In the second interview of the series, Bisi Alimi, a prolific human rights campaigner talks to Elnathan about his life and work. He started his advocacy work at the height of the HIV epidemic within the Nigerian MSM community in the late 90s. He worked as Program Director for the country’s foremost MSM organization “The Alliance Rights Nigeria.”
In 2004, Bisi became the first Nigerian to openly declare his sexuality on National Television, and that incident caused a turning point in the discussion on sex and sexuality in Nigeria. The same year he became the first openly gay man in Nigeria to address the National AIDS conference in Abuja.
In July this year, he was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama for his work with Black Gay men in Europe and was listed number 90 on theIndependent on Sunday’s most influential LGBT in the UK 2012.
Elnathan John: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me Bisi.
Bisi Alimi: It’s a pleasure.
Elnathan John: In 2004, on Funmi Iyanda’s show, New Dawnyou became the first Nigerian to openly declare his sexuality on National Television. How did you get on the show?
Bisi Alimi:It was my own way of being a rebel, but more importantly of making sure that people understand there are two sides to a story. I got in touch with Funmi after [Olusegun] Obasanjo in 2004 made the comment that there are no "homosexuals" in Nigeria. I felt that I either had to keep quiet and forever hold my rage, or speak up, and start a conversation on human sexuality in Nigeria. So I got in touch with the program and told them I want to talk about the issue. But after they agreed, I got really scared and was not ready to go on. After months of talking and all I went on the show. Also I wanted it to be Funmi Iyanda I will be speaking to. I had watched New Dawn all my life, and if there was any show on Nigeria television that was ready for such conversation, it was New Dawn.
Elnathan John: Prior to this time, did your family know you were gay?
Bisi Alimi: Yes and No. They knew I had certain feelings for guys and had seen me in compromising positions with guys. They had also seen my friends. But they didn’t understand what was happening as much as I did not. Also they hardly saw me with girls. I did have girlfriends- they were just friends.
I remember my mum always saying, “Whatever you are doing that god is not happy with stop doing it.” Also I never knew what I was doing had a name; I never really knew there were people all over the world like me. To me I was just this weird and confused young man with alien feelings.
Elnathan John: Interesting. So did you first come out to your family or on the show?
Bisi Alimi: I came out to everyone I knew and who knew me the same time I came out to everyone who knew nothing about me; I first came out publicly on the show.
Elnathan John: How did your family react?
Bisi Alimi: It was crazy! Unlike other New Dawnshows, the show was not actually live. So I was watching it the same time everyone in Nigeria was watching; at same time my mum was watching it at work, my dad at home and my brother at work. My family were actually big fans of New Dawn. Just mid way into the show I got a call from my mum crying. Apparently, she had watched the show with her colleagues at work and there I was, her son on TV, saying I am gay.
My dad was also at home with his friends. It was really a bad time for me. I think it was the shock of the moment that made them get really mad at me. I was called to the family house and told off. Furthermore, they agreed that it would be best if I didn’t come to the family house anymore and that they wouldn’t have anything to do with me. It was pretty crazy time for everyone. But I look back and I wouldn’t change anything if I had to do it again.
Elnathan John: Did you worry for your safety?
Bisi Alimi: Yes, I was worried for my safety. But prior to that time, my safety had already been compromised when my university students’ union published a story about me. Before that I was indicted in a case I knew nothing about. The only evidence against me was that my friend then was gay.
Elnathan John: Did you think you would get the kind of reaction you got from friends and family?
Bisi Alimi: As for the reactions, I was not really surprised by my family’s, though I was not expecting such rude shock. But it was not really surprising and to be honest, my childhood and relationship within my family had kind of prepared me for the worst in life.
What was really shocking, though, was the reaction from the gay community in Nigeria. Many accused me of seeking fame, many of my friends stopped talking to me. But in all the madness, the only person who stood by me was my best friend who is straight. He would call me and tell me he was there for me if I wanted to talk. It was really shocking but amazing at the same time.
Elnathan John: So you mentioned your childhood preparing you for the worst. Could you expatiate?
Bisi Alimi: I was not the favorite child. We were just two boys from my mum. My older brother and I. So I grew up in childhood rivalry. It was a battle I could never win. He was loved by everyone and I was not. My survival tactics was to put all my energy into my studies. I spent most of my childhood either fighting him and getting punished or just all alone. Also this experience helped me learn to stand up for myself. I reached into my inner self. The reason I don’t take shit from anyone is that I came to a conclusion in my life that the most important person to me in this world is me:If I am happy and fulfilled then I will be able to make others happy and fulfilled. I question things a lot and I am very stubborn. You can never make me do things I don’t want to do. So when I went to New Dawn, it was about me. I was not thinking of my family. When the hostility came however, I reached out to my inner self, I reached out to those painful childhood memories and I found succor in them- I found the courage to tell everyone to “fuck off”.
Elnathan John: So wasn’t your coming out publicly selfish and insensitive to your family?
Bisi Alimi: People have a right to say what they want to say. I have learnt to be responsible to myself. I am sure the same people would accuse me if after many years of lying I married a woman and had children, then got outed by the press. I don’t live a lie. I refuse to live my life for others. I came out because I needed to fight the demons inside me. I came out because I needed to give a face to the truth and challenge the lies. It doesn’t matter who did the coming out. It could have been someone else and people would have said the same thing. I really don’t care what people think. I also think I owe my family the sincerity of who I am as I owe it to many young people in Nigeria struggling with their sexuality to tell them they are not alone.
Elnathan John: How did you move to the UK?
Bisi Alimi: My coming to the UK was not deliberate. I never even thought I would ever find myself here. It was just a matter of fate. In 2006, I was introduced to an organisation here in the UK through a very good friend of mine. It was an HIV organisation. After few months of exchanging emails, I was invited to the UK to attend the CHAPS conference. (That’s UK gay men conference). It was really liberating for me to be with all these gay people from all over the world. I could not hide my excitement. As part of my trip I was invited as the guest of BBC on "BBC Network Africa". I will say that I used the platform to raise the issues of HIV, continuous criminalisation of same sex behavior and relationships and lack of sexual health programs for men who have sex with men.
Well with that I got under the skin of Baba Iyabo* and his cohorts in Abuja. On arrival I was arrested and detained at the airport. After a few hours I was allowed to go and then got picked up again few days later. Between March and April when I left, my life was hell. But the catalyst for my leaving was on the 9th of April 2007 when my house was broken into. I was tied up with my then boyfriend, beaten and almost killed. All my things were taken including my passport. I escaped and as fate will have it, they could not move with all the things they had taken as I raised alarm before they could go too far.?
It’s important that I state here that after the coming out drama in 2004, my family really struggled. Mostly my mum, and though she wouldn’t forgive what I did and who I claimed I was, she still reached out to me. It was through her help and that of my older brother that I was able to raise money and I had to run away. That was the only option I had left if I still wanted to remain alive.???
Elnathan John: You have struggled with depression. Tell me about it.
Bisi Alimi: Ummm…I hardly talk about it. There any many things in my life I don’t talk about. It took me over 7 years to be able to start talking about my HIV status. I feel so very afraid wanting to talk about my depression because in Nigeria depression equates to "madness" and/or being possessed and i know I am not this.
Throughout my childhood I spent most of my time either alone or fighting my big brother. Growing up I had to struggle with being different. It was even harder than having to fight my brother or for our parents’ attention. Throughout secondary school and university I constantly put myself under pressure to be better than I was the night before. This was driving me to the edge.
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