God Also Loves Gay People
While most churches condemn homosexuality and many African governments ban it outright, a Nigerian minister has set up a ministry for gay Christians in West Africa's largest city, reports WALDIMAR PELSER from Lagos.
THERE are 18 men in northern Nigeria facing 10 years in jail or 120 strokes of the cane in public for dressing up like women at a party last August.
In Senegal, seven men and a woman have been arrested for appearing in pictures taken at a gay party. A member of the Muslim Supreme Council in Uganda has called on gays to be killed and the minister for ethics and integrity insists they should leave the country because of their “strange, ungodly” ways.
It is not popular to be gay in Africa. It is illegal in 32 countries.
But on the outskirts of Lagos a gay minister dressed in a colourful rainbow flag bellows “Hallelujah!” from the pulpit. His ministry, House of Rainbow Church, has become a refuge for about 30 gay Christian men in West Africa’s largest city. Some have lost their jobs, been thrown out by their families and suffered abuse by friends or the police because of who they choose to love.
Reverend Jide Macaulay (42) has gained notoriety in Nigeria by speaking out in the House of Representatives in February last year – barely two months after South Africa passed Africa’s first act legalising gay marriages in December 2006 – against a bill that imposes a prison sentence on anyone who speaks out or forms a group supporting gay people’s rights.
If passed, Nigeria will be one of the most dangerous places in the world to be gay.
Now with a parliamentary committee, Nigeria’s Same Sex Prohibition Bill is not yet law but is “taken to be law” by many Nigerians, including the police, Macaulay says.
“Landlords consider the bill to be law; employers consider it law. People are losing their jobs or the roofs over their heads because there is a bill that says same-sex amorous relationships are prohibited,” says Macaulay.
Last month Michael* (26), a parishioner of the church, spent 10 days in detention at an army barracks in Lagos, forced into hard labour by a family member who carried out a “civilian arrest” when Michael admitted he was gay.
Joseph Akoro (20), who runs an advocacy group for gay rights, says extortion and “direct homophobic attacks” are common. His group, The Independent Project, organises events “amid tight security and always at night, for fear of being attacked”.
Akoro hopes to set up a website to report the abuse of gays and lesbians.
“There is a culture of silence,” says Jude Dibia (33), author of Walking with Shadows, a novel in which the lead character is “outed” by a colleague at work. After his marriage fails, the character leaves Nigeria for London. “When I wrote my book, I got so many messages from gay Nigerians who said ‘Thank you for telling our story’. But there was a backlash from the press, who questioned my sexuality and investigated my personal life.”
Nigerians willing to speak out about gay rights face strong opposition from church groups.
Nigeria’s Archbishop, Peter Akinola (64), has led worldwide opposition to the ordination of gay priests in the US, deepening a rift which some believe could split the Anglican community.
He has called gays “strange, two-in-one humans” and said homosexuality is “an aberration, unknown even in the animal kingdom”.
While countries like Burkina Faso have scrapped sodomy laws, gays in Kenya organise large parties openly on the internet and gay men and women in South Africa have been allowed to adopt children since 2002, Akinola’s message is spreading “ripples of fear” in Nigeria, says Macaulay.
“Peter Akinola is building an army of homophobic people. Religious leaders in Nigeria are very, very powerful people, have large congregations and use television and the airwaves to propagate homophobic messages.”
Movies from Nollywood, as Nigeria’s burgeoning film industry is known, have also addressed gay themes, mostly depicting “lesbian relationships that end tragically”, critic Unoma Azuah writes in the Vanguard newspaper.
In End Times the protagonist is a gay pastor who gets his powers from the devil while in Beautiful Faces a lesbian character is a thief, prostitute and leader of a vicious cult.
“One begins to wonder if it is mere coincidence,” Azuah says.
Prejudice forces gays into hiding and has an unintended affect on sexual health. Macaulay fears the issue of HIV among gay Nigerian men is “not surfacing”. “Most gays are in hiding,” says Macaulay. “Men tell me they are married but also have a lover in a different state. This can have a drastic effect on sexual health. When you have multiple partners and there is secrecy around it or switching boyfriends all the time to avoid being found out, it heightens the chances of transmission.
“It is very difficult to know how many are infected. We do not have the data; we have no information.”
In Senegal, French health group AIDES says the HIV-prevalence rate is about 21.5% in the gay community and 0.7% in the community at large as repressive laws continue to make the outright targeting of gay men and women possible.
Macaulay’s church is one of a handful of Nigerian organisations that offer sexual health counselling for lesbians and gay men while preaching faithfulness and handing out condoms in case the need for use arises.
“Our main vision is to get gay men and women to reconcile their sexuality and their spirituality. The tragedy is that many people cannot do it because of historical interpretations of the scriptures,” says Macaulay.
Armed with books like The Queer Bible Commentary, Homosexuality in the Church and The Lord Is My Shepherd & He Knows I’m Gay , Macaulay is preaching inclusion.
Last month he told an African sexuality conference in Abuja he was an ordained minister and gay. There was surprise and howls of damnation but after he spoke, 200 copies of his Pocket Devotional for gay Christians were snapped up at the door.
“They said ‘How dare you?’ But I cannot live dishonestly to please anybody else. I’m a happy, holy homosexual.”
* Not his real name