosexuality. So at Queer Alliance, one thing we are set out to do is to mobilize leaders from within the sexual minorities' community to form a critical mass of conscientized individuals for active, constructive participation of sexual minorities in public discourses.

Okafor: I am sure that you have heard about the draconian anti-gay bill that was passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives. What are your thoughts on the bill? The bill also states that anyone who participates in a gay organization is liable to serve 10 years in prison. How, in your opinion, does that affect Queer Alliance Nigeria?

Williams: First and foremost, the bill and its contents are unconstitutional. It is against the spirit of international treaties and laws that protect from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, to which Nigeria is signatory to most. It is anti-people, anti-democracy and practically ridiculous. And then you ask yourself, "Why is the title 'Same-Sex Marriage'?" The contents of the proposed law deviates from its title. It is an innovation to Section 214, 215 and 217 of the Nigerian Penal Code. In my opinion, it kind of implies that if section 214, 215 and 217 were products of colonialism and we as sexual minorities have constantly told the world that what colonialism brought to Africa was homophobia where it met homosexuality, it clarifies that our leaders want to legislate a law that is truly un-African, post-colonialist, in the name of protecting morality.

We cannot live in a democratic society and watch the core of democracy -- the freedom of association, speech and expression -- restricted or denied on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The sexual lives of citizens have no business on the tables of lawmakers as far as it not being done in public and done in the privacy of the two consenting adults. I often wonder why the same lawmakers cannot legislate against anything that is not penile-vaginal amongst heterosexuals. It signifies how corruption has eaten deep into the bone marrow of Nigeria, and our leaders are using the power of religion and tradition to legislate citizens' lives, deceive the people and turn their attention away from the real problems facing the country, cover up for their corrupt acts and expose their own citizens to danger on the basis of sexual preference. In another sense, it could be a political tool to outwit political opponents who are deemed sexual minorities. Either way, it is a heinous legislative priority.

If the bill becomes law, it simply means the entity called Queer Alliance -- its staff, volunteers and allies -- are criminal and will get up to 14 years and 10 years in jail, respectively. What more can I say?

Okafor: Religion plays a huge role in Nigeria's stark conservatism, and yet Bishop Desmond Tutu said, "I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven.... I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic, and that is how deeply I feel about this." How, in your opinion, can Nigerians transcend this ludicrous idea that their religion is a free pass to be homophobic?

Williams: Long before Desmond Tutu made this comment, I had always expressed my opinion that the God that created me created me in his homosexual image. Well, the creator did create another in his heterosexual image. So I align myself with the Bishop Tutu. I rather enjoy my sexuality here on Earth and head to homophilic hell than live in hypocrisy of my sexuality on this planet in the name of conforming to religious dogma and narrow down to a homophobic heaven.

I do not think that religious Nigerians question the so-called teachings of their religions and its sacred texts. To transcend this preposterous idea, Nigerians need to begin to ask question on what their religious texts imply on these issues rather than accept that some verses of a book written in archaic times are relevant in today's world. Indeed, it is relevant only if we ask the questions to point us to the reasons why these things were written down in the texts as we are being told to believe. Let me add: There is no religion that is a free pass to homophobia. We have been conditioned by these religions to be homophobic, and we need to decondition ourselves from this. And it means confronting the dogma of these religions. It is an act of repentance and asking God for guidance to lead us right in dealing with our fellow human beings.

Okafor: How do you think that gay rights activists can propel the discussion of gay issues in Nigeria, and what, in your opinion, is the best way to get Nigerians to accept the gay community? What advice do you have for young, budding gay rights activists in Nigeria?

Williams: First things first: We cannot do LGBT rights advocacy in the dark. LGBT people need to embrace their sexuality and come out. It starts with those of us who say we are the frontliners for this community. In my opinion, we can compel the Nigerian public to sit back and ask questions themselves as to the normality of heterosexuality and what makes homosexuality deviant, but that starts with LGBT people accepting themselves. I do not force people to come out, but I am a huge fan of coming out. There is this tension you are relieved of once you are out. I am living example of it.

My advice for budding gay rights activists in Nigeria is to be consistent, committed and transparent in conduct and advocacy. It includes coming out of the closet, setting an example for community members to follow. It is fulfilling our mission and conducting ourselves in a way that is true to our identity.

Okafor: I think I watched an interview where you said that if push comes to shove, you were not going underground or to a foreign country, that you were going to stay and fight for gay rights. Has your view changed since that interview? If not, to what extent is that view valid? I mean, how much danger is too much?

Williams: The bill has been adopted by the two chambers of Parliament, and I am still here fighting for my space and that of all LGBT Nigerians to live in dignity. But there would be no common sense if danger looms on my life to remain. As far as this body of mine lives, it will always voice out against discrimination of any kind, and not just LGBT rights!

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