OPINION: Nigerians who don’t conform to gendered expectations pay the highest price

Saturday, 4 November 2023 08:00 GMT

Some of the men charged with public displays of affection with members of the same sex are seen gathered outside a court in Lagos, Nigeria October 27, 2020. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Two mass arrests in three months have shown who is most vulnerable under these laws

Obinna Tony-Francis Ochem is a freelance writer and journalist covering gender, class, sexuality and climate change.

As a young boy growing up in Lagos, I presented as feminine. I was mocked for the way I talked, walked and gestured, and in a way, felt lucky to have grown out of these tendencies during my teenage years. But those who grew into adulthood unafraid to express themselves in ways that don’t conform to gendered expectations may soon risk arrest for how they dress.

Last year, the government sought to target influencers like Bobrisky, James Brown and Derenle for how they dress through a proposed amendment to an existing anti-LGBTQ+ bill by making cross-dressing illegal. It ultimately failed to pass, but the existing Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), enacted in 2014, has already made way for authorities to target trans and other gender non-conforming Nigerians.

A recent mass arrest of 76 people under the guise of having “the intention to hold a same-sex marriage” in the northern state of Gombe confirmed this. The Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps arrested 59 men and 17 women at what the accused have said was a birthday party.

While the SSMPA is a federal law, queer Nigerians are also often targeted by state laws, which can include Sharia law in some northern states. But the federal SSMPA is harsh enough, threatening up to 14 years in prison and enabling any Nigerian to send a tip to police about “suspicious” gatherings.

This ultimately has meant those who outwardly don’t fit traditional ideas of gender become targets, like those arrested in Gombe. Video of those arrested show they mostly don’t fit the idea of masculinity both in how they dress or dance—queer joy seemed to be the threat that drove tipsters to involve the authorities.

Nigerian religiosity is heavily influenced by Abrahamic traditions, and gender non-conformity poses serious risks to patriarchal ideas about Western gender presentation despite Igbo and Edo culture having a rich tradition outside of these ideas.

Nigerian men who present as traditionally masculine love to gather to drink and watch football, for instance, and are able to with no legal or social harassment. Why does the gathering of those men not spark anonymous tips to alert the police unlike when they notice flamboyant people trying to celebrate their queer joy? 

Even within a larger movement, the #ENDSARS protests in 2020, LGBTQ+ Nigerians were  targeted under the SSMPA.The law has not only emboldened police to target gender non-conforming people, heterosexuals have also been emboldened to infiltrate gay dating apps like Grindr and Tinder and harm queer people.

The recent arrests in Gombe mark at least the third such case since 2018, and as a queer Nigerian, I fear the outcome of these two latest cases.

The Gombe case is the second mass arrest since the end of August, when 69 individuals in Delta state were arrested on suspicion of attending a gay marriage. The 69 people detained at the end of August were released mid-September, forced to pay exorbitant bail amounts – expected to come up with seven times the average monthly salary and two sureties each.

The outcomes of these cases will determine the legal and social status of queer Nigerians who are already living under daily oppression.

I fear that no matter the source of the law—the SSPMA or local Sharia laws—those who simply choose to express themselves fully will pay a steep price for the broader society’s narrow ideas of acceptable identities.

This story is part of a series supported by HIVOS's Free To Be Me programme

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