I will call him Sochukwuma. A thin, smiling boy who liked to play with us girls at the university primary school in Nsukka. We were young. We knew he was different, we said, ‘he’s not like the other boys.’ But his was a benign and unquestioned difference; it was simply what it was. We did not have a name for him. We did not know the word ‘gay.’ He was Sochukwuma and he was friendly and he played oga so well that his side always won.
In secondary school, some boys in his class tried to throw Sochukwuma off a second floor balcony. They were strapping teenagers who had learned to notice, and fear, difference. They had a name for him. Homo. They mocked him because his hips swayed when he walked and his hands fluttered when he spoke. He brushed away their taunts, silently, sometimes grinning an uncomfortable grin. He must have wished that he could be what they wanted him to be. I imagine now how helplessly lonely he must have felt. The boys often asked, “Why can’t he just be like everyone else?”
Possible answers to that question include ‘because he is abnormal,’ ‘because he is a sinner, ‘because he chose the lifestyle.’ But the truest answer is ‘We don’t know.’ There is humility and humanity in accepting that there are things we simply don’t know. At the age of 8, Sochukwuma was obviously different. It was not about sex, because it could not possibly have been – his hormones were of course not yet fully formed – but it was an awareness of himself, and other children’s awareness of him, as different. He could not have ‘chosen the lifestyle’ because he was too young to do so. And why would he – or anybody – choose to be homosexual in a world that makes life so difficult for homosexuals?
The new law that criminalizes homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic. The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems. Above all else, however, it is unjust. Even if this was not a country of abysmal electricity supply where university graduates are barely literate and people die of easily-treatable causes and Boko Haram commits casual mass murders, this law would still be unjust. We cannot be a just society unless we are able to accommodate benign difference, accept benign difference, live and let live. We may not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but our response cannot be to criminalize it.
A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria, attacks on people ‘suspected’ of being gay. Ours is a society where men are openly affectionate with one another. Men hold hands. Men hug each other. Shall we now arrest friends who share a hotel room, or who walk side by side? How do we determine the clunky expressions in the law – ‘mutually beneficial,’ ‘directly or indirectly?’
Many Nigerians support the law because they believe the Bible condemns homosexuality. The Bible can be a basis for how we choose to live our personal lives, but it cannot be a basis for the laws we pass, not only because the holy books of different religions do not have equal significance for all Nigerians but also because the holy books are read differently by different people. The Bible, for example, also condemns fornication and adultery and divorce, but they are not crimes.
For supporters of the law, there seems to be something about homosexuality that sets it apart. A sense that it is not ‘normal.’ If we are part of a majority group, we tend to think others in minority groups are abnormal, not because they have done anything wrong, but because we have defined normal to be what we are and since they are not like us, then they are abnormal. Supporters of the law want a certain semblance of human homogeneity. But we cannot legislate into existence a world that does not exist: the truth of our human condition is that we are a diverse, multi-faceted species. The measure of our humanity lies, in part, in how we think of those different from us. We cannot – should not – have empathy only for people who are like us.
Some supporters of the law have asked – what is next, a marriage between a man and a dog?’ Or ‘have you seen animals being gay?’ (Actually, studies show that there is homosexual behavior in many species of animals.) But, quite simply, people are not dogs, and to accept the premise – that a homosexual is comparable to an animal – is inhumane. We cannot reduce the humanity of our fellow men and women because of how and who they love. Some animals eat their own kind, others desert their young. Shall we follow those examples, too?
Other supporters suggest that gay men sexually abuse little boys. But pedophilia and homosexuality are two very different things. There are men who abuse little girls, and women who abuse little boys, and we do not presume that they do it because they are heterosexuals. Child molestation is an ugly crime that is committed by both straight and gay adults (this is why it is a crime: children, by virtue of being non-adults, require protection and are unable to give intimate consent).
There has also been some nationalist posturing among supporters of the law. Homosexuality is ‘unafrican,’ they say, and we will not become like the west. The west is not exactly a homosexual haven; acts of discrimination against homosexuals are not uncommon in the US and Europe. But it is the idea of ‘unafricanness’ that is truly insidious. Sochukwuma was born of Igbo parents and had Igbo grandparents and Igbo great-grandparents. He was born a person who would romantically love other men. Many Nigerians know somebody like him. The boy who behaved like a girl. The girl who behaved like a boy. The effeminate man. The unusual woman. These were people we knew, people like us, born and raised on African soil. How then are they ‘unafrican?’
If anything, it is the passage of the law itself that is ‘unafrican.’ It goes against the values of tolerance and ‘live and let live’ that are part of many African cultures. (In 1970s Igboland, Area Scatter was a popular musician, a man who dressed like a woman, wore makeup, plaited his hair. We don’t know if he was gay – I think he was – but if he performed today, he could conceivably be sentenced to fourteen years in prison. For being who he is.) And it is informed not by a home-grown debate but by a cynically borrowed one: we turned on CNN and heard western countries debating ‘same sex marriage’ and we decided that we, too, would pass a law banning same sex marriage. Where, in Nigeria, whose constitution defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, has any homosexual asked for same-sex marriage?
This is an unjust law. It should be repealed. Throughout history, many inhumane laws have been passed, and have subsequently been repealed. Barack Obama, for example, would not be here today had his parents obeyed American laws that criminalized marriage between blacks and whites.
An acquaintance recently asked me, ‘if you support gays, how would you have been born?’ Of course, there were gay Nigerians when I was conceived. Gay people have existed as long as humans have existed. They have always been a small percentage of the human population. We don’t know why. What matters is this: Sochukwuma is a Nigerian and his existence is not a crime.
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