In 2016, LGBTQ+ advocate Edafe Okporo’s life changed forever. With the receipt of the prestigious Falobi Award for his contribution to public health and equality, his underground work became known and his face public. Suffering severe attacks, he had to flee his home country, Nigeria, and seek asylum in the United States of America, just as that country was changing with the election of Donald Trump. One year later after his different ordeals at a detention camp in New Jersey and with a new book, BED 26, giving an unabashed account of his journey, Edafe talks to A Nasty Boy about his hopes for the future, sharing his story through literature, his experiences and how they’ve shaped the man he is today.
A Nasty Boy (ANB): Tell us about your background and formative years growing up in Warri, Delta State, Nigeria.
Edafe (E): Growing up in Warri was interesting, difficult and fun. Warri has [always] promoted masculinity as [the] norm, because of the [different] ethnic and tribal wars for natural resources it shares, with crude oil being …the…[backbone] of Nigeria’s economy. I experienced the 1990 crisis and [those in the] 2000’s during the dawn of the new millennium and it was very difficult to adopt these narratives, so I could not live in Warri for a long time. [I] had to move in with my aunt when I was just 10 years old so I could continue my higher education. I miss the beautiful green vegetation and water bodies that surround the beautifully situated Warri but, life has to go on.
(ANB): You had your first job in 2014 as a program officer, providing Pro Bono legal aid and HIV/Health sensitization to sexual minorities in rural communities in Nigeria. How did having a front row seat to varying narratives from different LGBTQ+ Nigerians impact you and affect your own reality?
(E): I never realized how difficult it was to be a member of the Nigerian LGBTQ+ community before I started this job. I had experienced some hardship myself, rejection from family and community members and I thought it was an issue with me. When I sat in this role, I discovered the reality of being a member of this community, receiving calls daily of people being blackmailed and mob attacks. It resonated with me that almost all members of the Nigerian LGBTQ+ community experienced the difficulty in being acknowledged as human, this empathy for the community pushed me into being a better advocate. Being of the community and living in the community, is different from not being a member of the community and working for the community.
(ANB): The Omololu Falobi award for your contribution to Public Health and Equality, presented by Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention in 2016, was the match that started the fire which eventually led to you fleeing the country to seek asylum in the US. A celebratory moment immediately took a nosedive and changed your life. How did you feel and, if you could go back, would you change anything?
(E): I do not regret my past and believe everything works together for our good. Before that award, I had suffered attacks from the homophobic community where I lived in Abuja. It had been difficult for me to live freely as a human because of the constant prejudice [from] people who do not understand the differences humans have in the variance of life partners.
(ANB): Being forced to leave Nigeria out of fear must have been heart-breaking, do you feel any form of resentment towards a system which, instead of protecting you, fought against you?
(E): Nigerians [and] humans do not accept change easily. I do not have any resentment but I miss the green vegetation of Nigeria, the foods I like and the weather I love. I have traded them for the price of being forced to live in North America and encounter racism for being black, for speaking with a different accent and now face a new challenge of being sexualized by the gay community in America who stereotype Africans as sex idols.
(ANB): The tail end of 2016 was a trying period for minorities in America with the election of Donald Trump who, surprisingly, won the Presidential elections. We understand that upon your arrival, you were thrust into a country plagued with uncertainty and fear. With the idea of the “American Dream” at the back of your mind, what were your expectations?
(E): America was built with a founding value of dignity and respect for humans. This is really a trying time for America with President Trump [ordering the removal of] the slogan from department of homeland security website that states “Country of Immigrants.” [However,] I believe these four years would be an eye-opener for some Americans who promote whiteness, [especially understanding that] America is built for white people. Racism is a big issue in America and Trump is ready to fight people of colour form every part of the world.
(ANB): Due to lack of housing for immigrants, you were kept in detention at the Elizabeth Detention Centre, New Jersey, for a grueling period of 5 months. This must’ve come as a rude shock, considering your exit from Nigeria was motivated by the fear you had for your life and your freedom. Did this in any way alter the image you had of America, and how do you think the USA can address this issue moving forward?
(E): I could not believe humans were treated in such a dehumanizing way. Being placed in handcuffs and not being able to see what it looks like outside for over 5 months was difficult [and] I do not want anybody, not even my enemies, to experience [that]. I had a difficult experience there, but the people of America were loving and supportive to me, especially [after] being released and [seeing] how community members have responded. That was a trying time in my life, but the light shone so brightly when I was released from detention.
(ANB): Talking about your book, at what point did you decide you were going to share your story? Was it something you always considered or it was an “Aha” moment? Was there any hesitation as to whether or not it was the right move?
(E): I started the first half of my book when I was in detention. I wrote about my experience in Nigeria. The “Aha” moment was when I realised that more Nigeria LGBTQ+ folks were migrating and wanted to let the world know how difficult it is to live in Nigeria as a member of the LGBTQ+ community [as well as] how desperate times demand desperate measures. I live by a quote and it was the first quote in my book. “Silence is important but our stories cannot be kept silent because that would prevent people from knowing the struggle we have gone through.”
(ANB): Last year you organized a mass of Americans in New York for the Rise and Resist rally, which called for the 2014 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act to be repelled and for putting a stop to the general persecution of the LGBTQ+ community. Doubts have been raised about how probable this is and whether or not it can come to fruition. What are your thoughts?
(E): Nigerians are not ready for the change right now, but our neighbouring country, Ghana, has been progressive with changing such laws. A publication by World Bank showed the co-relationship between laws that persecute LGBTQ+ persons and GDP growth, the results showed that countries with such laws have less growth. Talents are leaving Nigeria, members of the LGBTQ+ community are migrating and bettering [other] societies in the world, I think it is high time Nigeria changes this law.
(ANB): Being away from a country you love must be hard, but until the system changes it seems like the only option available. What are your plans for the future now that you’ve been granted asylum and how do you hope to still affect your community back home?
(E): I am going to Amsterdam this summer [to study] International Law on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. I am concerned about Nigeria and will continue advocating for the Nigeria LGBTQ+ community at the UN as a youth representative to the UNDPINGO executive community, to promote inclusion and diversity in the workplace.
(ANB): By sharing your deeply personal story and relatable journey, you’ve created an opportunity for other sexual minorities in Nigeria and Africa to feel less alone in their struggles. What are your hopes for the future of the LGBTQ+ community and what do you want your readers to take away from this book?
(E): In my book, there are contributions from LGBTQ+ community members in Nigeria and other community members in the diaspora (who have) had the same experience. I want readers to understand the importance of sharing their stories, the countries which we idolize and draw strength from also have their struggles, the more stories we share the more people get to relate to our struggles and family members will know that their children are part of the struggle and change the perception of how LGBTQ persons are treated. Even if the law changes on paper, most things will remain the same if people do not change the way they perceive LGBTQ persons in Nigeria.
Edafe Okporo is an award-winning human rights activist and public health educator. His new book BED 26 is available for purchase, here.