Bisi Alimi is one of the world’s leading organizers fighting against homophobia, racism, and sexism in Africa and beyond.
In 2004, after living with untreated HIV for three years, Alimi, who underwent gay exorcism as a teenager in his native Lagos, became the first Nigerian to come out on public television, in a country that’s socially conservative, especially when it comes to sexuality.
“It was terrifying. I thought it was going to put an end to my career,” Alimi told Global Citizen. “But I was saving myself. At 17, I attempted suicide and I had severe mental health issues. So I thought, either I come out and I kill myself, or I don’t come out and I kill myself. It wasn’t a hero thing, or a courage thing, to me. And I’m not being humble. I wasn’t doing it to be courageous. I just wanted to save myself.”
In order to then save others, he started the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which advocates for the rights and dignity of LGBT people in Nigeria. The foundation’s work, as its web site says, is to “take people from invisibility to visibility.”
Alimi works out of London and has gone on to serve as program director for Alliance Rights Nigeria, his home country’s foremost gay rights organization. He also has served as executive director of The Independent Project Nigeria, an organization focusing on young gay men, and director for Africa of the UK’s Kaleidoscope Trust, an LGBT human rights advocacy group. He was an Aspen Institute New Voices fellow from 2014 to 2015, and has been repeatedly voted one of the most influential LGBT people in the UK.
In conversation with Quartz, Alimi explains why he doesn’t think men should identify as feminists, how a stranger in an airport taught him self-advocacy, and why dressing up as a woman is one of the best ways to learn to be a man.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
The issue of gender inequality has also been part of my advocacy. I guess it is because as a man who is black and gay, I know what it means to be shortchanged, though this experience of mine is in no way equitable to the aggressive suppression of women. At least I can never deny the privilege I have as a man, though I ended up losing that for being black and gay. So this experience has always shaped my understanding of gender inequality.
What I know is that the Me Too movement helped to gather momentum for the issue. It drew the attention of many men who are either ignorant to the issue or knew about it and have excused it. It also helps one to see how endemic the situation is and really gave a lot of us the opportunity to stop being passive allies, to actually stand up and speak with the understanding that we are just a backup as men in this battle and we can only support and not take over the battle.
No, I am not a feminist, I am a fem-ally. I don’t think men should be feminists and I have written about this. I find it a micro-aggression for men to call themselves feminist. I mean, we represent everything that led to the feminist movement in the first place and I don’t see the reason why we want to still occupy that space.
From my experience, feminist men are mostly patronizing and trying to shape the agenda of women. They are the kind of men who want to be part of the women’s movement by telling women how to say things so [men] don’t get offended. It is like white people joining black movements and wanting black people to be sensitive to their feelings. I mean, the reason black people are organizing in the first place is because of you.
I strongly believe in being a responsible ally to women’s struggles, and as far as I am concerned, I don’t think there is a better way to be a feminist. I am a man, I have no idea how a woman defines her feminism and I think it will be completely disrespectful and patronizing for me to have an opinion when I’m not asked. The other thing is, a lot of men are feminists because of their sister, their mother, their best friend who is a girl, their daughter, their wife, and I kind of wonder, “What if you are a guy with brothers and from a male, same-sex family with no woman in the picture? Will your view about gender inequality still be the same?”
I had a personal experience once, as a public speaker: I was invited to an event in America where I was expected to pay for my own trip to attend this event and speak. I did not ask them to invite me in the first place. So when I told them I don’t have money, they agreed to pay for my flight and hotel and I was specifically told to make sure I book in economy class. At the airport on the day of the trip, I made acquaintances with a white guy because he was reading a book I just finished reading. We both knew we were going to New York City but we had no idea we were going to same event, which we discovered when we shared a car to the hotel.
During the course of our conversation, he told me he had flown business and he is being paid. He asked how much I was being paid and why he didn’t see me in business; I told him I flew economy and I am not being paid. I told him my experience with the organizer.He took it upon himself to stand up for me when it mattered and I was finally paid. This had a strong impact on my life and activism, I learned to use my platform and privilege to challenge attacks on others. So a few years back, I refused to speak on an all-male panel. And I don’t stop there—I have a database of women I recommend to event organizers when they tell me they can’t find women.
I strongly believe that my platform is not just to promote myself, but also to make everyone invisible visible. In this age where we think the experience of women is not valid, and even worse that of black or trans women, it therefore becomes the responsibility of those of us with opportunity to create opportunity for others.
I don’t live in America, I am Nigerian-British. But I think the threat to American men is the same globally to all men: toxic masculinity. We live in a time when the definition of gender and its expectation is changing and many of us are holding on to ideas and beliefs that belong to centuries past. This is creating tension and aggression in men. There is also the shame that comes with masculine expression.
I remember I heard once on RuPaul’s Drag Race when one of the contestants said, “I learnt how to be a man by dressing up as a woman,”and that for me was very powerful. I have learnt to be in touch with my feminine side without shame. A lot of men globally die silently from shame. This has directly and indirectly led many men to become domestic abusers and caused many to commit suicide. We were sold lies that there is just one way to be a man and I count myself lucky that I was able to rediscover my masculinity in a way that allows my femininity to flourish; this has made me who I am. I am not afraid to wear a dress and makeup as much as I am not ashamed to be a man.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?
I talk about sexism with my male friends a lot. I am one person that won’t allow a sexist joke to fly. I mean, I will hardly allow any degrading joke to fly by. My strategy is simply to call it out while it is still hot. I don’t do the, “let’s go aside and talk.” I won’t shame the person to the point that they won’t want to talk around me, but I will do it in a way that will create a progressive conversation. I am not perfect and sometimes I slip and I call myself out in the presence of my friends as well. Also, I try for us to have healthy conversations on why we use certain words, and how a word or action we think harmless to us can hurt others, and it is mostly by bringing the issue home to the person listening. I don’t think I really have any inhibition as I am quite mouthy (laughs) and I just let people see reasons why something is not right.
Being gay. I think this was the biggest anxiety I had as a child and this played out in how I learned to express myself. I was so scared that I would be less of a man, and I remember while I was young and boys calling me their wives. I feel so sad because I had this idea of the second-class nature of women and I never wanted to be like that. I saw how my uncles were treating their wives and the idea of being a girl was just upsetting, and being told that because I act like a girl I would be a wife was just so annoying.
I remember trying so very hard to be a man, though I have no idea what that means. But I tried. And every time some says I am like a girl, I feel really upset and I cry. Growing up, it was very much about, would I be the right man? Would I have a deep voice? How is the best way to walk like a man? It was like a disease eating me up inside and was driving me to the edge.I think aside from struggling with my religion and sexuality, the other thing that makes me who I am today is that I went through exorcism when I was 17, because I just wanted to be a real man.
That I am struggling to be a better man and that every time I disappoint them, that I am sorry. I want them to know that I understand their suspicion about me for being a man, that I understand their fear about the threat I pose in terms of harassment, and that I am not mad at them for being cautious around me. That my fem-allyship transcends whether I have a sister, a mother, or a daughter, and it is rooted in the shared pain of being on the margin. Finally, that I actually suck at being a man.
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
Know why you speak; listen and learn. Making the world a better place is a battle and if you are in it to win easily, then it is high time you found something else to do with your time.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
It would be not seeing anything wrong in working in a male-dominated workplace.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
The best I have received from another is, “There is never a wrong way to be a man.” And I think that is what I will pass down as well. Never a wrong way to be—I will just add “as long as your being a man is beneficial to the world and to yourself.”