A moving but incomplete memoir by a gay-rights activist who fled Nigeria to seek a freer life in the US
Even as a young Nigerian boy, Edafe Okporo knew he was different. He loved to accompany his mother to the market clinging to the hems of her skirt. He knew this sort of behavior made him a target. Okporo admits, “This was just one of the many times I found myself stuck in the parade of masculinity and intimidation that was so common for Warri boys, but that I could not bring myself to be a part of.” Later on, his peers mocked him for the unisex bag he carried to school. They beat him senseless for his effeminate ways.
Somehow all this tyranny didn’t destroy his spirit. He loved his childhood friend Gloria who walked to school with him, and he cherished his family despite his father and elder brother’s disdain. He joined the debate team at school, and enjoyed participating in conversations about the history of Nigeria, but concedes “I wasn’t a true Warri boy….In Nigeria, gender stereotypes and roles were strongly adhered to-a boy who was too close to girls in the classroom and spend a lot of time with his mother was an atypical picture of masculinity.”
His mother encouraged him to study, perhaps sensing this might provide a pathway for him. The reader senses Edafe Okporo is a sweet and forgiving man still somewhat confused by his own inclinations: “I did not know what it meant to be gay. I would not understand this part of myself for years to come.”
One suspects Okporo is a traditionalist of sorts, whose sexual leanings threw him off-course. He has remained a very
religious man throughout his arduous journey escaping Nigeria and running for his life and subsequent freedom which he chronicles in his thought-provoking book, “Asylum: A Memoir & Manifesto.” We believe that if Okporo had found a way to remain in Nigeria, hidden between the cracks, he would have chosen to do so. But as fellow Nigerian gay writer Romeo Oriogun has made clear in his bitter poetry and angry prose, there simply is no place to hide there. Oriugun also struggled with his homosexual yearnings, and his voice is filled with melancholy reckonings about what it feels like to live in a country that has no place for you. You are forever hunted and hurt.
But while Oriogun permits himself to express anger and rage, Okporo is more reticent and seems to address his exciting story of escape and renewal to a predominantly heterosexual audience. He understands that his home country has hopelessly woven hatred of homosexuality into its social fabric. Heterosexuality is a non-negotiable phenomenon, and the country condemns it harshly. He speaks of the 2014 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in Nigeria which punishes, with a 14-year jail sentence, anyone who displays homosexual affection on the street, or in a private gathering.
When he entered his teens, Okporo began having his first sexual encounters. He tried to cover this up by becoming a minister at the church, hoping that God would relieve him of the evil spirits overtaking him. He later moved to Ajuba where he found his first gay community and recalls, “I felt seen: I felt welcomed. Perhaps for the first time in my life.”
But he never devotes any of the book’s pages to the nature of these relationships. How many lovers did he have? How long did they last? Was Okporo in love with any of them? Did anyone ever break his heart? How did the sexual experiences make him feel? We sense Okporo has trouble wading into such intimate waters, and still carries the shame with which his society has anointed him.
Okporo decides to pursue a degree in food science, and while doing so, he finds work at Family Health International, working on with AIDS services. His friends were disappearing. Gays were more terrified than ever. He tried to counsel them to wear condoms, and if they contracted HIV/AIDS, to take the medicine doctors gave them. The social activist he would eventually become began here, and he would have probably remained doing this work, had he not heard voices each night outside his window threatening to kill him. He fled to New York and the U.S. placed him in a detention center to await a hearing for asylum, a week before Donald Trump took the Presidency.
Okporo stumbles at times when he tries to explain gay identity; staying wedded to cold academic discourse and leaving out his internal stress. He writes, cautiously: “Queer identity is different from other persecuted identities; it often alienates individual from their immediate family, which is not usually true of people who belong to persecuted religious or political groups. This can make it difficult for queer asylum seekers to talk to anyone about their sexuality.”
In the detention center, he makes a close friend named Victor but never tells him about his gayness. He works in the kitchen to avoid confrontations, and is nervous about what will happen to him. He knows the United States only began accepting gay asylum seekers since 1990. He thinks about his mom who has no idea yet he has fled. Finally, after five months, the country grants him asylum, but leaves him to his wits about how to survive without money or a job. He begs at local churches for food, and uses the Internet in the public library to find a job.
The job he gets would become pivotal for him. It was at a homeless shelter in Harlem that paid little, but involved fundraising, case management, and running the shelter. His enthusiasm and hard work gained him notice and his career skyrocketed. He is now a global gay rights activist, and works as the Mobilization Director at Talent Beyond Boundaries, which is an organization that aims to find places for refugees in our global workforce. In 2020, he won the David Prize, which honors individuals who possess “bold visions for creating a better and brighter New York City,” a designation that came with a substantial grant allowing him to continue his work on a larger scale.
His personal life was about to change. He met and fell in love with an Italian-American man from Long Island. Their relationship seemed blessed from the get-go, despite the different upbringings they had. He began to attempt to reckon with the demons of his past by seeing a therapist, and attending a Unitarian church on the upper West Side. But Okporo never delves into his therapeutic sessions or the mind-bending adjustments he must continue to make to remain part of a church that rejects his world. We yearn to know more about his more thinking process on such matters, but it is clear he is not ready to share this with us. Instead, we hear about his his experiences with Nick snowboarding, swimming, and learning to drive a car as they make plans to get married.
Edafe Okporo’s story is both wonderful and yet still tragic. He is a man who had traveled to safety and accomplished great things for himself and others like him. But something essential is missing from his otherwise stirring narrative. Oriogun writes in “Elegy for a Burnt Body,” which appears in his collection of searing poems, “Sacrament of Bodies (2020,)” about the anguish and lovelessness that enshrouds so many gay lives; as well as the extreme vulnerability and sadness. Oriogun penned these unforgettable lines: “I remember the night you licked the salt in my palm and said do not be afraid to live in your skin.”
His poetic utterings seem to be speaking directly to a man like Edafe Okporo, who still grapples with his place in the world, and devotes too much of his energy trying to please his predominantly heterosexual audience. One hopes that the next part of Okporo’s journey somehow allows him the grace to find sanctuary and genuine solace in his identity as an openly gay man. For only then will we believe he has truly come full circle.
(Simon and Schuster, June 7, 2022)