When Edafe Okporo was released from a New Jersey immigration detention center in 2017, he had nowhere to go. He spent a few nights wandering in Newark Penn Station, dozing on benches and in corners, and then found shelter at a nearby YMCA. He had no money, no phone, knew nobody, and, besides a few hours in a back room of JFK airport, had never been in the United States as a free man. A year later, he was the director of a homeless shelter in Harlem, offering refuge to people who were facing the same displacement and homelessness he had barely overcome.
Okporo fled Nigeria in 2016, landing in New York six days before Donald Trump won the presidential election. He left his home country after suffering years of persecution as a gay man and an increasingly visible gay rights activist. At one point, a mob surrounded his apartment chanting, “Gay! Gay! Gay!” He was beaten, robbed, and received repeated death threats. When he heard the news that he had won an award for his activism, the visibility brought him not joy or pride but the immediate realization he was in imminent danger: “That single blazing moment brought my life in Nigeria to an end,” he said. “I had to run—the further, the better.”
The dire and sometimes deadly reality for LGBTQ people in Nigeria has been fostered and institutionalized by national laws criminalizing sexual relations between people of the same gender, as well as by American evangelical groups that fund an international anti-gay agenda.
“The demonization of homosexuality began when colonizers used religion as a means of enforcing ‘traditional’ versions of family,” Okporo writes in his book Asylum: A Memoir and Manifesto. “Prior to the European invasion of Africa,” he continues, “there was a vast spectrum of sexualities and gender identities.” Sexual and gender fluidity, both of yore and contemporary, is something colonizers have sought to wipe out. Billy Graham’s Evangelistic Association donated nearly $100 million, between 2007 and 2014, to anti-gay missions in Africa. The results of that funding have been tangible: In 2014, Nigeria passed a law that criminalizes same-sex acts by 14 years of imprisonment. Recently proposed legislation in the country aims to punish cross-dressing with up to six months in prison.
Such repressive homophobia is not unique to Nigeria, of course. Today, homosexuality between consenting adults is illegal in nearly 70 countries. And homophobia and anti-trans laws remain common in the United States. After arriving, Okporo was targeted in the United States not just for being gay, but also for being Black and foreign—an intersection of oppression that he deftly unpacks in Asylum.
The cruelty and indignity faced by gay refugees in the United States has a long history, too. The US Immigration Act of 1917 denied entrance to anyone considered a “pervert” or “deviant.” In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act was amended to prohibit the entry of persons “afflicted with…sexual deviation.” Until the 1990s, various legal statutes continued to prohibit LGBTQ people from migrating to the United States. And not until 2010 did Congress repeal a ban on letting people infected with HIV into the country.
Asylum is a searing account of how legislators and anti-gay zealots have pushed LGBTQ people into hiding and across borders, and how activists like Edafe Okporo have overcome such attacks and repression to achieve moral clarity, carving out spaces of safety, creativity, and power. The book is remarkable in its own right: Okporo has the stentorian, inviting voice of a classical orator—a power that comes across on the page. (I first met Okporo in 2019, at the shelter he was running, when I interviewed him for The Nation’s Migrant Voices series.) In this interview we talked about the current state of anti-gay legislation in Nigeria, his whiplash transition from detained asylum seeker to shelter director, and the intersection of the fight for gay, Black, and refugee rights. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JW: Well, you have a lot to feel good about. Congrats.
EO: Thank you.
JW: I don’t think there’s a clean transition here from all those wonderful things you just mentioned, so forgive me for quickly turning to a darker place. But can you talk a little bit about what’s going on right now in Nigeria, in terms of anti-gay legislation? Has anything changed since you’ve written your book?
EO: Some things have gotten worse. Recently, the government of Nigeria proposed new legislation to outlaw cross-dressing. Since the pandemic began, a lot of people have been using cross-dressing to do comedy online, and the Nigerian government wants to crack down. They’re saying that it’s the next progression of the gay rights movement. So they want to criminalize cross-dressing, both in physical spaces and in online spaces.
JW: What about socially? Are gay people more broadly accepted today in Nigeria?
EO: I think more people are coming out since I left five years ago, because more people are seeing examples of other people living their authentic lives. On my Instagram, I posted a lot about my life and my relationship, and it has inspired a lot of younger people. But I still face a backlash for being a gay person, even though I live millions of miles away. My partner and I went to Delaware this past February, and I posted on social media. The post went viral in Nigeria. There were more than 15 blogs written about me and my partner. And some people are like, “You [should] go and die, you don’t deserve to be a human being.” Then in the gay community—I don’t know if I should say this, but this is something I have experienced in New York—because I am outspoken and visible, a lot of the gay Nigerians don’t want to go out with me or take pictures with me because their family will see. So it’s a mixed bag in the sense that on social media there’s a growing acceptance, but there’s also a growing majority of people who are becoming loud in the rejection of gay people.
JW: And what about the resistance or the gay activist community, which you were such a big part of when you were there? Has that become more active or vocal?
EO: They have become more vocal because of social media, but in person, it’s still just providing access to HIV medication. One piece of good news we saw is that there has been a reduction in the prevalence of HIV transmission among gay men, which is an indicator of less stigma. The higher the stigma, the less people get services for being HIV positive. The lower the stigma, the more people access care services.
JW: So people are working to destigmatize being HIV positive or having AIDs. It’s still dangerous work, though?
EO: It’s still very dangerous. More people are fleeing Nigeria every day. There are basically three responses to the shame and trauma that come from this kind of work in Nigeria. Some people say, I don’t want to do this anymore. Some people decide to conserve their energy and go into a freeze mode, and then continue the work more quietly. And some people are like, We are going to die anyway, and we don’t know when it will happen, so we’d rather just keep on fighting.
JW: This extreme homophobia and anti-gay legislation isn’t unique to Nigeria. In other places throughout the world people face similar dangers. Do you see your own experience in Nigeria as fitting into a larger global movement?
EO: I think that culture is very contagious. When the first gay rights law was passed in Argentina, it had a ripple effect across different parts of the world. And many of us in Nigeria, including me, came out because we saw gay people on Facebook or TV. When conservative countries see that other conservative countries are passing laws that are harsh, they also follow. For example, Hungary has started trying to pass laws to criminalize gay people. In the US, it’s not gay marriage they are attacking but the trans community, or the Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida. For us to be able to create an equitable and just society where people have equal rights, we have to be able to take into perspective that my story and the story of people coming here to seek protection is not just an American story. It’s a global story.
JW: Would you agree there is anhat do you think of the urgent need for people to understand what’s going on in Nigeria without ignoring the real problems that exist with LGBTQ rights in the United States?
EO: In the book I ask: How do we create home not just for ourselves, but for all of us? So if you are in the US., your task is to ask, how do you create a home for people in the US? And if you are in Nigeria, you have to ask, how do you create a home for people in Nigeria? We must pose this question: How do we live in a country where thousands of people seeking freedom are locked up in jails, and we say we’re living in a free country? I think that is the responsibility I, as the author, am giving to the reader—not how you can help me, but how you can create a future so that somebody like me, somebody who will come after me, won’t have to go through those horrible things. I was persecuted for being gay, and now I’m shocked about what I face as a Black person in America. They’re all intertwined for me. My identity as a Black gay refugee, a religious person, all these identities have to be able to live and exist in America. And that is a task given to the reader, you need to ask yourself, What am I doing to make this country more welcoming for more people like me who will come after me?
JW: What really jumped out when reading your book is just how quickly things shifted for you. You came to the United States, you were put in shackles and detained, and then within a very short period, you were the director of the RDJ shelter and were offering the same refuge and protection that you had just been lacking. What did that rapid transition feel like?
EO: When I started at RDJ, I focused on just one mission: I didn’t want another person to come to New York and not have a place to stay. When I came to the US, I was locked up in a detention center. When I was released from the detention center, I was homeless. While I was at Newark Penn Station, where I stayed for a short while, I was thinking that I should have just died in my home country. When I first came to New York, someone asked me if I had HIV. I said, no. And they were like, bad for you. If you had had HIV, we would have been able to give you housing and you would be paid a stipend. So if you have a disease, quote-unquote, you have a place to stay. Maybe a mental illness, something disastrous. But if you are okay and you are trying to build a life of your own, it’s almost impossible. That personal struggle I had was the driving force behind not wanting this to happen to anybody else. And many people do not know that these are genuine struggles I went through because I never had the courage to talk about it. I’m a human being too, and I’ve gone through a lot of humiliation in my life.
JW: You discuss how much work you were putting in at the shelter: 70 hour weeks, sleeping there, cooking, dealing with emergencies, searching for funding. You didn’t even know if you were still going to have a shelter in a few months. And yet, especially in that early period, there must have been times when someone came in, and it brought your own experience rushing back to you. You talk about Jenny, for example, a trans woman you met in the detention center, who showed up at the doorstep of RDJ. I wonder how you were able to support her and walk her through everything she needed when you probably still needed someone to support you.
EO: At the beginning, I didn’t know what trauma was, and I didn’t know what it was that was troubling me. In 2018, I got some more funding, and that was the first time I had the time to think. And it all came pouring out. That was the first time I went into therapy, at the Bellevue “Survivor of Torture” program, and I did a program for two years. And you know, when I was doing the program, I realized that my own trauma was sometimes reenacted when somebody showed up with a bag at the shelter. I couldn’t go to bed at night without making sure they were okay. If someone called me to say there was somebody in the airport and they needed a place to stay, it was my trauma saying, Why are you going to bed when this person doesn’t have a place to sleep? If I was at a party, I kept my ringer on because I felt I had a debt for surviving, for not dying in my country, for being granted asylum. But when I realized that I didn’t have to pay anybody any debt, I just had to live my life, that was when I was able to start setting some boundaries between the work I was doing and my personal life. Because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to have a relationship or build any form of life. There was no space to process my own struggle and my own trauma until the day they became too much.
JW: You mentioned at one point, when you were still in Nigeria, that you knew that “the fight for gay men’s access to health care treatment became [your life’s] work.” But since you’ve gone through the asylum process, since you’ve come to the United States, how has the focus of your life’s work changed to overlap with the fight against anti-Black racism and xenophobia?
EO: The work of an activist is to make society better in general. As you know, I’m an evangelist of good radiance. I love building communities and creating a sense of belonging for all of us. I think that is the center of my work. Writing this book for me is a quest to find other members of this good radiance community: people who are loving, people who are caring, to join my community, or for me to join their community. When we think about gay rights or think about civil rights or think about immigration or homelessness, we are asking ourselves one question and that question is, Do we see these other people as human beings? And that is what my holistic work is trying to do: to make the refugees who are LGBTQ identified, who are Black, who are religious, to be visible and to see that we are normal, first of all, and we are also good people.
JW: A lot of people mobilized to fight for refugee and immigrant rights under the Trump administration. Now, a year and a half into the Biden administration, asylum is basically shut down: Very few people have any possibility of getting asylum. And yet there’s not the same spirit to fight for refugee rights. Your book is called Asylum. How are you trying to re-mobilize and make sure people are still paying attention and are active and fighting for asylum seekers and refugees?
EO: People were not concerned about asylum seekers and refugees. They were concerned about Trump. I’m not a Democrat. Neither am I a Republican. I’m a refugee. The word “asylum” has not really been reclaimed in the way “refugee” has been reclaimed. Right now, more than two million people have been prevented from seeking asylum in the US under the Biden administration. It’s preposterous. The Ukraineian crisis has been well publicized, so we’re made painfully aware of people that have come here to seek protection. But the news and the media do not publicize the struggle of the people that come to the southern border. I think that we need more media attention to shine a light on the struggles of people that are coming through the southern border and the real trauma that detention poses. A lot of people flee their country and are then detained in the land of the free, a place that has portrayed itself to be the place of hope, to be locked up in jail for seeking protection. It’s horrible. And not until we stop this practice are we really that free country. When Trump was in office, people were mobilizing to close private detention centers. People were mobilizing to rejuvenate the asylum system. Every movement in regard to immigrant rights shut down because the Democratic Party has decided to make it a war against Trump instead of a war against bad policies, and that is the bottom line. And I’m not afraid to say that because I’m not running for office.
JW: Are you sure?
EO: One day. [Laughing]