It is not easy to be queer in Nigeria. The federal law, Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) which was signed by ex-president Goodluck Jonathan, and sharia laws in the northern side of the country have been used as state-sanctioned tools to enforce a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ citizens for years. These laws have created a gateway for people to engage in individual and mob violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ Nigerians without any legal consequences.
According to a 2019 Social Perception Survey on LGBT+ Rights in Nigeria by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS,) 60% of Nigerians will not accept a family member who is LGBTQ+ while 75% support laws like the SSMPA, although both numbers show a downward trend from previous surveys (from 83% and 90% respectively in 2017). Nigeria is a widely conservative country where religion (Christianity and Islam) influences negative attitudes toward queer people. The SSMPA also prohibits personal and organized support for LGBTQ+ persons. Non-LGBTQ+ people can be punished with a prison sentence of up to 10 years for association with queer Nigerians.
Unemployment, which is already an issue in Nigeria, places marginalized individuals in a difficult position to fend for themselves. With their identities criminalized and persecuted, LGBTQ+ persons who seek employment in both public and private companies face huge challenges. A report by the Bisi Alimi Foundation, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in Nigeria, found that 55% of LGBTQ+ respondents have been exposed to physical and sexual violence, either at home or in the workplace in the past decade. The report also found that 22% of LGBTQ+ Nigerians experience discrimination at work, while 13% reported discrimination when seeking employment.
“Once, in a lab where I worked for my industrial training, one of the other lab trainees confronted me after finding out that I was queer from my social media. She told me to delete my Twitter and Facebook bio because if my boss found out, I would be asked to leave the lab and that would be the end of my IT,” says Kay, a 21-year-old freelance writer who, as an openly gay person, has resorted to only applying for remote jobs. Even so, most of his work, which is mainly queer in content, is often rejected or dismissed by recruiters. Finding remote jobs has become another way queer Nigerians aim to survive, but still at the expense of their erasure.
A poor understanding of identities, appearances, and expressions that defy the gender binary prompts Nigerian society to lean heavily on gender dualism which shelters transphobic and enbyphobic discrimination and violence. Trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming Nigerians who seek employment must either box themselves into cis-normativity or face the consequences of being ‘different’. Cisgender queer people who have embraced masculine or feminine presentation in unorthodox ways are also denied job opportunities.
“Once, at an interview, the receptionist ignored me and said her boss’ PA instructed her not to let me in because I looked masculine and [I was] not dressed like a lady,” says Olamiposi, who is 23-years-old and unemployed.
Tim, a 25-year-old lawyer who is masculine-presenting, also faced workplace queerphobia because of her appearance, with her colleagues often using demeaning comments around her, and openly speculating about her sexuality. “Some of my coworkers go as far as loudly debating my sexuality,” she says.
Those with jobs live with the fear that an employer or colleague may learn of their sexuality, which could then be weaponized against them. “My ex-boss had known about my sexuality and outed me to my new employers when I switched jobs,” says Red, a 25-year- old queer filmmaker. “Now I have hesitation and disinterest in applying for most jobs I should normally consider because of that experience.”
Some, like Sandra, a 24-year-old writer and editor, might out themselves to potential employers in order to determine what sort of corporate environment they could be getting into. “I decided to tell companies I wanted to work for that I was queer, to see their reactions and know if my job will be a safe space,” Sandra says. The move may help some avoid a work environment that is condescending and dehumanizing.
Even taking these precautions won’t make the application process easier, or the potential for discrimination any less real. “I remember wearing more skirts to interviews. It felt like I was going into the closet again,” says Sandra.
The idea that gender should be signaled by dress is coded in the country’s laws. Section 405(2)(e) of the Penal Code (Northern States) Federal Provisions Act defines as a vagabond “any male person who dresses or is attired in the fashion of a woman in a public place or who practices sodomy as a means of livelihood or as a profession.” Section 9 of the Kano Law extends that definition to include any female person who “dresses or is attired in the fashion of a man in a public place.” The Kano law also establishes that “Any person being a male gender who acts, behaves or dresses in a manner which imitates the behavioral attitude of women shall be guilty of offense and upon conviction, be sentenced to 1-year imprisonment or a fine of 10,000 naira (26.31$) or both.”
Although the SSMPA does not specifically use language that criminalizes trans and nonbinary gender identities and expression because of its vagueness, there is no legislation on gender change, which makes it difficult for trans people to have their status legally changed and recognized. Therefore, the work documents trans and nonbinary Nigerians use when applying for jobs will not correspond with their current identity.
Because queerphobia sneaks its way into every aspect of the lives of queer Nigerians, more members of the country’s LGBTQ+ community are likely to be economically disadvantaged. About 14% of queer Nigerians are already unemployed; overall, 27.1% of all Nigerians are unemployed, while 28.6% are underemployed.
Young queer Nigerians who get disowned by their family members will be left to experience the struggles of finding employment with their queerness as a burden. These young people will either end up in extreme poverty, working menial jobs, or outsourcing their skills for a very low income. They may be hesitant about applying for work, endure workplace queerphobia, cosplay cis-heteronormativity to score consideration from employers, or ultimately consider resignation after a harsh experience of queerphobia at work.
As long as the violence and intersections of queerphobia exist in the country, queer Nigerians will have to shrink themselves, deny their identities and deprive themselves of healthy, happy lives. Until the day this changes, we will keep trying not to capsize in the sea of marginalization.