Secrecy, thoughts of suicide, fears of discrimination, support from a few trusted confidantes — those have been the experiences of four gay Nigerian men who were willing to describe their lives after testing positive for HIV.
The names of the four men who spoke to NoStringsNG about being gay and HIV-positive in Nigeria have been changed and their photos altered to shield their identities.
Emeka, 23, from Abia State:
I was diagnosed HIV-positive almost by chance during an outdoor free HIV testing campaign in February 2016.
Emeka described how he ended up taking the HIV test:
“My getting tested was not planned. I was going home with my boyfriend and, right in front of his house, there were some people who were providing free HIV testing services. I have never tested before, so I decided to try. The result came out positive twice.
“I was so scared; my heart was beating really fast. A part of me was very angry. A few minutes later, two of the health workers took me to a public hospital where another test was conducted to confirm my status. After confirmation, I was given ARV’s [anti-retroviral drugs] but I did not start immediately; I took some days to process everything before I decided to start.”
Emeka suspects that he might have been infected when he was raped by an ex-boyfriend and others. He decided not to report that incident to police, he said, because homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria and he did not want to get into trouble. He said:
“I was raped multiple times by my ex and his friends. He was a bad person. We were dating for a few months, and then one fateful day, we both went out with his friends for a drink. I came back drunk and they all raped me throughout the night. When I woke up, I saw blood everywhere, and I felt sore and pains all over my body. I asked him but he denied it. But I later overheard him and his friends talking about it and laughing. I couldn’t do anything because of the law against homosexuality in the country.”
Emeka is now taking his anti-HIV medications and doing well but, at first, the side effects were discouraging, he said.
“When I first started taking the drugs, the side effects were severe. I threw up all I had eaten, and couldn’t sleep throughout the night. I had serious night sweats, headaches, weakness, and nightmares. I still have nightmares and occasionally I get really depressed, but my boyfriend has been really helpful, and I am doing better now. He has always been there for me. He is HIV negative,” he said.
In a country where more than 91 percent of the population believe that homosexuality is bad, Emeka said telling people about his status would subject him to increased discrimination so, apart from his doctor, the only person who knows is his boyfriend. Emeka said:
“When I told my boyfriend I thought that he would leave me, but he took it pretty well, and we are still together. It’s been a whole year and a few months now. He loves me so much and has done so much to keep me sane. He is the only one I trust.
“I will say that getting tested and knowing your status is a good thing. Since I found out about my status, I have been paying attention to my health and what I eat. But one of the major problem with being gay and HIV positive particularly in Nigeria where there is a lot of misunderstanding and stereotypes about HIV and homosexuality is that you will be forced to bury a huge part of your life as a secret because of the discrimination and rejection you will face if anyone knows that you are gay.”
Benjamin, 26, from Lagos:
Life was hell for me. I wanted to commit suicide.
Benjamin tested HIV positive last April during his visit to see the director of a human rights NGO.
“I was first diagnosed HIV positive in April of this year at The Initiative for Equal Rights [TIERs] community center in Lekki. I wasn’t frightened to go for the test, as I have for over two years been out of sex. The results came out positive. I was emotionally broken and depressed. I cried for several days at home. I couldn’t stop blaming myself for my misdeeds of not protecting myself from this death-threatening illness. I started my medication a few days after it was confirmed again at Heartland Alliance.”
After Benjamin learned his HIV status, he became emotionally unstable and almost took his own life. The medications messed with his mind, he said.
“It was really hell for me during the first one month of taking the ARV’s. This came with a whole lot. Depression, coupled with nausea and fever. Though, I was informed by the doctor that I am to experience the side effects during the first month. The major problem for me was the weakness. If not for the numerous counselings I received at TIERS, I would have committed suicide.”
Benjamin still faces several challenges:
“I am jobless, and getting work has been very difficult for me. A lot of people have been promising but nothing yet. Also, keeping all this from my family has been very depressing for me. I can’t just let them know because they are very homophobic and their reaction could affect my mental health.”
Jay, 30, from Abuja:
I tested HIV-positive seven years ago at an LGBT community health center. I’m hopeful for the younger generation.
Jay was surprised when he tested HIV-positive:
“I was diagnosed HIV-positive a couple of months before my 23rd birthday in 2010. I was to meet up with a friend at an LGBT-friendly health center. While waiting, I was encouraged to take a test, which I turned down, citing that I regularly took tests and I was good. But the health worker insisted, so I agreed.
“After I got home, I started mentally crossing out probabilities. I wasn’t looking for whom to blame, I just needed to know who gave it to me. I think I was just fortunate in dealing with the situation because of the education I’d gotten prior to it but, honestly, I was more irritated at myself that I’d caught it.”
His mother wasn’t expecting that news.
“I had to tell my mom. She wailed, rolled on the ground, beat her chest and asked God why her. Quite dramatic. I was amused, but after the ten minutes of theatrics, she stabilized. LOL. She’s the only one in the family who knows. I’ve been able to tell a handful of friends who took it better than I imagined, but it’s not really something I like to share, considering the nation I find myself in and the stigma involved.
“I am now taking ARV’s. I remember I found it oddly amusing in a twisted way. I did have side effects, from nausea to dizziness and weird dreams, internal heat and I noticed some rash on my forearms and chest, but it lasted a total of 3-4 weeks before the symptoms started wearing off.”
Jay chose to receive his medication at a public hospital instead of at an LGBT community health center to avoid publicly exposed as gay and HIV-positive.
“I’d not dream to receive treatment from an LGBT-friendly health center, at least not yet. There’s too much tongue-wagging involved. It’s sad that most folks in the LGBT community cannot be trusted to protect you, so, for now, I’m receiving my meds from a government health facility. I need to point out, though, that I’ve come across some very good LGBT-friendly centers, I’m not just ready to make a move yet. …
“Also, keeping up with my clinic days and taking my meds especially during holidays back home has proved really tasking.”
Jay is proud to be gay and has no regrets, he said.
“Even though HIV positive, I have no interest in beating myself up over my status based on my sexuality. Though a high percentage of LGBT persons are depressed — mostly because of how people treat them and as a result, wish that they were straight — believe me, I do not. I’ve beat up myself enough for being gay while growing up.
“There are quite a lot of challenges, but the 1st and 2nd are tied together. That would be the criminalization of same-sex marriage which is embedded deeply in our society due to the fact that we’re a highly ‘religious’ society.
“Of course that is hypocritical on its own, seeing that once you’ve been spotted to walk with a slight twist or speak with a high pitch, you’re considered gay, and that’s enough to not get you hired for a posting, regardless of the fact that you’re probably overqualified for it. It’s gotten others fired, mob lynched, etc, but then it is what it is.”
He’s hopeful for the future:
“I strongly feel the younger generation is more accepting, and that’s because of an abundance of exposure, enlightenment, and understanding. A few of my younger cousins have expressed a level of tolerance to LGBT folks. One even has a gay boy as a best friend. LOL. For me, that’s encouraging.
Felix, 30, from Port Harcourt:
I was shocked when I tested positive for HIV seven months ago at a public hospital.
Felix went with a friend to get tested. He said:
“It’s been almost seven months now since I got tested. A friend feared he might have been infected when his boyfriend tested positive, so we both went to get tested. He came out negative and mine came out positive.
“When the results came out, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. A few minutes later, all I could do was cry bitterly. Although I know I have been careless a couple of times but, somehow, I was not expecting the result to come out positive, more particularly as I have tested negative before. No, I know it is not curable for now, so I am on ARV.
“What followed were thoughts of how I might have contracted it and more especially, from whom. I wondered about all this for some time, but I am doing just fine now.”
Felix is not comfortable talking to people about his status because he is afraid that they will discriminate against him, though he has managed to tell close friends.
“Only two of my friends know. One is the one that went to the clinic with me and the other tested positive. When he got tested and found out that he was positive, he confided in me, so we both shared our experiences and he followed me a few times to the health center to get my drugs.”
His experiences at a public hospital where he gets his drugs have been mixed, Felix said. Most of the people there act professionally, but others abuse him for his HIV status, he said:
“The health workers there have been so nice to me, though there were a few bad ones who acted very unprofessionally. I have had arguments a few times with them because of how they treated me, but in overall, I have received very warm and positive treatment from a lot of them, including the doctors who have been very helpful and nice.”
Felix suffered depression but has remained hopeful regardless of all the unfortunate ways things have turned out for him.
“There are times when I feel down and very depressed. A large part of my worries is not mainly about my status because I know anyone can be positive if they are not careful and do not have the right information. But I am hoping for the best to come.
“The discrimination is real. Keeping to yourself and being all secretive about everything can be quite depressing. People already think that homosexuality is a curse, so being gay and HIV-positive to people is like you are already a walking corpse. I hope that one day everyone will be able to know that being HIV-positive is not a death sentence.