Nigerian Gay Rights Activist Flees to U.S., Calls For End To Homophobia

Micheal Ighodaro arrived in New York in October 2012 with a broken hand and a severely injured spirit.

Still recovering from an attack homophobes waged after he was outed as a homosexual by American media, Ighodaro fled his native Nigeria and sought refuge in New York, a place he had never seen. 

Now, with a year in the United States under his belt and a green card application in the works, things are looking up for the 27-year-old gay-rights activist who plans to apply to Columbia University in the coming months. But Ighodaro told TakePart that he has fought hard for this still-new peace of mind.

“I was living house to house,” he said of those first harrowing months of his life as a refugee, when he slept on friends’ couches. “I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have health care.”

He was still wondering if he would be forced to return to his dangerous native land, when one of his hosts was shot to death in Brooklyn. 

Even without income or a home, his transient New York life was an improvement over what he faced in Nigeria, where homophobia is rampant.

Ighodaro learned to keep his sexuality relatively quiet in Nigeria, especially after his parents disowned him at 17 when he told them he was gay. They booted him from their home as a result and he hasn’t spoken to them since.

Nigeria has a large gay population, Ighodaro said, but old-fashioned religious beliefs have created one of the world’s least welcoming societies for people like him. Gays and lesbians are rarely open about their sexuality, he said.

“You can be yourself when you’re around one group of friends, but you have to hide it when you’re with other people,” he said. “You have to lead a double life.”

So Ighodaro was working in secret for a gay-rights organization when he made his first trip to the U.S. to attend the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. After American media mentioned him in a story about gay Africans who were in town for the conference, his countrymen reacted badly.

His clothes and possessions were destroyed by vandals, forcing him to take shelter in a hotel. One evening, as Ighodoro was leaving the hotel to run an errand, a group accosted him. They knew his name and his true sexual identity from the story, he said. He didn't recognize them. 

“It got really nasty,” said Ighodaro, a snappy dresser with a round, friendly face and bookish spectacles. “Because of that, I got attacked and my house got attacked.”

His broken hand needed surgery, but doctors would have asked him how the injury happened. Rather than answer uncomfortable questions, Ighodaro chose to take his chances in the United States. He had surgery a week after arriving.

Poverty and evangelism have played major roles in Nigeria’s backlash against gays and lesbians, said the Reverend Pat Bumgardner, senior pastor of New York’s Metropolitan Community Church and executive director of the church’s Global Justice Institute. Some of that backlash has been horrific, she said.

“What people were doing was running up and cutting off people’s noses to identify them as a suspected gay person,” Bumgardner said. “It really is beyond life-threatening for gay people.”

Refugee status and a new life began for Ighodaro after he was granted refugee status in March. Continuing his work in activism, he got a job at Housing Works, an assistance organization for HIV-positive New Yorkers, and now has an apartment in the Bronx.

He also has kept an eye on Nigerian LGBT issues, encouraging gay compatriots to seek help in the United States or elsewhere. His life should be a lesson to others, he said.

“I want to share what I’ve learned with the world,” Ighodaro said. “There’s a lot of work to be done with LGBT issues in Africa. I hope one day we don’t need to talk about it.”

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Original article from TakePart