Inside Nigeria's secret gay club
- 2 January 2013
- From the section Africa
About 50 people, mostly men, crowd around the front porch of a social club in Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos, cheering on a shy-looking young man, who proceeds to sing a ballad.
Backstage, another man puts on his wig and takes a quick glance at his pocket mirror, before adjusting his tight-fitting red dress.
Five other men also dressed in drag outfits appear, checking on each other's make-up as they wait for their turn to perform for the crowd.
"A friend invited me here a few months ago," one chatty spectator says excitedly. "I love this place because it makes me feel at home".
This gathering of members of the gay and lesbian community in Lagos is held regularly, albeit discreetly, but it could soon be illegal.
The vast majority of gay Nigerians may not be interested in this kind of event but they still have to hide their sexuality in this conservative society.
Whilst already illegal, homosexuality is widely frowned upon across Nigeria and has been the subject of several bills in the National Assembly.
The Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill specifically outlaws same-sex unions.
It also bans gatherings of homosexuals or any other support for gay clubs, organisations, unions or amorous expressions, whether in secret or in public.
The bill has been passed by Nigeria's Senate - the highest chamber - and is now being reviewed by the lower chamber, the House of Representatives.
If approved, it will be sent to the president to sign it into law, after which same-sex couples could face up to 14 years in prison.
But Nigerian homosexuals complain that the stigma they face is already enough punishment for their way of life.
Kunle (not his real name), a gay man living in Lagos, is outraged by the proposed law: "How does a government think that sending someone to prison would change his or her sexual orientation?
"How logical is that?"
One of Nigeria's few openly gay human rights activists, Rashidi Williams, notes that the bill seeks to ban something which is already illegal and which no-one is publicly advocating.
"All we are asking for is to repeal the repressive laws in this country," he says.
The bill has been condemned abroad - most recently by Australian lawmakers - making its proponents see this piece of legislation as a way of protecting Nigerian society from foreign influences.
"Ours is to weigh the aggregate of opinion - what the majority of Nigerians want," says Abike Dabiri, a member of the House of Representatives.
"If majority of Nigerians want same-sex marriage, then why not?"
She adds: "You have a right to your sexual preference but by trying to turn it into marriage do you realise you could be infringing on the human rights of the other person who finds it repulsive?"
This view is echoed on the streets of this country, where religious influences, particularly from Christianity and Islam, are heavy.
"How do you even become gay, not to mention wanting to get married to another man?" asks Okechukwu Ikenna, a 33-year-old software engineer, visibly irritated by the topic.
Friends and family members of gay people could get implicated if they do not report cases of same-sex unions because they could be seen as being in support of them.
Critics of the bill also worry that health workers who provide HIV counselling and treatment to homosexuals could be committing an offence as well.
However, some of these doctors say they hardly ever know the sexual orientation of those they attend to because it is not a requirement for treatment and counselling, and even if the patients were to reveal that they were homosexuals, it would not affect the quality of healthcare offered.
Some lawmakers have condemned violence against homosexuals but this has done little to prevent the growing anxiety among those the bill would target as its likely adoption, in whatever form, approaches.
Mr Williams says some gay Nigerians may seek asylum in countries where homosexual people are accepted, while others will have to go underground.
At the gay club, despite the jovial atmosphere, there is heightened caution, and no-one is allowed to take any photos.
The thought of being identified as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in a country where the public still turns to mob justice haunts some here.
And that is a huge concern for Richard (not his real name): "If you don't become discreet and try to hide yourself, even the man on the street will want to also act on the bill because it has been passed.
"If you're walking on the street and he stones you, he knows the law would stand for him because the law is against you."