On June 5, 2014, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) hosted a film screening and panel discussion on homophobia in Nigeria.
The program began with opening remarks by Director, Bruce Knotts, around the importance of this issue and the UU-UNO's role in advocating for human rights and social justice.
Community leaders, students, asylum seekers and asylees alike attended this event at the UN Church Center to come together on this issue.The issue, according to UNO Director Bruce Knotts, is that "LGBTQI Rights need to be contextualized in the larger movement for human rights." As UU-UNO Intern Ray Firmalino explains it, if one is "bullied, thrown out of school, beaten, and arrested when they, for example, seek HIV treatment, states are barring a whole class of people from basic human rights" such as life, liberty, property, education and health care. The issue in Nigeria according to UU-UNO Intern Hannah Schlechter, is the lack of "cultural acceptance of LGBTQI people in Nigeria, in addition to the danger in associating with anyone who is LGBTQI." It's even dangerous to be an ally or advocate. Canadian Intern Nic Smith states that the program was able to "convey the crux of the Nigerian position due to the insecurity in deviating gender roles stereotyped in same sex relationships." Omair Paul attributes the issue to the "propagated macro-system denigration of LGBTQI persons" in Nigeria. The bottom line is that there are many issues that the LGBTQI community faces in homophobic regions of the world and where to begin addressing the issue is difficult to determine. The intent of this program was to start addressing the issue by creating a safe space for people to come together and talk about it. Veil of Silence, a documentary-type film created by Habeeb Lawal, a Nigerian in the United States, captures the experiences of Nigerian LGBTQI persons living in a homophobic culture that they call home. Selly Thiam is the founder ofNone on Record,a digital media organization documenting the stories of Africans who identify as LGBTQI. Program attendees were able to view two of Selly's short films highlighting the effects of homophobia on the LGBTQI community in Nigeria as well as Sierra Leone.This included the story of Bisi Alimi, who was the first man to come out as gay on Nigerian television. For this, he was beaten, attacked, threatened, and was forced to flee Nigeria. After this emotional experience, the audience was able to process what they had just seen by talking with panel members who included both filmmakers and the UU-UNO Director. Among topics discussed were the African idea of homosexuality, or really, anything non hetero-normative, as a Western export. As one of the None on Record films states, in 2009, the Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ojo Madueke, said, "There are no gays in Nigeria." In addition to the denied access to basic human rights, inhumane treatment, and the lack of resources, there is denial that these people even exist. Being gay has been described as "unAfrican." Michael Ighodaro, a recent asylee from Nigeria spoke of attending the recent global AIDS conference in Washington, D.C. Because a news reporter identified him as gay, he could not return to Nigeria without fear of being killed. Recent laws in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria have changed tactics which criminalize the LGBTI community. Previously, laws criminalized only the sexual act between people of the same gender. The new laws criminalize meetings, advocacy, organizations, and providing religious, heath and educational services to LGBTI people. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pilley said that the Nigerian law in a few paragraphs violates the basic human rights to speech, assembly, privacy, protect human rights defenders, and so on. To that the UU-UNO Director adds that these laws violate freedom of religion; he noted that the Unitarian Universalist Minister in Kampala, Uganda, Rev. Mark Kiyimba was questioned for over two hours by Ugandan police as to why he had his congregation promoting homosexuality, which is against the law. Merely providing a welcoming congregation that is open to everyone regardless of sexual orientation is deemed by these laws as "promoting homosexuality"; this constitutes a clear violation of the free practice of religion. As UU-UNO Envoy Coordinator Kamila Jacob recalls, "The laws changed the culture and brought fear to all people" by changing the meaning of, perhaps, a "lingering handshake," something that previously had no meaning ascribed beyond what it was became feared. Also discussed were the "lingering effects of colonialism", as recalled by Zandy Stovicek, the plight and hardship of the asylum seeking process, as well as the myths around asylum seekers. People in the United States assume that those who seek asylum here want to come here, when in fact, if it was safe, they would rather be at home with loved ones, familiar places, music, dance and foods. Wouldn't you? The dialogue that came out of this program raises issues that are certainly at the forefront of the inequality and brutality that the LGBTQI community faces and participants were encouraged to do what human rights activists often do; to take the afternoon's experience and keep the momentum going by talking about what they learned, their reactions and feeling, and to share it with those around them. In doing this, we begin to break the silence and raise awareness in an effort to move toward creating a more just world, where true equality can exist for the people, by the people. - Lauren Potenza - LGBTQ Asylum and Refugee Program Intern For those who are not in the New York area or were not able to attend, you can view video footage of some of the topics discussed.