'Sex Education's' Eric Effiong is inspiration to Nigeria's gays, says activist
In season 3 of the popular Netflix series Sex Education, the character named Eric Effiong goes to Nigeria. It is a risky trip.
Eric is a gay teenager in this series about a high school in the United Kingdom where sex is very much on everyone's mind.
Eric is out and proud. His parents know he is gay and have come to accept his sexuality.
But a trip to Nigeria for a family wedding makes his mom nervous — and for a good reason. The country's legal code criminalizes sex between men and sex between women. In the north of the country where sharia law holds, penalties can include public flogging or stoning to death (although that penalty has not been used). In addition, members of the LGBTQ community have been beaten up in public.
Did the show offer a realistic depiction of its gay-in-Nigeria storyline? We asked Bisi Alimi, an actor who came out on a national TV talk show in Nigeria in the early 2000s and says he had to leave the country as a result. He's the founder of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which advocates for the rights of LGBTQ people in Nigeria. Now 46, Alimi lives in London with his husband of 5 years and has just started an executive coaching business.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Warning: SPOILERS ABOUND for season 3 of Sex Education.
Eric and his mom go to Lagos, Nigeria for a family wedding. Dad stays home. What do you have to say about Eric's relationship with his mom and her concerns about the trip to Nigeria?
I think that scenario of the mother who is accepting of her child and understanding the homophobia in Nigeria, the expectation of homophobia, is very, very accurate.
That's why Eric's mom tells him to tone down his flashy outfits and eschew his eye makeup after they arrive in Lagos.
She is afraid that this loving son who is gay is going to a country that is homophobic. It is the experience of every mother in Nigeria who has a queer child, the fear that something will happen to them even if you don't know what it will be.
Is it dangerous to be openly gay in Nigeria?
The fact is that there are queer people in Nigeria, and they go about their lives and do whatever they want to do. The men have their nails painted and wear their hair in the way they want to, the women wear trousers and look boyish and all of those things.
But there is a danger to that. There are people who want to push back.
There have been many instances where, based on presentation, mostly feminine guys and masculine women have been harassed and beaten on the street.
On the TV show, Eric goes to the wedding, then sneaks away with a Nigerian photographer he meets who is gay. They share a cab. The cab driver seems hostile toward Eric but doesn't really say or do anything.
I am worried that this scene with the driver didn't really highlight the reality. I am not saying Nigerians are barbaric, but the chances of the driver just looking and getting on with life is very slim. A typical Nigerian driver will have something to say, good or bad, will possibly preach at them, express his opinion why being gay is bad and God is against it — or express some form of support. A real Nigerian will not be indifferent.
What did you think of the rest of the scenario in the show's Nigeria episode — Eric's new gay friend takes him to an underground LGBTQ party.
The problem [with the storyline] was when he disappeared with that other boy, the photographer. This was a big opportunity to show how sometimes it will be very, very dangerous to be a gay man in Lagos. So I want to explain to you — a lot of gay men in Nigeria get caught up in a scam. You're attracted to somebody you meet online, you arrange to meet up with them — and there's a setup: a beating, your phone and money are collected from you and sometimes these men get raped by the men who set them up.
When that photographer asked Eric to come to a party with him, even I was scared. Oh, my God, he's going to blackmail Eric and beat him up. I was shaking, my husband was shaking. And then it didn't happen.
I want to make sure I understand — you're saying that some of these perpetrators are from the gay community?
This issue is very complicated, but to just answer the question, most of the perpetrators are either openly gay men or closeted gay men — and there is also involvement of homophobic straight people.
Do you think the show should have had that kind of setup as part of the storyline?
It could have been an opportunity to tell the world how dangerous it could be to just meet somebody, like at a party — that thing you can do in America and in Europe that you would not have to even think about. Anyone in Nigeria can fall prey to this.
Was it realistic to have an underground LGBTQ party?
That happens a lot in the Nigerian LGBTQ community. You have to be in the know to know that such parties are happening. It is very private.
Eric ends up staying at the photographer's house for the night. When he comes back, his mom seems a little annoyed but nothing more.
The family would have alerted the police because they know what could have happened.
But his mother doesn't do that.
That for me didn't speak into the narrative of the mother who is scared for her son in a country that is extremely homophobic.
Would the family really call the police and say "My openly gay son is missing?"
No, his sexuality would not be mentioned.
Would the police be helpful?
Nigerian police will tell you to go home and wait, your child will come back.
What do you think of the character of Eric?
To see this very bright, inspiring character who is queer and who is Black and who is also a second generation immigrant is something you don't really see on British TV. And that for me is a massive plus for Sex Education. A lot of young gay men in Nigeria see themselves in Eric. He is such a loved character — considering that he's not even Nigerian. [The family of actor Ncuti Gatwa immigrated to Scotland from Rwanda when he was a small child.]
Eric is a representation of what is possible. And a realization of what is possible if you pack your bag and leave Nigeria and live in New York or London. You can live that life and you can live it well. You can live it like Eric: flamboyant, fabulous and assertive.
And his father accepting him after he came out — that for me is also very, very powerful because some Nigerian fathers will never do that.
How is your relationship with your father?
My relationship with my father is like the American saying: "Don't ask, don't tell."
What do you think of Eric's relationship with fellow student Adam, who used to bully him but then comes to fall in love with him?
There's an idea in Britain that if you're white and gay, you're more likely to be in tune with your sexuality than if you're Black and gay.
Sex Education turns that on its head. The person struggling with his sexuality is the white character, and the person who is accepting of his sexuality and supported by his family is the Black character.
At the end of season 3, Eric and Adam split up.
I think they will get back together. I want them to get back together.
Do you think things will change for the LGBTQ community in Nigeria?
I am a prisoner of hope, and I believe that anything and everything is possible. The generation of Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook are taking their messages online, demanding respect, acceptance and equal treatment as Nigerians and as humans, and that is having a massive impact on the way Nigerians see the LGBTQ community. But there's still a long way to go.
Since you are a public figure who identifies as gay, are you afraid to go home?
No, Marc, because I'm rich and famous. Seriously, it's true. When I get to Nigeria, people see me and ask to take pictures with me, and they will post on social media. But I remember the times that I was poor and I was beaten and humiliated. Now that I have fame and I have money, people want to associate themselves with that.
When you are rich you cross the line where people can't ridicule you because everybody wants to be like you. Nigerians are very forgiving of the rich. But if you're poor and gay you are committing the two greatest sins in Nigeria, and you'll be punished for it.
You'll be beaten up. You will not get a job. You will suffer for daring to be poor and daring to be gay.
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