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Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS ryan butcher IM­AGE dan evans

He’s a HIV ac­tivist, the first gay man to ap­pear on Nige­rian TV and

a Gay Times hon­ouree – Bisi Alimi shares his

truth.

What do we mean when we thank peo­ple for shar­ing their truth?

The world we live in today is, well, scary.

Gay peo­ple, BAME peo­ple, trans peo­ple – and any­one who’s ba­si­cally not a straight, white, cis­gen­dered man – are bul­lied, beaten and vic­timised ev­ery sin­gle day in ev­ery cor­ner of the globe.

When we thank peo­ple for shar­ing their truth, we’re thank­ing them for speak­ing openly and hon­estly about their own ex­pe­ri­ences in the hope of broad­en­ing minds and em­pow­er­ing peo­ple; we’re thank­ing them for mak­ing them­selves vul­ner­a­ble in the hope of – with­out be­ing flip­pant – mak­ing the world a less lonely and less scary place.

In this is­sue, we’d like to thank 42-year-old Nige­rian HIV and gay rights ac­tivist Bisi Alimi for shar­ing his truth, be­cause the jour­ney he’s made, and con­tin­ues to make, is one that should be in­spir­ing to all of us.

Bisi was born in La­gos, Nige­ria, into a polyamorous fam­ily. His Mus­lim fa­ther had two wives, one of whom was his Chris­tian mother. On his mother’s side of the fam­ily, his grand­fa­ther was a com­mu­nist ac­tivist – ex­tremely po­lit­i­cal in the con­text of Nige­ria at the time – and although the two never met, Bisi be­lieves that his grand­fa­ther’s ac­tivism is en­shrined in his DNA.

“I be­came very po­lit­i­cal,” Bisi states proudly, “and not just po­lit­i­cal, but at a very young age I had a sense of what I want and how I wanted it. It gave me a lit­tle bit of a sense of a pur­pose. From a young age, I was a mem­ber of the left­wing so­cial­ist party in Nige­ria and it cre­ated that lit­tle foun­da­tion for the rebel that to emerge later in life.”

It was around this time that Bisi also started see­ing hints of his sex­u­al­ity pop up. He had his first kiss with a boy when he was 11 years old in pri­mary school, and then went on to an all boys’ se­condary school where he tells us he spent the most dra­matic six years of his life.

“It was dur­ing this time I dis­cov­ered my­self, fell into my first re­la­tion­ships, was bul­lied, be­came the bully – it was just a whirl­wind of so many things,” he ex­plains. “And it was while I was in se­condary school that I met four other guys who were also gay. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were very fem­i­nine, so be­ing fem­i­nine was the unique thing I’d like in other boys, and it was the thing that was bind­ing us to­gether.”

The other pupils in Bisi’s school knew he and his friends were gay, which meant they were ex­cluded from ev­ery­thing. And the teach­ers, the very peo­ple who were meant to pro­tect them and keep them safe, would pun­ish them for it. But to put it into per­spec­tive, this was also a school that used the Bi­ble to teach sub­jects like bi­ol­ogy, chem­istry and physics.

When Bisi was 17 he at­tempted his first sui­cide – “I be­came lonely, I be­came de­pressed and I be­came ex­tremely sui­ci­dal” – but a year later, in 1993, when Bisi was 18, he went to his first gay party and his life changed for­ever.

“It was mind-blow­ing,” he beams. “I walked into this room with more than 50 or 60 gay men – some of them dressed up – and I was like, ‘Gosh! Am I dead and in heaven?’ Be­ing ad­mired by peo­ple, it was just such a com­plete shift in life for me. And I never went back.”

Bisi’s jour­ney led him to univer­sity where he ma­jored in theatre – he’d been im­mersed in arts like drama and dance since pri­mary school – but soon af­ter, in the late 90s, he lost his best friend to an AIDS-re­lated ill­ness. It was the start of what Bisi de­scribes as the gay com­mu­nity in Nige­ria ex­pe­ri­enc­ing “the scorch of AIDS”.

“I lost a lot of friends,” he con­tin­ues. We were young, we were in our 20s, and peo­ple were dy­ing just like that” – Bisi claps four times in quick suc­ces­sion to ham­mer home how quickly AIDS was rav­aging the com­mu­nity – “and I was strug­gling to un­der­stand it. I dis­cov­ered a gay HIV or­gan­i­sa­tion and started vol­un­teer­ing to get an un­der­stand­ing of what HIV and AIDS was.

“We didn’t know about con­doms and lube in the gay com­mu­nity. There was no ed­u­ca­tion around gay sex – or even sex for het­ero­sex­u­als or young peo­ple. You just had to find your way, and so gay men men were hav­ing sex us­ing veg­etable oil and but­ter, and sex like that highly ex­poses you to the virus.

“I’ve taken it upon my­self to make sure that only death will stop me from over­turn­ing Nige­ria’s anti-gay law.”

“In 2004, as I started to un­der­stand more, I did my own test, and was di­ag­nosed with the virus as well. I thought I was go­ing to die.”

At this time, Bisi had al­ready grad­u­ated from univer­sity and had been given a big break as an ac­tor on a ma­jor Nige­rian soap. How­ever, his fame meant he was un­der con­stant threat from the me­dia of hav­ing his sex­u­al­ity ex­posed – “they were like, ‘We know you’re sick and we’re go­ing to ex­pose you!’” – and so he used an ap­pear­ance on New Dawn with Fumni Iyanda, a talk show on the Nige­rian Tele­vi­sion Author­ity, to take con­trol; he came out as gay on na­tional tele­vi­sion and set off a chain events, the ef­fects of which are still be­ing felt today.

“It was prin­ci­pally for me to just be in con­trol of the nar­ra­tive. I wanted peo­ple to know that the ac­tor that they saw on TV, who they’d come to ad­mire be­cause of the char­ac­ter he was play­ing, was a gay guy.”

But the re­ac­tion was some­thing Bisi could never have pos­si­bly imag­ined.

“[New Dawn with Fumni] was one of the big­gest TV shows in Nige­ria and the first thing that hap­pened was it was pulled off the air. On my show, my char­ac­ter was killed and no­body gave me a script again. I be­came broke and started en­dur­ing three years of in­ten­sive as­sault. There were ar­ti­cles af­ter ar­ti­cles say­ing that we shouldn’t be en­cour­ag­ing young boys to think [about be­ing gay]. Be­fore I did what I did, the pres­i­dent of Nige­ria was say­ing, ‘There are no gays in this coun­try!’, and this crazy boy went on TV with his sparkle shoes on and said, ‘Ah, ex­cuse me! There’s one here!’ And all this led to the anti-gay laws we have in the coun­try now.

“I look back and feel re­spon­si­ble for this law, and so I’ve taken it upon my­self to make sure that it is only death that will stop me from over­turn­ing that law.”

We’ve been told a lot of things by a lot of peo­ple dur­ing in­ter­views in our time at

Gay Times, but we don’t think we’ve ever heard any­one de­clare any­thing with as much con­vic­tion as Bisi’s vow to make sure Nige­ria’s anti-gay law is over­turned. We put to him that while he might feel re­spon­si­ble for the changes in the law, he must surely be com­forted by the knowl­edge that he gave hope to count­less gay kids in Nige­ria who saw him come out so de­fi­antly on tele­vi­sion. But this is in fact some­thing he laments.

“The prob­lem that I have and the joke that I have to live with is that I gave those boys false hope, and that for me is one of the many things that I’m an­gry about my­self for. I have peo­ple on Face­book and In­sta­gram send­ing me mes­sages ev­ery day, thank­ing me for what I did, be­came it made them re­alise they could be them­selves. But what hap­pens next? The story didn’t end well for me in Nige­ria and there’s no hope for them. I think maybe if I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have cre­ated the il­lu­sion that hope is pos­si­ble. Maybe I’m just be­ing hard my­self…”

It’s dif­fi­cult to see some­one as strong and in­spi­ra­tional as Bisi dis­credit him­self for what we can only see as a no­ble and vi­tal act, but per­haps we should put into con­text what hap­pened next, and how we got to be sat with Bisi in the Lon­don home he shares with his part­ner, 13 years since New Dawn with Fumni. Although that’s a story we could never do jus­tice to in these hum­ble four pages.

When Bisi re­alised he could no longer find work as an ac­tor, he threw him­self into work­ing for HIV or­gan­i­sa­tions; out­reach work with gay men to help them un­der­stand HIV and how to have safer sex. This work even­tu­ally led him to be in­vited as a key speaker to a con­fer­ence in Lon­don – “it was my first time out of Nige­ria and I was able to see all these beau­ti­ful peo­ple talk about the work they were do­ing.” Less than a month af­ter he re­turned to Nige­ria, he was in his apart­ment with his boyfriend at the time – watch­ing a Mex­i­can soap opera in bed, just like any same-sex cou­ple might do today –

when the pair heard a knock at the door.

Bisi an­swered and was sud­denly knocked to the ground. Next thing he knew, he and his boyfriend had been kicked, stripped naked, tied up and tor­tured for up­wards of two hours. Bisi was sure he was go­ing to die, and it was only when a neigh­bour knocked on the door that his at­tack­ers got spooked and fled. The cou­ple re­ported the at­tack to the po­lice, of course. The po­lice’s ad­vice? Flee the coun­try.

And that’s what Bisi did. Two days af­ter he was at­tacked and nearly killed in his own home, he was in Lon­don with £20 in his pocket to stay with his Evan­gel­i­cal ho­mo­pho­bic aunt, who ev­ery day would tell Bisi he was go­ing to burn in hell.

The next few years of Bisi’s new life in Lon­don saw him get a job in re­tail, meet a man, fall in love, move in with his boyfriend, and be­gin work­ing with the Naz Project, which helps black Africans di­ag­nosed with HIV.

“And then in 2007, my part­ner died,” Bisi som­brely tells us. He clicks his fin­gers and adds: “Just like that.”

Bisi, in mourn­ing, was kicked out of his part­ner’s home, be­cause they weren’t mar­ried, and found him­self home­less. Af­ter suf­fer­ing a se­vere bout of de­pres­sion, with the sup­port and en­cour­age­ment of his friends, he be­gan the process of seek­ing asy­lum. It was dur­ing this time – liv­ing on a £35 voucher a week – that he turned to sex work.

“It was the only way I could deal with the pres­sure, be­cause I couldn’t tell home what I was go­ing through and ask for money. Telling them I had no money meant I was a fail­ure.

“My first client paid me £80, and I couldn’t even earn that when I was with the Naz Project! Be­cause of my re­li­gious back­ground, I felt the shame of be­ing a sex worker, but my friend helped me through it. He told me: ‘You go out with some­one and they give you drinks and ev­ery­thing and then you have sex with them, or you go out with some­one and they give you money and you have sex with them? What’s the dif­fer­ence?’” By the time I got my pa­pers and had been granted asy­lum, I had enough money saved from sex work, so I packed my bag and I called my old boss at the Naz Project, and I was back.”

Bisi Alimi would go on to study at univer­sity for his mas­ters in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, work with The Kalei­do­scope Trust and even start The Bisi Alimi Foun­da­tion, which ad­vo­cates for the rights and dig­nity of LGBT+ peo­ple in Nige­ria – work­ing to over­turn the anti-gay law that he feels re­spon­si­ble for. That’s what he’s still do­ing today.

And the truth about Bisi Alimi is that this is only a drop in the ocean of the in­spir­ing and em­pow­er­ing jour­ney that he’s been on.

On be­half of every­one, Bisi Alimi, thank you for telling – and more im­por­tantly liv­ing – your truth with the grace and hu­mil­ity most of us can only as­pire to.

TOP AND BOT­TOM IMAGES BY ISSA YAZJI

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