• Hiding My Sexuality to Preserve My Life in the Nigerian Church

    Edafe Okporo on Coming to Terms with Being a Gay Christian

    At eighteen, I was in college and I got ordained as a minister of the evangelical church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God student chapter in Enugu, Nigeria. Sunday mornings began with waking up as early as five in the morning to shower, get dressed, and join the prayer group at seven.

    I would arrive early to clean the halls with the women and welcome the prayer group at the church’s gate, a Bible tucked under my arm. I greeted my brethren as they walked in, with a big handshake for the men and a broad-smiled nod for the women.

    The services usually lasted for two and a half hours, but I’d spend my entire Sundays in the house of the Lord, and attended meetings, Bible studies, and prayer groups all week. Any breaks I had were spent reading the Bible and preparing for Sunday sermons.

    I hoped—prayed—that the more time I devoted to my work as a minister, the better chances I’d have at ridding myself of my homosexual desires.

    I was a student pastor, and outside of ministering in the church on Sundays, I tried to walk a straight path. In the Redeemed Christian Church of God, all ministers are encouraged to have a full-time job during the week or pursue an education at the same time and minister on weekends.

    In college, I dated a woman named Ese. We had an unspoken agreement. She wanted to flaunt a handsome boy to her friends without actually having sex; I wanted my friends to see me with a girlfriend, though I never treated her like one behind closed doors. When we broke up two years later, I needed a new shield. And what better disguise than becoming a pastor to ward off any questions about a girlfriend? A pastor could not have a girlfriend, as this was deemed fornication before marriage, and students could not be married.

    Despite the many masks I wore, I saw them for what they were. I was a minister who professed something outwardly that I did not believe inwardly. I prayed, fasted—I would go days without eating solid food, only drinking water—and yet! I could not deny that I was still attracted to men.

    Though the church was supposed to change me, it just created more shields. Being unable to date or marry women as a member of the church, I found myself constantly around men. The church allowed me not to be questioned by my friends in college, and my neighbors were not suspicious due to my mostly hooking up with straight-passing men who carried big Bibles under their arms too. We would meet, have sex, and in the morning, I would pray for forgiveness.

    Once, after having sex with another man, we prayed together for forgiveness. I believed my relationship with God was solid, but men would make you believe otherwise. The head pastors at my church always spoke of the destruction of people who acted like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible. Anti-gay messages were constant. While my head pastor spoke generally, I began to think he was speaking directly to me. I knew I didn’t belong in the church, but I tried because the church had always been an integral part of my life. Being pushed away felt like being excommunicated from my own family. While I was fearful of destruction, I could not change who I was.

    To the church, I was steadfast, fervent, and diligent in prayers, but behind closed doors I continued to explore. Leading as a minister is a profound obligation. It began for me as a mask, but it grew into a burden that bled into every facet of my life. I had to be seen as upright; but being seen as upright didn’t mean always having to be upright. To explore my sexuality would also mean protecting my public persona more vigilantly than before.

    Eventually, the message about gay people made me very worried, so I decided to take a break from my role as a minister in the church at age twenty and focus on completing my education. I thought I could still practice my faith in God without being a pastor. But my time away from the church was clarifying. It helped me see that LGBTQ people are constantly told church is not a place for us. Our sins were inherent. The us versus them mentality could not have been clearer—we were made to feel like we did not deserve to exist.

    I successfully hid my sexuality for a long time, until I tried to meet a guy on a gay dating website called Manjam. As we exchanged messages, he asked me about my sexual position preferences. I did not know, I told him truthfully—I hadn’t had enough sexual experiences with men to really know what I liked. He asked me for nudes, which I took from the neck down. I did not bother to ask him for a photo in return, but we agreed to meet at his place in Enugu; there was no way he could come to the student lodge, a compound with seven rooms. Imagine the headline: student pastor caught having sex with another man.

    I took a cab to his place from the bus station in Enugu. He was waiting for me on the curb. He was not tall, but very muscular, which excited me. This was all so new, and I couldn’t believe my luck: a hot man desired me. I found myself thinking ahead—that I might have a steady partner to visit regularly in Enugu.

    He lived in a kind of slum with clustered houses, but he seemed warm and enthusiastic as we hit on each other walking to his apartment. When I finally got inside, he slammed the door shut. That was when three other guys jumped out of his closet. They demanded my wallet and my phone, which I handed over, fearing for my life. A few of them went to an ATM to withdraw money from my account, while one held me hostage. He beat me with a belt until he got the call that they’d withdrawn money from my account.

    He asked me, “Why do you sleep with men when there are so many women?” I began to answer, to explain, only to be met with a punch. I lay with my face down as he continued to flog me with his belt. I tried to be strong at the beginning, but the belt started to cut through my skin, and I began sobbing. He would raise his belt and shout, “Keep quiet, you faggot!” as he continued to lash his belt against my back. I could not bear it, and I pleaded for him to stop, fearing that he would kill me. He shushed me, but I couldn’t bear the pain any longer. The last time his belt left my back, I took the liberty and turned with my stomach facing up. “Please, please,” I begged him. When the others returned with my card, they stripped me naked, threw my wallet and phone at me, and ordered me to run out and not look back.

    I begged for my clothes, but all they gave me was my shorts. Outside, I had to ask strangers for money to return to school, all to no avail. I called my mother and lied to her, saying that I had been mugged. In Nigeria, people sell phone lines on the streets at umbrella-covered vendor stands. I made my way to one, where my mother sent me a phone card to sell, to pay for my transport back to school that evening.

    I later learned that I had been what is called “kitoed,” a scam common within the gay community in Nigeria.

    I later learned that I had been what is called “kitoed,” a scam common within the gay community in Nigeria. People log in to gay dating apps and pretend to be gay only to connect with people and ambush them. I found it nearly impossible to return to class after this. I spent three days in my room, trying to nurse my wounds and prevent my lodge mates from noticing my injuries. That would only lead to questions if my classmates and college knew I tried to meet a guy and had been beaten. They would only cheer on my attackers. I couldn’t afford to lose the close connections I had with the boys in my class and compound. If I wanted to act on my desires, I’d have to be even more discreet.

    I decided to look for someone to have sex with far away from my school in Enugu. There was a new social media app called 2Go that had chat groups for men. It was there that I met a DL (down-low) guy who lived in Anambra State, not too far from me—but just far enough to be neutral ground where I could feel safer to explore without being found out. Plus, he was older, in his fifties—I had always liked older people, probably from spending so much time with my aunts. He was brief with every sentence, which made me worried he was just another person looking to blackmail me.

    I tried to get him to reveal himself—what sort of sexual positions did he prefer, for example? He would laugh it off and told me I would find out if we met. Perhaps this should have been a red flag, but laughing off my questions only made him more intriguing. We exchanged information, and eventually he invited me to Anambra. I prepared a bag and headed there for a weekend journey. I was of course naïve to make this journey, but the man sounded mature and obscure—and discreet.

    After a short drive from Agbani in Enugu State, where my college is located, to Onitsha, a popular town in Anambra, a neighboring state to Enugu, I met him in Onitsha market, a popular open-air market filled with women who sold goods and food in the shade. I was happy to meet him in a public place after my last encounter. He called me before I could find him, and he asked what I was wearing.

    “A navy-blue shirt,” I said, “and a face cap.” Soon, he drove closer to me in a dark car and rolled down the passenger-side window.

    “Come in,” he said.

    When I got inside, he immediately apologized for making me wait. “I just wanted to play it safe—wow,” he said. “You’re young.”

    I laughed. “The feeling is mutual. You look like my father.” We both laughed, and I felt a weight lift. He was very inquisitive, asking about my family, and my friends in college, if they knew I liked men. If I was open about my sexuality.

    “Actually,” I said, “I was a pastor for the last few years.” Finally, he asked, “So, how long have you been doing this?”

    I thought about how honest to be. But he hadn’t given me a reason to lie.

    “Frankly, I’m new to this. I have tried to meet people before, but they blackmailed me.” I turned to him. “What about you?” He did not respond, just kept on smiling and rolling his tongue as if to say something, but he did not say anything further. The path to his house was all rural farmlands, a beautiful sight covered in red sand. We got to the gate of his building, a gigantic structure with a crucifix at the top. Inside, there was a giant bell in the middle of the compound, and just beyond that he parked his car under a tree.

    “You are my fellow priest friend, younger brother,” he said, turning to me. “I told my colleagues that my friend from the seminary is going to school and that he asked me to give him some money.”

    “You’re a reverend father?” I asked. He did not answer my question, but he didn’t need to.

    He only asked me if I understood, but he never asked if I was comfortable, or explained to me before I packed my bag in Agbani what I was going into, and now he did not care if I was uneasy with the plan. I guessed this wasn’t his first time doing this. He walked out of the car, expecting me to follow him, but I found myself paralyzed in the passenger seat, watching him greet people on the lawn who had arrived for prayer. Suddenly, I did not want to continue this exploration. I thought about leaving when someone approached the car and asked if they could carry my luggage inside. I clung to my bag.

    “Are you okay?” she asked.

    “Leave my bag alone, I am fine,” I replied, not smiling. “Hey!” she yelled over to the man. “Is this your priest friend?” “Yes,” he yelled back. I was still uneasy, but I followed them back toward the vestry, a small house at the side of the church. His apartment was on the top floor, and he guided me inside.

    “Please be comfortable,” he insisted kindly. “And do not leave the room for any reason. I am joining the other priests for evening prayers.” He smiled and left.

    I had heard stories of people in the eastern part of Nigeria using gay men for sacrificial rituals, to make blood money, as they call it. At the same time, I had to remind myself: He is a priest. I am in a church. I am safe.

    Opening up would be a reminder that I don’t fit in on the path I was expected to follow. And the pain of living this lie and the resistance I was facing from being honest caused me suffering.[/pullquotet]

    While he was away, my food was brought in, and I had dinner while sitting down on his bed. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I didn’t want to have sex with a priest, and I hoped he would understand that. Though I had become a priest to hide my sexuality—and had indeed had sex with men as a priest myself—I could think of no greater sin than having sex with another priest.

    I heard the doorknob turn and the hair stood up on my hands.

    He smiled as he entered. “Would you like a drink?”

    “No,” I said.

    He poured himself a drink and sat down.

    “I know you are afraid; I am sorry I did not tell you I’m a priest.”

    “That’s a lot of information not to tell me, don’t you think?”

    “I’m often afraid,” he said, “of being caught. Being attacked. Surely you can understand? If you’re not comfortable, we don’t have to do anything. I’m okay with that.”

    “Yes,” I said. “I don’t want to sleep with a priest, I can sleep on the floor.”

    He refused to let me sleep on the floor. I agreed to sleep on the bed, but only if he promised not to try to touch me. That night, he crawled on top of me. I balled my fist tightly, tensed my body. He could tell I was awake, that I was refusing, and still he begged.

    “I haven’t done this in a while,” he said. “I would be glad if you’d agree to play with me. I will give you more than the cost of your transportation when you leave tomorrow.”

    I continued shaking my head. “No, no, no!” But he persisted. We cussed and fussed around the bed until the late hours of the evening before he finally gave up and went to sleep. He had an early morning mass to deliver, after all.

    The sun could not rise fast enough, and I was already awake when it peeked over the horizon and found that the priest had already left.

    My views about sex have become more liberal since that evening, but back then, I felt the rules and regulations of the church weighing heavily upon me. A priest was meant to be a standard of uprightness and goodness. Seeing a priest act this way shattered me. But he was also a person with wants and desires, just like me.

    I got up to shower and pack my bag. But I would need to go find him in the church—I couldn’t get home without the money he promised for my transportation. When I walked inside, mass had started, and he was standing at the altar with another minister, giving out communion.

    I sat at the back of the church, wondering if this moment would feel different if we had had sex.

    A church member approached me with an envelope—inside was the money for my return trip. We did not exchange parting words, and I never saw him again. But I thought of him often in the days and years to come. I returned to my college in Enugu State with a new perspective on religion and its suppression. Here was this fifty-year-old man living in the shadows, hiding who he was. Using his priest status to mingle and guide younger men, hiding his sexuality behind a cloak of religion. Did I want that for myself, decades from now? Worse yet, what if I had not been so lucky?

    I found myself ready for a new form of freedom. Still, I was struggling to be somebody I wasn’t—I wanted to be upright and righteous, yet popular and accepted, also with a desire to be free of the burden I carried, which is living in fear of rejection, afraid to come out, and the potential backlash from my family. Opening up would be a reminder that I don’t fit in on the path I was expected to follow. And the pain of living this lie and the resistance I was facing from being honest caused me suffering.

    Shortly after this, I heard that my grandmother, Mrs. Alice, was very ill, and she had been brought to my mum’s place to live out her final days, so I returned to Warri to see her and my family. My grandmother was living in the compound given to my mother as part of my grandfather’s inheritance after he passed away. The building was a big compound that housed multiple rooms and had three storefronts attached. Separate from the main building and attached to the stores was a boys’ quarter. My grandmother was in one of the small rooms at the quarters, where she had been moved to for her final days.

    My mother was sitting with Mrs. Alice on the bed when I entered. When she left for the kitchen, I looked at Mrs. Alice, who had grown so frail it seemed death was near. It dawned on me that I didn’t want her to die not knowing who I was.

    I took her hand. “Grandmother,” I began, my voice a bit shaky. The room was empty and silent but for our shared breathing. “I need you to know before you go that I am gay.”

    She turned and hugged me. “I love you, my grandson,” she said. It was simple, but it was all I needed to hear. I felt a lightness.

    After coming out to my grandmother in Warri and returning to my college in Enugu, I knew I had to leave Enugu State—my experiences there had made me grow to despise it. I needed to be somewhere safer, and Warri was not an option; my dad had blamed my mum when they learned of my indiscretion at school, and my mum had begun to second-guess her undying support for me. I had to find people like me, a community where I could openly be myself.

    Telling my grandmother was not the same as being open to the community in Warri. The only gay friends I had at this time were folks I’d met in Facebook groups, who all lived in large cities. In Nigeria, the only place gay people could live openly in relative safety was in bigger cities like Lagos or Abuja, which meant after I graduated, I was left with two options: to move to Abuja or Lagos City. I had taken to message boards online and began chatting with folks in Abuja—I was told there were safe houses there for gay people who had left their families. Some of the people in these groups were even ex-priests, too.


    Asylum: A Memoir & Manifesto

    From Asylum A Memoir & Manifesto by Edafe Okporo. Copyright © 2022 by Edafe Okporo. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

    Edafe Okporo
    Edafe Okporo
    Edafe Okporo was born in Warri, Nigeria. He migrated to the United States in 2016 as an asylum seeker and is now a refugee of the United States. Edafe is a global gay rights activist, the founder of Refuge America Inc, and one of the country’s most visible voices on the issue of displacement, leading an organization with a vision to “strengthen as a place of welcome for LGBTQ displaced people.” A graduate of Enugu State University and the school of Business at NYU, he currently lives in New York City. Edafe is among the inaugural winners of the David Prize, which honors individuals with bold visions for creating a better and brighter New York City. He is also a Logo 30 Honoree.

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