It’s not easy being openly gay in Nigeria. Irin/PlusNews looks at the challenges of the gay community in the most populous nation in Africa.

There is no explicit gay scene in Nigeria, but in the Ibiza bar in the capital, Abuja, the action on the packed dance floor seems a little more exclusively guy-on-guy, a little bit raunchier than may be considered “normal”.

According to Oliver Okem*, a smart and trendily bespectacled AIDS activist, when the mood and the music is right, he and his friends can strut their stuff at Ibiza, Excelsior, or a couple of other gay-tolerant clubs in Abuja. Sometimes, though, it becomes advisable to “straighten up; rough-looking guys can stare at you, wondering what’s up, and maybe whispering among themselves”.

Being gay in Nigeria is hard: homosexual sex is illegal, but there is also the sanction contained in a rising tide of religious fundamentalism, and with cultural traditions that generally abhor same-sex coupling.

In a country – especially in the south – where marriage and children are seen as sacred, there is the added pressure from parents who expect their offspring to settle down and deliver grandchildren. Being gay means becoming invisible and, as a result of that secrecy, much more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

A behavioural surveillance survey by the ministry of health in 2007 found that, after sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM) were the group most at-risk of HIV infection, with a prevalence rate of 13.4 percent – three times the national average of 4.4 percent. There was considerable variation in three cities surveyed, but in the commercial capital, Lagos, prevalence hit 25 percent.

The circumstances of MSM vulnerability are not unique to Nigeria. As in the rest of the world, some MSM do not regard themselves as gay and are in heterosexual relationships, making it difficult for orthodox AIDS campaigning to reach them.

“People are coming to the realisation that there are gays in Nigeria…”

“A lot of stigma is associated with the moral aspect [of homosexuality]. It drives people into the closet – they don’t want to come out, which means they can’t access [AIDS] services,” said one senior HIV researcher, who asked not to be named as he did not have clearance to talk to the media.

Okem said it was a little more complicated. “The vast majority of MSM believe you cannot contract STIs [sexually transmitted infections] from anal sex. In Nigeria we don’t talk about anal sex, and all the [AIDS] interventions are targeted at heterosexuals and vaginal sex. The perception of gay people not using condoms is not because we don’t want to, but because we are not well informed.”

The internet, with social networking websites like Facebook, and the more discreet clubs provide enough opportunities to hook up. “Very few relationships are formed, most of it is about the sex or the benefits,” said Okem.

“The majority of ‘passive’ [recipient] gay men have accepted their sexuality … some ‘actives’ may have done it once or twice and liked it – but wouldn’t agree they are gay. There is a financial exchange then, but more usually it is actives that take money for sex.”

Getting organised

Gays and lesbians are beginning to organise: at least 10 groups have been formed in Nigeria and are pressing for better representation in the AIDS response, which the government seems ready to grant. Alliance Rights Nigeria, one of the oldest, was set up in 1999 in response to the toll of AIDS deaths among MSM, who were “dying in ignorance”, said the group’s executive director, Ifeanyi Orazulike.

Unlike Okem, who has not told his parents or ruled out getting married, Orazulike is open about his sexuality and feels attitudes are beginning to change. “People are coming to the realisation that there are gays in Nigeria,” he told IRIN/PlusNews. “There is a level of toleration.”

In the Muslim north there has historically been a cultural acceptance of “Dan Daudu” – men who live as women – despite the contradiction to traditional Islamic teaching. But even in the south, with its avowedly macho outlook on life, Orazulike said he had never been confronted with anti-gay aggression. That could be a testament both to his discretion, and to the innocent incredulity with which many Nigerians regard homosexuality.

“We don’t intend to rub people’s faces in it, otherwise they are forced to react; just live your life,” Orazulike explained. That approach is likely to guide Nigeria’s AIDS response to the gay and lesbian community, where a little tact may be required to avoid the attention of the national assembly and some of the more conservative elements in government.

“There will be no specific intervention response that targets this group,” said the researcher, who works for a major funding agency. “It will be a package to address the most at-risk groups, and we’ll reach them that way, but not as a population cohort themselves.”

* Not his real name

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