LGBT rights are human rights

Ezinwanne Onwuka

Ezinwanne Onwuka

Nigeria is a hostile place for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) persons. The consensus is that being gay (used in this context to refer to members of the LGBT community) is not acceptable for religious and cultural reasons. Consequently, laws in numerous African countries – as is the case in Nigeria – reflect this by criminalizing same-sex sexual activities and same-sex marriage.

The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) signed into law by former president Goodluck Jonathan in 2014, introduced into a legal context that already criminalized consensual adult same-sex conduct, makes the existence of LGBT persons illegal.

The notional purpose of the SSMPA is to prohibit marriage between persons of the same sex, but in reality, its scope is much wider. The law forbids any cohabitation between same-sex sexual partners and bans any “public show of same sex amorous relationship.” It ruled that being in a same-sex relationship in any form, including marriage, is tantamount to a 14-year prison sentence. It also makes a person who “registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation, or directly or indirectly make public show of same-sex amorous relationship in Nigeria” liable to 10 years imprisonment.

The legislation, in a few paragraphs, violates so many inalienable, universal human rights. Such as rights to privacy and non-discrimination, rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. The law undermines all of them.

The SSMPA, in many ways, officially authorizes abuses against LGBT people, effectively making a bad situation worse. Basically, the law has become a tool being used by some police officers and members of the public to legitimize multiple human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT people without fear of legal consequences. Such violations include torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, violations of due process rights, and extortion.

From all indications, the SSMPA has empowered the public to take the law into their own hands. LGBT persons are routinely paraded in public, naked, for supposedly being caught in the act. They use the naked parade to rob, extort, humiliate, and shame LGBT persons in a bid to “preserve the African culture.”

Consequently, LGBT persons have adopted self-censoring behavior by significantly and consciously altering their gender presentation to avoid detection or suspicion by members of the public and to avoid arrest and extortion.

Within the community, there are effeminate gay men and butch lesbians. They have had to “tone down,” be less flamboyant, and pretend to be straight in order to protect themselves from violence at the hands of the public and police. This is because the SSMPA has made it easier for the police and members of the public to target anyone they perceive to be gay – people who do not conform to masculinity and feminity in the way that they imagine – they harass people like that and extort them for money for “looking like a gay or lesbian.”

Apart from the SSMPA, religion also gives people the impetus to act out their homophobia with brutality and without fear of legal consequences. Indeed, one of the biggest supporters of the enactment of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) of 2014 was the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) who claimed it was the only way to avoid the country becoming the modern Sodom and Gomorrah.

Religious organizations in Nigeria have culturally and historically helped reinforce homophobia. Majority of Nigerians supported the criminalization of sama-sex marriage for religious reasons, and did not see it as infringing on the human rights of LGBT persons.

In Nigeria, LGBT persons are seen as an abomination and religious leaders treat them as if they are possessed by demons, and subject them to religiously-oriented conversion therapy. This takes very different forms and ranges from regular prayers and fasting to week-long deliverance prayers or  long weeks in prayer houses, living in the worst of conditions while being flogged and starved, and forcible outing.

Religious conversion therapy happens a lot especially as Nigerians are highly religious and would rather believe their child is demon-possessed than accept that their child is gay. The belief is that queerness is caused by demonic possession and the only way to get rid of such demon is via exorcism, what is popularly known as “deliverance.”

Conversion therapy refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity. It is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a mental illness that can be ‘cured’. These therapies are both unethical and harmful as it can have severe adverse effects on the mental health of persons concerned.

The main issue with conversion therapy is that it is used to convince LGBT persons that there is something wrong with them, that they are a mistake of nature, an anomaly and that change can happen. There are thousands of LGBT persons in Nigeria being subjected to these dangerous practices in a bid to “cure” them.

This cultural and legal environment increases the chances that LGBT persons will be discriminated against. Hence, they go to great lengths to conceal their sexual orientation. In some cases, they are compelled to marry an opposite-sex partner, have children, and conform to socially proscribed gender norms. Many travel out of the country to other countries where they think they can live freely.

It is high time we realized that LGBT rights are human rights and put an end to the unfounded and misguided discrimination against the LGBT community by repealing the SSMPA. The law contravenes basic tenets of the Nigerian Constitution and violates several human rights treaties that Nigeria has ratified

The 1999 Constitution protects a range of fundamental rights, including respect for dignity of the person and prohibition of torture, inhuman, or degrading treatment; personal liberty; privacy; due process rights; and the rights to freely assemble and associate with other persons, including forming any association for the protection of one’s interest.

Additionally, Nigeria has ratified several regional and international treaties that obligate it to respect and protect rights to freedom of association, expression, privacy, and the highest attainable standard of health; to prevent arbitrary arrests and torture; and to exercise due diligence in protecting persons, including LGBT individuals, from all forms of violence, whether perpetrated by state or non-state actors, and to prevent arbitrary arrests and torture or cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment. These include the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

From the foregoing, it behooves us to respect the dignity of LGBT persons and decriminalize same-sex associations, sexual activities and marriage. Also, no one should be told their identity is something that can be “cured” and be subjected to dehumanizing conversion therapy. The time is ripe for the LGBT community in Nigeria to stop living in fear.

Ezinwanne Onwuka, Cross River State


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