Breaking Social Silences in Nigeria: A Conversation With Gay Rights Activist Michael Ighodaro

At 27, Michael Ighodaro has lived through enough life-changing experiences to fill the pages of a memoir, yet his work has only just begun. From his beginnings as a grassroots organizer supporting homeless gay teens from a street corner in Benin to founding the first Nigerian organization to support HIV-positive gay men and on to becoming one of the leading African gay rights advocates, Michael's accomplishments haven't been gained without struggle. Suffering a brutal attack last October, Michael has been granted political asylum in the U.S. and currently lives in New York, where he and I spoke about the events that brought him here and the current state of affairs for the LGBT community in Nigeria.

Daniel Lyons: What is it like right now to be gay in Nigeria?

Michael Ighodaro: As you may know, Nigeria stigmatizes gay people a lot, so recently they were trying to pass a bill that says any gay person can go to jail for 14 years just for being gay. And if your family -- brothers or sisters, parents -- know that you are gay and they do not turn you in, then they too can go to jail for up to 10 years. It makes life very difficult. You can't get an apartment, for instance, because if a landlord knows that you are gay, then they wont rent to you, for fear of going to jail. Two males cannot share a room, because it would be assumed that they are gay. So, yeah, your mom, your dad, brothers, sisters, landlords, friends, everyone around you cannot know that you are gay, because if they do, they will become agitated and stay away.

Lyons: What kind of effect does this have on the gay community?

Ighodaro: Actually, the gay community is really large in Nigeria. If you need, for instance, to leave your house tonight, there are numbers that you can call where someone would come pick you up, give you a place to stay, give you food, even if they have never met you before. Because of the extreme situation in Nigeria, the gay community has a very strong family sense of unity. If someone is gay in Nigeria, they are my brother, they are my sister, because if we don't have that kind of family, then we don't have any family.

Lyons: Were you able to connect with this community when you were growing up?

Ighodaro: Not at first. I told my parents pretty early on that I was gay. My mom was a church leader, and my dad was a very traditional man. When I told them, they tried everything to make me straight. They took me to witch doctors, they took me to see so many pastors, I had to fast for seven days and nights, so many things. I thought that there must be something wrong with me, but when I started high school, I made friends that were like me. And that love between friends made me realize that I was not alone, and that there was nothing wrong with me. We were really close with each other, and still are, but they are all gone; [they] either left Nigeria or they died.

Lyons: How old were you when you moved out of your parents' home?

Ighodaro: I was 17 when I moved out, and I moved in with one of my friends. His dad was an American, and his mom was Nigerian, and he was gay. They had a big house, and I was allowed to stay there with friends. There were five of us in one room.

Lyons: Was it around this time that you got involved in advocacy?

Ighodaro: Yes, you could say that. We knew other people being thrown out of their parents' houses, so we began to all meet in the same place every day. It was a corner. We called it Jerry's corner [laughs], because the guy's name was Jerry. Anyway, we would meet there everyday around 2 p.m. I got very involved in helping people find places to stay and counseling them, and that is how the activist in me became alive. People began to ask me if I could visit their homes and speak with their mom about being gay. I became known for helping people in this way, and people called me many names, like "tall boy," "universe boy," because I was traveling so much!

Lyons: So from your grassroots beginnings on Jerry's corner, how did your work as an advocate progress?

Ighodaro: Well, at first I began to work on ways to bring large groups of LGBT people together. I helped to organize some gay parties in hotels; we knew some gay hotel managers that would help secure it for a weekend. Gay people from all over Nigeria would come to meet others like them and enjoy a safe space for a couple of days. While organizing one of these events in Abuja, a friend told me about an LGBT organization there, so I went to visit, and I saw them talking about HIV. It was the first time I had seen HIV discussed for gay people. Until then I thought HIV was for heterosexuals, because it was always related to pregnancy or talked about in terms of intercourse with a vagina, and there was nothing about anal sex, so I figured, "OK, it's not for us." When I saw this presentation about how HIV can be contracted through anal sex, I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. After the presentation I spoke to the director of the organization and told him that I wanted to be part of it. He told me that I could start as a peer educator. I started going to the field and handing out condoms and lubricants, giving information about HIV prevention, and they were giving me a stipend, which was $30 a month. For most people being a peer educator was something extra, but for me it was my only job. The organization then hired me as a cleaner for the office. This was a great opportunity for me, because apart from cleaning and running errands, I was asked to help type presentations and reports, to attend meetings, and I began to learn so much about human rights, gay rights, how to talk about HIV and health. I also moved into the office and slept there. Eventually the other staff stopped thinking of me as the cleaner. I was doing so much there that they treated me like a member of the staff, but at the end of the day, I was still cleaning the office.

Lyons: Were you eventually given more responsibility within the organization?

Ighodaro: Yes, and I began working very closely with a doctor there. I would travel with him, doing HIV testing. I was the counselor. The emotions in me were so much to handle, because it was like out of five tests, maybe one would be negative. Counseling so many people who were finding out they were positive made me think about how I had been just as naïve as they were. I had a feeling that I too was positive, but [I] was really scared to get the test. I finally did, though, and tested positive. I immediately became very scared for my friends. After I got tested I started going back to Benin on weekends to visit friends and bring them information with condoms and lubricants. Many of my friends also tested positive, and I realized that there were very few resources for gay people living with HIV. Everything was focused on prevention. So I started focusing more on giving support to people who were positive, because without that support there was a lot of stigma. I started leading a large support group for HIV-positive gay men in Nigeria and eventually started my own organization that provides services to gay men living with HIV. And that is what brought me to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., where I first met you.

Lyons: Right, but then not long after returning home from the conference, you moved to New York. Can you speak a little about what happened during that period and what brought you to New York?

Ighodaro: Sure. So while I was at one of the tents in the conference, this guy from The Washington Post came, and he asked what we were doing. So I said, "Yeah, this is what we do, this why we're here, etc." He was really interested and said that he would like to find out more. I thought he was gay, so I gave him my number and told him that we were all going out for a drink later and that he was welcome to come.

Lyons: Did he tell you that he was a reporter?

Ighodaro: No, he didn't. But he came to the bar that night and asked a lot of questions about what I do in Nigeria and everything. Then, at the end of the conference, he came to one of the closing receptions. He took my picture, which didn't seem strange, because everyone was taking pictures. That was the last time I saw him. A couple days after the conference, someone forwarded me this article that read something like, "Gay Man From Nigeria Enjoys Gay Life In D.C." I couldn't believe it. I had no idea where it came from. I figured it out, but at first I didn't feel bad about it. I figured it would just stay in the U.S. But the day before I left, my friend called me to tell me the article was all over Nigeria. And it was nothing about my work as an activist, but only about me going to gay parties and bars. It was terrible. My American friends told me not to go, but I was like, "But I have a job and a life. I must return." When I got back I had to go straight to the hotel, because my roommate told me that his life was threatened because people had called in to the radio station and said, "I know this guy. I know where he lives." I continued working from the hotel, but one night while waiting for a car, someone called my name, "Michael," so I turned around, and that is the last thing I remember. I had several ribs broken, a shattered hand. It was really nasty. I tried to go to the hospital, but they wouldn't treat me without first seeing a police report.

Lyons: Why did they need a police report?

Ighodaro: Because if you get beaten late in the night, they need to see a police report to assure them that you are not a criminal. But I couldn't go to the police, because if I tell them I was beaten for being gay, they would just detain me. So I went back to the hotel with the pains that I had. In the morning I went to a clinic that was able to help me. But at this point I had so many messages on my phone, on my Facebook, saying that "we are going to find you and kill you" and everything. All my friends were telling me that I must leave. It was a hard thing to hear. But luckily I had an American visa from the conference, so in the next few days I collected my things and left.

Lyons: How soon did you begin the process of applying for political asylum?

Ighodaro: Right away, and it was a very easy process. I was granted asylum within three months. What helped most, though, was beginning to work again. I arrived in October, and already by November I was busy with a lot of advocacy work with the UN, UNAIDS, Housing Works, AMFAR, African Services at GMHC, and still very much involved with the work I began in Nigeria and other African countries, which is really where my heart is.