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Queer in Nigeria: Mental health struggles

Trigger warning: this article contains mentions of violence.

Being an LGBTQ+ Nigerian, one of the most discriminated identities in the world, comes with a litany of mental health challenges.

Many Nigerians suffer from mental health issues, but these are dismissed as a Western “woke” performance. Living as a gay Nigerian has made my mental health struggles pronounced and impossible to ignore.

Mental health deterioration doesn’t suddenly manifest, but rather, it eats away at us in subtle, insidious ways. As a Nigerian gay man, I have struggled with my mental health for most of my life, as it has intertwined with other parts of my existence. My journey to accepting myself has been long and tumultuous. At around five, I was sexually harassed by my older female cousin, and years later, I further explored heterosexuality with a female friend. At age eleven, I discovered I was gay. I knew something about me was different, but due to a lack of sex education, I was left to grapple with confusing and unexplained emotional and sexual attractions. I couldn’t understand who I was. At fourteen, I finally accepted my sexuality, but this was not easy, especially given that I was navigating through various stages of religious belief and disbelief. At nineteen, I fully explored my sexuality.

Throughout this journey to acceptance, I have faced a multitude of difficulties.

Accepting my sexuality

From the age of two, after the death of my mother, I lived with my grandmother (my father’s whereabouts remain unknown) until I was twelve years old, when I moved in with my uncle. While my family has become a part of who I am, discovering my sexuality has made me feel that I don’t belong with them. As I get older, living where I don’t feel I belong, both within my family and my country, makes me increasingly sad. With each passing year, I watch my dreams tied to a traditional idea of a heteronormative ‘family’ slip away.

I had a rough academic journey at university. I couldn’t fully explore university life, as I was saddled with depression and anxiety. Yet, this troubled journey shaped many of my current beliefs. I wondered, ‘What can I do better to make things better?’ ‘How will I contribute to the fight for our rights?’ I knew that I would leverage the power of storytelling and reporting to contribute in my own way.

LGBTQ+ rights in Nigeria workplaces

In Nigeria, most workplaces are fixated on heteronormative family units. Thus, only two types of people exist: those who are and those who will be married. As a gay man, I cannot possibly fit in. Despite the stress, anxiety, and depression I must bear, I crave to live a normal life. However, I feel that I could never live authentically while working in a Nigerian workspace, where I will never be accepted or respected.

I hope to one day set up my non-governmental organisation (NGO) and help advance LGBTQ+ rights in Nigeria, where there are just a few activists and organizations fighting for inclusive policies.

For now, I have chosen to work as a freelancer and report on LGBTQ+ experiences in Nigeria. Sometimes, I feel like my whole life is failing me as a freelancer, especially when my contracts end. I often wonder if I should enter the Nigerian corporate world and make a stable living. Then another freelance contract comes in and funds two months’ earnings, and it is a godsend. I want to live authentically, and for now, this is the path I must follow to do so.

Fears of violence

This lack of belonging is coupled with a pervasive and constant fear of violence. On three occasions, I have escaped being set up on dating apps by heterosexual men pretending to be queer. In Nigeria, this is a common occurrence, and these people, pretending to be gay, have even earned their own slang name: “Kito”. The motives of Kito’s may vary – normally, they aim to kill, ‘out’ (expose a person’s sexual orientation/ gender identity without their approval) or extort their victims. Kito’s build a relationship with them online, then make plans to go on a date, at which point they will most likely cause physical harm and initiate blackmail of revealing their victims queer identity.

It is only by following my instincts and investigating people’s details prior to meeting them that I have avoided certain violence. I also use kitodiaries at times – an online directory warning people of known Kitos. Unfortunately, others are not so lucky, and many gay people who have been set up bear the trauma of this abuse for the rest of their lives. Despite my narrow escapes, I am still filled with anxiety and worry whenever I meet someone new, as I can never be certain of their true intentions or my safety.

These cruel ‘set-ups’ go unpunished due to Nigeria’s sexual offence laws, whereby homosexuality is considered a criminal offence, carrying a sentence of up to 14 years in prison if found guilty. Thus, if the victims of these violations come forward, they risk imprisonment.

Some days, I sit and worry about what will become of me if I never leave the country. Feelings of isolation eat deep inside me. In these moments, I lie down and cry my eyes out. I want a future that has better legal rights for LGBTQ+ Nigerians.


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