Shaping Their Own Narrative
An HBO Documentary, The Legend of the Underground, Creates a Compelling Portrait of Micheal Ighodaro and Other Nigerian LGBTQ+ & HIV Activists
by Hank Trout
In 2013, the government of Nigeria enacted the “Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill,” a vehemently anti-LGBTQ law that, under current president, Muhammadu Buhari, who took office on May 29, 2015, has been used to harass, imprison, and extort members of the LGBTQ community and has given rise to unconscionable acts of violence against the community.
In one egregious example from 2018, fifty-seven young men attended a private party of friends in Lagos. The police, alerted to the party, raided the private home and arrested all of the men present, charging them with being homosexuals.
The Legend of the Underground, a new HBO documentary directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey, and executive produced by Mike Jackson, John Legend, Ty Stiklorius and Austyn Biggers of Get Lifted Film Co., takes an unflinching look at the lives of young LGBTQ people in Nigeria. One stand-out in the film is James Brown, a flamboyant gender-nonconforming dancer and performer who was among those fifty-seven arrested at a private party and turned his arrest into cause celeb activism. The documentary gives us a glimpse of a new Nigerian generation that uses social media, underground radio, and any other resources at their disposal to fight for their rights of personal expression, hoping to spark a cultural revolution to challenge the ideas of gender, conformity, and civil rights.
The other main focus of the documentary is Micheal Ighodaro, an HIV-positive Nigerian expat and activist who now lives in New York City. Micheal’s parents forced him out of their house when he came out at age fourteen. (His father: “We can’t have someone who’s gay living in the house.”) Like many young LGBTQ folks who are forced out of their homes and onto the streets, Micheal turned to sex work to survive. The sex work led to Micheal’s diagnosis with HIV. In 2012, after delivering an address at the International AIDS Society biannual conference, an article in the Washington Post carried a story about his address; the story was picked up by Nigerian press, distorted and used as a weapon against Micheal. He endured a savage beating shortly after the article appeared. Out of self-preservation, he emigrated from Nigeria to the United States where, with the help of the ASO Housing Works, he was granted asylum.
Living in the U.S. has led Micheal to professional roles where he promotes and fights for the rights of the global gay community. He works as an Assistant Professor of LGBTI Studies at The New School and is an LGBTQ+ activist and an advocate for HIV prevention through AVAC, the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, a network of nearly seventy countries, mostly in Africa, which works to accelerate the production and delivery of HIV prevention medications. In 2015, he was honored by the White House, under the administration of President Barack Obama, for his global LGBTQ+ advocacy.
The Legend of the Underground premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival and was released on HBO and HBO Max on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. A&U corresponded with Micheal Ighodaro about his life and his activism.
Hank Trout: You wrote in The Body in 2015 that “I knew I was gay when I was seven years old.” Knowing that, what was it like growing up in Nigeria? Before coming out, did you have other gay friends in school?
Micheal Ighodaro: My parents were both very conservative, so I didn’t have so much fun as a kid. I spent most of my time at school or at home in my room. But the little time I had with my grandma was the best part of my time at home. At school, we didn’t really know if we were gay or not; we were just really interested in playing in girl’s clothes and having girls as our friends.
When you asked your mother the definition of “gay,” she said, “It means evil” and began taking you to church elders and witch doctors to “cure” you. Can you describe that experience? How did these church elders and witch doctors try to cure you? How did you resist? How did those experiences shape your later life of activism? What did you learn from those experiences that made you a better activist?
I feel I am still very traumatized by the experience I had undergoing what is now known as conversion therapy. I fasted for days at church, prayed and even cried for God to just help me. I was a kid who did not understand what was going on. The experience I had undergoing those humanly degrading experiences shaped the rest of my teenage years, as it turned out to just be the beginning. If anything is evil, it is conversation therapy. It is like asking you to rip off the color of your skin, to change the color of your blood, or to decide how you get into this world. So yes, it was and it is an evil experience that human beings should not be made to go through. And anyone who does that to someone else should not only be condemned but also criminalized.
When you were fourteen, your father said, “We can’t have someone who’s gay living in the house” and forced you to leave home. Can you describe that period in your life? Did you receive any assistance from social service organizations?
I was actually very happy when I was asked to leave, although that was stupid of me. But I felt “free”; mentally to be truly me, to leave on my own terms. The only problem was that I was just a kid who had no money and who should’ve been in school, not making drastic life decisions. There were no organizations at that time that provided social services for teenagers. I ended up in the streets where I found my true family.
When did you receive your HIV diagnosis? What led you to get tested at that time? Whom did you turn to for help in coping with the diagnosis? How did the HIV/AIDS organizations in Africa help you?
I got tested because I was scared of dying. I did not want to end up just like many of my friends. I was working as an HIV counselor at an LGBTQI clinic in Nigeria; I was counseling gay men who had just found out they were HIV-positive. That was always more devastating for them than being outed as a gay man. Most of them had lost everything, and all that they had left was the gay community. Being HIV-positive was highly and still is very stigmatized in most African countries, and across the globe.
I was afraid initially, but I found a way to get over my fear and confirm what I had already thought was a possibility. It changed my activism. I was no longer just fighting to be safe; I was now fighting to stay alive and make sure my friends understood what they could do to protect themselves from getting infected. That drive led me to AVAC, where I currently work as a Program Manager. AVAC is an HIV prevention advocacy organization. AVAC advocates to end AIDS by working to accelerate the ethical development and global delivery of HIV prevention options as part of a comprehensive and integrated response to the epidemic.
When the Washington Post wrote about your speech at the 2012 International AIDS Society’s conference, Nigerian newspapers also picked up the story but distorted it, which led to your being savagely beaten and your decision to move to the U.S. and seek asylum. Can you describe that period in your life, before coming to the U.S., working with HIV/AIDS organizations around Africa while still living in fear? Did your activism increase the danger you faced?
I had been an activist since even before I knew what the word “activist” meant. I guess you can say I have been in danger all my life just because of who I am and just because I am fighting to be able to live as I am.
With the help of Housing Works in New York City, you applied for and were granted asylum in the U.S. in just a few months. As you know, the asylum process usually takes a year or more to complete. Why, do you think, was your asylum process so shortened? Do you have any advice for other HIV-positive asylum seekers?
My case was at the time all across major media outlets; that made it a bit easier. The process shouldn’t be as complicated and difficult as it is right now. We need a major reform in terms of how America welcomes and accepts LGBTQI asylum seekers. My advice for anyone coming to the U.S. as a refugee or asylum seeker is to research how the process works and to get help as early as possible. There are several organizations that offer support to LGBTQI asylum seekers like Housing Works, Immigration Equality, GBGMC [Global Black Gay Men Connect], etc.
You told The Independent in 2017, “In Nigeria I was attacked because I’m gay, here I’m scared because I’m black. I never thought I was black until I moved to the U.S. My skin colour never occurred to me. It was a cultural shock that being gay wasn’t the issue anymore.” Four years have passed since then. Have things changed for you? Gotten better, or worse? How has systemic racism in the U.S. affected your HIV/AIDS advocacy work?
I wish it has gotten better. If anything, it is that it is no longer a cultural shock, because I am now part of the culture. I am a Black man in America in 2021. I am also part of the first generation of African LGBTQI immigrants to the U.S. I am not just Black, I am gay. So I live in a country where I am made to know that this country doesn’t belong to me or my brothers and sisters who were stolen from their homes and who built this country from the ground, but that It belongs to white people who stole the land. So, yes, I am learning every day.
James Brown, one of the fifty-seven men arrested at a private party in 2018, used his arrest to become more active and vocal in the LGBTQ community. Have you kept in touch with him? Is he still in Nigeria? Has he continued his activism?
James is a close friend of mine. I love them so much. They have so much to be proud of and I cannot wait for the world to see them for who they really are. James will always shine bright in my heart.
You wrote in The Body, for International Human Rights Day in 2015, “As an openly gay man coming from a country like mine, I can tell you first-hand that without addressing human rights we cannot address HIV.” Please elaborate. How do human rights violations impact our HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment work?
We cannot end AIDS without addressing structural barriers. We have enough data to show us that the reason why people are still getting infected and dying from HIV today is because of structural and social issues. So, until we address those issues and fully fund communities who know best how to address these issues, we will not end AIDS.
Finally, why did you agree to participate in this HBO documentary? What do you hope the documentary will accomplish?
I wanted to tell my story. I believe in the power of storytelling. We have so much more to tell. This is just the beginning. I hope people see this and get inspired and get angry and act. We have created an emergency response program for anyone who feels moved and wants to donate to the movement in Nigeria. Please donate here: https://bit.ly/3rqK1gV. Also, I hope that we can tell more of our stories not just in Nigeria but from across the continent of Africa. We want our own POSE, etc. We want to begin to shape our own narrative.
The Legend of the Underground can be viewed on HBO MAX. For more information on AVAC, log on to www.avac.org.
Senior Editor Hank Trout interviewed writer Brian Malloy for the August 2021 issue.