He’s a HIV activist, the first gay man to appear on Nigerian TV and
a Gay Times honouree – Bisi Alimi shares his
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.