“If You Want Change, You Have To Challenge The Status Quo.” – Interview with Bisi Alimi

“If You Want Change, You Have To Challenge The Status Quo.” – Interview with Bisi Alimi

The following is the English version of Bisi Alimi’s recent interview with Huffpost Germany, which is part of his TEDx Berlin talk tomorrow, Saturday, a talk about HIV among gay men in Nigeria.

This article was written by Steffen Wüller, and first appeared on the German Impatient Optimists, a blog of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Read below.

*

Bisi Alimi must be a brave man. In 2004, he came out as gay on a nationwide television show and almost got killed for standing up. He had to flee to the United Kingdom where he has become one of the most important activists for HIV and LGBT rights. On September 6th, he speaks at TEDx Berlin. In the interview, he talks about his coming out in public and explains why he strongly believes in the power of social media.

Impatient Optimists: Bisi, your coming out on TV is now ten years ago! You had to leave Nigeria and start a new life in London. If you look back now: Would you take the same decision?

Bisi Alimi: There have been times in my life, when my answer would have been a clear ‘no’! But right now, I definitely have to say, that I would do it again. My life changed for good. I mean, I am invited to TEDx to give a talk because I stood up ten years ago. I am in a position right now, where I can give a voice to the suppressed homosexuals in Nigeria and all over Africa. But I cannot deny that I paid a price. My friends and my family rejected me and I was almost killed, so I had to flee to the UK. I have lost a lot. But for me, in this situation in my life, it was the right thing to do. If you want change, you have to challenge the status quo. And that is what I did.

Impatient Optimists: In Europe, growing up is still not easy for young gay men and women, especially out of the bigger cities. How can we imagine life as a young homosexual in Nigeria?

Bisi Alimi: You really don’t want to experience what it was like for me growing up and what it is like for thousands of young people in Nigeria at the moment. For me, it was a constant fear of rejection and harassment by the police. It was a huge battle, and it is certainly not better these days. Nobody talked about being gay in public. A lot of gay men were married and pretended to live a ‘normal’ life.  In this environment of permanent threat, I failed to do something and I have no regrets for what I did. Still, about 90 Percent of Nigerians are against homosexuality. But today, we have a growing debate about the decriminalization of homosexuality, not only in Nigeria, but from Uganda over Kenya to Somalia, and all over Africa.

Impatient Optimists: In many African countries, it has become a popular political instrument for the government to ban homosexuality by law. Recently, in Nigeria, the government under President Jonathan passed a strict law, declaring homosexuality as a serious crime. Same-sex relationships are illegal. How do you think that tense atmosphere impacts especially the younger generation?

Bisi Alimi: One of the narratives that we are getting out of Africa is that we are having an increasing number of young, well-informed, non-conformist people. Due to the increasing access to the internet, this generation is well-informed and independent from the national television and newspapers, that are mostly controlled by the governments. Maybe behind our head, there is still a picture of the “wild” Africa. Of a people that is still tribalistic, living with barely no electricity. But Africa has moved on. And I see that on the internet every day. I read the conversation on Twitter and Facebook. There are many young bloggers in Africa. Those young people talk about gender issues, sexual identity or public health. And this is changing the conversation around homophobia on the continent. It is demystifying so many things that have been seen as taboo before now.

Impatient Optimists: How are the repressions and new laws affecting the fight against HIV/Aids?

Bisi Alimi: Since the terrible law came into force in Nigeria, we can see the negative effects all over. You can get ten years of imprisonment for providing services to known or perceived homosexuals. But the law does not spell out what “service” means. It leads to an atmosphere of constant fear. Providing accommodation, selling food, providing medical healthcare, offering transportation… Everything could be a service and nobody wants to go to jail. Clinics that are providing HIV services to men who have sex with men fear to engage with the community anymore. They have no idea how they can handle this problem and are turning back those people or are forced to go underground to help.

Impatient Optimists: If you take a look at the statements of political leaders, you are confronted with a debate about “africanism”. The anti-gay coalition is claiming that homosexuality is “Un-African”. How do you oppose to this assertion?

Bisi Alimi: I think that we have good role models in Africa. Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu, those men showed the world about African values. People like Mugabe, Museveni or Jonathan dare to define what is African and what is not. These are greedy old men, whose only interest is what goes in their own stomach. Africanism is not about greed! I grew up in Africa. I was told: You’re not complete until your neighbor is complete. You cannot say that you have had a good day until your neighbor has had a good day. It was about compassion, sharing and helping each other. And it still is about supporting each other and being your brother’s keeper. It’s not about greed, not about corruption, not about calling for the killing for other people just because you don’t understand or like them.

Impatient Optimists: You use social media a lot to share what you have to say. Do you think that Twitter and Facebook help to change the public opinion?

Bisi Alimi: It is. The media is mostly controlled by the governments in Africa. So the social media is the only way to get alternative information. We have to get used to these alternative platforms. But then, I see a bright future. Not all the people in Nigeria are online. But the upcoming middleclass is. And the number of those who have access to the information shared via social media is growing. And what will happen is that they’re going back to their villages and sharing their information. The more we get the information out, the more the information will filter down to the parts where there is no internet available.

Impatient Optimists: One last question. Our blog is called ‘Impatient Optimists.’ Would you consider yourself an impatient optimist?

Bisi Alimi: I think I am patient. I don’t want to rush things. Some things just need time. But at the same time, I am not going to sit down and wait for it to happen. I have to make changes happen myself. So, to some extent, I can consider myself as a borderline impatient optimist. There has started a conversation about the state intervening in the personal freedom of all the people. And I really hope that in twenty years, we will have a law where you cannot discriminate against other people on the basis of their sexuality. And that is possible. If I don’t believe in change, I wouldn’t do what I’m doing.

Bisi Alimi, 39, is an Aspen New Voices Fellow, a Nigerian gay rights activist, public speaker, blog writer and HIV/LGBT advocate who achieved notoriety when he became the first Nigerian to come out of the closet on television. He is living in London.

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  1. Chizzie
    September 05, 06:23 Reply

    just cause coming out worked out for him doesn’t mean it’ll for the rest of us here still languishing in our various closets….but all the same I admire his bravery. Bravery is exceptional regardless of the consequences thereafter, and I think thats what we lack most.

  2. chestnut
    September 05, 06:30 Reply

    I honestly still don’t know what to make of this Bisi Alimi guy…a part of me wants to applaud him, another part of me just keep wondering :”is dis niqqah cray?”. I still wonder why he decided to come out (in Nigeria) back then.I still don’t know whether his decision was a good thing or bad thing for gay ppl in Nigeria…(or just a misguided way of seeking 15 minutes?)
    I think he was reaching a bit when he told d interviewer that he while he was growing up,he lived in constant fear of police harrassment, plus:
    “Since the terrible law came into force in Nigeria, we can see the negative effects all over. You can get ten years of imprisonment for providing services to known or perceived homosexuals. But the law does not spell out what “service” means. It leads to an atmosphere of constant fear.”… Really? “All over”? “Atmosphere of constant fear”? Ok,I don’t know about other ppl,but d anti-gay law has not made me live my life in “constant fear”; it hasn’t even affected my life in anyway.

    • Dennis Macauley
      September 05, 06:46 Reply

      Chestnut I’m sure you know I love you, so I will allow somethings you just said here now slide.

      15mins of fame? Really? This man sacrificed everything, I mean everything! Family, career, education and almost his life to speak up and you think he did that for 15mins of fame?

      *trying really hard not to pour you my morning coffee*

      • chestnut
        September 05, 09:49 Reply

        Hmm…but my darling, u’d be surprised what some ppl would do for those 15 minutes…veeeeery surprised!(I’m not saying that that is Bisi’s case for sure though).

        • pinkpanthertb
          September 05, 10:24 Reply

          I wish you’d stop putting ’15 minutes of fame’ and Bisi in the same sentence. How can you even think that a person making up his mind to come out of the closet in a chronically homophobic environment like Nigeria is him seeking the fickle shine of the spotlight? If it was in the States or most western countries, that would be arguable. But this is Nigeria. What would he hope to happen if it was fame he was going for? A slot in a reality show? Instant stardom in Nollywood? Perhaps the pioneer minister in a ministry of homosexual affairs which the then president would have set up?

        • pinkpanthertb
          September 05, 10:26 Reply

          Most People would do anything for that 15 minutes if fame, agreed. But no one will do it if he or she knew the fallout would be bad for him. No one. Mankind is too self preservative for that and fame too fickle for that too.

    • pinkpanthertb
      September 05, 06:52 Reply

      Chestnut, what raggedy assed vehicle would you prefer to take to hell for that inflammatory comment, hmm? A Volkswagen or a lorry?

      • chestnut
        September 05, 11:48 Reply

        Pinky, regarding d “15 minutes” reference, I did say that I’m in no way trying to imply that I’m DEFINITELY SURE that dat was bisi’s aim. Lol@ him hoping to become d pioneer minister for homosexual affairs…(But would it be so silly to think that he aspired to such a position? What he’s doing right now isn’t much different from that).

        • pinkpanthertb
          September 05, 11:52 Reply

          He aspired to that, and so he came out on National Television?

      • chestnut
        September 05, 12:26 Reply

        Hey pinky! Read my comment well; I never said that he actually DID aspire to that. Well, whether he aspired or not, I repeat, what he’s doing now isn’t much different from that…(Again,I haven’t said he had a master plan to be where he is today; it might all be serendipity or it might be well thought-out, who knows! I’m not in his head)

    • Deola
      September 05, 07:26 Reply

      This is what the guy is talking about, just cause it doesn’t affect you, you don’t seem to care what its doing to others.
      The guy has lost everything that we fear we are gonna lose when we come out, his family, friends, career and his sense of safety, and you call him an attention seeker, not cool bro.

    • JustJames
      September 05, 09:01 Reply

      Maybe we don’t live in fear all the time but it’s pretty much constant. When I leave my room I have to make sure I remember to clear all my conversations and emails to pinky cause I’ve been stopped by the police who demanded to search my phone (thankfully my phone was battery dead) and as much as we all want to feel like lawyers you know the police can be really nasty. That’s the fear he is talking about.

    • Legalkoboko
      September 05, 17:59 Reply

      In fairness to chestnut, I think Bisi’s gay rights activism, just like many human rights activism, smacks of an admixture of a little propaganda and window dressing. Look at the Civil Rights movement in America, for instance. The first African American woman who refused to stand up in a bus for a white passenger wasn’t Rosa Packs.
      No.
      That honour goes to a teenager named Claudatte Colvin who was also a single mum. The movement didn’t want to use her because they feared her bad “moral image ” could harm the civil rights cause.

      Having said that, I think it was on this blog that I read the full story behind Bisi’s revelation of his sexuality on national television.

      The guy was on the verge of being outed. So he said something to the effect that he wanted to come out on his own terms.

      So please chestnut, your accusations are unfounded. You may want to Google the man’s coming out story for more info.

  3. Dennis Macauley
    September 05, 06:43 Reply

    Does this man inspire me or what?
    What a brave man!!!
    Much love Bisi

      • Dennis Macauley
        September 05, 07:11 Reply

        Chestnut should be captured and handed to mountain men to be raped 6 times daily for spewing such crap!!!

  4. Jace
    September 05, 07:30 Reply

    “Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu, those men showed the world about African values. People like Mugabe, Museveni or Jonathan dare to define what is African and what is not.”

    “You’re not complete until your neighbor is complete. You cannot say that you have had a good day until your neighbor has had a good day.”

    I totally agree…

  5. PrudeBloke
    September 05, 07:34 Reply

    He is brave …. I wish I had his guts but unfortunately I don’t .. And the anti-gay law hasn’t affected me but it has affected some unfortunate ones …. Chestnut ..smh you know you aren’t as brave as he is … Pinky,I got a question I’d like to ask in private,do you mind giving me an access to buzz you or text you or mail you .. Thanks … Btw KD is amazing you know …

      • PrudeBloke
        September 05, 08:38 Reply

        Hehehe yes it’s Bloke … Thanks for the link to buzz you

    • Ruby
      September 05, 08:46 Reply

      I admire his bravery…
      Tho D̶̲̥̅ Law has only limited ♍e̶̲̥̅̊ from D̶̲̥̅ major way I express myself best *channelling Queen Bey*
      That hasn’t stopped М̣̣̥̇̊Ɣ Rainbow Parade one bit n its made ♍e̶̲̥̅̊ more Brazen in D̶̲̥̅ Way I Dress n Respond to some Dim-wits dat dare incure a lil of М̣̣̥̇̊Ɣ wrath by daring to imply anything Stupid by their Half-assed comments or reactions.

  6. Fabb
    September 05, 08:15 Reply

    Good thing he had his visa … #just saying. *continues with prayers/fasting*

  7. Greg
    September 05, 09:25 Reply

    Bisi hasn’t inspired me,bcos I haven’t never dreamt in my widest dreams to come out gay. So I’d rather say I give him kudos for his courage. We need pple more like him. Imagine if some of our celebs come out gay,don’t u think d fight wud be more forceful,bcos celebs don’t know d power dey poses. Bisi has tried his best jare,all dis naija celebs fucking holes don’t wanna come out,can’t dey see foreign celebs like frank ocean,lady gaga jst to mention a few,dey shud lead d way.

  8. chestnut
    September 05, 09:29 Reply

    Oh my! I see my “innocent” comment has err’body feeling some type of way,lol. Maybe I’m looking at things from a “too realistic” and nigerian point of view? Maybe I don’t have d same romantic notions and ideologies of gay heroes/revolutionaries who will ride in on a noble steed,lay down their lives and eventually ease d LGBT community in nigeria’s conciousness and everybody,both gay and straight nigerians,live happily ever after?
    I like to be realistic; maybe even a little cynical…(pessimistic too,if u like). Also,let’s not be too sentimental about dis issue cos it fights for “our” cause; if someone is reaching, say it as it is! This man is older than most of us here and he says while he was growing up, he lived in constant fear of POLICE harrassment for being gay. How many of u here grew up with constant fear of police harrassment? And someone said just becos d law doesn’t affect me,I don’t care what it does to others? I stand to be corrected,but right now,I think d law has (un)affected me just as much as d next guy.if there’s anyone here who’s life has been drastically altered by d law (or if u know any such person) I’d really like to here from you.

    • chestnut
      September 05, 09:38 Reply

      On another note, I’ve never commented n a “Bisi Alimi” post,with good reason, and a small voice was telling me that starting today would be a bad idea (should hav listened to that voice) becos my views of the guy would not be popular with the majority. B4 y’all throw d daggers at me tho,u should understand that everybody must not hav d same opinions about a particular issue. I still don’t know how to feel about this Bisi guy, but that doesn’t make me a bad person; some black americans didn’t vote for Obama,but that’s ok; I’m sure they had their reasons and it doesn’t make them any less black or less supportive of d “black n proud” movement.

    • pinkpanthertb
      September 05, 10:16 Reply

      Realistic. Cynical. Pessimistic. That’s not a good combination.

      • maxonex
        September 05, 11:14 Reply

        @Chestnut, you sound like someone I know…and believe it or not, the law is affecting you even if you don’t realize it..I didn’t have to watch my back as much as I do now, you can’t report kito in anyway cos you’ll be in trouble yourself…when was the last time u felt comfy holding hands with a guy on the road..
        We don’t need ppl like you around (pessimists), cos we ain’t gonna get to anywhere with ur kind.
        You already believe things r gonna turn out bad…You call it being realistic, but I think ure just scared.
        Like it or not, the law is affecting you even when you dont realize it.

      • chestnut
        September 05, 12:00 Reply

        Being a pessimist/cynic can be a bad thing, or a good thing,depending on d situation…just as being a romantic/optimist can be a good thing or a bad thing. I am what I am; do I hav to make any apologies for that? Maybe…maybe not. But I sure believe in picking my battles.

      • chestnut
        September 05, 12:18 Reply

        @maxonex: why d fuck do I need to hold hands on d road with a guy though? That’s d drastic alteration d law has made in ur life? Really? …and “you” don’t need people like “me” around? Oh I laughed out loud at that one! What does that even mean? LMFAO

      • maxonex
        September 05, 12:27 Reply

        If you dont think the law has made any negative impact in your life, then just chill.. Stay in ur closet forever and maybe get married to a clueless lady along the way…and live happily ever after with her..

  9. Iduke
    September 05, 11:23 Reply

    I feel u chestnut. By the way chestnut is talking from the pov of the generation he exists in
    Plus I share ur. Opine. I’m on the fence about bisi

    • chestnut
      September 05, 12:39 Reply

      Thank YOU Iduke! Finally,someone who understands that opinions can vary without d sky crumbling down.

      • pinkpanthertb
        September 05, 12:58 Reply

        Chestie you for know that opinions can also be about trying to point out the flaws in other opinions, yes? I’m not trying to tell you what to believe. I’m just voicing an opinion that your opinion might be flawed.
        Ay! Its a convoluted world, this world of too many diverse opinions. *dabbing delicately at my sweat-dewed temples*

  10. Iduke
    September 05, 11:25 Reply

    Max have u ever even before the law held hands with ur guy frnd on the road. Without raising eyebrows especially since ur no longer innocent

    • maxonex
      September 05, 12:37 Reply

      Yeah I have…exchange hugs too…Now I’m too self conscious to try that(not with everyone watching)…Things you’d normally do on a normal day(sans gay) are now termed gay..Let’s just say the issue of homosexuality was a delicate matter that ppl don’t normally discuss on a normal day(since we r mostly clandestine in our affairs)..But now the entire nation is now so “gay conscious” and that’s a bad thing.. You and I know how Nigerians behave…Even the hypocritic gay ones.

  11. Absalom
    September 05, 12:42 Reply

    ChestNUT (as enunciated), you haff suffer in today’s post oh. Calm down. *checks his BP*

    I understand your concerns sha, although I don’t believe Bisi was reaching when he did what he did. Sometimes a person has just had enough and takes a drastic step. I can relate to that.

    Concerning the fear of police harassment he talked about before the law, maybe we should leave it at this: every gay guy doesn’t have the same story, because we are different individuals and do not lead our lives the same way. If he says he was constantly harassed by the police then that’s what it is – until otherwise proven.

    Ok, I’m hungry. Bye.

    • chestnut
      September 05, 13:40 Reply

      Absalom dear,my bp is just fine! We’re all just having a mature conversation (even tho everyone here and their mommah hav been coming at me like kilode,lol)…I aint mad at anyone tho. You all know I heart u guys from here to infinity and beyond,right? *hugs and kisses all around*

  12. Khaleesi
    September 05, 12:51 Reply

    I remember back in 2004 when i first heard that a group of gay guys had organised a march in Abuja and held a rally led by Bisi Alimi, i was still then very tender, of course i knew i was gay, but i was still battling with deep self – hatred, internalized homophobia and a violent denial of what/who i was. I couldnt believe that there were many others who were gay and that they would have the guts to show their faces proudly in public. I was fascinated and disgusted and intrigued all at once. Ever since that day, Bisi’s name has become stuck in my head,. I somehow missed the news about his flight to the UK until very recently.
    What Bisi did was very very risky and very brave. Coming out on Funmi Iyanda’s show could not have been an attempt to hug the spotlight, i mean who would dream of outing himself on National TV, in a mortally homophobic country? what i believe happened is that he had simply come to a full acceptance of who he was, he was fed up and tired of living in the shadows like some common criminal and he simply lacked the capacity to continue pretending to be who he was not! He therefore took the next step – he came out! Am not even close to dreaming of thinking of dreaming about thinking about even dreaming of coming out, I really am undecided as to whether its a good thing to lose your family, career, job, social acceptance etc just so you can declare to the world that you’re “out and proud”, but you’ve definitely got to hand it to Bisi, he is a brave man! whenever the story of the global LGBT rights movement is being told, even 200 years from now, his name must occupy a prominent place. I may not have the desire or the guts to follow his footsteps, but he sure does command my respect. I salute you Bisi!! you may not have set out to catch the spotlight, but somehow, you did …I wonder who else will be this brave …

      • maxonex
        September 05, 13:40 Reply

        Lmao @ pinky…Uti gini??? hahahaha hahahaha… Uti will be last on the “who wants to come out list”…

  13. king
    September 05, 13:26 Reply

    Ehem!! Eh guys no need to flog the ish! Jo…biko..let’s move on..chestnut has said his.mind and some others have too. I think we should respect each others views about things here and Pinky luv..my darling beau…pls I loved your stance about letting people say all they can about a subject coz for all you know others are learning a lot thru the liberality that this blog offers and only God knows how many crowns you’ve gotten just by hosting..( eh any word like hostessing..eh no?..ok) us…so try eh I know it ain’t too easy sometimes to keep quiet but just try and subtly make your own stance known…but not so loud!! coz if you do it so loud then as the Queen Bee of this group you just might send out confusing signals to some wannabees here..so darling eh..inuna biko..tans much!!!! OK so what else is new…Bisi abi..he is well known to me and isn’t that older than some of us biko….also truly Bisi came out because someone was about to out him and he was tired of being blackmailed or should I say KITOED…so yes it was a brave thing he did and truly where he is right now we all might not understand the pressure he is under to make all the comments he is making but that does not rule out the fact that definitely he has lost some “something” that all of us here or most of us have not yet lost!!!..so plssss let’s respect that at least….but nonetheless if you don’t know him nobody should expect you to appreciate him!!! QED….

  14. Chizzie
    September 05, 13:31 Reply

    i don’t see anything wrong with what Chestnut said, nor any reason that should warrant him explaining himself. Just cause an opinion isn’t the general consensus doesn’t make it wrong; I like that he saw things from a different perspective, .in retrospect I agree with some of what he said. Bisi’s coming out hasn’t alleviated the plight of Nigerian gays or helped us here in anyway. ..rather things have become worse. His courage no doubt should be applauded. ..but his actions in all honesty shouldn’t be emulated; Coming out on live television to millions of homophobic viewers, isn’t the wisest thing to do. ..and is a bit wreckless. Bisi is courageous and above all things lucky…and I think it was the latter that worked out for him in the long run

  15. Legalkoboko
    September 05, 18:14 Reply

    “If You Want Change, You Have To
    Challenge The Status Quo.”

    Beautiful statement. I can’t agree more.

    However, a gay man’s challenge to the status quo is not and should not be limited to his coming out, especially in a homophobic country like ours .

    I’m a member of a very conservative profession, so the idea of me coming out publicly is as ridiculous as traveling from Nigeria to the US on foot.
    Lol!
    But I have my principles. No body makes a homophobic remark anywhere near me without getting vigorously challenged. That’s my idea of Challenging the status quo. I don’t do foolhardy peacocks.

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