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Nigeria: Where being openly gay comes at a steep price

If a new law passes, it will get even more dangerous.

ABUJA, Nigeria — There are no gay bars in this city and few, if any, people have heard of gay pride.

Politicians and the press are openly hostile toward homosexuals, regularly calling them “barbaric” and “repulsive.”

None of this, however, stops Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike, an openly gay rights activist. Here in Africa’s most populous country, he is one of just dozens of openly gay men, he says.

His openness comes at a steep price.

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“I have attacks,” he told GlobalPost in his office, the location of which is a closely guarded secret. “I’ve been beaten up — gotten my head broken. I’ve gotten death threats.”

Nigeria is perhaps among the worst places in the world to live if you are gay. And, if Nigerian lawmakers get their way, it might get worse.

President Goodluck Jonathan will soon consider signing legislation — passed by the Nigerian House of Representatives last year — that would restrict “expression, assembly, or organization based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to the United States Embassy in Nigeria.

The bill calls for prison terms of up to 14 years for anyone “aiding and abetting” same-sex marriage. Activists say the law is so broad that it could also criminalize organizations that support sexual minorities, including HIV/AIDS clinics.

Following the vote, Orazulike staged a protest outside the Nigerian embassy in New York City.

When the protest made the international news, he said numerous threats warned him never to come home. At home months later, he was cornered and attacked.

“A few guys, who were walking directly opposite me, shouted at me: ‘That homosexual!’” he recalled. “One of them hit me on my head and it bled. I had to shave some of my dreads to get it treated.”

Orazulike said he thinks international pressure, as well as more important issues like countering an insurgency, will force Nigeria’s president to veto the law or just ignore it entirely.

House of Representatives Member Adamu Entonu, however, said the bill has strong support from lawmakers and the public.

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“Nigeria is a secular state but we are highly spiritual in this country,” he told GlobalPost. “We have the fear of God. We see same-sex marriage as an abomination.”

Homosexual sex is already a crime in Nigeria that carries a punishment of 14 years in jail, according to John Adeniyi, a human rights activist for the International Center for Advocacy on Rights to Health, an organization that provides support and HIV/AIDS care to sexual minorities.

He said the current law is rarely prosecuted successfully because it requires witnesses to prove guilt. The same-sex marriage bill, he added, would effectively criminalize providing any support for gay rights, including heath care.

“Should the bill be passed into law a lot of people would be driven into the background, underground,” he said.

Adeniyi attended parliament hearings with a busload of activists opposed to the bill. After they presented their objections, however, the lawmakers rebuffed the idea that sexual minorities need protection.

The logic? They said there were no gay people in Nigeria.

“The question was asked: ‘If they really exist,’” he quoted legislators as saying, “‘and we have homosexuals in this hall and they have the courage to stand up and identify themselves, let them stand up and we will see them as gay.’ We stood up. We are like, ‘Yeah we are here. We are here.’ We were just five.”

The hearings were broadcast live on national television. Adeniyi was beaten up and robbed in the weeks that followed.

Despite this potential new law, and reports of gay people being harassed, jailed or even killed, Adeniyi said the rights network in Nigeria is growing stronger. The House of Rainbow, the only church in Nigeria that openly accepts homosexuality, quietly re-opened last year. The church closed in 2008 when its pastor, after receiving death threats, fled the country.

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Orazulike said the gay community supports itself in many ways, with homosexuals in the city helping people who flee the countryside find homes and jobs. In some urban communities and churches, he added, locals are slowly getting used to the idea that there are homosexuals in Nigeria and some of them are friends or family.

When he was attacked a few months ago he said his neighbors may have saved his life.

“People in my neighborhood know me, know about my sexuality, know I’m open,” he said. “They came out to say, ‘You can’t do that to him. He’s a nice person. He’s with us.’ They went as far as to chase some of the guys and fight them back.”