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Nigerian gay activist works for change from US

by Heather Cassell

Nigerian gay activist and author Edafe Okporo. Photo: Heather Cassell
Nigerian gay activist and author Edafe Okporo. Photo: Heather Cassell  

A gay Nigerian activist who left his country two years ago continues to speak out about homophobia there and hopes to facilitate change from his new home in the United States.

Edafe Okporo misses Nigeria and continues to fight for LGBT rights for Nigerians from afar.

Seeking asylum in the United States wasn't his first choice.

The 28-year-old stayed in his beloved homeland for as long as he could before fleeing to the U.S.

"I never wanted to leave Nigeria. Even today, I miss Nigeria a lot. I wish that I can go back to Nigeria and live," he told the Bay Area Reporter last month while he was in Oakland promoting his book, "Bed 26."

The first memoir by a gay Nigerian to be published, "Bed 26" details his experiences growing up in his home country, working for HIV/AIDS and LGBT rights in the West African nation, and his plight fleeing his homeland to seek safety.

"We are even afraid to write about these things because our families can be attacked back home," said Okporo. "It is bravery, not just for myself, but for that young boy that is back home. That young gay that fears that he is alone.

"[I'm] not telling them to come out today to face persecution, but I'm telling them to know that there are other people like them out there and the struggle never ends," he continued.

Okporo faced persecution for being gay starting at an early age and continuing through to when he left the country. He was outed at each high school and college he attended, which cost him time and, eventually, his family and their financial support. He persevered, struggling to complete his master's degree in nutrition.

Even experiencing conversion therapy by his family, doctor, and church didn't dissuade him. Conversion therapy in Africa is more rudimentary and rooted in tradition. Families send their gay children to a doctor and to church, where they go through a series of starvation and other tactics, which can include a marriage to someone of the opposite sex.

Not even a mob beating he suffered that landed him in the hospital kept him away from Nigeria.

"In July 2016, ... I was dragged out of the house beaten on the streets. I blacked out. When I woke up I found myself in hospital," he said.

He temporarily fled to Dubai, only to return a couple weeks later to continue his work, he said.

It didn't take long for his life to be endangered again. Anti-gay vigilantes learned that he was being given an award for his work and plastered "Wanted Dead or Alive" posters with his picture throughout the town he was living in.

After years of persecution from his family and multiple communities that kept him moving around Nigeria, he made the most difficult decision of his life in 2016. He left his homeland to seek asylum in the U.S.

Using a visitor's visa to the U.S. for a conference he was scheduled to attend, he boarded a plane to New York a couple of weeks before the presidential election.

"Nigeria is like the U.S. 70 years ago," said Okporo. "The laws will change, but we have to keep on fighting."

Fading beacon
When he landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport, he did not know what to say to immigration officials, so he told them he was seeking safety from being persecuted in Nigeria.

He was handcuffed and detained for six months until his pro bono attorneys at Immigration Equality and Debevoise and Plimpton helped him get asylum and released from detention, he said. He documented his experience in his book.

It wasn't the welcome he expected, but he is building a new life in the U.S.

"I think that this is a time of awakening in America," said Okporo, referring to the current political climate with President Donald Trump's administration in power and its effect on LGBT people in Nigeria.

"America has been perceived as a true backbone of the entire world," said Okporo, but "that image is like eroding away from people's minds."

The beam of light that gave hope to the world is fading.

"The Trump administration is trying to overturn what America has stood for, for hundreds of years," he said.

Former President Barack Obama tried to get African nations to understand the importance of protecting LGBT and women's rights, he noted.

"Trump is making it difficult for these other countries to see that beam that the country shines on them," he said.

Yet, he sees hope in everyday Americans who have been standing up and fighting for immigrant rights and to protect people fleeing violence in their own countries.

"For me is overwhelming," he said. "That is more important than everything."

Continuing to fight
Okporo said he is now waiting to receive his green card.

He is continuing to speak out for LGBT rights in Nigeria, despite receiving threats from nearly 7,000 miles away.

"I have received a lot of threats from Nigeria, even when I stay in the United States, telling me that, '[We] never want to see you here. If you come to the airport we will kill you,'" he told the B.A.R.

Okporo advocates for a different approach to achieve LGBT rights in Nigeria. Rather than lobbying politicians and changing laws directly, he believes using storytelling and life examples through social media, technology, and corporate protections for queer employees around the world are catalysts for change.

Small gestures, such as the rainbow "Like" button on Facebook and the rainbow #lgbt on Instagram during Pride Month, "can go a long way," he said.

"Someone will say, what is this rainbow? When they click it, they see lives of LGBTQ persons," said Okporo.

He also believes that multinational companies should take a bigger stand implementing policies protecting LGBT employees no matter what country they are operating in.

"I believe that these organizations can do more in helping ... to promote the rights of LGBT persons," he said, stating that other people can see gay people in the workplace, know they are protected in that space, and get to know them because they have to work beside them. "It's important for businesses to promote equality."

"The best way to erase phobia is for people to see other people living their lives," he said.

Okporo is hopeful for the future for LGBT Nigerians. He remains in contact with activists back home who keep him apprised of the situation.

Ultimately, LGBT Nigerians telling their stories and educating their families, friends, and community about who they are will create the change they are seeking, he believes.

"Education is important, but it is our [responsibility] to educate the people about it in a way that will change their perspective," he said.

"Today, we may not have the rights in Nigeria, but if we change the stories, if we don't let the world know, if we don't educate people, people will continue to be myopic in their view," said Okporo. "I believe that the work that we are doing might not only benefit today and tomorrow, but in the long run is going to overturn the tides."

To order Okporo's memoir, visit https://www.amazon.com/Bed-26-Memoir-African-Asylum/dp/1984511009.

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell or oitwnews@gmail.com.

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