Anene Ejikeme is an Assistant Professor of African History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. She did her dissertation work on the history of Catholic women in Onitsha, an important market town in Nigeria. She is interested in religion and religious identities. She herself attended a Catholic convent school for girls in Nigeria.
How did you get interested in the subject of homosexuality in Nigeria?
I’ve always been interested in religion. I did my dissertation on Catholic women, so I had a research interest in religion. In Nigeria, there are a lot of new religions—especially new evangelical churches. So when I heard about a new church with an openly homosexual pastor I was completely surprised. Nigeria is a pretty homophobic country. When I spoke to people in Nigeria, almost no one had heard about this group. Although some people clearly knew about it, that’s how I heard about it, none of my contacts in the media, my friends, or my family had heard about this church. In the end I was able to find the group and the head of the church, by doing a simple online search. So I contacted the head of the church, Reverend Jide, and asked if I could meet with him and his church members. He sent me his contact information, and we communicated by telephone and email.
How is homosexuality generally viewed in Nigeria?
People have the perception that homosexuality is a foreign import. The people who speak about it speak out against it. That’s what you read in the media. That’s the public position. But what intrigued me about these statements is that the people who speak out against homosexuality self-identify as Muslims or Christians or are leaders of those communities. I find it interesting that those who speak out against what they see as a foreign import are themselves proponents of foreign imports—since both Christianity and Islam are foreign to Nigeria.
The homophobia in Nigeria is quite widespread. In the South, which where I’m from, it is often seen as something brought by foreigners, by Europeans, but it is also seen as something that Muslims do—something that is alien. This is especially true in the Southeast, which is largely Christian. Leaders of the church say homosexuality is un-African. Of course, there is a certain irony to that since Christianity is also foreign. They see Christianity as the truth, so it doesn’t matter where it comes from.
In Nigeria I would say most homosexuals are not out. Certainly that was the case with the people I met. I think people are afraid. A handful of them were out. I was actually really surprised to find some who were quite flamboyant—they had arrived at church dressed very colorfully.
Tell us about the Reverend and what he did in this town?
The reverend comes from a very well known and distinguished family. They are known as nationalist and religious leaders—a bit like saying the name “Bush” in America. Rev. Jide’s own father is a minister. Reverend Jide was married, had children and was living the life of a minister in London. Then it came out that he had had a relationship with a man. He was publicly outed, kicked out of his church, his marriage dissolved and he became depressed and suicidal. His relationship with his father is very complicated. All of this happened in London. This is someone, you have to understand, who grew up not just in the church but as a child of a minister. It was devastating.
One day, he was invited to an inclusive church, I believe, by South African friends. Here was an entirely different church—his own church had rejected him and here was a church that welcomed him… and welcomed everybody. Eventually, he was accepted into this church. They accepted his ordination and recognized him as a pastor. He joined that church for some time and then decided to return to Nigeria to open a church, believing that he could be of service to many people, knowing there must be many people like him (i.e., homosexuals,) undoubtedly, who had no one to minister to them. So he went to Nigeria and started a church: The Church of Rainbow, which was affiliated with the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). The Church of Rainbow was based in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria.
Tell us about the Church itself.
The church services were held once every two weeks in a space they rented from a local hotel. They didn’t have the money to buy or construct a building of their own, which was a function of their limited resources. They simply couldn’t afford to meet every week because they couldn’t afford to rent the hall that often. I was able to speak with the workers at the hotel. That was quite interesting. It was clear that they did not approve of this kind of church. But they were paying customers and the hotel welcomed the income. The staff was very unhelpful whenever there was a problem. Reverend Jide and some of his close associates were afraid they would soon be losing that space. Indeed this was not the first space they rented or that they had lost, either because of cost or bigotry. It is part of the harassment; you pay your money and are still unwelcome. At the same time, I understand the position of the hotel. Clearly, the presence of the church service, with the 60 or so people who look a bit different, exposes the hotel to attack as well.
When I was visited, there was only one other woman and the rest of the congregants were men. They came from far and wide. Most people came from Lagos but some people came from farther afield in Nigeria. What I found was the atmosphere was very joyous. I spoke to several of the church members afterward. Once every two weeks, was for all of them, a major event on their calendars. There were no heterosexual men at this service, but the sole woman was straight. When I asked her why she chose to attend this church, she told me that she had been to several others but that this was the church were she felt happiest. At this particular church, the talk was all about love. In other churches she visited and even joined, the pastors were all talking about hell.
What did you learn about the problems faced by members of the church?
At the church, I interviewed a number of people who had been attacked. The attacks could be verbal or physical. In addition, many people had been kicked out of their homes by parents, although not all. I recall one church member who said his mother was very supportive of him, but most of the stories were not like that. I remember the story of one violent attack quite vividly. A young man at the church explained that he had been attacked at a university. The assault was so brutal he had to be hospitalized. He was just visiting the university. He didn’t know anyone and had just arrived in town. A group of boys yelled homophobic epithets at him. He didn’t’ know how they identified him, but they beat him up and took all his money. They just left him there, on the street. Fortunately, a young woman saw him, took him hospital and gave him some money so he could return home.
The government itself is very homophobic and has tried to pass laws to criminalize homosexuality. There are no national statistics on the subject. So the attacks that I know about are those that make it into the media. Rev. Jide raises money for the legal defense of people who have been sent to jail for such things as impersonating a woman, for conducting a same-sex marriage or other such charges. Of course, he’s not the only person working in this area. There are others. There are no clear records in Nigeria of assaults on homosexuals. Whatever is known is recorded by individuals and groups. It is not at all systematic. It’s difficult to get good statistics on anything in Nigeria, not just anti-homosexual attacks.
What happened to the church ultimately?
They are not meeting regularly right now. Rev. Jide had to flee because they were outed in the newspapers. Once that happened, several individuals from the congregation were attacked and they had to stop meeting. Reverend Jide is one person who had spoken out publicly against a law proposed to criminalize homosexuality and other issues concerning gays in Nigeria. He is now in the UK and maintains a very active presence on the Internet.
What effect did this church have on the community?
This is a civil rights issue for them. I believe that for Rev Jide and some of his members the aim was always two-fold: to provide services and a community to those who are isolated and to get people talking about these issues more openly. I think they definitely saw the mission of this church as a part of a struggle for civil rights.