Adebisi Alimi is the first person ever to come out as gay on Nigerian television. But that wasn't what the 29-year-old wanted to be known for back in 2004.
Alimi's acting career was just starting to take off when his sexuality stole the spotlight. The student newspaper at University of Lagos, where he was studying theater, threatened to publish a photo of him with his then-boyfriend. So Alimi beat them to the punch. He went on "New Dawn with Funmi," one of the most popular talk shows in Nigeria, and challenged a long-held belief that homosexuality was brought to Africa by white colonizers. That was also the year Alimi was diagnosed with HIV.
Suddenly, his home country no longer saw him as a rising star. Alimi lost his roles on TV and on stage, many of his friends shunned him and the police even arrested him on unexplained charges. In 2007, things got worse. He was detained at the airport on his way back from the United Kingdom, where he gave an interview to BBC Network Africa, and was released two days later. Then a group of men entered his home and attempted to kill him. Alimi fled to the U.K. and hasn't been back to Nigeria since.
But Alimi says, "My story is not a story of a victim; it's a human story." Without it, he says, he wouldn't be the outspoken activist he is today.
Now 40, Alimi shares his story when he speaks out for the rights of gay black and African men. He's the founder of Bisi Consultancy, an organization that develops social policy recommendations based on HIV research on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. For his birthday on Jan. 17, Alimi has also started a campaign called 40four40 to raise 40,000 pounds — or about $62,000 USD — for four LGBT charities.
And while he's no longer living in Nigeria, Alimi is deeply affected by the country's anti-gay law passed in January. The law mandates a 14-year prison sentence for those who marry someone of the same sex and 10 years for anyone who, directly or indirectly, supports LGBT organizations.
Alimi was in Washington, D.C. last month for the 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellowship. Asked about his thoughts on the law, he says that, in a way, "I'm happy about it."
Why are you happy about Nigeria's harsh anti-gay law?
I see the law as a catalyst for change for good in Nigeria. You don't understand what it is like to fight a beast that you cannot see. Before the signing of that law, between 95 and 98 percent of Nigerians were in support of it. The latest poll says 88 percent of Nigerians now support the law. That's a 10 percent drop. Some people who are not LGBT are now saying, "Did we just support a law that criminalizes people ... for falling in love?" [When] you see that your uncle or cousin is gay, it kind of changes the conversation.
Speaking of family, how does your family feel about your identity?
I'm in a relationship that I can't talk to my parents about — it's like a big elephant in the room. But [the fact that] they want to accept me [as gay] is a form of support.
I was diagnosed [with HIV] in 2004, and I've never discussed it with my parents. This is my personal life, and I don't want them to get involved with it. Many times when I struggle with the challenges of being gay and being [HIV] positive, even living in diaspora and so many other things, I just really want to have somebody I can cry to who has blood lineage but I just said no.
So who is in your support network?
Mostly close friends. Many times it's people I don't know. I remember one incident when I was at my university. I was going back to my room at night and I was stopped by two guys. They were making very derogatory statements and becoming really aggressive. There was a [student] coming. So I raised my voice: "What did I do to you, why are you guys so frustrated with me?" ]The student] stopped and said, "What's going on?" I told her these guys were attacking me, and they said, "Oh he's gay, he's a faggot." She just looked at them and said, "What if he's a faggot? What's your problem?" She stood up to them. These are the unsung heroes of my existence because anything could have happened that night.
Back in 2007, a group of guys tried to kill you and that's when you fled the country. But did you ever want to leave Nigeria before then?
I was lucky enough to go through a 2-hour ordeal of being beaten and almost being shot in the head and escaping. If those guys are still alive, they might have read one or two of my interviews. I wonder how they feel that they almost killed me. But I felt that leaving was never a choice until my mother said, "Do you still have reason [to stay]? I think you should leave."
How did you react when when you were diagnosed with HIV?
By 2001 I started working in HIV prevention because I lost my best friend [to the disease]. So I was kind of aware. That was why my diagnosis was a shock to me. I broke down and started crying and thought like this is the end of my life because I have seen my friends die. It's such a big thing that even within the gay community, if you're positive, that's the end of it. Nobody wants to talk to you or date you, but you become the story everyone wants to talk about. So I didn't tell anybody. I carried it for three years before leaving Nigeria. I didn't start medication until 2009.
If you had known about the treatments and support for HIV then, would you have reacted differently?
No, because then I might still be in Nigeria. And I still wouldn't want to talk about it because it would still be a death sentence. Treatment is a big challenge and people [in Nigeria] still don't have access to it. And the support system is still not there because of the stigma against gay men — it's a belief that [HIV] is a punishment from God. So it's very difficult to exist with that system.
How would you assess the progress across Africa in providing HIV treatment?
We are still betraying generations when it comes to HIV prevention and treatment. Many people still need access to this treatment and we still have children being born with the virus when we know we can prevent it. We're lacking political willpower and funding to HIV projects. It has become a political game.
Being an advocate gives you a different kind of stage than acting does. If you had a choice, would you go back in to acting?
I think I studied theater because I was pretty much a drama queen [laughs]. Acting is my biggest passion. The unfortunate thing is that it's something I would never touch again because it left a big scar in my life. Even when I did try to go back to acting, I kept thinking, "If you keep doing this, you're going to bring up media interest again." I have media interest now but it's very humane. It's not about who I kissed last night or who I'm hanging out with.
So you're done with theater?
If there's anything I want to go back to, it's acting. I want to be back on stage dancing and acting, but I'm also very scared of it.