February 28, 2014
Nigerian authors speak out against the country’s anti-gay law, “reminiscent of Nazi Germany”
by Julia Fleischaker
While the Sochi Olympics ensured that Russia has gotten the lion’s share of the world’s attention for their shocking treatment and criminalization of homosexuality, the Nigerian government has been doing everything it can to raise the stakes. In January, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which impacts so much more than the right to marry.
Under the Nigerian law, it is illegal not only to engage in an intimate relationship with a member of the same sex, but to attend or organize a meeting of gays, or patronize or operate any type of gay organization, including private clubs. Any same-sex marriages or partnerships accepted as legal in other countries would be void in Nigeria.
The law calls for “penalties of up to 14 years in jail for a gay marriage and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for membership or encouragement of gay clubs, societies and organisations.”
In January, as the law went into effect and dozens of men were arrested, celebrated Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina bravely decided to come out as a homosexual, adding a “lost chapter” to his memoir. As we wrote on this site:
“I cannot say the word gay until I am thirty-nine.”
In 2002, the Kenyan intellectual, writer, and satirist Binyavanga Wainaina won the Caine Prize for African Writing for the short story “Discovering Home” (part 1; part 2), which was later expanded into a memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place. Last week he added a “lost” chapter to the memoir, titled “I am a homosexual, mum.”
Now, a number of Nigerian authors have come forward to condemn the laws. Award-winning author of Americanah and Beyonce favorite, Chimamanda Adichie wrote a heartfelt essay in the Nigerian newspaper, The Scoop.
If anything, it is the passage of the law itself that is ‘unafrican.’ It goes against the values of tolerance and ‘live and let live’ that are part of many African cultures. (In 1970s Igboland, Area Scatter was a popular musician, a man who dressed like a woman, wore makeup, plaited his hair. We don’t know if he was gay – I think he was – but if he performed today, he could conceivably be sentenced to fourteen years in prison. For being who he is.) And it is informed not by a home-grown debate but by a cynically borrowed one: we turned on CNN and heard western countries debating ‘same sex marriage’ and we decided that we, too, would pass a law banning same sex marriage. Where, in Nigeria, whose constitution defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, has any homosexual asked for same-sex marriage?
This is an unjust law. It should be repealed. Throughout history, many inhumane laws have been passed, and have subsequently been repealed. Barack Obama, for example, would not be here today had his parents obeyed American laws that criminalized marriage between blacks and whites.
Alison Flood, writing in The Guardian, quotes Jackie Kay, the Scottish-Nigerian poet and winner of the Guardian fiction prize, who told her that “it is dangerous for any country to legalise a witch-hunt of an already oppressed minority; it will lead to an unprecedented hysterical homophobia that will set the clock back in the fearful past. It is reminiscent of Nazi Germany. It will lead to people fleeing for safety, to informers, to pitting one African citizen against another.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has spoken out against a similar law just proposed in Uganda, equating discrimination against homosexuals with the atrocities of Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa.
We must be entirely clear about this: the history of people is littered with attempts to legislate against love or marriage across class, caste, and race. But there is no scientific basis or genetic rationale for love. There is only the grace of God. There is no scientific justification for prejudice and discrimination, ever. And nor is there any moral justification. Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, among others, attest to these facts.
Back to Nigeria, Flood also quotes novelist and winner of the Caine Prize, Helon Habila (“It is clear this is a government which is short of ideas, desperately trying to bring up nonsensical diversions to distract attention from the situation in the country.”), and award-winning author Bernardine Evaristo (“As someone with a Nigerian father I am particularly incensed by Nigeria’s recent anti-gay legislation, but also the terrible increase in persecution of homosexuals across the African continent.”).
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.