Since Nigeria passed a law criminalising homosexuality in January, Gordon Austin has faced attacks, abuse, arrests and extortion in the south-western city of Ibadan. And the legislation has had an even more insidious effect on the 25-year-old. He is HIV-positive: getting health care has become harder. “I am not safe going to public health centres because of who I am,” he says. “I would never tell them I am a gay man—they would deny me treatment.” To get life-preserving antiretroviral drugs, he has to lie about his sexuality. “I have to pretend I am heterosexual because of the stigma,” he explains. “I have to live a fake life, a life that is not mine, just to get the health care I need.”
Practising homosexuality was already a criminal offence before the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was passed this year. But the new law casts its net more widely. It bans marriage and displays of affection between people of the same sex. It outlaws anyone who belongs to a gay club or helps gay organisations. And a clause in the bill can be used against those who provide health services to gays. Browbeaten by foreign aid donors, the government promised that gays with HIV would not be denied access to health care. Yet doctors are afraid of the consequences if they provide it, citing the law as a reason not to help.
Gay Nigerians say they are routinely turned away from hospitals. Many more are afraid to seek medical help in the first place. Local advocacy organisations such as the Initiative for Equal Rights have stopped issuing referrals to public-health institutions, lest people are “outed” by unsympathetic medics.
This may make it harder to contain HIV/AIDS. Nigeria has the world’s second-largest number of people with HIV. In 2010 it was estimated that 4% of the general population were afflicted; among gay men the figure was 17%.
While the public system fails to treat gays, some donor-funded clinics are working overtime. Population Council, a clean and well-equipped centre tucked discreetly away in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, takes referrals from across the country and has treated 3,000 people in the past year. It runs a second operation in the north.
Only a handful of such organisations exist, overburdened by the new law. In rural regions, where foreign aid is scarce, campaigners complain that they themselves have to pay to refer locals to faraway clinics. “Most people who are affected are young and cannot tell their family,” says Michael, a human-rights advocate in the south-eastern state of Enugu, where no gay-friendly care is available. “They cannot look after themselves, and there are no clinics. What we do now is take care of each other.”