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Bisi Alimi, 43, is the founder of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, to raise promote equal opportunity and social inclusion of LGBT+ people in Nigeria. Alimi was a famous TV star in Nigeria when the media found out he was gay — a secret he'd long harbored, along with his HIV diagnosis. Global Citizen met Alimi at the Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Conference in London, to hear his story.
When I came out, I did it for three reasons. One was personal, one was because I was inspired, and one was because of the global conversation.
There was this big conversation going on globally at the time, with lots of attention on gay marriage. And Nigeria was just saying that we don’t have people like that in our country.
The conversation in Nigeria wasn’t about opening up gay rights, so much as how do we stop that [homosexuality] coming here. They were looking to build a wall of traditional values, family values, so that gay people didn’t come to Nigeria.
Gene Robinson [in the US, the first bishop in an openly gay relationship] was an inspiration to me at the time, he was causing a ripple in the church about his own sexuality and it showed me that sexuality could be spoken about publicly.
In 2004, I was graduating from university. I’m a trained actor and I had my big break in TV around the same time. But the media found out about my sexuality, and they had photos of myself and my boyfriend kissing, They wanted to make a big deal out of it.
Nigeria was just saying that we don’t have people like that in our country
So I was traumatised, and afraid, and everyone in my support system was telling me not to talk about it. But I was really driven to speak out, to say I can’t allow the narrative about there not being any gay men in Nigeria.
It was terrifying. I thought it was going to put an end to my career. But I was saving myself. At 17, I attempted suicide and I had severe mental health issues. So I thought, either I come out and I kill myself, or I don’t come out and I kill myself.
But the number of young people who were coming to me and saying they were experiencing the same things, there were so many that I decided there was work to be done here.
It wasn’t a hero thing, or a courage thing, to me. And I’m not being humble. I wasn’t doing it to be courageous. I just wanted to save myself.
But when I was waiting to go on TV, [on the “Funmi Iyanda’s New Dawn with Funmi” show] to speak out, there were times when I backed out, or the show backed out, but eventually we went ahead with it.
And I was sat on the sofa of the most watched TV show in Nigeria and said I was gay.
I knew there would be backlash. The TV show [“New Dawn with Funmi”] was cancelled, so I feel I owed the show something. When I came out, I wasn’t expecting there to be a street party, but I also wasn’t expecting people to come to my house with a gun and wanting to kill me.
It’s a really big deal growing up in a country where you aren’t accepted.
But being gay, and being accepted, is also a class and poverty issue. I’m from a very poor family, so being gay was a big issue. Such things aren’t allowed.
I grew up in a world of drugs, and guns and crime, and toxic masculinity. So it was very difficult growing up there. If I survived that jungle, now I know how to survive many things.
But I compare my experience of being gay in Nigeria, to my friends who were born into wealth, and their experience of being gay in Nigeria. They had summer holidays, they came to the UK on holiday, they had seen those things, they were educated.
Even in the same Nigeria, it’s not a big deal [to be gay] when you’re wealthy. Class plays a huge part. It’s two different worlds in the same country.
I wasn’t expecting people to come to my house with a gun and wanting to kill me
I see elements of the same thing in the UK.
Every time I do public speaking, I say I was never black until I came to the UK. I had to come out to myself that I’m black. And that was heartbreaking. But I didn’t come to that conclusion because of the colour of my skin. But because of how many times people like me have been stopped and searched, how many times people like me are gunned down and nothing happens, by how many times people like me are involved in trafficking and nobody cares, and I understand the burden of that blackness.
It’s completely different to Nigeria though, [the UK] is like heaven to me and I’m really, really grateful to the UK. Giving me a new home is something I will forever be grateful for. But I’m not going to deny the fact that it is still a struggle.
I’m a man, which is a privileged position. But I’m a black man, so I’ve lost part of my privilege. And then I’m a black, gay man, so that is another layer of lost privilege. And then I’m a black, gay man living with HIV. So it’s intersectionality. I relate to people who are black, who are gay, who are living with HIV.
I’m not a single issue person. There are two things I always say. One, is that my activism is personal. I consider myself a selfish person because I want to live in a better world. So I have to make the world a better place.
But, the second thing, is that I also understand that I’m not complete, that my rights can’t be complete, if someone else’s rights are taken away.
Global Citizen campaign to achieve the UN’s Global Goals to end extreme poverty. This includes action on ending discrimination, and ensuring universal social, economic, and political inclusion — regardless of age, sex, sexuality, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, economic, or any other status. You can join us by taking action here.