An Angelic Troublemaker
12 March 2019 at 8:56 am
Bisi Alimi speaks with Wendy Williams about becoming an advocate for LGBT rights in Nigeria and why we should all become “angelic troublemakers”.
In 2004, Bisi Alimi made history, becoming the first gay person to come out on Nigerian television.
The gay rights activist, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, had been working as an actor on a Nigerian soap-opera and the media were threatening to expose his sexuality.
He decided to take matters into his own hands.
He came out on live TV, on New Dawn with Funmi, in a move that effectively ended his career as an actor. The TV show was taken off the air by the government, and it led to the introduction of the Same Sex Prohibition bill of 2006. But it set Alimi on the path to becoming the “angelic troublemaker” he is today.
Now based in London, where he lives with his husband, Alimi is the founder of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which advocates for LGBT rights in Nigeria.
He is also the co-founder of Rainbow Intersection, a dialogue about race, culture and sexuality, and the biggest LGBT charity in Nigeria.
In a moving speech at the FIA conference last month – full of laughter, tears, and finishing in a standing ovation – Alimi recounted his journey from growing up in conservative Nigeria, becoming an anti-gay proselytizer who “wanted God to love him” and would preach hellfire to those who strayed, to being an activist and learning about fundraising to support his cause.
He talked about enduring gay conversion therapy as a teen, which led him to make attempts on his life. He discussed living with HIV for three years with no treatment, because of the fear of being found out. And he recounted how he fled to the UK, where he was granted political asylum, after an attempt was made on his life in 2007.
His resilience is inspiring.
But speaking to Pro Bono News, he says it was never a question of choosing to come out fighting rather than giving up.
“If your life depends on something you don’t really have a choice. It becomes part of your everyday life,” Alimi says.
“The fire is just always there, it can be frustrating because there are times that I think why do I have to [do this]. When you’re fighting against something and it’s not moving [it’s frustrating], but that also gives you the opportunity to be much more focused because for every gain, it gives you inspiration to see something else is possible.”
He talked about some of those gains – including returning to Lagos with his husband and making history again, becoming the first gay couple to be interviewed on TV in Nigeria, or when campaigning against the election of Nigel Farage, Alimi decided to carry a placard which read “I am an immigrant, hug me or ask me a question”, it was a small child who made the first move, and embraced him.
According to Alimi, the turning point for him came when he discovered the existence of Bayard Rustin, a gay civil rights leader who organised the March on Washington.
Alimi had been commissioned to write an article about black LGBT figures in history. Having assumed he would only find a handful of people, he was excited to find out there were many inspiring figures including James Baldwin, Tracy Chapman and Maya Angelou.
He was “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
But it was Rustin’s quote: “We need in every bay and community a group of angelic troublemakers,” that shaped Alimi.
He had long been an angelic troublemaker, he just never knew it.
When I ask him what being an angelic troublemaker means for him he says: “In a small way it just means being a disruptor, not accepting the status quo, because there’s always room for change, there’s always room for more.”
He continues: “That might get a lot of people angry, that you always want more but you know for everything we’ve achieved, it means that we can achieve more and that is what being an angelic troublemakers means.
“For me it means seeing the bigger picture of humanity and knowing that my right is not complete if someone else doesn’t have theirs, knowing that my privilege is not a license to endure but a license to live change. That is what being an angelic troublemaker means for me.”
Alimi says it is important to know why you do what you do.
In his case, he is the why.
“It’s not a paid job, it is a lived experience for change,” he says.
“I wish I was not the why. I wish women were not the reason for feminism. I wish that things were not the way they are, but the more that they are, women will protest, disabled people will demand, LGBT people will demand and they become the reason why they do what they do.”
The question of privilege is something he returns to in his speech, and something he addressed earlier in the conference while speaking on a panel about diversity.
According to Alimi, as a man he is in a privileged position. But as a black man, he has lost part of that privilege. As a black, gay man, there is another layer of lost privilege. Intersectionality is important.
He encourages the audience to know their own privilege and challenge it.
He says you also need to call people out.
“Not all silence is golden,” he says.
“When things are said, challenge them. Create an opportunity to educate, to inform, to engage. We need those moments. That’s the only way we can shift people. We will not shift people by paying to their emotion.
“For me as a black person, I hear a lot of time when I call people out and say what you said is racist, they say ‘you hurt my feelings’. I’m not bothered about your feelings because you’re not the one that has been refused a job because of the way you are. You’re not the one that has to check if the police is coming for you, you’re not the one living the reality, you can get over your emotion.”
In his plenary, he tells the audience that he was never black until he came to the UK.
He had been Nigerian.
In London, after someone told him to “go back to where he came from” and used the “N word”, Alimi says he had to come out to himself that he was black.
“And my realisation of being black for me was a very painful thing. And I’m happy that I know now that I’m black because it wasn’t something that I thought I could be. But now I know that I’m black and I celebrate my blackness. But for me it was a rude awakening. And I know that a lot of people are facing that realisation all of a sudden, I’m this thing but I never thought that I am this thing.”
In answer to a question about why we are so attached to labels, he says it makes life easier.
“You can easily put people in a box and it gives the opportunity to judge them. Labels are for judging and that’s why I say labels are for clothes, so if you see labels on clothes, it includes details of the price. Based on my income, can I buy this dress? Can I interact with this material based on this label? That’s what a label does and that’s why I fight against it.”
For Alimi the key is that we should celebrate our labels but we should not reduce ourselves to them.
We should also not underestimate the power that we have.
“Every one of us has got power and because we think that it’s only people in authority that can make change happen, we miss it,” Alimi says.
“Rosa Park sat on the bus. She was a young girl but she became historic and that is what it is about. You don’t have to have so much power to make change happen. You just have to be determined to know that no matter how small my status is, I know I can use it positively.”
When reflecting on the “giants” who had come before him, he says they were trying to change the world they were in, into the world they wanted.
The world Alimi wants, is one where Australia recognises the importance of the owners of the land and gives them the opportunity to be part of what it means to be Australian; where LGBT people stop being discriminated against on the continent of Africa; where women do not have to explain why they have to be on the board of an organisation; where poor people will have an income with dignity; where girls will not have to negotiate period for education and where the climate is protected and respected.
“And I don’t think that is too much to ask,” he says.
To help realise that change his aim is to continue advocating for LGBT rights, to continue his work with his foundation, and to continue sharing his story, something he says is also a healing process for him.
“For every time people believe in me and they give me the opportunity to stand and share this story, they’re helping me to heal, because when I share it, I don’t become immune to it because it’s me, but it helps me to see it in a perspective to say I’m not a victim and I should never be a victim,” he says.
“There are times when I get overwhelmed. There are times that come back to haunt me in some ways but I’ve been very lucky that it formed a bedrock of support for me.
“I share it and I hope that someone will connect with it and say, if he can do it, and my story is similar to his, than I can do it. And that for me is the healing process.”
When he first walked on stage at FIA to begin telling us his story, he opened with a confronting poem about labels.
“Who are you?” he asked the audience.
“Who am I? You don’t know me.”
Asking him now, who is he really? His answer is simple.
“I’m an angelic troublemaker.”