It has been 30 years since Chike Frankie Edozien left his native Nigeria to chase his dream of studying and establishing himself in the United States. His subsequent career as a journalist has included 15 years of work for the New York Post, for which he covered City Hall, and clips in national publications like Time and The New York Times.
All the while, Edozien has maintained ties to his home country and sub-Saharan Africa writ large, especially with LGBT communities in various cities. As an openly gay man, he has seen firsthand how life has changed for those groups and what the media coverage misses by focusing on accounts of repression and suffering.
In 2017, Edozien documented these observations in Lives of Great Men, a work of memoir and reportage that shines a light not just on African sexual minorities but on the people who love and support them. The book won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography in 2018.
Now a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Edozien directs the “Reporting Africa” program, which takes students to Ghana each summer. He spoke to The Nation by phone from Accra.
Robbie Corey-Boulet: What were you looking to accomplish with Lives of Great Men? What kind of gap in the coverage were you looking to fill?
Chike Frankie Edozien: As I started working on the book, there were several things happening that I was trying to make sense of. There was one particular summer, in 2011, that was really crazy. I was teaching here in Accra, and I noticed that the city was very different from the year before: There were no longer gay places or gay safe spaces. Before there had been a club that I could go to on a Wednesday night and only see gays and lesbians there. And if you walked in they’d tell you, “Oh, this is a special kind of night, so please come back tomorrow unless you don’t mind seeing gays.” But in 2011 the climate had become so hostile for LGBT people that at all the places I used to go, it seemed as if people had disappeared, and people weren’t going out anymore. People were just having house parties as a way of socializing. There was a sense of impunity—if you saw a gay person, you could attack them and nothing would happen.
And so I wrote a story, just a regular newspaper story. But it was nagging at me that there were so many things that I could not say. After that I said, “Well, let me start doing more in-depth interviews. I don’t know what this project will become. It might become a documentary, it might be just for my own sake.” And I started talking to a lot of people. And in the middle of doing all of this, I thought to myself, “Well, why stop at Ghana? Talk to the people you know in Nigeria.”
And while I was doing that, in Nigeria we had the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act pass, something even more draconian than we had seen in other parts of the African continent. It included language barring any kind of organization that supported LGBT people from simply existing, all in the name of preventing marriage from taking place.
And I said to myself, “I cannot live in this era and not do anything about it.” And upon further reflection as I was writing, as I was collecting these stories, I started to think I needed to also talk about myself.
RCB: What role did the media play in fanning anti-LGBT sentiment in both Ghana and Nigeria?
CFE: During that summer in Ghana, it was shocking to me how many times LGBT people were on the front page of the newspapers, and it was always framed in a negative context. And in Nigeria it was similar. I just could not believe that legitimate newspapers would all keep repeating the same statistic—that around 90 percent of the people supported the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. And you would never hear the voices of ordinary gay and lesbian people.
So the local coverage has not been as balanced as it could have been. But also I cannot say that the international coverage has been balanced either. And this kind of skewed coverage was part of the impetus for writing Lives of Great Men, because we as LGBT people in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, and elsewhere have been erased. Whenever these issues are talked about the bulk of our stories are erased from history. I wanted to change that. I didn’t want there to be any situation where people would say things like, “We don’t have any of them here.”
RCB: What do you find is the reaction in the region to hearing these stories, either through books like yours or other projects?
CFE: In Nigeria and in Ghana and all the places where I’ve traveled in the last year, the thing that I get the most is, “Thank you for sharing these stories,” because what this has meant is that people can read this book and examine their own behavior. I get this not just from queer people but from hetero people who have to stop in their tracks and consider how they treat their loved ones.
I think that is important because it speaks to a broader shift toward greater acceptance. Something has started, and you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. People are saying, “No. These are our brothers and sisters and our children. You don’t have to like it, but you’re not going to criminalize someone just because you don’t like it.” We are changing hearts and minds not just by forcing legislatures to recognize us but by simply being visible, by simply telling our own stories, by simply saying we have pride even if you don’t let us march down the street, as I would in New York.
So I’m very hopeful and I’m very optimistic, and every time I feel like I’m getting down because there’s another strike against us, I have days like today where I wake up and the first thing I see is that we won in Botswana. Now, I’m not from Botswana, but wherever we have progress, it’s for all of us.
RCB: A lot of reporting on these issues, especially in the international press, starts from the assumption that certain regions are homophobic and others, namely the West, are not. Do the reactions that you’ve just described undermine that framing?
CFE: Yes, absolutely. You have to have nuance. I refuse to believe that Africa is a hotbed of homophobia. I think that there are loud voices that are homophobic. But I have come into contact with so many people who support their families, right next to people who are filled with hate and rage and don’t know why. You have to have nuance, and you have to have balance. Nothing is black and white. It’s not fair to paint all of us as one huge, raging homophobic continent.
RCB: You write in an upfront way about the privileges you had as a child, being from a middle-class family that had domestic help and multiple cars and went abroad for vacations. Do you think that class insulated you from dangers that your sexuality would have otherwise generated?
CFE: On some level I would say yes. Because maybe you might be sheltered from some violent things. But what good is it for you if you are a person who is upper middle class, and you have a job, but you are forced to get married because you will lose that job? Or you are forced to get married because you will not be promoted from deputy lecturer to senior lecturer? Of what good is class to you if your whole life is revolving around pretending to be straight?
Sometimes I feel like people think, “Well, if you have money or you have a certain class, things are different for you,” and blah blah blah blah. But we are all in this together, we’re all suffering. Class will give you an escape, class will give you access to a passport and immigration. But of what use is class to you if you leave a high-powered banking job in Lagos and you end up in Staten Island in a homeless shelter? How has class helped you?
Class brings its own misery. People don’t understand the loneliness that comes with being an immigrant, when you are cut off from everyone and you can’t reach out to anyone and you are alone in a new country. And they think, “Oh he’s got a job, he’s working now,” and they don’t understand how horrible it is making a whole new family, finding new people to trust.
I want LGBT Africans to be at home everywhere. I want people to go abroad and learn stuff and work, but I also don’t want them to feel that they must leave because they are gay or lesbian. That they must get out of there because there is no space for them. Africa has always been, across the continent, from north to south to east to west, a hospitable continent, and we need to get back to that.
RCB: Does a milestone like the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion register at all in Nigeria and Ghana? Broadly speaking, how significant are the achievements of US activists for LGBT liberation movements in Africa?
CFE: I was having a discussion just yesterday with one of the young men in Accra who is putting together a debate on Pride, and the conversation was a bit skewed because their notion of Pride was that at least in America you get to celebrate. Their point of view was that we’re so far from that in Africa, that there’s nothing for us to celebrate.
And I had to put myself in professor mode and say, “That’s a nice way to think about it, but also think about all that has happened in America in the 50 years since Stonewall, all of the changes, to the point where marriage equality is the law of the whole country.” And my point to them was that all began with 50 years of visibility, 50 years of people saying, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” And so our fight may be years or decades behind, but my point is that we need to look at America. It has taken 50 years, and they are still struggling.
I tell the young people today to take a look at the Pride parade in New York: There’s always two or three grand marshals, people who are being honored for what they’ve done for the community, for how they’ve moved our story forward. I say let’s get our own grand marshals, even if we cannot get a permit to walk down the street. Let’s find our own people who are in this fight and find ways of honoring them.
If you go to Nigeria during Lagos Fashion Week, for instance, some of the people in my community say that’s our Pride, because you see the gay people in all their glory, working and running amazing multimillion-dollar businesses. And that’s a place where, for gay people, it’s OK because we’re all creating stuff and selling things and doing business. It’s the same thing in our other creative industries where we excel. For us, that’s Pride.
We are being visible. The era of us being this minuscule silent minority is over. We’ve had the tyranny of the voices that are antigay for a long time. And the voices of the middle, those people who love us but who don’t say anything for fear of reprisals, have been silent for too long. But I would venture to say they are just as large as the homophobic voices.