Bisexual Nigerian Lawyer, Yemisi Ilesanmi
Yemisi Ilesanmi describes herself as ‘proudly bisexual’. After gaining her LL.B from the Obafemi Awolowo University in 2004 (four years after she should have qualified and 10 years after she was initially admitted as a student), she was admitted to the Nigerian Bar in 2005. Asked about the time gap, she chuckles in recollection, ‘Well I had some issues with the university authorities’. Pressed further she says, ‘Weeell, we ‘kidnapped the then Vice-Chancellor, Professor Omole! We had only dirty, brown water coming out of our taps in the halls of residence and we were expected to drink that?!’ her voice rising an octave. ‘Well, we thought we should just give him a dose of his own medicine so we “took” him to spend quality time with us!’
If by now it has not been clear that the interviewer is speaking with a non-conformist, it is now.
Ilesanmi worked with the Nigeria Labour Congress in Abuja from 2002 until recently. Aged 36, she holds a Masters of Law Degree from the University of Keele, UK in Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights. Now resident in the United Kingdom, this trade unionist, human rights activist and poet sent in a position paper to the Senate hearing last October on the anti-same sex marriage bill. She was however unable to come down to Nigeria to make her presentation personally but says she now plans to do so for the House of Representatives public hearing.
The coordinator of the campaign group Nigerian LGBTI in Diaspora Against Anti-Same Sex Laws, she has travelled extensively as guest speaker to promote gender and youth issues, labour rights, sexuality rights and international human rights.
She spoke with FUNKE ABOYADE last Thursday via telephone, online, as well as her blogspot…
My Bisexuality Isn’t a Terminal Disease!
The second child in a family of seven (six girls and a boy), Yemisi was born in Lagos to what she describes as ‘a normal middle class family’. By her late 20s she’d come to the realisation that she was bisexual.
Asked how she assimilated this, she said, ‘I never really had to call a family meeting and announce my sexuality. There was no coming out episode for me; I mean I do not consider my sexuality a terminal disease that I needed to call a family meeting on, like announcing I have got AIDS or Cancer!
‘My family is aware I’m a vocal advocate for LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual) rights. I had been an advocate, even before I finally acknowledged my own bisexuality’.
Their reaction in any event? ‘Mixed’, she says, ‘but they are not homophobic and it’s basically a 'don't ask, don't tell policy' .
However when she finally meets the person on who, in her own words, she will bestow the honour of spending the rest of her life with, she certainly won't hesitate to introduce him or her to her family, ‘no matter the gender’.
Hiding Their Real Identity
On the challenges that come with being LGBT in Nigeria, Yemisi says, ‘It is indeed difficult living as a person with a different sexual orientation in a country like Nigeria; people who are attracted to same sex or transgender are often abused, treated with cruelty and sometimes molested to death. Transgender are so misunderstood that they are mostly treated like criminals; people believe they hide their real identity so as to defraud unsuspecting individuals’.
She points out that ‘many lesbians, bisexuals and gays often marry the opposite sex just to keep their family members happy and take away suspicion from the ever vigilant community. However they often carry out same sex relationships under the guise of friendship.
‘It’s like an unwritten survival code within the LGBT community in Nigeria. I was once affected by this when I was in a serious same sex relationship in Nigeria. We were live-in lovers; when her family suspected her sexual orientation, they started putting her under pressure to marry. She was so miserable she suggested we arrange for a man to perform her traditional marriage to keep the pressure off, but I wouldn’t play along.
‘She eventually had to marry a man and I lost her and now she has to cope with an unhappy marriage. It was a very heartbreaking experience. I was mad at her, mad at the society! I felt so alone, even our LGBT friends thought I should have played along and not tried to rock the boat by expecting too much. However, I believe we are all responsible for our own happiness and for me, being open about my sexuality is essential for my happiness.
Did her classmates at Primary or Secondary School or at the University suspect her sexual inclination?
‘I was not sexually active in my primary and secondary school years. In my university days, people often speculated on my sexuality. I was called a lesbian when I founded the National Association of Nigerian Female Students (NANFS) in 1998 and I had not even started dating women then!
The God Factor…
Yemisi also describes herself as ‘proudly atheist’. How and why did she become an atheist, her family being Christian? Was this to do with her sexual orientation? Did Christianity reject her or she found it too harsh or unforgiving?
‘The million Dollar question! I really get peeved when asked this question especially when it comes with that disbelieving look and exclamation, “You mean you really don't believe there is God?!” Not forgetting that very annoying question "what happened to make you not believe in God?” Why do people always assume that something terrible must have happened for one to have lost "faith" or not have faith at all?
‘Well, the good news is: there was no big bang that left me gasping for faith. It just happened that I am not convinced there is a "God" designing our planets, dishing out destinies, taking care of our needs, waiting for us to ask so s/he/it shall give, busy keeping scores on our good and bad deeds. I don't believe there is an omnipotent, omniscience, all knowing being watching from high above - and why not from down below anyway? I guess we don't like the idea of stepping on God!
‘Anyway, it is my humble opinion that man not only created God but did so in his own image. There are as many gods as there are people, communities and religions. People tend to create the god that suits them and their particular situation consciously or unconsciously.
‘It’s no big deal about exercising our imagination but it becomes a big deal when you judge others based on your own particular god beliefs or force your imagination down the throat of others! It is unfortunate that many believers influence state policies based on personal religious beliefs. It is a great injustice to those who do not share those religious beliefs either because they believe in another "God" and have a different set of doctrines.
‘I do not believe in the existence of a "God". I do not need a religion to feel high, low, solemn, guilty, moral, immoral, good, bad, favoured or blessed. I do not have a soul crying to be saved. I just wish everyone would appreciate that this is really no big deal!
Just Another Lifestyle Choice or Innate?
Is sexual orientation an alternative lifestyle choice? Are LGBTs actually born that way? Or is this a descent into decadence?
‘It is sad that sexual orientation is not a topic of research taught in Nigerian schools; in fact sex education is hardly a comfortable topic in schools and a taboo topic in many Nigerian homes.
‘Sexual orientation is something we are all born with. Many researchers, doctors, psychologists and scientists have done enough research on the topic and have come to the conclusion backed by indisputable evidence that sexual orientation is not a choice, it is not a disease, it is not a disorder but just like skin colour, left handedness, eye colour, we are born with our sexual orientation’ she insists.
That Bill by the Senate…
Her view therefore is that the bill passed by the Nigerian Senate last week punishes people for what is essentially not their making.
‘It’s like punishing a black person for being black, punishing a left-handed child because he or she cannot write with the right hand or punishing a baby girl for being born a girl. This is unfair and inhuman!’
Speaking as a lawyer she says, ‘the bill contradicts fundamental human rights under the Nigeria Constitution, as well as international and regional human rights law and standards.
‘S. 42 of the Nigerian Constitution prohibits discrimination against any person on the basis of sex or membership of a group. Also, Section 34 guarantees the right to the dignity of the human person
‘Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights affirms the equality of all people. Article 26 prescribes that "Every individual shall have the duty to respect and consider his fellow beings without discrimination, and to maintain relations aimed at promoting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance."
She also lists the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the
United Nation’s Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
And her reaction to the bill as an LGBT?
‘For the many heterosexuals reading this, spare a minute to ask yourself what your reaction would be if you were told that you cannot hold hands with your lover; You cannot marry the love of your life; You will lose your job if you declare that you have an opposite sex partner; You cannot form an organisation to support a man and woman relationship or marriage; Your landlord can evict you if you are suspected of having a relationship with an adult; You can be freely stoned to death if you have sex with your opposite sex partner.
‘Now tell me you will not raise hell, scream human rights violations and call on the West to free you from shackles of dictators! Tell me these are NOT fundamental violations of your rights, then maybe I will consider keeping quiet about my right to life, freedom of expression, right to found a family and respect of my human dignity.
‘I want my right to have consensual adult sex with whomever I wish , same sex or not, I want my right to marry and found a family, I want my right to human respect and dignity, I want my right not to be discriminated against or stoned because of who I love, I want my right to life respected! Is that too much to ask?’
‘Actually, right now I’m more worried about the stigmatisation and harassment the few activists who went to the public hearing to oppose the bill are currently facing in the Nigerian press, from their families and friends’.
She alleges the persecution is mainly from the religious groups who threw abuse at LGBT rallies inside the National Assembly and threatened to beat up them up.
Yemisi describes as hypocrites ‘Senators who kept referring to the Bible and never mentioned the Constitution, as if the Bible has now replaced the Nigerian Constitution.
‘Senator Yerima who actually imported the 14 year old daughter of his gardener from Egypt for marriage stood up at the Senate House last Tuesday to demand that consensual adult same sex relationship be criminalised and he was cheered especially by another Senator who stood up to say homosexuality is the same as paedophilia amidst loud applause. What a simpleton! Did he miss the one sitting next to him? I have never been so ashamed to be a Nigerian!
And her reaction to the bill as a Nigerian?
‘Criminalising same sex relationships makes us refugees; it turns us into asylum seekers in other countries. This also affects our beloved country as emigration causes brain drain.
‘Many talented Nigerians are living in Diaspora openly as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals. We contribute positively to the development of our country of residence but we are afraid to come live and contribute to the development of our motherland because of fear of victimisation. We visit home with trepidation because at home we have to live a life full of lies and deny who we are for us to be accepted. Why do we want to keep subjecting our citizens to such psychological and emotional torture?
‘Some Nigerian Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transsexuals and Intersex living in Diaspora are married to same sex partners or planning to do so. Section 1(3) of this bill states that a valid same sex marriage entered into abroad would not be valid in Nigeria. This is unfair.
‘We as Nigerian LGBTIs living in Diaspora do not want to be isolated from our family members and childhood friends. Many of us grew up in Nigeria and are happy to call Nigeria our motherland. However, because of the misconception surrounding our sexual orientation, and the criminalisation of thereof, we are estranged from our loved ones. Families have been broken, friendship links cut off and hate fostered - all because of ignorance and misunderstanding.
‘LGBTIs are normal people and are an integral part of any society. We are your family members, neighbours, community members, Church members, Mosque members, leaders of your religious affiliations and yes, Honourable members and Senators of the National assembly. Be careful who you hate because it could be someone you love!’
Sexual repression, she insists, breeds marital infidelity.
‘Many lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexual and intersex live in the closet. They live double lives, pretending to be heterosexual at home and at work while slowly dying inside and meeting in the dark with same sex partners to have a minute of peace with their real self. This double life is dangerous and unfair to all concerned and the society at large’.
Having indicated she may marry a man or woman, if she does marry a woman does she realise that if she comes back home she will be jailed, if the bill has been passed into law by the House of Reps and assented to by the President?
‘Why should I be criminalised for marrying another consenting adult? It is simply not rational and violates my rights. Such a law should be opposed by everyone who believes in equal rights for all. When we are neutral in situations of injustice, we have taken the side of the oppressors.
‘The fact that you are not affected by this law should not be a reason to remain silent. Today they are coming for the homosexuals, tomorrow they might be coming for you, who will be left to fight for your rights? I will continue to demand my full rights as a bonafide citizen of Nigeria.
‘Love is worth fighting for, human rights are worth dying for! Most arguments people use against homosexuality today are the same arguments white supremacists used to justify slavery, racism, sexism and to oppose inter racial marriage’.
Wife or Husband?
If she does marry a woman, would she be her wife or husband?
‘Why is it so difficult to have a relationship not premeditated on gender roles? Even when in a same sex relationship, I am often asked the annoying question “who is the husband or wife?” Must relationship be based on husband/wife dichotomy which often means gender stereotypes? I do not think so!
‘I want to be myself in any relationship and expect my partner to be himself or herself. I do not want roles, I just want to be me. I do not want to be a husband or a wife; I just want to be a loving partner. My ex hated that word "partner", she felt it was too businesslike, but well, I want an emotional/physical partnership, and for a partnership you sure need a partner!
‘It is so difficult sometimes to get this message across. The society has already conditioned us to believe in gender roles. A man believes he is the head of the family and his relationships, he takes it for granted that his female lover is at his service. Unless the woman asserts herself by discussing and redefining the “normal” rules, the default rules prevail. It is annoying how some self identified “progressive men” act as if they deserve a pat on the back for conceding that women have equal rights in a relationship!
Having come out as a bisexual in Nigeria long before she left what were the challenges she faced and the reactions from family, friends and colleagues?
‘I only left Nigeria two years ago, but I frequently visit my motherland. I have not relocated abroad, just taking a little time off abroad to recoup the huge foreign currency I spent on getting my Masters degree abroad, before coming back to settle for Naira!
‘Coming out is a very personal decision, one that only the person involved should make. I understand the difficulties associated with coming out in a country where homosexuality is a criminal offense and can lead to social and political ostracisation and even death. However, I believe that we should try as much as possible to be who we are, accept our orientation - and not the way we accept a terminal illness.
Did her work as a trade unionist encourage her boldness in living true to herself?
‘I was a student union activist in my undergraduate years, during the military era in Nigeria. I had many collisions on policy issues with school administrators who were appointed by the ruling military dictators. It took me ten years to finish a five year law degree course due to suspension, strikes, arrests, et cetera. However, I’m happy that I was able to stand up for my rights and that of many Nigerians; it might not be the easy way but it helped mould my character.
‘The Labour movement in Nigeria has always been progressive and often works with student unions at allies. Because of my active role in student unionism and human rights organisations in Nigeria I was co-opted to start working for the Nigeria Labour Congress even before I finally got my law degree. I could have gone ahead to practice law in Nigeria, but the trade union gave me a real opportunity to represent the masses.
‘I am open about my sexual orientation in my workplace, of course I encounter homophobic people but they know better than to mess with me! However, I wish trade unions in Nigeria and Africa would start treating sexual orientation as a workplace issue, many LGBT workers stand the risk of losing their jobs if they are outed. I try my best to make sure this issue is put on the trade union agenda. I raise it at every opportunity.
‘I believe trade unions are sitting on the fence because they are not forced to make a decision; however I believe many progressive trade unions would support rights of workers not to be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. This is simply the logical thing to do. It might not be a popular cause, but human rights causes are not fought based on popularity but based on justice. Trade unions and human rights organisations should always be on the side of justice’.
Her reaction to the view that it is against the natural order of things for same sex gender to be sexually involved as they cannot naturally procreate, and that if everybody were Gay or Lesbian, populations would gradually die off?
‘There are 7 billion plus human beings on planet earth and some are still afraid that homosexuality will stop procreation? Really, this is ridiculous! Not surprising though because Senator Victor Lar in his defence of the draconian homophobic bill said, “If Nigerians allow same sex marriage, there will be no one to take over our senatorial seats, no more procreation.” Is the whole world going to turn gay just because homosexuality is legal?
‘Many argue that same sex relationship is unnatural because a man cannot get pregnant, but let's think about this: Is marriage or sexual relationship only acceptable for the sole purpose of procreation? Should a heterosexual infertile person not be allowed to marry? Should we stop old people who are in their menopausal age from getting married? What about fertile opposite sex partners who out of choice decide not to have children? Should we make it illegal for them to marry or have sexual relationship?
‘Not all relationships or marriages are entered into for the purpose of procreation. With advanced technological development in reproductive health, adoption, surrogacy, IVF are only some of many options available to same sex couples. If a same sex couple decided to not add to the dangerously growing 7 billion human population of planet earth, or/and decides to adopt a child instead of biologically making one, that would be thoughtful, highly commendable and Eco-friendly.
‘If anyone chooses to donate sperm, or be a surrogate mother to any same sex couple, why should the State or any individual seek to stop them from doing so? You should examine deeply the prejudice in your statement; it smacks of paternalism and of course violates rights of consenting adults. And why should children who could have been given a loving home be left in an orphanage when there are loving couples willing to adopt them and provide a loving home for the kids? Should the welfare of the children not matter simply because of intolerance of same sex adult relationships? You can’t redefine family to be two daddies, two mummies? Why should gender be the determining factor and not love?’
Good for the Goose, Good for the Gander…
Her reaction to those who say what consenting adults do behind closed doors is their business but LGBTs should not flaunt their sexual orientation or be in their face? Or that they should remain in the closet?
‘For those who say “Our sexual orientation is supposed to be a private affair“, is your heterosexual relationship a private one? Is a man scared to take a woman into a beer parlour, hold her hand in public, afraid to introduce her to your family, afraid to say in public that you have a relationship with a woman? Do you not take it for granted that it is OK for you to be in love with a woman, flaunt your love for her in public, introduce her to your family and friends and even marry her in an elaborate public celebration of your love and commitment? Why do you think lesbians and gays are supposed to hide their own love and live a hypocritical life?’
On the prevailing view that homosexuality offends Nigerian cultural and social mores?
‘Homosexuality has existed from time immemorial, as far back as when same sex persons ever came in contact. Africa is said to be the cradle of human race, it therefore logically follows that homosexuality started in Africa, before the human race started migrating to other places to spread its branches in different colours, shapes and sizes. Many African cultures and religions viewed Homosexuals and Transgender as gods, they were revered before intolerant religion and culture started flourishing. It was the advent of colonisation and the importation of foreign laws like Sodomy laws that brought Homophobia and intolerance into African societies.
‘Many Africans became intolerant of homosexuality and transsexuals only after foreign religions were imposed on them. In many African cultures, homosexuals and transsexuals were revered and worshipped as spirits of the gods. Sango, the god of thunder was often described as a beautiful man who dressed and accessorised and had his hair braided like a woman. Sango priests, all men, dress in women apparels when performing traditional rituals. Now tell me that is un-African!
‘I am Proudly African and I am mystified whenever I am accused of "promoting and defending European sexual perversity" (whatever that means). In fact from various historical paintings on Ancient Africans walls, our ancestors enjoyed homosexual sex, affection and love and that was one reason Christian missionary colonisers immediately imported their sodomy laws into our constitutions; they imported homophobia because they thought our free loving ancestors were barbarians!
‘Many claim Homosexuality is Alien to Africa. I am an African, I am bisexual, I was bisexual before I ever met any white person or stepped foot on European shore, so does that mean I am a fake African?’
Does she think there’s some hypocrisy involved in the way Nigerians view LGBT issues?
‘The National Assembly of the corrupt and inefficient government of Nigeria is looking for a cause that will give it popular majority sympathy, a scapegoat! Please do not use my same sex love to garner support for your “Straight” Mass orgy of corruption!
‘Also, Nigerian Lawmakers obviously do not know that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones; they could have not just their children but also their own sorry hypocrite behinds in prison! Many of them are closet gays, lesbians and bisexuals and love throwing gay parties in the privacy of their mansions with ill gotten wealth they stole from the Nigerian Treasury!
‘You were involved in a protest outside the Nigerian High Commission in London two weeks ago. What was that about?’ I ask her
‘Nigerian LGBTIs in Diaspora Against Anti Same Sex Laws on Tuesday 15 Nov, 2011 staged a protest rally at the Nigerian House to protest the Anti same-sex marriage bill’
‘We urged Nigerians to repent of their homophobia and demanded that the Senators stop peeping into citizens bedrooms and instead take seriously the important task of moving Nigeria’s economy forward’.