My name is Dennis Akpona, and this is my story.
I was born in Benin City in the south of Nigeria and was part of a very religious family. I went to university in Lagos and lived with my uncle there until I was outed by one of my friends who was arrested and coerced into naming other gay people. My uncle called my family back home, and one of my brothers said that, if I was gay, he would be the one to kill me.
I moved and kept my address a secret. But because I worked for an HIV prevention program, I became a target of anti-gay violence. I went one day to meet a friend at a bus stop and three men there beat me up and dragged me to the police station, where I was arrested and then tortured with my hands cuffed behind my back. They wanted me to confess I was gay and give them the names of people I knew were gay. I told them I would not reveal the identities of my clients.
I spent four terrifying days in jail, where I was also assaulted by other prisoners.
After that I fled to the northern part of the country, but after I received a threatening phone call from a member of the Sharia commission, I returned to Lagos. I was not safe in any part of the country. I got a call from the sharia commission who threatened to kill me if I don’t leave their region. One of the issues that the Muslims and the Christians agree on in my country is homosexuality; they both have strict laws against us as humans.
In 2012, I attended an international AIDS conference in Washington, DC, and my friends advised me to apply for asylum, but I returned home because I felt I owe my community a lot and I was seen as a role model for a lot of LGBTQI folks leaving in Nigeria who look up to me for advice and safe space. Shortly after I returned back to Nigeria after the conference, I was beaten up again and ended up in the hospital. I could not get a job because I had worked with gay people and could have been arrested for that.
Nigeria is a very religious country, Christian in the south, Muslim in the north. Nigerians will do whatever their pastor says, and every pastor in the country is preaching against gay people, saying we should be killed, we should be arrested. Gay people have nowhere to turn – their families are anti-gay, the police are anti-gay, the churches are anti-gay. The only way to survive is to hide your identity.
I am one of the lucky ones who made it here to seek for safety but there are millions of LGBTQI folks in Africa who go through worse scenarios in life compared to what I went through. The church which is supposed to be the safest place to go for refuge is now the most horrifying place to be. Pastors condemn LGBTQI folks and even ask for them to be killed or arrested because they believe we are evil and do not have a place in the church.
From the bible I read, Jesus never discriminated against anyone. He welcomed and spoke to everyone.
My friends in Canada raised money for me to return to the United States where I applied for asylum based on the threat I have on my life, and I was granted asylum in 2014. But I have friends who did not make it, who were killed or killed themselves; and no one who is gay in Nigeria is safe. I cannot trade my life for anything else. I love being a gay man because I know I am fabulous and happily created by God. I pray that one day – The United Methodist Church and the church at large – will realize the harm they have done to the LGBTQI community across the world.
Since arriving in the United States, Dennis has not stopped working for, and on behalf of, LGBT individuals. He volunteered at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and is a co-founder of Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program or CLASP. Knowing first-hand the difficulty arriving asylum seekers face and the lack of resources available to them, Dennis took it upon himself to organize and start CLASP to assist LGBT asylum seekers while they await the long and complicated process of applying for asylum. Due to his love for giving back and helping others, he completed a bachelor's degree at Northeastern Illinois University in Social Work and a bachelor's degree in Accounting from Lagos State University in Nigeria. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Social Work from University at Buffalo.