In 2020, Ife became the one of the first Nigerian films to centre an LGBTQ+ love story.
Ife and Adaora meet for the first time following a series of online interactions, their initial awkwardness slowly giving way to comfortable familiarity, tender touches and love – but ultimately, heartbreak.
Their romance is cut short when Ife decides that coming out just isn’t an option for her – an experience that’s all too common in real life.
In Nigeria, deeply homophobic laws make it difficult for queer people to come out and openly identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), which was passed in 2014, outlaws same-sex amorous affection and criminalises citizens based on their perceived sexual orientation.
This law, backed up by the religious and cultural sentiments within Nigeria, has empowered state and non-state actors to carry out violence and hate crimes against queer people within the country.
In a climate where homophobia prevails, LGBTQ+ people face a lot of discrimination ranging from family exclusion and workplace prejudice to violence and even death if their sexuality becomes known. It’s for this reason that many feel unable to come out, forced to hide who they are – and who they love.
OluTimehin Kukoyi, an award-winning writer and speaker whose work focuses on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, says: “Queer romantic commitment is much harder to navigate than queer casual sex, queer gatherings or almost any other queer social formation”.
But what happens when romance strikes – and one-half of the couple is openly, visibly queer?
Ada and Blessing
Ada and Blessing met on Twitter. Blessing is an activist who uses her platform to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ and disabled rights in Nigeria. She’s pansexual, and has already come out to her family.
Ada is a gay woman who isn’t out to her family. Before their relationship started, the couple had a conversation about what their future might look like.
“We asked questions like: Are you out? Who are you out to? What’s the implication of you being out? How much does your family mean to you and if your sexuality is placed before them how do you suppose they will react?” Blessing told PinkNews.
Ada is aware of how her not being out impacts Blessing.
“One of Blessing’s love languages is physical touch and there are times when she wants to hold me in public and I pull back because I’m really conscious of my environment and in that moment I can actually see how hurt she feels when I do that,” she says.
Ada wants to come out to her family – she’s started to put “more queer content” on her WhatsApp statuses, “because it creates more of a soft landing for me when I eventually come out”. But right now she is working towards financial independence. The couple are considering leaving Nigeria, but Ada is also preparing for an alternative path.
“If my family says they don’t want to have anything to do with me when I come out, which would hurt, I know I won’t be dependent on them,” she says.
Ibi and Goshen
Ibi likes to take photographs of herself and her partner, Goshen, who she has been dating for over a year, in their shared apartment or when they are out having a good time.
Before publishing them on her Instagram, she always selects the “close friends” option. She fears just being seen with Goshen could trigger suspicions, especially as she is dating a person who doesn’t conform to the societal standards of femininity or masculinity.
“This leads to a lot of unnecessary questions from people”, Ibi tells PinkNews.
Ibi isn’t out, and starting a relationship withs somebody who is made her worried. She had to clearly state to Goshen that unlike past relationships she may have been in, she wouldn’t be able to share their lives or even give hints that they are together.
Goshen has respected this decision, Ibi says, especially when it comes to her not wanting to go to certain places, and knowing to use gender-neutral language like “partner” and “lover” when talking to other people about her life.
“I like to show off my partner, I love it,” Goshen says. “But I have grown to understand how dangerous this could be, and dating my partner to some extent also gives me some form of safety.”
Queer Nigerians, out or not, continue to live within the margins for their safety
Over the past years, we have seen an increase in queer visibility through mediums like books, films, social media and more. But progress has been uneven, OluTimehin says, adding: “Our experiences vary based on family, income level, religious indoctrination etc.
“Thanks to the global increase in queer visibility, a tiny minority of us are able to be mostly or fully out, but this reality is highly individualised. I have so much hope for queer ‘Gen Z’ Nigerians because they are creating a lot of space for themselves.”
OluTimehin says the amount of work left to be done to ensure LGBTQ+ people’s safety is “impossible to quantify”.
“For queer couples to be openly happy in Nigeria, we would need to transform religious institutions, enforce workplace protections, retrain police and other state apparatuses, overhaul family healthcare policies, change adoption, surrogacy and assisted reproduction rules — the list goes on,” she says.
“And all these suggestions are on a structural level wherein we assume gay marriage is not legal, which I suspect will happen in Nigeria only after hell freezes over. Let’s not even get into the interpersonal changes that would be necessary: for instance, who is going to teach Nigerians how to mind their business?”
Until then, she says, “queer couples just need to create spaces of openness and happiness for themselves”.
“If we wait for Nigeria to give us the space to live and love, it’ll never happen,” she adds.
“We’ve always been here anyway, so we must just keep doing what we’ve always done: thrive in spite of it all.”