How State Sponsored Homophobia Affects Women

by Anana Christopher

Nigeria’s laws, as with her deeply rooted cultural and religious norms, are extremely discriminatory towards women. This is in a society where women are generally seen as a sexual minority; in fact, to most people, they are just an extension of the male sex who exist to cater to the needs of men while their humanity and fulfillment come from being subservient spouses and birthing children.

In a country where women make up a greater statistic of gender-based violence, the priorities of Nigeria’s legal system are obvious in their disregard for women and the protection of their rights. 

To be a woman in Nigeria is to be ignored and susceptible to gender-based violence and misogyny and to be a queer woman is living your life knowing that your gender and your sexuality will always put a target on your back.

Nigeria’s anti-LGBTQI+ laws may not have directly gone on a witch hunt for queer people, but they’ve given ordinary people the mandate and the authority to make Nigeria hell for queer people. The signing of the SSMPA into law in 2014 was the country’s attempt at loudly proclaiming their hate for the queer community and as if the criminal code and the penal code hadn’t already illegalized the existence of the queer community, the SSMPA helped endorse violence and various human rights violations.

Cases of queer women being attacked may not be as reported as their male counterparts but that simply shows that the state has been successful in silencing women and just like all others in the LGBTQI+ community, trans, lesbian, and bisexual (is this not omitting pan, asexual, intersex and other women on the spectrum) women are susceptible to various forms of physical abuse, harassment, and threats.

The Nigerian Police is not left out in the harassment and abuse of queer women and they in fact take advantage of the SSMPA (Same-Sex Prohibition Act) and other queer legislation enacted by the state and use it as a means to extort, abuse, and intimidate queer women.

In 2014, 26 lesbians were arrested at a club in Asaba, Delta State for allegedly engaging in sexual activities, and according to the Delta state Police Force PRO, Celestina Kalu, the arrested women would be charged to court for homosexuality. Now, these women were never actually charged to court because there was no evidence to prove the claims but they were also manhandled and harassed by the police.

Cases like these are quite popular in Nigeria, suspected lesbians are arrested in nightclubs, hotels, and private gatherings, from where they are taken to the police stations and are extorted, mistreated, and in many cases sexually abused. Almost never are these women are truly allowed a fair trial or any trial at all because there’s usually no evidence to prove these accusations are true.

There are several reports of the Force’s inhumane conduct and they are already known for harassing and extorting Nigerian citizens. There are also frightening reports of several cases of corrupt police officials sexually harassing women.

Queer women who are arrested by the police are at risk of sexual and physical abuse and since there are no law’s specifically protecting queer women nothing is done to police officials involved In such acts.

Many queer women struggle to seek legal counsel and most times they simply cooperate with the demands of the police no matter how ridiculous they may be and the Nigerian society expects women to marry men and produce children, regardless of sexuality or preference.

Being one of the most vulnerable members of society LGBTQI+ women are at the mercy of their families as most families share this sentiment and often go out of their way to make sure to force or coerce their daughters into heterosexual marriages. Families also tend to have heightened control over their daughter’s lives and a lot of times deny them personal autonomy.

Women are not expected to deviate from these expectations and when they do the consequences can be grave.

A lot of women are made to experience corrective rape as a form of conversion therapy. This is a form of “correction” often done by families of queer women by setting them up to get raped in order to “turn them straight”.They often set their lesbian relatives up to be raped in order to “make them normal”. In other cases, families pressure and coerce their daughters into straight marriages. 

 According to a report by the United Nations high commissions for Refugees(UNHCR), lesbians are even more likely than gay men to feel obliged to conform to familial and social expectations by, for instance marrying someone of the opposite sex.

Women experience these variations in similar and different ways, and to different degrees than queer men. The intersection between gender and sexual orientation is responsible for this.

The two major religions in Nigeria demonize queerness and there are several religious leaders who speak negatively on queerness every chance that they get.

Religion has helped to fuel the notion that queerness is an “evil spirit” and queer people can be freed from this possession through prayers and religious rituals.

Religious conversion therapy could involve physical abuse, sexual abuse and can cause serious emotional and mental trauma. All forms of conversion therapy are harmful to queer people and queer women who face conversion therapy are subjected to various ridiculous and very often, inhuman treatment .When queer women are outed to their families they are almost always made to face some form of religious conversion therapy as a lot of Nigerian families are religious and believe that queerness is a spirit. Most of these men know how ridiculous the notion of praying the gay away but they keep on imposing this harmful practice and ruining people’s lives.

Ebun a 22 year old lesbian woman was subjected to conversion therapy by her family,

“I was outed by my best friend last year. It was after lockdown so and I ran away from home. My mother told me she wanted to just talk and blackmailed me to coming home by starving herself for days. I got home and I was humiliated and taken to a church for the pastor to pray the spirit away. We were alone in his office and he said a lot of nonsense and told me he liked fucking lesbians, he took me to the church and he whispered in my ear that he was about to pray for me and I should fall on the floor when he blows air on me. My mom was watching and he wanted to impress. It hurt me a lot.”

Her experiences and the experiences of other queer women show that It is impossible to pray away your sexuality because homosexuality Is as normal as heterosexuality and the demonization of queer people only helps to spread hate and make life difficult for queer women who deserve to peacefully exist. Our society has made a habit of punishing and shrinking women, taking control of their lives, and forcing them to conform. The punishment for women who refuse to conform and women they cannot control is ostracism. Nigeria’s laws regarding queer people promote ostracism and for queer women, ostracism goes beyond exclusion and rejection. It stretches over academic institutions, families, and even their places of work.

In various schools, teenage girls who are caught exploring their sexuality with the same sex are publicly beaten, disgraced by their teachers. Other students are told to avoid them and they are treated as if they are diseased carriers of the “infection” that is homosexuality.

From a young age, other children are taught to ostracize queer people, and the people who are ostracized face physiological trauma and struggle with self-acceptance as early on in their lives, their sexuality and identity are demonized. Ostracism affects queer women specifically in the process of finding homes. There are several instances of trans and lesbian women whose sexualities have been discovered by their landlord and thereafter evicted from their homes.

And in cases where queer women who have publicly confirmed their sexualities are trying to move or find homes, it’s very difficult to find a place to live because almost every Nigerian landlord refused to rent to them on the basis of their homophobia. And in cases where their sexuality is unknown, they have to hide and stifle themselves and do everything possible to keep their sexuality a secret because if they are discovered, they will be made to face homelessness and possible physical harm.

Ostracism of LGBTQI+ women also manifests in finding and keeping employment.

Women are expected to follow strict rules of appearance and self-expression at work and women who do not conform to what is seen as society’s expectations of gender as regards appearance are put under scrutiny and in a lot of cases are baited into conversations regarding sexuality and identity.

Queer women who present in a way that does not conform to gender stereotypes or societal expectations of what a “woman should look like” run a risk of being subjected to physical abuse and harassment in public spaces.

Chiemela a 24-year-old trans woman is one of the unfortunate victims of physical and verbal abuse in public spaces. She was attacked by a bus conductor and the other passengers of a bus she boarded.

“I was haggling for change with the bus conductor who had already been raining insults on me before he looked closely at me and exclaimed that I was a man, he started shouting that I was a “homo” and telling everyone around to come and see. I already knew it wasn’t going to end well so I tried to leave but people had already gathered and a lot of them were kicking and slapping me. Some people even spat on me”.

The beating left her with a broken arm and several bruises all over her body and in a country where the laws condemn queerness, Chiemela’s experience is not an isolated one. The Nigerian society gives men an unhealthy sense of entitlement that makes them feel like they are entitled to control women and act as custodians of toxic notions of masculinity and femininity.

In cases where LGBTQI+ women’s sexuality is discovered at work, employment is usually terminated and the employers threaten to involve the authorities, most employers do not even pay their outstanding salaries as is common with most jobs, they are expected to immediately exit the premises or they stand to be forcefully removed and harassed.

Ostracism makes living as a queer woman in Nigeria even harder because queer women are denied equal opportunities and are not allowed the same freedoms as other individuals.

This hate for queer people has crept into the health institutions as health professionals discriminate against Trans and Lesbian women which makes it hard for these women to access proper healthcare. 

Being treated this way psychologically affects queer women greatly and it breeds self-hate, knowing that things would be easier for you without your sexuality and identity- two things that you cannot change about yourself- this self-hate gradually becomes depression.

Seeking happiness in Nigeria as a member of the minority in a minority is impossible because at every point in your life the hate you are forced to experience is either directed at your gender or your sexuality.

Queer women who have publicly spoken about their struggles and protested against the way they are treated are often told to leave the country as they will never be accepted in Nigeria, 

During the #EndSars protest, queer women who also went to protest the inhuman treatment they receive from the police faced hostility from other heterosexual protesters.

In 2019 Chief Superintendent Dolapo Badmos, spokesperson for the Lagos State Police Command told queer people in Nigeria to leave the country as Nigeria is not a place for them,

In her words

 “If you are homosexually inclined, Nigeria is not a place for you. There is a law (Same-Sex Prohibition Act) here that criminalizes homosexual clubs, associations, and organizations with penalties of up to 15 years in jail, So, if you are a homosexual in nature, leave the country or face prosecution. But before you say, ‘does this matter?’ Kindly note that anything against the law of the land is criminal and all crimes will be punished accordingly no matter how small you think it is.”

Telling queer Nigerians to leave the country is quite insensitive because this option is not available to everyone. Leaving the country is extremely expensive and the majority of Nigerian queer people are poor. It’s even harder for queer women because women have always been at a disadvantage financially especially in a patriarchal society such as Nigeria.

For trans women, it is difficult to find work and sex work is the popular choice but it’s also a very dangerous option because of society’s bias toward sex workers and the danger they face from police and their clients.  A lot of trans sex workers have been violently beaten and abused by their customers and they have literally no protection because society already demonizes them and with each client, they face the possibility of being publicly outed and lynched.

Nigeria is in a terrible economic crisis and the struggle to make a living especially for women where the existence and safety of queer women should be preserved and seen as important.

Queer women experience human rights violations from the state and private individuals they experience physical and sexual violations because of their sex and sexual orientation, their families try to control and take away their autonomy and they have limited opportunities to exist and safely express themselves, the SSMPA promotes this violation and validates hate and ostracism from the society.

All LGBTQI+ people in Nigeria face a heightened risk of suicide because of the stigma and discrimination and women have to go through this rights violation on the basis of their gender and sexuality.

The state is responsible for the inhumane treatment of LGBTQI+ women by creating and employing its instruments of hate. The only solution to this problem is a revision of Nigeria’s oppressive laws and a shift in society’s perception of humanity and one can only hope we experience this in this generation.

Laws that contravene the basic tenets of the Nigerian constitution including the right to life, dignity, privacy, freedom of association, and prohibition of torture should be reviewed and dissolved to protect and preserve the lives of LGBT+ women.

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