The Religious Underbelly to Conversion Therapy In Nigeria
In June, Tobi returned to his family home as schools across Nigeria closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. A few weeks later, Tobi, whose name has been changed to protect his safety, was outed to his family after his social media accounts were sent to his older brother by schoolmates.
A few weeks after he returned home, Tobi’s brother called him to the family sitting room and asked if he was gay. ‘‘My parents were there and my mother was already teary,” Tobi said. “It was a very tense discussion, but then it ended and I somehow thought that was the worst of it.’’
A few days after he was outed, Tobi was called to the sitting room again; this time a man dressed in all white was present. Tobi would later learn that the man was a Christ Natural True Missionary, also known as CNTM, and a religious leader in a sect called the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star. (The sect differs from mainstream Christianity in that it maintains that its founder and leader, Olumba Olumba Obu, is the holy spirit and god of all creation.)
What ensued afterwards was religiously-oriented conversion therapy. Tobi’s experience is not an isolated one: Many queer people in Nigeria who are outed to their parents are subject to homophobic violence as well as varying forms of conversion therapy from religious institutions who believe their queerness is caused by demonic possession. While different denominations have their own versions of conversion therapy with varying degrees of violence in Nigeria, VICE World News spoke with individuals personally impacted by the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star and other abusive sects known as “white garment” churches. (When contacted by VICE World News, representatives of these religious groups in Nigeria declined to comment.)
‘‘They were slapping me and calling it prayer.”
For Tobi, his first interaction with the sect was standard. ‘‘The prayers started on normal stuff,” Tobi said. “Good grades, warding off evil eyes, and then landed on the spirit of perversion and lust and homosexuality. It was mad uncomfortable.’’ The following week, Tobi was forced by his parents to go to a service at the Bethel, or physical worship location of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, wearing a white garment. Towards the end of the service, Tobi was called to the front of the altar, where he was surrounded by the Bethel’s elders and deacons as they prayed over him.
‘‘They were slapping me and calling it prayer. They were going around me in a circle, singing and jumping and hitting me. Then they asked for a broom which they used to hit me for a long ass time. By the time we were done, my body felt sore,” Tobi said. “Then, my mom refused to let me go home. Apparently, the [religious leader] had said I should stay there for two weeks. I didn’t have a choice, my family drove off.’’
During that time he said, he was deprived of both food and water, and was often placed in the middle of prayer circles where he was hit as a way to, he said, “beat out the homosexuality.” By the end of the two weeks, Tobi had learned that the only way to leave was to make the sect feel as if they had won.
“I wanted to go home, I was tired, smelling, in pain and hungry and thin and I looked very ill. So I pretended to go with it as my days there came to an end, I gave testimony on how I was cured and my mom and elder brother took me home,” he said. Tobi left his family’s house a few weeks later and hasn’t returned since.
In Nigeria, religious organizations in Nigeria have culturally and historically helped reinforce homophobia. For many queer people, their first encounter with homophobia happens in religious spaces and involves religious people.
‘‘One of the biggest supporters of the enactment of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2014 was the Christian Association of Nigeria,’’ Yomi Aka, the executive director of the International Centre for Advocacy on Rights to Health, a sexual minorities advocacy organization in Nigeria, told VICE World News. Same-sex relations are still banned in Nigeria under the 2013 Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, and while the law doesn’t explicitly criminalize homosexuality itself, and criminalizes intercourse between two people of the same gender, the LGBTQ community in Nigeria is frequently subject to abuse. In 2019, almost 50 men in Nigeria were put on trial for the crime of public displays of affection with same-sex partners.
Conversion therapy is one facet of that mistreatment. ‘‘The belief by these religious heads is that the spirit of homosexuality is a demon and the only way to get rid of such demon is via exorcism,” said Aka. “This has been the practice for Churches and mosques who indulge in the practice of conversion therapy.”
Some experts also believe that popular culture and cinema could also be to blame for these abuses. “Religious beliefs and the representation of queer people by Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, has ensured the popularity of conversion therapy,” Reverend Jide Macaulay, a queer Nigerian theologian and founder of House of Rainbow, an organization working to create religious safe spaces for LGBTQ people, told VICE World News. “Sadly, the rhetoric of religious leaders echoed the abuses which include physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation and gender identity.”
“The anti-gay laws in Nigeria serve to promote violence against the gay community.”
The Initiative for Equal Rights, a non-governmental organization in Nigeria that advocates for the equal rights of marginalized people, does research into harmful conversion therapy practices to understand its reach, effects, and perpetrators. “Personally from conversations I have had with community members, I believe religious conversion therapy happens a lot especially as Nigerians are highly religious and would rather believe their child is possessed than accept that their child is a homosexual,” Timnepre Cole, a paralegal for the organization, told VICE World News. The Initiative also found that in 2019, only 30 per cent of Nigerians said they would accept a gay family member, and a recent study by OutRight Action International recently found that almost 50% of respondents to their survey said they experienced conversion therapy in Nigeria.
‘‘The anti-gay laws in Nigeria serve to promote violence against the gay community and even enables religious communities to hold anti-gay sentiment with archaic views of human sexuality,’’ said Macaulay. ‘‘These beliefs are injurious to the wellbeing and mental health of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender person in Nigeria.’’
Beyond Tobi, other LGBTQ people in Nigeria have stories about religious conversion therapy as well. Christabel, who has omitted her last name to protect her safety, was forced into conversion therapy by members of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star. In 2017, she said, a neighbour told her mother to come to the church to deal with her financial problems. ‘‘They told us to wear all white, cover our hair and we were made to drop our shoes outside,’’ added Christabel.
During her first service at the Brotherhood of Cross and Star, she said, someone came up to Christabel and told her that she was possessed. ‘‘They said the woman was a ‘Spirited,’ basically [someone] who was gifted and could see visions,” she said. The woman told her that a spirit was following her, and “pushing her into sin.” Then, “the woman said it was pushing me into lesbianism.”
“I would bend over in pain in between sessions and beg the lesbianism to go because this was hell.”
Christabel was nonplussed. “The revelation would have been a bit more awe-inspiring,” she said, “if I didn’t think my neighbour had been gossiping about me to them.’’ Christabel was then forced to stay in the Bethel that night and was showered with water squeezed from fruit. She was told it was supposed to be cleansing, but instead, it was incredibly itchy and uncomfortable. Then, she was hit. “I was tired of people putting hands on my head all day and splashing me with water and hitting me in front of the altar. At a point, I would bend over in pain in between sessions and beg the lesbianism to go because this was hell,” she said.
Linda, a masc-presenting queer Nigerian woman currently working in tech, experienced similar conversion therapies when she was younger. ‘‘This started when I was in my final year, I was about twenty at the time,’’ Linda, whose name has been changed to protect her safety, told VICE World News. ‘‘My parents started asking me questions about how I was dressing because I was a tomboy. They tried making me wear dresses and skirts and makeup, but I hated it all so much.”
Then, Linda said that one day her mother took her to what her family called “a woman of god”—a woman who ran a small and independent church and claimed to receive visions from God—who told them that Linda was possessed with the “spirit of a man.” Over the next few months, the woman became a regular visitor and life got increasingly harder for Linda.
‘‘I was only allowed to wear dresses and skirts because trousers were [apparently] demonic when worn by a woman. I was forced to wear high heels when going to church or social occasions,” Linda said. “We went to prayers at the woman’s church almost every night and on Fridays, I was forced to do a night vigil. I wanted to die.’’ One day, the “woman of God” told Linda’s parents that Linda would never get married because the spirit possessing her was making her appear as a man to prospective suitors. Thus, she said, the spirit needed to be exorcised.
“So she came to our house and we all stayed in the yard and prayed till the early hours of the morning,” Linda said. “During the prayers, she asked two of her pastors to hold me up and she opened my legs and was pouring oil into my vagina and hitting it while asking the spirit to come out so I can be a woman again.”
Linda said she tried to make them stop. “It was so uncomfortable and intrusive, and she took it as a sign that her prayers were doing something,” she said.
Other queer Nigerians that have experienced similar programs to Tobi, Christabel, and Linda say that the religiously-oriented conversion therapy takes varying forms and often includes starving, flogging, and forcible outing. ‘‘Gay conversion therapy in Nigeria takes very different forms especially for those who are religious,” said Harry Itie, a Nigerian activist and journalist. “It ranges from regular prayers and fasting to week-long deliverance prayers or long weeks in prayer houses, living in the worst of conditions while being whipped and starved.”
It is impossible for queer people to seek justice from governmental institutions.
Activists fear that because these incidents are widespread, and occur within different religious sects throughout Nigeria, accountability is near impossible. Many that VICE World News spoke to also expressed that due to existing homophobic legislation in Nigeria like the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, it is impossible for queer people to seek justice from governmental institutions. ‘‘There is no record of any religious leader held accountable for harmful practices such as conversion therapy,’’ said Macaulay. Additionally, Macaulay added, it’s difficult to hold leaders accountable when so many of these incidents are initiated by family members. As a result, survivors are forced to leave home and their families in order to protect themselves.
A few months after Linda was assaulted at the women’s church, Linda left home and moved to a different city. It has been five years since the incident, and she has returned home only twice. “Frankly,” she said, “that was two times too many.”