Labi, a Lagos-based fashion designer, was just 21 years old when he tested positive for HIV in 2016.
“I was falling sick over and over,” he tells me in a WhatsApp conversation. “My parents suggested I do a full blood test. My sister, a doctor, took the blood samples. I was at an event when she called me to come for a retest. They did a confirmation test, and it came out positive.”
Labi didn’t feel shock after learning his status. Instead he took his test result and went home after a short talk with his doctor sister.
“Initially, I was not bothered,” he says. “I think the right word is indifferent. I mean, I knew being positive wasn't the end of the world and that, with drugs, I’d be fine.”
But in Nigeria, living with HIV is a heavy burden. People living with HIV face discrimination that could affect both their mental health and their ability to trust their families and friends to be open-minded and without bias.
There is a big difference between a heterosexual person living with HIV and a queer person with the virus, when it comes to how they are treated. For LGBT Nigerians with the virus, it's a double burden. In January 2014, then-president of Nigeria Goodluck Ebele Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which punishes gay sexual activity with up to 14 years imprisonment. LGBT Nigerians living with HIV have to fight to be accepted by Nigerian law and to be accepted within the LGBT community.
Moreover, family also contributes to this burden. Labi tells me his family stigmatized him during the few weeks he stayed with them.
“They wanted to get new stuff for me, like plates, utensils, and all. So I didn’t get to share with them,” he says. Labi also tells me how they went extremely far to avoid coming to his place after he recovered. Some little things changed after his doctor sister talked some HIV education into them. “But then, it is still there ... in the silent things. They don’t drink from the sachet water I drink from if it remains. If I'm eating, I'm not supposed to share with my nieces or nephew.”
There are many stories throughout Nigeria of people who have faced HIV stigma and homophobia from their own families. Daniel, a University of Lagos student, tells me through a phone call how his mother invited men to their home who dragged him to an empty church and subjugated him to conversion therapy.
“She told them to pray the gay and HIV away from me,” Daniel says. “As one of the men hit me with a hard wood, I blacked out. I woke up in something I thought was eternity and wondered if I was in heaven or hell. I thought I was dead.” However, Daniel recovered a week later, only to experience anxiety and extreme depression that made him contemplate suicide countless times.
Since the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act was signed in 2014, LGBT Nigerians have continued exploring dating apps while waiting to settle or, perhaps, find love and affection. But there are predators on the apps—many gay themselves—who blackmail and brutalize gay men. In agreement to that, during my conversations with queer men living in Nigeria, I came to realize most of them contracted HIV through sexual violence that was inflicted on them by these same predators.
For Tope, his story is part of this truth. When he turned 17, he was eager to explore his sexuality. He had gotten acquainted with a man 10 years older than himself on Grindr and decided on a meeting place, where he was ambushed by two unknown men who took him to a nearby bush, raped and battered him, and collected his valuables, including his phone. Tope ended up in a hospital ward for three weeks. In the same hospital, 10 months later, he cried to his doctor over his HIV status. “At that moment, my life to me was worthless. I wanted desperately to get those men and put a bullet into their heads,” Tope recalls.
Many people have had similar experiences to Tope. But it's hard to find the perpetrators.
Living with HIV as an LGBT Nigerian man is a different sort of life from those of queer people without the virus. Those with the virus struggle so much to adapt to the new life they find themselves in, and to survive and stay physically fit and healthy.
Femi, a 24-year-old queer man with the virus, says his life has changed a lot since his HIV diagnosis. He was diagnosed just four months ago. Femi says that living with the virus is like living in two separate worlds. He has to believe nothing has changed, but whenever he tries to enjoy things he had in the past, he remembers he can't because of his health; that tells him that a lot of things have really changed.
“Living with the virus changed my sleeping patterns,” Femi says. “Now I have to be awake early enough to use my ARV [antiretroviral medications]. I had to begin eating lots of fruits so as to boost my immunity, [and I] reduced my alcohol intake to the barest minimum. It also made me refuse going into a relationship, because it hasn't been working real well for me, since I was already tired of revealing my status to those I thought could stay longer in my life, but I was just wrong.”
Femi isn't the only one this happens to. Some people with HIV quit their jobs in order to reduce the stress and find more personal time for themselves.
Many also report having issues dating and finding love amid the great anti-gay and anti-HIV stigma. For Labi, what keeps him wondering is if he will ever find someone who will keep loving and supporting him despite his speaking out about his predicament.
“The first time I told someone that wasn’t my family member about my status, it was a guy I was meaning to date. It was like a month after my diagnosis. I think that was the first time I cried since I knew I had the virus, because it hit me that finding love was gonna be difficult.”
This has made him only tell his status to those he feels might have a long-term relationship with him. Labi is not alone; Alexander, 26, is also in doubt about this. For Alexander, what scares him most is the aftermath of telling potential partners his predicament and getting slapped by rejections—and the possibility of being ghosted.
Among all these burdens, these LGBT Nigerians living with HIV still find amazing support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that offer them medical assistance in a discrimination-free environment. This space is also not limited to only serving those with the virus. Among a few is The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), a nonprofit organization that advocates for human rights, especially for the LGBT community. During their existence, they have helped a lot of LGBT persons living with HIV get easy access to ARV drugs, while also providing consultancy too.
Human Dignity Trust is another group helping LGBT Nigerians advocate for their rights and legalization. The organization was founded in 2011 and is a London-based NGO, managed by a team of lawyers and activists. With these several NGOs, LGBT people living with HIV have nothing to fear in terms of affording medication, but the constant fear of living in a country like Nigeria where homophobia thrives is the persistent battle the LGBT community as a whole keeps trying to fight. Above all, it's a game of survival for these LGBTQ Nigerians living with HIV. With the sort of encouraging spirit that strives inside them, they always try to keep their heads up and live despite the trauma and stigma that may come their way.