You describe yourself as an ‘angelic troublemaker’. Why did you choose that phrase as your identifier?
I didn’t come up with it myself, but that phrase is something that captures my journey completely. In 2009, I was asked by Gay Star News to write an article about iconic black LGBT people throughout history. To put it into context, before I moved to this country I never thought of myself as ‘black’ – I connected more to my sexuality than to any particular colour or race – and so when I was asked to do this piece, I wondered if I would find a single person who fit that description! I typed ‘iconic black LGBT people’ into my computer and a flood of names came up. I immediately thought, ‘Where have these people been all my life?’.
One of the stories I came across was about Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man during the civil rights movement in the United States. He was the right-hand man of Martin Luther King, introducing a non-violent approach to the movement and even organising the march on Washington for jobs and housing where he gave his famous space, ‘I Have a Dream’. But he had some very difficult years; he was used by the FBI to blackmail the civil rights movement so they would exclude him but because of racism, he also wasn’t welcome in the mainstream gay community. It was Rustin who said, “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers”. When I heard that phrase, I realised that, when I came out in 2004 in Nigeria, I was viewed in my community as an angelic troublemaker. When I stood up against racism, against sexism, against injustice, without even knowing it I was being an angelic troublemaker. I sat myself down and asked, what does it really mean to be one? To me, it’s someone who understands that freedom is not given freely, that there’s never a set time for change to happen, that you need to challenge the status quo and that love is power. When all of these things came together for me, I started to own the phrase ‘angelic troublemaker’.
In 2004, you came out on television in Nigeria – something that must have been an incredible turning point in your life. What led you to that moment?
I’ve had a few moments that were defining in my life, but none have been as historic as sitting on that sofa and coming out on national television. However, one of the pivotal moments in my personal journey was when I started losing my friends to AIDS. I lost my best friend and it suddenly hit home to me that I could be next in line. We were only in our twenties, but we were dropping off like dry leaves in autumn. We had to bury someone at least once a week and you had no idea who would be next. So, there was that cloud hanging over us and we had to try and work out how to navigate it.
Another key moment for me was getting my first major acting role. I went to university to study theatre arts and I’d gone to many unsuccessful auditions to be on TV. After one particular audition, I got a call from the director saying they wanted to invite me on set. I thought I was just going to have a handful of lines, but I was given 52 episodes and realised I was going to be on TV all year. It completely changed my life. I moved from being an ordinary boy who came from extreme poverty to all of a sudden being in the eye of fame, having to think about whether or not I could go out in public, having money in my bank account – and then getting hunted down by the press because of an assumption about my sexuality. All of this built up to that moment when I was sitting on that sofa and I had to come out to Funmi Iyanda on her show.
How do you feel about that decision now?
I’ll be honest – it was a very difficult decision I made about coming out. I was talking to close friends and my management team and they were all telling me that it was going to end my career. When I did come out and my career came to an end, I thought “why didn’t I listen to them earlier on?”. I’ll never get a chance to act again. My very close friends in the industry say they just can’t risk having me on screen – there is something authentic about me that they can’t bring themselves to be bold about. But I look back now – and it was fifteen years ago this October that I came out – and I’m better off for it. I speak to many of my friends back in the entertainment industry in Nigeria, who are gay, and who are married to women, and they tell me every day that they would give anything to have a life like mine. I may not have the career I wanted but there is one thing that I have: I can love exactly who I want to love, when I want to love them. I realise what a luxury that is. It’s painful but I also celebrate the moment I came out every day.
15 years later, has there been anything that’s come close to that moment in Nigeria in terms of LGBT visibility? What’s been the impact of your decision?
There have been a lot of ripples from that moment, especially on social media. That’s why I have come to adore social media and the freedom and autonomy it has given to people across the world, from Saudi Arabia where women used it to fight for the right to drive, to Egypt where it was used to topple government. It’s become an alternative space for us to share and celebrate our truths. For example, in Nigeria, the biggest social media personality is a trans person. I’m not saying that happened because I came out but I’m happy to look back and realise that this person is setting a trend which is transcending generations. A lot of people have used Facebook or Instagram to come out, which is really interesting to me. I guess the reason we don’t have many people coming out on TV any more is because when I came out, Funmi lost her show, immediately. A lot of producers and show hosts now think, if we bring a gay or trans person on, what does that mean for us, or for our show or our station? At the same time, my community are finding alternative platforms and are using them.
The work you’re doing with the Bisi Alimi Foundation is focused on the LGBT community in Nigeria. The reports you’ve produced are hugely moving and disturbing, particularly the new report, ‘Not Dancing To Their Music’. How did you go about gathering that information?
It’s very important to me that when I present statistics, I bring it home that behind every figure is a human being. We should not view data in isolation – we should view it in connection to the people behind it. So, when I was talking to the researcher for this report, I was very clear that I wanted the human stories to come out.
We used social media to share an online survey and we received over 500 responses. Some of the feedback was really scary and made me feel so very sad. I had this feeling of ‘whatever we think we’re doing, it’s not enough.’ The title of the study actually came directly from someone’s feedback – “it’s time for us to stop dancing to their music”. When I read that, I realised that for the first 29 years of my life I was dancing to music that I didn’t choose and that it almost destroyed my existence. And I realised I wasn’t alone – the music is still playing, and we’re being forced to listen to it.
What work is your foundation doing on the ground towards these issues?
We have four different educational programmes that we run in Nigeria. We have a fellowship programme for journalists, so every year we have an open call across Nigeria for our media fellowship [https://www.bisialimifoundation.org/Media-Fellows-2019] with the idea of training journalists around how they share the story of LGBT people. They tagline of the Bisi Alimi Foundation is ‘accelerating social acceptance of LGBT people’ and based on the reports we do, my personal experience and learning a lot from the UK, I know the media has a key role to play in changing the paradigm. So far, we’ve trained over 20 journalists in Nigeria and we’re already seeing the results. Our hope is that in the next 5 years we’ll have trained around 60 journalists across print, TV and radio, and they’ll be producing stories Nigerians are consuming, so that they’ll start questioning what they thought they knew about sexual orientation.
The second programme is a justice fellowship [https://www.bisialimifoundation.org/Justice-Fellows-2019] , with the aim of building a database of lawyers who can proactively support LGBT people if they are arrested by the police. So far, we’ve trained 15 lawyers, and one of them now focuses on going into prisons to look for people who are there because of their sexuality and take up their cases. She’s doing amazing work.
Then we have our business training [https://www.bisialimifoundation.org/Business-Engagement] , and this is going into companies across Nigeria and training them on LGBT issues. Many global companies talk about diversity – they have offices across the world and wave their rainbow flags at Pride – but the moment they get on a plane to Nigeria they leave those things behind. We work to let them know that, with an understanding of social, cultural and religious nuances, you can still do something to make your workplace safe and make your workers agents of change.
And finally, we’ve just launched a new programme called Rainbow Academy. I realised in Nigeria that there’s very little economic empowerment scheme for LGBT people, so how do we create a community that has economic independence and therefore more decision-making power? We need to build a generation of Nigerian people who not only aspire to be activists but also to be actors, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs – and openly LGBT. We’re starting that next year with a seven-day residential training in Lagos where we train them in personal development, how to communicate with the media, storytelling, business development, legal mechanisms and healthcare. It’s a very holistic approach to building community, to stop people being victims and being proactive about change.
As someone who has suffered at the hands of your country but has also invested heavily in it, what’s your relationship like with Nigeria now?
I always say I have an interesting but abusive relationship with Nigeria. I love the country – and I know Nigeria loves me as well – but we go back and forth. I’ve invested a lot of my time and money and am hoping to invest more. Sometimes it’s frustrating for me because I want things to change so quickly – partly because I live in the UK – and I get carried away by the things that are happening here or the reports I read. I get trolled a lot on social media, but I know that when people feel the impact of your work, they either celebrate or attack you. So, when you feel attacked, don’t become a victim – realise that what you’re doing is starting to gain traction and keep on doing it. I get in the news almost every time I visit – no matter what I do – and it’s actually really nice to know that although they are malicious, they are keeping the story in people’s minds. That’s what matters. Somewhere, there’s a gay boy, or lesbian girl, or someone questioning their gender, who is seeing me in the news and saying ‘there is someone like me out there’.
What’s most concerning you about LGBT rights at the moment and what are you feeling optimistic about?
I think what’s very concerning for me is seeing the regression of LGBT rights in the West. Seeing the protests in Birmingham, lesbians being beaten up, parliamentarians making hateful statements, the roll-back of rights in the Supreme Court – those things are very scary for me because they don’t only impact the lives of people in the West. We live in a global village. All of those things happening here, people in Nigeria are sharing on social media and it’s giving them confidence that, if it can happen in the UK where there are rights, we can get away with it where LGBT people don’t have rights. So, I want to be more vocal becausethis is a local issue in the UK, but I look at it from a global perspective.
The good side of the story is the wins for LGBT rights in countries across the globe. I never saw Botswana coming. I never saw Mozambique coming. I never saw Angola coming. I never saw Brazil coming. Even as we’re getting push-back, we still have reason to celebrate. Just recently we had the news that a judge in Malawi has been appointed to look at a same-sex marriage case – that could be another country in Africa ticked off. It’s very exciting. Three countries across Africa in 2019 alone! That shows that people are coming to an understanding of human dignity and that’s worth celebrating. The future is bright.
What can the community at The Conduit do to support your work?
If you have a business and are aspiring to make it go global, think about how you can bring human rights into your profit-making venture. How can you put humanity at the core of your policy? One of the beautiful things about The Conduit is the array of talent, skills and individuals amongst the community so I’d love to have people’s help in any way.
I’d also love more interaction between this space and the community I come from. Boys like me, even from London, don’t usually come to a space like this. I want to bring those worlds together so that everyone can see we’re more the same than we are different. I’m really looking forward to doing that.
You can learn more about the work of the Bisi Alimi Foundation here [https://www.bisialimifoundation.org/] .