Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Implications of the Same Sex Marriage Bill for Ordinary Nigerians

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A street in Nigeria. Photo by Timmey O'Toole.

Since the passing of the 2011 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill (SSMB) by the Nigerian senate, hundreds of online and twitter comments have been made in support of the bill. By far the majority of these comments have defended the bill on the basis that it only concerns marriage between two people identifying as the same sex; and that as a national law it stands outside international treaties to which Nigeria is a signature. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this is a deceit by the supporters of the bill in both houses as same-sex relationships are already criminalised and so, obviously, marriage between persons of the same sex must also already be criminalised.

The two questions we should be asking are: "what is the real purpose of this bill" apart from to whip up moral hysteria against a largely invisible portion of Nigerians and "how will it impact on everyone irrespective of their sexual orientation?"

In addition to targeting people who identify as lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming, the SSMB will:

  • Prevent or call into question two people of the same sex living together, whether they be lovers, friends, co-workers or acquaintances.
  • Prohibit any display of friendship or affection between two people of the same sex; any form of touching, holding hands, embracing, and even looking could very well result in a 10-year prison sentence.
  • Prohibit organisations and individuals who advocate for sexual, reproductive and health rights, particularly those concerned with HIV/AIDs prevention and treatment, the majority of whom are heterosexual.
  • Prohibit any accused person from receiving legal representation or support.
  • Require family, friends and work colleagues to report to the police anyone suspected of being involved in or supporting anyone thought to be either engaged in same-sex relationships or believed to be an LGBT person; everyone irrespective of their sexual orientation thus becomes vulnerable to vindictive accusation and vigilante summary “justice”.

The SSMB will particularly affect the poor unemployed and those on low incomes and will also compromise and restrict other rights such as:

  • Freedom of assembly/association: this may well include women-only groups including religious based groups, student associations and reading groups, and opens the doors for false accusations and “witch-hunting” against individuals and groups.
  • Freedom of speech/expression: the bill can be used to censor and prosecute all types of media from newspapers to radio to social media; writers and photographers can be accused of publicising, promoting or supporting LGBT people, or criticising the SSMB and the government’s anti-LGBT policy.

Nigerians advocating the bill need to ask themselves whether they really wish to live in a society in which millions of people live in fear of being outed, where millions are denied legal representation as well as the rights to assemble, speak freely, embrace their friends, and share a room with a friend without fear of prosecution.

The rationale behind the Same Sex Marriage Bill and its proposed counterpart in Uganda is a huge deceit being spread by secular and religious leaders that decriminalising LGBTI persons would be an imposition from Western imperialists and signal moral decadence. On the contrary, these legislations are part of a continuity of Western imperialism and the 'European heterosexual inheritance' that was forced on colonial subjects - it is a mark of our continued colonial dependency.

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Comments

The actual Bill is not long (a few hundred words) and worth reading for the actual text - it's linked to at the beginning of this article. Here are some relevant parts:

 

4. (1) The registration of any gay clubs, societies and organisations, their sustenance, processions and meetings are hereby prohibited.

    (2) The public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly is hereby prohibited.

5. (2) Any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation, or directly or indirectly make public show of same sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commit an offence and shall each be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years inprisonment.

    (3) Any person or group of persons that witness, abet and aids the solemnization of a same sex marriage or civil union, or supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organisations, processions or meetings in Nigeria cimmits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years imprisonment.

7. In the Bill - 

"Witness" means those who sign as witnesses to the solemnisation of the marriage.

 

It seems to me that this article slightly misrepresents these provisions. The Bill does not "Prohibit any display of friendship ... between two people of the same sex", it prohibits "public show of same sex amorous relationship". It remains to be seen how the court will interpret this, but it seems a stretch to suggest that "any form of touching" or "looking" would be enough to be caught under 4. (2). "Any display of friendship" is not a "show of ... amorous relationship", nor is "any form of touching" or "looking".

Similarly, the Bill does not "Prohibit organisations and individuals who advocate for sexual, reproductive and health rights..." it specifically prohibits "gay clubs". It may be that this Bill is used against organisations which advocate sexual health rights, but it is wrong to say that the Bill prohibits such organisations when it does not.

The Bill does not "Require family, friends and work colleagues to report to the police anyone suspected of being involved in or supporting anyone thought to be either engaged in same-sex relationships or believed to be an LGBT person". S.5 (2) makes it an offence to "witness, abet and aid" a gay marriage. But "witness" is being used in a specific and defined way; as meaning "those who sign as witnesses to the solemnisation of the marriage". There is nowhere in the Bill where failure to report someone suspected of being gay is made an offence.

While the Bill is appalling, it is appalling because it makes gay relationships an offence. To show that the Bill is appalling we don't need to show more than that. Certainly we do not need to create offences which are not in the Bill. In fact the idea that we have to demonstrate an overspill of harm into heterosexual communities in order to say that the Bill is bad is itself worrying.

The Bill could not be clearer in its attitude towards gay relationships. That is enough to render it a disgrace. That should be the target of attack.

My opinion is that we have bigger problems to handle that trying to cage a few adults that are exercising their freedom... this thing should be an underground war and not an open one!