Bisi Alimi is a Nigerian social commentator who advocates for LGBT rights across the globe. He is a public speaker and founder of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, an LGBT initiative in the diaspora seeking to combat homophobia in Nigeria and West Africa. Bisi is on the World Bank advisory board on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and consults for them on the economic effects of homophobia. Bisi talks about his advocacy for LGBT rights, a struggle he started 11 years ago when he came out on Nigerian national television.
Can you tell us how your engagement for LGBT rights activism began and how it has evolved ever since?
My activism is more about advocacy. But it all happened because of two events that changed my life. I did not wake up one day with the ambition to change the world. The first one was the death of my best friend Ibrahim. At that time, I was studying arts and theatre at the University of Lagos. I was around 25 or 26 years old. He died of Aids complications.
It put me in a state of shock, not because of the mere loss of my best friend but also because of his last wish to me. I was politically engaged and he felt that I had created a voice for myself. He felt as though I could raise awareness on this issue: he, like many of our friends at that time, only found out about his disease after coming to the hospital but it was already too late.
Raising awareness became a commitment.
Raising awareness became a commitment. I joined the Alliance Rights Nigeria, one of the first HIV-awareness and gay rights organisation. Eighteen months after that I became their programme director. Aside from my activism, I became an actor and starred in a soap opera. The media was definitely trying to get at me. There was a lot of pressure to out me. There had already been at the university and I had to deny it. But in 2004, I decided that I was done hiding. So I came out on national television.
I went from organising safe-sex education to becoming the first outly gay man in the country.
That was the second event that changed my life. I went from being an activist, distributing condoms and organising safe-sex education to becoming the first out gay man in the country. I will be humble and say that I do not know if I really made the record; I just know that on TV I was the first one. It put me in a position where everyone who wanted to attack LGBT rights and gay men would target me and everyone who was seeking help on the matter would reach out to me.
The President of Senegal, Macky Sall, recently said on French television that gay rights being legal in certain countries should not make them universally legal. He is one among many political leaders in Africa that have used this argument against the advancement of the situation of the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual) community on the continent. What would your response be to these leaders?
Some say that it sounds arrogant but I am so tired of engaging with political leaders that are intellectually unaware. They should be the best; they are the people who hold the power. It is frustrating for Africa to be put in a position of darkness. It is truly sad.
The government should not have any role or any say in what happens in people’s bedroom.
What is the most important? For people to have same-sex relations or the continent’s development? The government should not have any role or any say in what happens in people’s bedroom unless it involves incest, paedophilia or domestic abuse.
How is it their business if this is between two consensual adults? These are just leaders throwing a rhetoric that gets them vote. Religion has created an environment that has made those leaders stoop so low. And none of this is good for the continent: skillful LGBT people are moving out to contribute to other countries that had nothing to do with their own development. I have been educated in three different institutions in Nigeria. But this country has denied my opportunity to contribute to its development because I am a gay man.
I launched a campaign on Thunderclap to raise awareness on issues that still persist for World AIDS Day. My best friend died because of Aids because he was in a society that criminalised his sexuality and desires. He became a victim but not of the virus. HIV did not kill him; what killed Ibrahim was hate and bad policies. Ibrahim died and today there are still thousands like Ibrahim dying.
We must pay attention to all populations at risk: sex workers, drug addicts, women and children.
The virus is declining but the lowest infections rate remain too high. There are a lot of gay men, who are forced to marry women because of shame and stigma and risk passing it on to their wives and kids. That is why I say: There Should Never Be Another Ibrahim. We must pay attention to all populations at risk: sex workers, drug addicts, women and children.
Who is your African of the year?
Funmi Iyanda. She was the host of the show I came out on, New Dawn, and that was eleven years ago. She is a powerful woman who has used her position to discuss issues of social justice and many other relevant challenges.
She has used her voice and even when she lost her show, she kept speaking up. She is incredibly determined and she will always be my inspiration, my one and only African of the year.