Despite Progress Of LGBT Rights In U.S., Challenges Remain Abroad
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
To a related story now. In the seven years that we've been on the air, we've reported on big changes in the lives of LGBT people in the U.S. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 20 states here in the U.S. The success of shows like "Modern Family" and "Orange Is The New Black" have brought gay characters and transgender characters into the spotlight. But we've also been paying close attention to movements opposing LGBT rights in other parts of the world. For example, Nigeria passed a law earlier this year that could mean 14-year prison terms for anybody in a same-sex union and 10 years for anybody who, quote, "promotes homosexuality," unquote.
We've also reported on the atmosphere in places like Jamaica, where guests have told us that a hostile legal environment and a hostile cultural environment have put their lives at risk. We thought we'd check in on two of our international guests who helped us report on these issues. Maurice Tomlinson is a Jamaican activist and lawyer who moved from Jamaica to Canada because he no longer felt safe in his homeland. Adebisi Alimi was granted asylum in the U.K. after years of harassment following his decision to come out on Nigerian television a decade ago. Both men have shared their stories with us before, so we wanted to check back in with them one more time. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
MAURICE TOMLINSON: Thank you.
ADEBISI ALIMI: Thank you.
MARTIN: Maurice, let me start with you. You were a successful lawyer in Jamaica and I remember you were telling us that you really had no intention of coming out. Can you just briefly remind us of why you did?
TOMLINSON: The major LGBT group on the island, JFLAG, they needed a lawyer to provide human rights training for the members of the LGBT community - what their rights were, how to respond when they were arrested, et cetera. When I started helping these people, I started hearing their stories. I was largely ignorant of how bad things were because I lived in a bubble. So when I heard their stories, I started writing about it in the newspapers. And one thing led to another and I became identified, as they - as we say in Jamaica - the battyman lawyer (laughing) and that was that.
MARTIN: And threats ensued. You felt like you...
TOMLINSON: Yes, yes.
MARTIN: It wasn't it that you couldn't practice your profession anymore? It was that you couldn't live - you really, literally didn't feel you could live there anymore. You were under threat.
TOMLINSON: Things became very dangerous when I married my Canadian husband. That was when things really got bad. I think, you know, my marriage crossed the line and that was when the threats became more vocal and seriously very dangerous.
MARTIN: Adebisi, what about you? Would you remind us again briefly of why you finally decided you had to leave Nigeria?
ALIMI: Problems started when I had my breakthrough in acting and I had a show on TV. And then there was this huge interest in my private life, so much so my relationship with men. For me, the most frightening part of it was the night that my house was broken into and I was - I was almost killed. I was tied up, I was beaten for over one and a half hours, going to two hours. I still feel goose pimples all over my skin. And it was such a very frightful night for me. And I had no choice after that night than to run away from Nigeria.
MARTIN: You know, there's been a lot of attention on Nigeria's anti-gay laws when the President Goodluck Jonathan signed them earlier this year. But since then, there's been so much news about the extremist group Boko Haram and the hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls, I wonder, does that cause people to - I'm wondering what your associates are telling - the people you are connected to who are still there - are telling you about whether that's changed their lives in any way. Are people kind of rethinking the, you know, the consequences of this kind of extremism or not? I mean, do you see my question?
ALIMI: Yeah. I get your question and I think in a way, this has changed the dynamics around the conversation about the same-sex law that was signed in January. There's a bit of diversion from gay issues that the media will report every week. Now, to talking about Boko Haram and dealing with, you know, the increasing number of people being killed via suicide bomber's. But also there is the downside of it, of the news - the increasing news of victimization of LGBT people not getting into the media anymore because there is no space for it.
MARTIN: I see, I see. So it's a return to invisibility.
MARTIN: Maurice, you do go back to Jamaica but you don't stay. How does that sit with you?
TOMLINSON: Now I have a very strong security protocol when I go back to Jamaica because the last time I went back to do work, I decided to go and do something social. I went out and was going to visit friends and my car was recognized and I was nearly mobbed. And since then when I go back, I am literally picked up by a dedicated driver, taken to the hotel where I am, you know, kept (laughing) under wraps until it's time to go to court, when I do my matter and then I go back to the airport and fly out.
MARTIN: You don't even see your parents. You can't even see your family?
TOMLINSON: I have managed to do a few quick visits that are - have to be unannounced. And I live on Facebook and I can't make that known until post event because my mother has said, you know, it's - she's gotten a lot of threats, et cetera. So she's asking me not to be visible when I'm there. So it's a very tense time to go back. And this is very discomforting to me because of course, I love my home. I love my family. But now, Jamaica to me feels like a prison.
MARTIN: Adebisi, I'm assuming that you can't go back at all, that that's not even part of your plan.
ALIMI: Going back to Nigeria feels like me trying to commit suicide, basically. You know, I'm always in the news, there's always something written about me in the media. Even, you know, my Facebook posts or my tweets can become a news story. I'm not somebody that can sneak into the country and sneak out. So it's a very - it would be very difficult for me to try. But I miss Nigeria. I really want to go back home. I say this many times - I really want to be part of the solution to my country. But at the same time, I have to understand the reality that until now, my country's telling me that they don't want me to be part of that solution. And I have to respect that.
MARTIN: Is there anything, Adebisi, that anyone else can do to be helpful?
ALIMI: Doing something starts with engaging with people that are mostly affected by these laws and by this reality, which most times politicians, you know, will override our feelings or our opinion instead of engaging, most times in the wrong way with their fellow politicians from Nigeria, for example. I don't think this is a time for us to be raising funds or to be sending money or to be, you know, commercializing this whole issue. This is a time for us to understand the fact that, you know, at the endpoint of this law, of this brutality, are human beings. And how do we support them? Both emotionally, physically - and also how do we support their government - not tell them what to do - but support them to understand what the issues are? And I think that's a conversation that is missing.
MARTIN: Maurice, before we let you go, is there a final thought here? It sounds like you're doing well on a personal level. And you're able to practice in Canada. You're able to kind of live your life. But is there anything else that - I guess it's really the same question to you - is there anything else that anyone else on the outside can do or say that would be helpful?
TOMLINSON: I take a different view to Adebisi because I think that, you know, it's great to engage politicians, but the politicians themselves have said, at least in the Caribbean context, they will do absolutely nothing until we show them a poll, for example, that the level of homophobia is below 50 percent. That's what they've said to me. And the only way that's going to happen is if we have a level of awareness. So I believe people can support groups like LGBTI Aware, where we train police, media, healthcare workers, prison workers, you know, major opinion leaders about the basics of what it means to be LGBTI. So that de-stigmatizes, demystifies LGBTI people. And then...
MARTIN: Are people open to it? Are they open to it? Are they interested?
TOMLINSON: Yeah. At the last training we did in St. Lucia, you know, the police themselves they - after we had finished - they held a moot, which used as it's theme, you know, as consenting adults, gays have the right to marry. And we didn't tell them to propose this moot, they developed it themselves. And they went to the public and they researched it and they had a dialogue. And the education has been phenomenal. But we need more of this because to be frank, I don't think the politicians are brave enough now, in Africa or anywhere in the world, to go against what is popular culture. So we need to work as activists to try and change the popular culture in whatever means we can. And I think education is where we begin.
MARTIN: Maurice Tomlinson is a Jamaican lawyer. He's a gay rights activist. He joined us from the CBC studios in Toronto, Canada. Adebisi Alimi is a Nigerian LGBT and HIV advocate. He's a fellow at the Aspen Institute and he was with us from the BBC studios in London. Thank you both so much for speaking with us, we appreciate it.
TOMLINSON: My pleasure.
ALIMI: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.