Pastors, activists debate gay rights in Nigeria

Couple holding hands
Couples holding hands [Photo Credit: Oak Brook]

At around 2 a.m. last Sunday, August 26, armed police officers stormed a hotel in Lagos and arrested 57 youth for alleged homosexual activity. The police said they acted upon an intelligence report that the alleged homosexuals were holding an initiation ceremony.

The accused – aged between 20 and 33 – denied the allegation saying they were there for a party. They were later arraigned before a magistrate on three counts of conspiracy, belonging to a secret cult, and unlawful gathering. They pleaded not guilty to the charges and were remanded in prison until they meet their bail conditions.

Recently, at a forum in Lagos, pastors selected from different churches sat down with gay rights activists from across Nigeria to discuss the role religion has played in people trying to express their sexual identities. This is an excerpt of the discussion.

(The identities of the participants have been removed for their safety)

Moderator:

You are probably a sexual minority; you want to use religion, religion in any form, either Islam or whatever and tell you that you need to be converted to Christ. You are already LGBT, you know Jesus Christ, and you know what the antics of the Bible talks about. But they begin to tell you that you need to go for counselling and forceful deliverance (sorry for using the word ‘forceful deliverance’).

People are already looking at me, we have people who will do justice to this topic on religion and conversion therapy…. we have pastors here and we have other scholars and experts here, so I won’t want to take from their time, I will like them to speak.

Gay rights activist

The first thing I want to say maybe to the topic of conversion therapy and homophobia in the church is actually that, I think we should separate this topic of religion and first talk about spirituality. The truth of the matter is that spirituality and sexuality are very much similar; they both connect us to something that is bigger than ourselves. When we engage in spirituality, whether it’s being an Christian, being an Ifa worshipper or being a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, we want to connect to something that explains what you are doing in the world, why you exist because human beings need that and they need a place where they feel that the difficulty of the world is captured by something bigger than themselves.

And in terms of sexuality, we’re looking to connect to other human beings; it’s actually about how we connect to other human beings, that’s the basis of what it is, so they are not separate things. I think the greatest pity that we have is that we’ve managed to make this thing so separate from each other that we are not able to think about them as the same thing.

To the topic of conversion therapy, if you follow the experience of most LGTB people who have tried conversion therapy, you will know that it probably leads to depression, lots of mental health ill health and it is a struggle for most people basically. Scientifically speaking, sexuality is not a choice, it’s something that is deeply inborn and when you look at what conversion therapy is, it’s acting on the belief that you can make people behave in a particular way but it doesn’t work. Most jurisdictions in the world have classified conversion therapy to some extent as a form of psychological torture. So I think when we are looking at conversion therapy in the context of religion, it means we talk about… is this the most compassionate way to engage with what is a very difficult question of identity? And which connects to the question of homophobia in the church, which is really about, maybe the question of whether is the church a safe place for people to express that they are different? And even if that difference is not entirely accepted, should the fact that they are different….cast them out of the church? Should it not be a space for people to be able to express that differences and feel safe that they are doing so without going to experience stigma and victimisation?

Pastor

The conversion therapy, I’m talking from the Christian point of view, conversion is for both believers and non-believers. Let me talk about believers first: believers, you can fall into sin, you can embrace wrong beliefs, so conversion to you as a believer, someone inside the church is turning from your sin back to the right path or turning from the wrong belief that has cut your relationship between you and God, so conversion is turning back. It is for both believers and unbelievers. For unbelievers, it is leaving the world of sin and coming to life in Christ. So whichever way, it means leaving something, dropping something, turning away from something to Christ, to establish or re-establish a good relationship with Christ. So, it is not the issue of… God desires a relationship, he wants communion, a fellowship, that’s why we don’t see Christianity as a religion so to say, Christianity is a way of life, it is a relationship. And for you to be in a relationship with somebody, you must share the same virtues, where you are not sharing the same thing with the person, you must drop what you believe… like what we are discussing here. Let me just add this: there are people who are into what we’re discussing here, they are happy, gay couples are happy, they’re proud, but I’ve discovered that the majority are not really… maybe they feel the society in this part of the world… they don’t enjoy it. So it’s not that when people come to church, we say you must do this, you must be converted. God does not impose anything on anybody. When God created us, He gave us free choice; anybody can rise up and say there is no God, God will not kill the person immediately.

Then two, Christianity does not punish anybody for whatever he or she believes. What we’re looking at is that the word of God said if somebody is into this and dies in that state, then this is the end result. In fact, Christianity does not punish anybody for holding any belief or for falling into sin.

Sexuality and sex is a wonderful gift from God and God being the creator, I think we should also agree that He should have the right to control what He has given us. So, this is the way I see things from this issue of conversion therapy, nobody is saying be this or be that but if you desire a relationship with God, you must turn from what He says you should not do and come to Him. That is that for now.

Pastor

Good morning once again. Before I go into conversion therapy, let me just say this, for me I think there is no way you can take sexuality from the issue of religion. As a Christian, obviously I believe there is a God and we are all here as creatures of God. So God created us and he created us as sexual beings and just like he said, which I agree with; if God is the author of something, I think he has the exclusive right to dictate how such things should be expressed. When we talk of religion, definitely we’re talking about something higher than us, there is a higher authority. So from my own point of view when we talk of religion, as I said as a Christian, let me put it as the Christian way, if as I believe that God created us and that He created us as sexual beings, then there is no way we can separate sexuality from religion, I think they’re inseparable.

Now coming to the issue of conversion therapy, the conversation therapy I know of or that I read of, I think I will say it here that as far as I know, I will say the church is not guilty of that. What do I mean? Let’s separate what Christianity is from what people who claim to be Christians do, they are two different things. And a lot of the time when issues like these come up or some other issues on social media, one of the main faults that I see that a lot of people fall guilty of is judging Christianity based on what people who claim to be Christians do. So if you are talking of conversion therapy, if you look through the bible from the beginning to the end, there is no five-point plan of overcoming sin, there is nothing like that.

And the conversion therapy that I know of or that I read about, it involves some processes and which like you rightly said, some of them are so terrible to the point of demeaning the person involved. It’s not just something I think anybody should do regardless of wherever that person is coming from, it’s not something I think anyone should be subjected to. My own point of view is that God is our creator, he created us as sexual beings and He has the exclusive right to dictate as to how we should express our sexuality. So there’s no way we can separate the two of them.

Moderator: What do you think of the new approaches to conversion therapy as regards religion?

Gay rights activist

I actually have a question arising from the last speaker when he talked about God being the one who created us and given us sexuality and He’s the one who determines how we express it and I’m just wondering about the role of pastors because none of us has seen God, so there are representatives who act on our behalf, who we have vested with the opportunity to represent God and so the conversion therapy actually has to do with the religious groups that we have decided to belong to.

And then, another aspect of conversion therapy that is not even within the church, where for instance… I was at a public hearing in 2009 where a gay man was weeping when police was about to beat us because we were at the public hearing and he said ‘I wish I wasn’t gay.’ And a girl said to him ‘You know why you are gay? The reason you are gay is that you’ve not met a girl who knows how to have sex. If I have sex with you you will stop being gay.’ And this guy was crying not because… of course many people would have said that to him in the society that ‘You can stop being gay, something you learnt.’ That’s another aspect of conversion that we don’t look at.

And then also when we talk about lesbians. I was at a feminists’ forum where a young girl had been raped repeatedly by the uncle because parents want her to stop being a lesbian. And so it was okay for an uncle to rape her repeatedly. Those are some aspects (corrective rape) that we don’t talk about.

Coming back to religion, when we say conversion therapy we are actually given it a beautiful name. We’re looking at things like deliverance, when you come into a church circle and you’re told that you have a demon in you, that’s why you are a man and you love a man, that’s why you are a girl and you love a girl. And so there are stages of how people try to bring you out of that your sexuality which they think that you have learnt. And it varies from church to church, I used to be a Catholic I don’t know what they would do in their own way of conversion, but I’ve been to places like white garment churches where people have to be seriously flogged. You go through a real torture for you to stop being a gay or lesbian. Some people are locked up for some time so they don’t set eyes on other men to see if that changes their sexuality.

Moderator: Do you feel like a gay or lesbian woman can be straight if God is involved?

Pastor

Yes. First, you have to know that God is a loving God. Christianity is a relationship; it’s a father and son relationship. The first thing is this, you can’t change a man by beating him. In fact, the more you beat a man the more he becomes hardened because it’s a matter of the heart and the mind. The best way to change a man’s mind is not by beating the person or deliverance, holy water and all that. Most Christians, because of the hate they have for these things, because it irritates them, they try to do what they know they can do to change the man.

The best way to change a man is by love because love is the greatest commandment. There is something I usually say, you can give without loving but you can’t love without giving. So a man that loves somebody and knows very well that this person is going the wrong way, there are guided ways with which the man can change that person. I believe in prayer because it is a necessity for survival, so the first thing as a Christian you need to do is the place of prayer, it can never be overemphasized.

The best way to change a man is to love a man unconditionally because God loves us. Now does that mean that living such a life is right? No, to an extent actually. You can’t change a man by pouring the man holy water.

Moderator: Do you believe love and prayer is one of the ways we can change people from having same-sex relationships? What are your thoughts?

Gay rights activist

Looking at conversion therapy and what it entails, I agree with him that it’s evolved over time. Now it comes across to us in some very subtle ways that we don’t necessarily term them conversion therapy anymore. We call them all kinds of names: deliverance, setting free, breaking yokes and the likes of them. I’ll take it from a public health perspective.

Conversion therapy is wrong for anyone because I particularly believe that no one has the right to lord your opinion or whatever your perception is about religion on anyone. I also absolutely believe that religion is a personal journey. I’ve grown to a point where I know that there are people who don’t believe in God, there are people who don’t believe in the tenets of your own religion, there are people who are not binded by the laws that come with your religion. And if I’m a Christian and then I’m dealing with a Buddhist or someone who doesn’t belong to my religion and I’m using the tenets of my religion to address that person, I feel it’s totally wrong. I also agree that if religion is a personal journey, people actually determine if they want to follow that tenet or not. And like I always say, no sin is greater than the other. So If I’m judging you based on perception and I’m guilty of some other stuff, who judges me?

Gay rights activist

Some of the conversations we need to have is also about the actual beliefs that we are bringing to the table when we are having this conversation. There a lot of us who are clear that sexuality is a part of human behaviour that is scientifically… and in the same way that religion has had to reconcile itself with the fact that the earth does not revolve around…. You know, that our place in the universe had actually been humbled by scientific knowledge.

The reason we are having this conversation is people who are queer identified with faith and what they keep experiencing is rejection.

If you flip the assumption on its head that you can love away or pray away gay, can you love or pray gayness? So if I take somebody and do all the things you’ve said to make him stop being gay, can I do the opposite? Obviously, we don’t try to do it the other way because we see homosexuality as a sin or as wrong, but if we go one way why can’t we go the other?

Gay rights activist

If you are talking about conversion, I just don’t understand why we talk about love, then we say to change a person you need to love them. If you are going to change, then that’s already conditional like you are doing this thing in the hope that you get a result, a result you might not get. And when you don’t get the result, you are going to be disappointed or feel like you failed, so you are putting a lot of pressure on the other person to respond in a certain way because you are expecting an action for yourself. If we are going to interact with the LGBT people as a church or as a religious group, we cannot come from that point of view. Because these people are already in your places of worship, most of them grew up in your places of worship so they already have all the information you have, there is nothing magical that you have that they don’t.

Moderator: If you pray and they don’t change, do you love them regardless?

Gay rights activist

If we are going to talk about… let’s use the Catholic church because she was saying how she doesn’t know….actually there have been lots of research in that field. For thousands of years a lot of LGBT men and women have chosen celibacy through monasteries and nunneries. So basically, an LGBT person knows that at some point there’s gonna be a pressure to get married, pressure to make a choice like ‘Do I want to be gay or not?’ So instead they go into monasteries and nunneries and they take up abstinence which basically relieves you of the pressure of sexuality altogether. So for a lot of Catholic LGBT people, the monasteries and nunneries have been a refuge, a safe place where they could go and not have to worry about these things and still be Christian. And because the question of sexuality is completely removed from the equation, their congregation is able to embrace them and accept them as people. Even evangelical Christianity have their own variant where a lot of young people go into evangelical missions because when you do that you are not really expected to raise a family and by the time you have done 30 years evangelizing and you’re in your 50’s or 60’s nobody is going to ask you to get married. So a lot of people have found loopholes to the question of sexuality, it does make them any less Christian, it doesn’t mean that their service to God or their acts of worship are any less valid. So this whole statement of loving people to change them is unfair to the people you’re loving.

Gay rights activist

This problem is more with the religious leaders and tolerance. I think our religious leaders need to be more tolerant towards these people. Religiousity is a personal thing. What is the definition? Your relationship with your god. Sexual orientation should not becloud your opinion of people because even the Bible says ‘judge not lest thou be judged,’ Matthew 7:1, it’s already telling us not to judge. But when you come to somebody and say ‘I’m going to that person because I want to change that person,’ he was talking about conversion, changing people. Does it mean the person will not enter the kingdom of heaven? I don’t know if that’s what God really…. because the first thing here is love. Just like it said in the Letter to the Ephesians that ‘You have abandoned your first love.’ I think what we are really doing now is not focusing on the people because if God is the ultimate and we start coming to people that we want you to be different, you are just chasing people away. Christianity itself was a religion that was totally stigmatized, even the people – in the history of Christianity –were chased to the catacombs. And they were such people that were ignored and abandoned just like what we are indirectly doing today. Is it not because those early Christians were not tolerant that they were able to change the mother of Constantine? I think we have to come off our high mansions and face the reality. We must, first of all, embrace everybody, then if they are ready to come to your level…and if they are not, take people for who they are, we should stop it.

Gay rights activist

I’m inclined to look at the scientific basis. Most people will say how do you, for instance, prevent a child who has gender… to some people an imbalance and how do you want to influence it to suit what people perceive as the right gender expression? I think it’s a problem but scientifically, I know that…I’ve read a lot of journals and I’m yet to see even one but yet people keep saying we can do it. Is there anybody that has done it? If you did it, how did you do it? In Nigeria here we say we use love to change people, have you done it before? That’s the question. If you have done it before, let us see how you did it and let us look at that proof that it worked.

Pastor

You have to understand that God is a God of purpose, and when purpose is not known abuse is inevitable. God created man for a purpose. Now God saw it and said it is not good for man to be alone and God created a woman. You have to understand that the creator is greater than the product and the creator of a thing has in mind the purpose of the thing before creating that thing. That’s there are rules and regulations, there are guidelines given, the Bible is our Constitution. I’m speaking as a Christian. God created woman to become an helpmate. So God thought of it and created a woman. And the Bible said for this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to a woman. This is what God’s word. It is God’s will for a man to get married to a woman.

Moderator: Okay, before we move to the next segment, can you respond to this question? What are religious leaders doing about same-sex relationship?

Pastor

Personally, I will say at times it is not the law in Nigeria; it is the implementation, the enforcement that is the issue. Like this one we just watched (a documentary showing mob violence against persons accused of same-sex relationships)…..almost all the problem with the law is enforcement.

Moderator: You don’t have an issue with the law prohibiting same sex marriage?

Pastor

No, I don’t have.

Moderator: But you have an issue with implementation?

Pastor

The law didn’t just come in a day; it went through all the processes.

Moderator: Based on what you said, the law prohibits freedom of association, so if you are here talking to members of the community you are liable to 10 years.

Pastor

You see, making law in the society is to ensure sanity. Like I said, the law in the U.S State of ….that found Phillip guilty of discriminating against a gay couple for not making cake for them. When I was analysing the whole thing, I saw it as undemocratic because you as a business, though it is a public business anyway, you are not to deny service. But the truth is that when you make a law like that, those are the consequences….

Moderator: Homosexuality, is it right or wrong?

Pastor

From my own point of view, from my Christian point of view as a pastor, it is wrong; because God says it’s wrong.

Moderator: Can you be gay and can you be Christian? His question is apt in this regard. Do you feel homosexuality is right or wrong?

Gay rights activist

Research done about three years ago shows that about 3.4 percent of Nigerians are gay. Those were the ones that were found who were bold to be part of the research that led to people knowing that they were gay; I’m sure they are more than that because some other people don’t want people to come out. And so those were the people who were reached, people who were willing to say I am gay. They live with us, some of them are our siblings, some of them are the choirmasters and mistresses; those people are living in denial because we have an issue in understanding sexuality.

The issue of gay and lesbian in Nigeria we actually started with a denial, because I remember in 2007 I had gone to a universal periodic review in the UK and there they asked a Nigerian government representative a question that how do you relate with lesbian and gay people in your country? And he said we don’t have those kinds of people in our country; that was where Nigeria started denying. And then we came back to Nigeria, soon after, there was a law criminalising same-sex and then at the public hearing that was held in 2009, the role of the church was so huge in ensuring that the law was passed. Because we had a Catholic woman who came with a carton of books and narrating how gay people had destroyed Nigeria and how gay people are a curse like Peter had said and how gay people have been giving everyone HIV diseases and all kinds of things to Nigeria and it has made a very strong argument that that law should be passed. And it wasn’t a surprise that that law was passed. Initially, we heard it was political, someone wanted to get into power and that law was passed. But the truth I want to tell our pastors is that- I really commend you for coming because my pastor is a lawyer and he won’t come here if he gets that invitation, because he preaches it in church and he says gay people are going to hell, that’s the place for them. So I really commend you for coming.


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