Chimamanda Adichie writes on recently established anti-gay law in Nigeria

‘Why can’t he just be like everyone else?’  written by award winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I will call him Sochukwuma. A thin,  smiling boy who liked to play with us girls at the university primary  school in Nsukka. We were young. We knew he was different, we said,  ‘he’s not like the other boys.’ But his was a benign and unquestioned  difference; it was simply what it was. We did not have a name for him.  We did not know the word ‘gay.’ He was Sochukwuma and he was friendly  and he played oga so well that his side always won.
In secondary school, some boys in his  class tried to throw Sochukwuma off a second floor balcony. They were  strapping teenagers who had learned to notice, and fear, difference.  They had a name for him. Homo. They mocked him because his hips swayed  when he walked and his hands fluttered when he spoke. He brushed away  their taunts, silently, sometimes grinning an uncomfortable grin. He  must have wished that he could be what they wanted him to be. I imagine  now how helplessly lonely he must have felt. The boys often asked, “Why  can’t he just be like everyone else?”
Possible answers to that question  include ‘because he is abnormal,’ ‘because he is a sinner, ‘because he  chose the lifestyle.’ But the truest answer is ‘We don’t know.’ There is humility and humanity in accepting that there are things we simply  don’t know. At the age of 8, Sochukwuma was obviously different.  It was not about sex, because it could not possibly have been – his hormones  were of course not yet fully formed – but it was an awareness of  himself, and other children’s awareness of him, as different. He could  not have ‘chosen the lifestyle’ because he was too young to do so. And  why would he – or anybody – choose to be homosexual in a world that  makes life so difficult for homosexuals?
The new law that criminalizes  homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our  democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of  its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob  justice would be considered democratic. The law is also  unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems. Above all else, however, it is unjust. Even if this was not a country of abysmal electricity supply where university  graduates are barely literate and people die of easily-treatable causes  and Boko Haram commits casual mass murders, this law would still be  unjust.  We cannot be a just society unless we are able to accommodate  benign difference, accept benign difference, live and let live. We may  not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but  our response cannot be to criminalize it.
A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a  crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to  crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria,  attacks on people ‘suspected’ of being gay. Ours is a society where men  are openly affectionate with one another. Men hold hands. Men hug each  other. Shall we now arrest friends who share a hotel room, or who walk  side by side? How do we determine the clunky expressions in the law –  ‘mutually beneficial,’ ‘directly or indirectly?’
Many Nigerians support the law because  they believe the Bible condemns homosexuality. The Bible can be a basis  for how we choose to live our personal lives, but it cannot be a basis  for the laws we pass, not only because the holy books of different  religions do not have equal significance for all Nigerians but also  because the holy books are read differently by different people. The  Bible, for example, also condemns fornication and adultery and divorce,  but they are not crimes.
For supporters of the law, there seems  to be something about homosexuality that sets it apart. A sense that it  is not ‘normal.’ If we are part of a majority group, we tend to think  others in minority groups are abnormal, not because they have done  anything wrong, but because we have defined normal to be what we are and since they are not like us, then they are abnormal. Supporters of the  law want a certain semblance of human homogeneity. But we cannot  legislate into existence a world that does not exist: the truth of our  human condition is that we are a diverse, multi-faceted species. The  measure of our humanity lies, in part, in how we think of those  different from us. We cannot – should not – have empathy only for people who are like us.
Some supporters of the law have asked –  what is next, a marriage between a man and a dog?’ Or ‘have you seen  animals being gay?’ (Actually, studies show that there is homosexual  behavior in many species of animals.) But, quite simply, people are not  dogs, and to accept the premise – that a homosexual is comparable to an  animal – is inhumane. We cannot reduce the humanity of our fellow men  and women because of how and who they love. Some animals eat their own  kind, others desert their young. Shall we follow those examples, too?
Other supporters suggest that gay men  sexually abuse little boys. But pedophilia and homosexuality are two  very different things. There are men who abuse little girls, and women  who abuse little boys, and we do not presume that they do it because  they are heterosexuals. Child molestation is an ugly crime that is  committed by both straight and gay adults (this is why it is a crime:  children, by virtue of being non-adults, require protection and are  unable to give sexual consent).
There has also been some nationalist  posturing among supporters of the law. Homosexuality is ‘unafrican,’  they say, and we will not become like the west. The west is not exactly a homosexual haven; acts of discrimination against homosexuals are not  uncommon in the US and Europe. But it is the idea of ‘unafricanness’  that is truly insidious. Sochukwuma was born of Igbo parents and had  Igbo grandparents and Igbo great-grandparents. He was born a person who  would romantically love other men. Many Nigerians know somebody like  him. The boy who behaved like a girl. The girl who behaved like a boy.  The effeminate man. The unusual woman. These were people we knew, people like us, born and raised on African soil. How then are they  ‘unafrican?’

If anything, it is the passage of the  law itself that is ‘unafrican.’ It goes against the values of tolerance  and ‘live and let live’ that are part of many African cultures. (In  1970s Igboland, Area Scatter was a popular musician, a man who dressed  like a woman, wore makeup, plaited his hair. We don’t know if he was gay  – I think he was – but if he performed today, he could conceivably be  sentenced to fourteen years in prison. For being who he is.) And it is  informed not by a home-grown debate but by a cynically borrowed one: we  turned on CNN and heard western countries debating ‘same sex marriage’  and we decided that we, too, would pass a law banning same sex marriage. Where, in Nigeria, whose constitution defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, has any homosexual asked for same-sex marriage?
This is an unjust law. It should be  repealed. Throughout history, many inhumane laws have been passed, and  have subsequently been repealed. Barack Obama, for example, would not be here today had his parents obeyed American laws that criminalized  marriage between blacks and whites.
An acquaintance recently asked me, ‘if  you support gays, how would you have been born?’ Of course, there were  gay Nigerians when I was conceived. Gay people have existed as long as  humans have existed. They have always been a small percentage of the  human population. We don’t know why. What matters is this: Sochukwuma is a Nigerian and his existence is not a crime.
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