Oliver came out quietly in 2005, but last year when a gang of neighborhood boys learned the young activist was gay, they blackmailed him, stole his phone and clothing and, when he called their bluff, told his mother.
In the United States, this event surely would have been traumatizing. But in Nigeria, where Oliver lived until he recently got asylum status, it almost cost him his life.
Oliver, still trembling from fear, did not want to use his last name. “I used to live with my mother, but now she said I should never come back,” he said. “She is the only family I have.”
The Nigerian Senate has passed a bill that criminalizes homosexuality, forcing even families to report their loved ones if they are in same-sex relationships. Its House of Representatives will soon vote on it.
“It has huge implications,” said Oliver, who is now 26 and living in the Queens section of New York City. “It will actually make families torn apart and open the doors to persecution of those even perceived to be gay.”
Under the proposed criminal code, Oliver could be sent to jail for 14 years. If enacted, the law would also penalize any organization that provides services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender citizens.
Oliver is one of 102 LGBT applicants to win that status in the United States, thanks to the pro bono work of Immigration Equality. They come countries like Jamaica (31) to El Salvador (6) to Russia (7).
As an advocate, Oliver spoke out against homophobia across Africa, but it only made his own life worse. In one of the most terrifying incidents, his uncle found out and made him seek help in the church. There, he was locked up for days with angry mobs outside. “It was horrifying,” he said. “I wanted to kill myself.”
But in July, while attending the International AIDS Conference in the U.S., he sought the protection of asylum. He received his letter from the U.S. government just two weeks ago. “It is so exciting to be away from some of the things that limited me and my potential,” Oliver said. “Here the police can protect and not persecute me.”
Oliver will not be able to return to his native countries until he’s a citizen – in about five years. But he say he’s “excited” about his new life.
Oliver, who lived at first in a shelter, is now temporarily living with friends. Finding work has been a challenge, but eventually, he hopes to go back to school to get a master’s degree in public health.
“Hopefully, I will build on myself and when I am ready and able, I pray I can go back home and help,” he said. “But now, I feel like one of the lucky few to live another day.”
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