What it’s like to be openly ‘out’ in Nigeria
The Nigerian LGBT-activist Pamela Adie shares with Love Matters what it’s like to be rejected over something she can’t control and talks about her life as an openly lesbian woman.
Tell us a little more about yourself – who is Pamela? What do you do, what drives you?
I’m a tennis-loving, ManU-supporting, out lesbian in one of the most homophobic countries in West Africa. Growing up in a Catholic family in Nigeria, which is generally a very religious, conservative, and patriarchal nation, I never thought of myself as being a lesbian; even though I’ve always been attracted to women.
Unfortunately, it took a heterosexual marriage for me to finally come into my truth about my sexual orientation. And that self-acceptance is what began my journey as an LGBT-rights activist.
My coming out was a personal decision before it was a political one; I just wanted to be free from the pain of living a double life. When I left my marriage and came out to my family, I didn’t have a grand plan to become one of the most visible members of the LGBTQ-community in Nigeria.
I just knew I had to come out of the shadows and be honest about who I love to the people who matter the most to me. But I was not prepared for the level of rejection and hostility I experienced as a result, but there was no turning back.
I was finally free; the closet door was broken forever.
Since then, I have realized the importance of visibility in normalizing the existence of LGBTQ people in Nigeria. Eighty-three per cent of Nigerians say they don’t know anyone who is homosexual, and 61 per cent say homosexuals shouldn’t have access to public services. I find it horrifying that there is such widespread ignorance and hate for people who just want to live their lives, and that’s why I am so committed to reducing the levels of casual and violent homophobia in my country.
Does homophobia affect your life? Are there things or situations you struggle with?
To be quite honest, my daily life is fairly free of homophobia. When I’m out in public, people sometimes recognize me and ask to take photos, but these interactions are generally quite positive and pleasant. I do sometimes get homophobic comments online, but I don’t pay attention to those people because they don’t have any real impact on my life.
I must say, however, that things haven’t quite been the same with my family since I told them about
my sexual orientation. Especially with my mum. But over the past few years, the tension has slowly reduced. I hope that, in the future, we will be able to go back to the way things were when they believed I was straight.
Of course, I realize that my experience is not necessarily representative of every LGBT person in Nigeria; some people experience high levels of interpersonal homophobic violence in their daily lives. I run a blog where sometimes people send in submissions, and it breaks my heart to see the kinds of dehumanizing
experiences some members of the LGBTQ community have to deal with.
We still have a long way to go in ensuring that all LGBTQ people can live freely in Nigeria.
When you came out, what were the reactions of people around you?
My family thought I might be possessed by an evil spirit – talk about Nollywood ideas about how people ‘turn’ gay, haha!
Jokes aside though, it was deeply painful to be rejected by the people I love the most as a result of
something I have no control over. My father made an effort to be understanding, but my relationship with my mum still hasn’t recovered.
It’s almost as if they no longer know who I am, despite my sexual orientation being only a small part of my identity.
It was very difficult to come out of the struggle to accept myself, only to be faced with rejection instead of the support I so desperately needed. But it made me stronger and I have accepted that it is part of my journey.
I lost some friends, unsurprisingly, but I also gained my tribe. Being out enabled me to find and become part of a community of some really brilliant, resilient, big-hearted people, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.
You were married before you came out. How did it feel to always have to hide your actual sexual orientation?
I got married because I knew there was a social expectation that young women in Nigeria should get married. While I was planning my wedding, I was still in a long-term relationship with my girlfriend of almost a decade. But even then I believed that getting married to a man would somehow ‘cure’ me of my same-sex
At the time, I had still not accepted that I was not attracted to men; I hadn’t come out to myself. My marriage was to a very thoughtful, good man by any standards, but it still felt like a prison because deep down I could not ignore the fact that something was off. Both of us really tried to make it work, but I just could not manufacture either the desire or happiness for my husband that people are supposed to feel when they are in love.
Throughout my marriage, I had so much anxiety about someone discovering my ‘secret’. I never actually broke up with my girlfriend; even after I got married. I was always terrified that someone would discover the nature of our particular friendship.
I really wanted to be able to stop loving her, but when I realized that getting married had not ‘changed’ me, I was forced to confront the reality of my sexual orientation.
It was a very dark time and I struggled with depression for two years. The psychological burden of being in denial and trying to cope with my anxiety and depression was too much to bear.
To make matters worse, I had no one to talk to or help me make sense of my struggle. That’s why I eventually chose to come out: I needed to escape the emotional pain and turmoil.
There’s a lot of negative news that comes out of Nigeria with regards to LGBT people. Can you share some positive developments you have witnessed?
There is so much progress being made on many fronts in the struggle for LGBTQ-rights in Nigeria! Believe it or not, hostility from the government always acts as a galvanizing force that strengthens, deepens, and broadens the movement.
Since the early 2000s, members of the community have spearheaded various organizations, both formal and informal, that offer education, healthcare services, legal, financial, and psychosocial support to LGBTQ folks across the country.
Organisations like The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs), the Equality Hub, the International Center for Advocacy on Rights to Health (ICARH), One Action Foundation, the Rustin Times, and many others are driving the conversation forward. Films are being made, media engagement is happening at various levels, community health interventions are being organised, legal precedents are being set, and the struggle is inching forward slowly but surely.
We understand that this is a long-term fight but we’re optimistic because we know where we were and we see where we are now. There is plenty of cause for hope.
I can’t wait for the day when 83 per cent of Nigerians not only know an LGBTQ person, but openly support their rights to exist without persecution or prosecution.
Do you have any encouraging words of advice for Nigerian LGBTQ people who haven’t come out yet?
You deserve a good life, in or out of the closet. Be kind to yourself; do your best not to internalize the hatred and ignorance of people who should know better.