Advocating from Experience

Published: December 11, 2012

Advocate Micheal Ighodaro discusses HIV care for gay men in Nigeria, life after he was outed by the Washington Post, and how MSM living with HIV are organizing across Africa.
My name is Micheal Ighodaro. I am an openly gay man living with HIV. I am 26 years old, born and brought up in Edo state, Nigeria.

I have been doing HIV/AIDS Advocacy work for 7 years now.

Coming from a country like mine and living openly as a gay man with HIV/AIDS can be one of the most difficult life circumstances; my life from day one has always been a misery for my parents.

I knew I was gay since I was 7 years old. My mum always knew, but she always tried to hide it. I remember when I first asked her what the meaning of gay was, she told me: “It means evil.” She locked me up in my room for a whole day for asking her what the meaning of gay was. She took me from church to church and to witch doctors who tried to cure me of what she believed I was.

After she did this for 3 years, I realized at age 17 that all she had been doing was not working out, and that I really was gay. She and my dad hated me so much that my dad asked me to leave his house because he couldn’t live with a gay son.

I left my father’s house when I was 17 and then dropped out of my final year of high school because my dad was not going to pay my fees anymore.

I left home and became free and wild. I traveled from city to city in Nigeria having fun and sleeping around with different men who were paying me to have sex with them. I was the newest guy in town and at my age all men wanted to sleep with me.

I hardly knew about HIV, condom use or lubricants before I learned my HIV status. All I knew, and very much believed, was that gay men could not get HIV because we did not practice vaginal sex.  The TV and radio led me to believe that HIV could only be transmitted through vaginal sex and needles. I did not think it was possible for me to get HIV through anal sex.

My friends and I thought condoms were only for heterosexual people.  We were content in thinking that we were immune against the virus because we were just men having anal sex with other men. We were not sharing needles or having vaginal sex.

This belief changed when I relocated to Abuja, Nigeria. In Abuja, I discovered what I didn’t think was possible; I was so surprised to see LGBTI organizations that included MSM who were well informed about HIV prevention. I attended several trainings on HIV/AIDS and other STIs.  I was thrilled with the newfound accessibility of information.

After attending numerous trainings and orientation sessions at one of the organizations, I decided to become one of their Peer Educators.  It became my job to provide information to fellow MSM living in Abuja. I also distributed condoms and lubricants to them. A few months passed, and I decided to take an HIV test.  How ironic that after referring people for HIV, Counseling and Testing (HCT) and STI screenings, I had never done my own HIV test. Then I found out that I was HIV positive. The trainings and the fact that I was a peer educator prepared me for the situation.  I was not too worried. However, the test result still changed my life.  I became scared that all my friends who were still living in Edo State were at great risk of contracting HIV, and that the person who transmitted the virus to me did not know about his own HIV status – just like I did not know about mine until I went for an HIV test.

I was also worried about the stigma that existed in the gay community towards gay men living with HIV, and how so many of them would never want to disclose their status due to fear of the double stigma that existed. We had lots of stigma in public healthcare centers and many of us would never disclose our sexual orientation to the doctors. There was only one doctor who was working with gay men in Abuja, and every one of us would only speak to him and would not seek other health care options if he was not available.  As a counselor, I only referred clients to this doctor and if he was not available we would wait for when he got back to town.

At a time when no one was willing to come out as gay and living with HIV in Nigeria, and when most gay men needed that one person they could speak to – they needed to know that other people were in the same shoes – I decided to come out about my status. I decided to act up and speak out against stigma and discrimination facing gay men living with HIV.

It was a difficult situation for me because I lost some of my friends to HIV. I know they would have still been alive today if it weren’t for the stigma they experienced. Because of stigma they did not find their place in the gay community. The gay community is busy fighting for gay rights but they are neglecting and also stigmatizing gay men living with HIV. The existing HIV organizations are focused on providing services for heterosexuals and too often exclude gay men living with HIV in their plans. The government is busy with laws that will kill the gays. The funders are busy focusing on HIV prevention programs.

It felt like no one was interested in us, gay men living with HIV.  It seems like we are almost left to die, and then when convenient – such as on World AIDS Day, we will be used as examples of gay men who would not get tested and refused  to access care.

I took it upon myself, with support from some of my friends and support from [redacted due to the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act], to put together the first support group of gay men living with HIV in Nigeria. We also held special sessions with others who did not want to be part of the group.  We did home visit care and support services to those who were very sick and could not go out of their homes.

I was then offered the job of a care and support specialist with the organization, International Center for Advocacy on Right to Health, based in Abuja. I attended my first AIDS Conference in Addis Abba in 2011, where I once again saw that gay men living with HIV are not really talked about.

I met some amazing African activists during the first MSM Pre-Conference organized by AMSHeR (Africa Men for Sexual Health and Rights) during the African AIDS Conference in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. I had discussions with them and saw that we shared the need for a movement for African gay men living with HIV. From this we were able to come up with the group, Africa MSMPLUS, which is currently supported by AMSHeR.  We were planning to have our first meeting since we last met in Addis Abba, but we have not been able to raise the funds to bring people together.

In October of this year, after attending the AIDS Conference in DC this July, a reporter from the Washington Post wrote a story about me as a gay activist fighting for the rights of gay people in Nigeria without my knowledge or approval. 

The Nigerian media got a hold of it and my story played on the radio and on the social media channels of Nigeria. When I got back to Nigeria, my apartment was burned down. Days later I was attacked by unknown men who seemed to have known me very well based on the circulation of my story. I was almost killed that night, only to have been saved by a total stranger. I broke my arm and had some rib injuries.

Then I started receiving very scary and serious threats, and even my own family threatened to have me killed. With support from [redacted due to the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act] I was able to raise funds to get a ticket and travel out of Nigeria to come to New York City.

I came here with literally nothing on me. I don’t have a job and I can’t see myself doing anything but advocacy, service to mankind, and developmental work. I also wish to finally go back to school, which I could not do when I was in Nigeria because of the stigma that comes with living openly with HIV and being gay.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that gay men living with HIV need to be heard, and need more support than just the pills we are given. Stigma and discrimination will not end when most networks of people living with HIV still do not include gay men living with HIV in their plans. Young gay men living with HIV like myself need more support and care from you. We have lost everything because of who we are. We don’t know where we belong anymore and we face more stigmas then you could ever imagine. There are laws that will pass in countries like mine and many others in Africa that will kill us; these laws will close our access to health care services. These laws will drive us underground.

What we need instead are laws that will ensure we have access to the information which teaches us how to protect ourselves from getting infected. Information that will keep those of us who are already living with HIV from passing the virus to others. We need laws that will make sure all at risk people: Gay men, young people, sex workers, and people who use drugs have access to information, testing, condoms, lubricant, and treatment.

So here is my question, my challenge, my plea to you as we pass the twenty-fourth annual World AIDS Day.  What are you going to do to end the AIDS epidemic in your sphere of influence?  What you do or don’t do matters.  Whatever your part is, it is critically important, to people living with HIV worldwide. It is so important to gay men living with HIV in Africa at this time when there is no one standing for them, when there are laws about to be passed to block their access to health care services. I urge you today on behalf of young people living with HIV and gay men living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, for every one of you to help us stand up to end AIDS stigma and discrimination and help us fight for the life we too deserve to live.

Thank You.

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