LGBTQ+ Nigerians face debilitating workplace prejudice

Sad businesswoman riding the bus to work
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Finding an LGBTQ+-inclusive workplace in Nigeria is a herculean task. 

While organizations across the globe are striving towards diversity and inclusion for minority groups, queer individuals in Nigeria continue to face discrimination and a lack of job opportunities in safe working environments. 

While Nigerian organizations are expected to be devoid of personal bias and bigotry, that is often not the case. Beyond qualifications and expertise, there are often underlying factors during the hiring process that may impact a company’s decision to not extend an offer of employment — sexuality, physical appearance, religion, and tribe. Of these factors, sexuality is often a deal breaker, regardless of someone’s professional experience. What this means is that most queer people are compelled to hide their identities.

Many Nigerians believe that heterosexuality is the ideal and dominant sexual orientation, while other identities are inferior, taboo and evil. This mindset, which stems from misogyny and a limited understanding of queer matters, has led people to treat members of the LGBTQ+ community with contempt. 

In 2014, the former president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, passed a law criminalizing same-sex relationships, with a punishment of between 10 to 14 years in prison. This law has become a justification for people to harm and oppress queer folks. It has also spurred people to callously unleash homophobia and deny queer people their fundamental human rights, which include the right to life, to earn an income and to work in a healthy environment.

Forced into the closet

Working in an average Nigerian company as a queer person automatically means spending over one-third of your day concealing your sexuality. The thought of having to forfeit their freedom of expression within work perimeters makes queer people, especially the visible ones, less eager to find a job in Nigeria. 

Those lucky to secure a job are forced to stay closeted and walk on eggshells for fear of harassment, homophobia, microaggression, exclusion, losing relationships with colleagues, discrimination or being denied promotions. 

Nonbinary student Winter Ezeduru, who is using a pseudonym for safety, is not fond of job hunting in Nigeria because, during interviews, her sexuality takes a front seat. 

“I was never really excited about the prospect of looking for employment,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “It felt like I was auditioning for homophobes who would most likely say no. And they weren’t talking about my skills or portfolio as someone who is a prospective employee but as a queer person who they hated. Most people ignore what I say – despite my good grasp of the English language – and focus on how feminine I sounded in a body they identified with masculinity.”

FayFay is a podcast producer who used to work at a media company. She told LGBTQ Nation that initially, she was unaware the organization was LGBTQ+-friendly. Her former boss’s “free-spirited” and “welcoming” nature convinced her that he was inclusive. 

During her stay, she hired a queer person. “From my point of view, I thought he was talented, and I liked his persona. I also believed he spoke more to the culture the company was trying to build. He seemed friendly and willing to learn,” she said.

With more organizations owned by millennials, there is an upsurge in the search for younger millennials and Gen Z workers. At a glance, a few companies at least appear progressive, which for queer people is a luxury. However, within the company, it can be a nightmare. 

Ezeduru recounted her first day at an allegedly LGBTQ+-friendly company: “I did not expect my previous workplace to be LGBTQ-friendly. But I knew it was somewhere I could work without being bothered because it’s a media space.”

“On my first day of work, I was comfortable and elated that I was not singled out. About 5 minutes after settling down, a former colleague said, ‘All these gay people. They should take them, tie them, beat and burn them. You can’t just go anywhere without seeing them. They want to take over Nigeria.’ I was shocked and worried that after work, he might attack me because the statement reminded me of a time someone tipped off the Nigerian police who arrested me. I paid 100,000 naira for my release”.

Gays or feminine-presenting men also have it tough in Nigeria because they defy the traditional roles assigned to men. Many cishet men hurl their misogyny and toxic masculinity when it concerns visibly gay men because they can’t fathom why a man wants to be feminine. 

Cishet video producer King Ochonogo told LGBTQ Nation that gay discussions at work have made him uncomfortable. 

He lamented to LGBTQ Nation, “They preached the gay gospel daily, and it was unbearable. Another part that freaked me out was when one of them came to work in a nose ring, an obvious female adornment. I am a man, and it’s very upsetting to see a dude trying to be pretty. I felt oppressed having to deal with that. I was shocked there was no advancement made towards me, seeing as I am handsome.”

Unbeknownst to men like Ochonogo, this disdain for flamboyant gay men unconsciously translates to their dislike for women. Most cishet men oppose homosexuality when men are involved but tolerate lesbians because women are their objects of desire.

Despite Ochonogo’s dim view of gay people, he felt “working with queer people is like working with any random person. It was normal, and there was no awkwardness. If they were not talking about gay stuff, I probably wouldn’t have known they were gay”.

Sade Lawson, who is also using a pseudonym for safety, is a bisexual engineer working at a typical Nigerian company. She finds it challenging at the company because she constantly deals with people invading her privacy and harassing her at work for being single.

“I work at a typical Nigerian company,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “Nobody minds their business. They are always asking about your future husband or wife. They have brought it up numerous times. A woman met me for the first time and advised me to get married early.”

To handle the meddlers, Lawson keeps her life private and communication at a minimum.

She said, “I don’t interact with them often because I like to keep to myself, and I know that people are very exhausting, homophobic, and sexist. A combination of all these makes me stay away from many people. Being very vague about your life and keeping them guessing does help get you through each day.”

In addition to homophobic colleagues, some Nigerian bosses are also guilty of making queer people feel miserable. They are fully aware of the limited LGBTQ+-inclusive companies in Nigeria and believe that queer people won’t find a similar or better workforce anywhere, so they weaponize that. 

“My previous boss gave you this idea that you are coming to heaven to work for him,” said Ezeduru. “He says, ‘it’s a safe space, we are so eccentric, you’ll fit in here, we are a family,’ but make a mistake, and he yells at you like you did it on purpose. He was emotionally abusive. I only realized I was always walking on eggshells after I left. They feel like whenever they have given you an opportunity society wouldn’t normally give you, you should go over and beyond.” 

Ezeduru added, “The only reason I left my previous workplace was because I had a chance to leave Nigeria. If I didn’t, I would have stayed because I would never have found a place with that level of acceptance for queer people.”

Considering how Nigeria is structured and operates, it is not far-fetched to say that one’s sexuality can negatively affect their career progress. 

Lawson believes that, “Eventually, if they figure out I don’t want to get married, they will start talking to me differently and give me ‘advice.’ If I stay in the company for a long time, I might be another unmarried woman on their list, and people will begin to wonder why I am single. It’s a Nigerian company. People interact with you based on what they perceive of you and will probably also promote you based on how they view you.”

A contradiction of laws

In many countries, the right to freedom from discrimination is considered a human right, and it reflects the concept of equality. In Nigeria, Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution stipulates the right to freedom from discrimination. Section 42(1) prohibits prejudice against citizens based on community, ethnicity, birthplace, sex, religion, or political views. This means it is illegal in Nigeria to deny people in the categories above equal opportunities.

Though the Nigerian Constitution provides security and protection, it is flawed.

The existence of the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act shows a contradiction in the law. On one hand, Nigerian law forbids the discrimination of people due to their identity and community. On the other, it encourages bigotry and criminalizes homosexuality and anything associated with it.

Regarding workplace harassment, Nigeria has no specific law impeding behavior. However, there are laws that generally protect citizens from harassment anywhere. This implies that within work perimeters, the citizens are vulnerable to harassment. Oftentimes, Nigerian bosses weaponize the absence of laws to oppress their staff.

That said, Nigerian LGBTQ+ employees have no legal support in the country. It is evident that the constitution is due for update and modification. While the body neglects the LGBTQ+ community, the onus falls on Nigerian bosses to educate themselves on queer-related topics and create an inclusive working environment. 

How to improve the Nigerian workplace for queer employees

Beyond the shores of Nigeria, an inclusive workforce is logical from a business and ethical standpoint. Presently, diversity is imperative in the business world to boost economic development, reputation, creativity, productivity, and employee retention.

Customers are also likely to abandon non-inclusive companies to associate themselves with a brand or company that aligns with the LGBTQ+ community. That said, here’s how to improve the Nigerian workplace for the Nigerian queer staff.

Have Queer-Inclusive Policies 

Introducing queer policies in the organization is an excellent step toward a more inclusive and non-discriminatory workforce. Sternly implementing these rules for queer inclusion is a way to put effort into handling prejudice or bigotry at work. Penalties like fines should also be put in place for violators.

Respect People’s Privacy 

Many Nigerians enjoy prying into other people’s business, which can be very uncomfortable, especially for queer individuals who want to keep their lives private. Encourage employees to focus more on themselves and their tasks and to take “no” for an answer.

Set Up A Queer Workshop 

Offering ongoing workshops and training for all staff is essential to enlighten them about queer affairs. Unless a queer person wants to lead, it’s not their duty to educate anyone about their issues. The workshops will create an environment that encourages LGBTQ+ people to defend themselves or trust their coworkers to support them in the case of bullying or discrimination. 

Organize a Queer Network

Setting up a safe space where queer folks can gather, connect, and bond is an incredible way to encourage and support them. The collective can help you recognize and tackle problems they face at work, enabling you to change your approach when necessary. 

State Your Pronouns

It is now a norm to mention your pronouns on social media bios and email signatures or during conversations. Making your pronouns known will help Nigerians adjust to not assuming a person’s gender. 

Assign Cishet/Straight LGBTQ+ Allies

Straight allies are helpful when trying to achieve inclusivity. Considering sexism and misogyny is a big problem in Nigeria, having cishet male allies can be effective because men listen to other men. Cishet supporters will make it easier for closeted queer folks to blend in. They will advocate for queer inclusion at work and be a support system for queer employees.

Advertise Your Company As Queer-Inclusive

The world is gradually changing, and in a few years, Nigeria will catch up. Don’t wait until other workforces become queer-inclusive before you do. You can start embracing queer people at your company, sharing their stories on your social media, and creating queer-inclusive events. Others will follow suit.

Lauren Boebert told drag queens to stay out of her district. They came & everyone had a good time.

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