Far Away From Home: LGBT* Activism in the Diaspora

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May 04, 2020
by Soila Kenya
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Far Away From Home: LGBT* Activism in the Diaspora

We catch up with Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum Fellows Faris Cuchi Gezahegn and Bisi Alimi on the highs and lows of fighting a war from afar Bisi Alimi (left) and Faris Cuchi Gezahegn (right) at the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum in 2017

“My day usually starts with some meditation then I get ready for the office. And because we are remote – my colleagues are based in Nigeria and I’m here in the UK – we spend a lot of time communicating. We spend more time on Zoom trying to get things done,” said Bisi Alimi in an interview with Salzburg Global.

Alimi was forced to leave his home country of Nigeria and relocate to the UK after receiving death threats for being an openly gay man who is credited with being the first Nigerian to come out on national television.

Apart from founding and directing of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which “advocates for the rights and dignity of LGBT people in Nigeria by addressing public opinion and accelerating social acceptance,” he is also a public speaker, storyteller, campaigner, actor, and vlogger. 

“When I was in Nigeria, I think my biggest risk was being an openly gay man in a society that thinks that I don’t deserve to be alive,” he said. 

He has spent decades at the vanguard of the fight for LGBT rights despite constant abuse and attacks and the further stigma of being HIV+. 

He attended the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum program Home: Safety, Wellness, and Belonging in 2017 where he explained his approach to using Instagram. On this platform, he publishes short videos about his views on topics that require greater debate, diverging opinions and general attention. Alimi has a great following online and he personally interacts often with his followers, especially as he is no longer based in Nigeria.

In 2019, inspired by Ugandan activists he had met in Salzburg, Alimi and his Foundation held its first pride event in Lagos, which had to be coded as a “variety night.” “There was a lot of controversy around it; whether or not it was a ‘pride’ event... People argue that pride is marching on the street. However, at the core of it is what you’re celebrating,” he said.

He explains that as an activist living in the diaspora, he is dealing with unprecedented challenges such as facing discrimination not only for his sexual identity but also for being a black man.

“I had to start redefining or trying to reclassify my masculinity within all of the narrative around ‘Men can’t be this or that’ and trying to fight about what makes a man and my man enough?” he recounts.

Ethiopian non-binary queer activist Faris Cuchi Gezahegn is also no stranger to the harsh reality facing many queer Africans. Following death threats, they were forced to flee to Austria, where, together with fellow activist and Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum Fellow Noël Iglessias, they successfully applied for asylum. 

Despite leaving Ethiopia, Gezahegn is still committed to activism, working now with AfroRainbowAustria, Queer Base and House of Guramayle, the latter of which they cofounded to “put a face to the queer movement in Ethiopia.” 

Through this work, Gezahegn was invited to address the Universal Periodic Review Report Consideration for Ethiopia, at the Human Rights Council in Switzerland and the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in Rwanda, where they advocated for the inclusion of LGBT people in the Ethiopian government’s national HIV/AIDS prevention roadmap. “It is historic and symbolic. We aimed to challenge the Ethiopian government on the international stage for the first time,” they explain. 

But even life in Austria is not without risk. “After I moved here, I’ve been attacked four times physically,” they explain. “But at the same time, I am living in a space where if anything happens to me, whoever did it would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, which is different from when I was Ethiopia where I was just a random person who got erased.”

Istanbul-based British photojournalist Bradley Secker, who is also a Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, explains how meeting Gezahegn was an inspiration. In his Gayropa project that seeks to document the lives of LGBT refugees in Europe, he approached Gezahegn with the request to include them in the project.

“It’s often slightly odd at first to have me tagging along and joining someone to various things they’d normally not have a photographer documenting, but Faris was natural, relaxed and confident from the start,” Secker said.

Both Gezahegn and Alimi see the Salzburg Global community being stepping stones for them in their journeys with Gezahegn recounting that they felt “very safe and loved” as they dealt with “a roller-coaster of feelings as we build a new home.”

On the ongoing fight for equality, the two agree that combining voices is the way to go. “No one is free when one part of the society is not free,” says Alimi. When speaking about how allies can help, he explains that “it’s not about them specifically going for gay rights, but intersecting their own struggles as well.”

“It [intersectionality] has to be number one,” agrees Gezahegn. “We also need to leverage the expertise we have on the continent.”

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities. We acknowledge and respect individuals’ preferred pronouns.