In the classic gay narrative, the closet is the only common denominator among members of the LGBTQI community. It is the singular and definitive experience that queer people grapple with, irrespective of their country or culture.
But if you’re queer and Nigerian, you know too well that this particular narrative, although universal, is incomplete. Because there is kito!
That tragic and momentous encounter that ushers you into the perilous terrains of living and loving as a sexual minority in Nigeria. It is an encounter that often goes on to map the way you negotiate your existence in the country: where you go to school, the nature and locations of jobs you apply to, the neighborhoods you rent apartments in, your place of worship, where you shop, the neighbors or colleagues you add to your Facebook list, etc.
For the sake of definition, kito refers to the harassment, abduction, extortion, or/and murder of a member of the LGBTQI community. It often involves the use of threats, with the intent of blackmailing them based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
For many queer Nigerians, kito is a rite of passage. No one asks if it will happen, but when and how fatal it will be. Who does not remember the scary details of their first kito experience? The slur or scowl that marked a change in the interaction, the punch that transferred power and signaled who was wielding it, the utter unbelievability of it at the onset, until the impact of the blow registered and you felt lighter from the vertigo of staring at your possible death. Even those who will never get the medal of coming out of the closet, those who will live the rest of their lives in the shadows of their sexuality will always have the ugly scars of their kito experiences seared into their psyche.
Recently, someone told me a terrible joke: Violence, he said—homophobic violence—is the one thing that authenticates every queer Nigerian’s experience. Anyone who grew up queer here, without experiencing an aggravated homophobic assault at some point in their lives, cannot be trusted. As dangerous as his assertion sounded, the core of the argument was apparent. I had once held it to be true. The condition of queer life in Nigeria is one of violence, trauma and bare-teeth terror. It is therefore hardly surprising that these have become sad badges that signal one’s rank and belonging in the community.
For all the years I was active on Nigeria’s online dating scene, I referred to this identity maker while making critical judgement on whom to hook up with online. I asked and insisted that potential dates share their kito stories. Listening to a retelling of a traumatic past was not my kink, although I’m sure it must have appeared so to most people. But using dating apps as a sexual minority in Nigeria is akin to surfing crocodile-infested waters: to make it out alive, one requires the critical intelligence of dolphins and the cunning tricks of an octopus. For instance, I knew well that each sentence embedded in a text from a stranger on either 2go or Grindr should not be merely read; it must be analysed to the last syntax for clues. Trading kito stories with a potential date helped me sieve out hordes of homophobic criminals whose kito stories didn’t add up or who simply had none to share. In those moments of interrogation, I knew to look for the familiar tropes that only came from lived experiences. Although kito stories differ from city to city, the narrative arcs are eerily similar across the country.
I think of it now and shudder at the cruelty of this identity test. Making victims of hate crimes recount and perform their trauma as a way to earn trust was plain wrong. What is unforgivable is that my country and my countrymen have terrorised us repeatedly enough to make trauma the insignia of our collective identity.
It is important to note at this point that kito is the bastard child of Nigeria’s homophobic post-colonial culture that was adopted and conferred legitimacy by the Nigerian State through the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. When President Jonathan signed the SSMPA bill into law in 2014, he gave ordinary citizens power to do the government’s dirty job of harassing sexual minorities. With its ambiguous clauses and ludicrous reach, it’s evident that the purpose of the law was not necessarily to convict queer citizens, but rather to scapegoat and imperil their lives by criminalising them. We know this because, since it came into effect six years ago, it has not been used to convict, and in fact, cannot be used to convict anyone. On the other hand, queer citizens who have been assaulted, displaced and murdered in the name of that law, number in their hundreds.
By isolating a section of its citizens and stripping them of their constitutional rights on the grounds of sexual orientation, and by refusing to legislate corresponding protections for them, the Nigerian government reduced them to the status of personae non-gratae. And the spate of violence against sexual minorities, the frequency of their occurrences, and the impunity with which each assault is executed, are only possible because of this fact.
If this state-sanctioned abuse of queer citizens is a system of government, the mob is the second tier of that government and the masses, represented by the incorrigible Nigeria media, the third. My country and countrymen are implicated in this domestic terrorism unleashed on the LGBTQI community in Nigeria. If the preposterous claim that violence is an inevitable risk of gay people chasing after sexual pleasure is proof of anything, it is that Nigerians will always find ways to blame the victims of crimes. Sexual minorities have been murdered for simply insisting on their god-given right to draw breath in the country of their births.
In 2017 when I was waylaid and abducted in Owerri, I was walking with all the weariness of any other Nigerian making his way home at the end of a busy day; Bamanga Rabiu, the trans woman and Abuja-based human rights activist was killed in her own apartment; Hassan Gambo, a 17year-old secondary school student was hauled off his dormitory bed into a bush at night and battered to death. Nowhere in the accounts of witnesses or in the statement of the perpetrators was it mentioned that Hassan did anything else besides existing. Perhaps, his laughter rang too frequently and rang with glee, or he used audacious gestures a little too much while debating in class, perhaps it was the dexterity of his limbs when they moved on the dance floor. One only has to be slightly out of tune with the rigid tempo of toxic masculinity to have its gatekeepers whip out their cudgels.
In their deaths, they get neither fair treatment from Nigeria’s justice system, nor empathy from citizens. Instead, the shameless Nigeria media, as exemplified in the heartbreaking report The Guardian published in the wake of the brutal murder of another gay man, pile blatant lies and ridicule on their corpses, even in the face of irrefutable public evidence. Editors of ‘reputable’ tabloids exalt vile murderers to the rank of national heroes and bay further for the blood of LGBTQI citizens. The collective silence of Nigerians and the calculated mischief and distortion of facts by these journalists reach perpetrators of homophobic crimes as loud and steady applause, urging them on in their rampage.
Apathy in the face of brazen human rights violations or the defence of these violations is a sign of profound moral crisis, well-grounded and more worrisome than the threadbare argument against homosexuality. And this is the evidence of my country’s crime against its queer citizens: A country that criminalized a section of its citizens on grounds of morality must reckon with its own moral failures to protect them; it must confront its complicity in the suffering and demise of these citizens or be forced to stand forever under the untarnished glare of its hypocrisy.