Guest Opinion: Change takes time, but action is key
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What is the cost of inaction to me and the people I love? This is the question I ask myself each time I find myself with a bullhorn and a group of people marching and protesting for change. This was the same question I asked myself when I stood in front of the Nigeria Embassy in New York City to protest the country's inhumane anti-gay law. In seven-plus countries, including Nigeria, gay men can be stoned to death. I knew the cost of inaction; I knew how I almost committed suicide several times because I believed people like me should not exist. I'm not a coward to be an openly gay man from Nigeria, where the law means I could face a prison sentence up to 14 years. The cost of inaction is allowing another young gay Nigerian to contemplate suicide. I'm praised for being a man of action for standing up for gay rights, for constantly protesting, tweeting, and posting pictures of my relationship.
The world might see me as a man of action publicly, but unknown to most is the constant fail I have had mentally, facing the contemplative mind of my action, constantly asking myself what is the cost of my bravery. To better understand, my actions have cost me my entire life, they have cost me my relationship with family and friends, they have cost me ridicule by community members. I have also shamed myself for being a man of action in public and allowing the contemplative mind take a hold of me when I am alone. Looking at the big picture, I realized the contemplative mind has enabled me to take those actions I'm proud of, why shame it? Why not embrace the importance of winning over the contemplative mind by being reasonable enough to take actions that give other people the chance of survival.
My name on the internet has been synonymous with fighting, yet I have lost my sense of self-worth that comes from being associated with my brave actions. I know clearly the pain of my actions of coming out, the pain of being ridiculed for my actions. The pain of reading my story online and all I see are hate trolls and shame from people who think I am an idiot, as well as those who see me as a hero. Truth to be told, I am not a coward. I'm not doing this for name recognition; I'm just living. My activism is my life, and my life has been a total fight for the right to exist — the right to exist as a gay person in a heteronormative world, the right to exist as a human being in a world that classifies immigrants like myself as illegal.
When I gained protection in America as a gay asylee, to my activist mind I had won, I said. But the contemplative mind keeps on asking me, what would be the cost of inaction? The cost of inaction is death. Silence equals death — the death of members of my community caused by homophobia and stigma. What is it all worth to me to keep silent, what is the worth of me having freedom? I ask myself, why can't I act like most Africans living in America? Keep quiet, work, save some money, send some money back home to family and keep them happy. What is the worth of my actions, my contemplative mind asks? Can't you see the number of messages I receive on social media from people telling me how brave I am? Are you blind to my actions? The contemplative mind replies, I see your actions. What about the toll it takes on you to get back to normal after the haters troll you? I reply, why can't you be happy for all the work you have done, Mr. Contemplative Mind.
Don't call me brave, call me a human. I'm consistently shocked on a regular basis when Nigerians come into my inbox and tell me of the horrifying circumstances they face for being gay. In all honesty, I feel like a coward when people think this fight is set aside for someone. I'm just living my life as I ought to but I should not be the last resort to people who are abandoned by their government. The Nigerian government is in denial; it claims that gay men do not exist. We do exist; we are hiding underground. Randomly, people message me of how they feel alienated and left alone by their family and country. I had the same feelings, which made me flee the country I loved that didn't love me back.
I have suffered for my actions, but gay rights cannot be won by hiding. Visibility matters, the stories of gay men from West Africa need to be heard. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a famous Nigerian writer, said, "When you portray as people continuously as one thing, as one thing only, you begin to see the people as that thing." We need to tell the stories of gay men. I'm proud to post pictures of my partner and I having a happy relationship, normalizing the stereotypes of what relationships should look like. It is hard to conceive the importance of this in a big city like New York but for me coming from Nigeria, I know the importance of the contemplative mind, which allows me to take actions.
In the past gay rights were won by protest, but visibility made the difference. Today we can create visibility for the community by allowing the contemplative mind time to become an action mind. Change takes time, but crawling is better than being stagnant. I remember back home in Nigeria when I used to be a conservative Christian it took a lot of exposure for me to become a mind of action, not by my design but by the circumstances I found myself in. Woke people have to understand the words of Malcolm X: "What I know today, I did not know yesterday or 10 years ago." So I should allow people the time to contemplate for change to happen.
Edafe Okporo is a writer and founder of the Pont LLC. For more information, go to the Facebook page at https://bit.ly/2YrPxVj .