“It is punishable, 14 years imprisonment to be gay [in Nigeria], and we are saying we are free. Gay rights have not been won because nobody is free until all of us are free.” – Edafe Okporo LGBTQ Activist & Author speaking at an LGBTQ Pride festival in New York.

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The Legend of the Underground movie poster. Credit: Crave

Nigeria has some of the strictest same-sex marriage laws throughout Africa, criminalising homosexuality. It is punishable by up to 14 years to be caught in an act deemed as gay. The law even goes beyond the LGBTQ community. Family and friends can also face imprisonment for not reporting someone you know or perceive to be homosexual. For this reason, homosexuality remains highly controversial throughout the country, where hyper-masculinity dominates. Many starring in the documentary describe facing abandonment by their family for their sexuality, with some seeking refuge in America.

“That country is a waste of time. You are all wasting your time. All this argument, just put it somewhere else. You are already here just focus. Leave that one behind.”

Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey’s documentary alternates between Lagos and New York, providing a contrast between the two countries, one where same-sex marriage is legal, celebrated even and one where the LGBTQ community has to hide underground. Underground, secret celebrations full of make-up, dancing and stylish clothes are cut short by distressing scenes of violence and protest directed towards the LGBTQ community.

“We’ve been through a lot of traumatic experiences that we live in denial.”

Michael Ighodaro, activist and LGBTQ+ campaigner

The film explores the underground nature of the LGBTQ community, starting with the voice of the Queercity Podcast Host, who almost provides a guide, a way to navigate and survive being gay in Nigeria.

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Queercity Podcast Logo. Credit: QUEER city

Exploring the political and cultural plight faced by the LGBTQ community, Onuorah and Bailey focus on charismatic campaigner Michael Ighodaro, a gay Nigerian man now living in New York.

Michael teaches us of the code switches that the LGBTQ community communicate by. For example, “market” means hook-up; “TB” is a way to ask if you’re gay, and “Kitto” means scandalous.

Candid with first-person stories, Michael reveals his own experience facing homophobia at the start of the film, searching up a Washington Post article: “For gay Africans, AIDS conference was a chance to come out and go out.

Michael recalls this as the place where it all started, looking back to the event in Washington DC where he was presenting his work, and providing services for key populations such as gay men. Michael details what happens next. “A few days later, I saw a notification of this article, and it had my picture. At first, I was like, oh, you know it’s just in the U.S. Nobody reads this in Nigeria, which was a completely stupid thing to think. And, I go to Nigeria, it was everywhere.

“They bust into my apartment, threw out my clothes, burned some of my stuff and then I was attacked. Someone called my name like ‘Michael!’ and I turned. He hit me with a big stick in my head, and I fell down. They started beating me, calling me fa**ot and all sorts of words, and I broke my hand. Even to this day, I still hear it in my subconscious. Every word they said, word by word before I passed out.”

Michael Ighodaro

It was then that Michael decided to move to America.

“Back in Nigeria, I told myself, I just wish I could come out of my own body to take another form. Somewhere where no one knows me.” – Deji Otuyelu.

Deji Otuyelu, poet and LGBTQ+ campaigner
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Michael’s picture from The Washington Post article. Credit: The Washington Post

The film centres on feelings of guilt felt by those who have left Nigeria. Michael is a campaigner for gay rights but feels guilty for those he’s left behind. The film follows Michael as he makes the trip back to Nigeria.

The film details the prominence of social media in today’s society, including public figure and influencer James Brown who gained internet fame for his slogan, “They didn’t caught me,” after police arrested him and 57 others on suspicion of engaging in homosexual activity. Since then, James has had to live at a safehouse called The Royal House of Allure, a haven for LGBTQ peoples’ with nowhere else to go.

The documentary follows James on the journey of his case. Charged in 2018, James had been waiting up until 2020. James’s statement to the police brought media attention to the arrest, including celebrities and public figures cluing in and reposting the story. James has since then ridden the wave of social media, trying to make a name for himself. The film hones in on this, including clips of James’s Instagram videos to his followers.

One of the most harrowing first-person accounts was made by Emmanuel, who was staying at The Royal House of Allure. He details his experience being gay and HIV+ positive while living in Nigeria.

“The doctor that attend[ed] to me, she’s a friend to my mom. So, when I [woke] up the next day, I wanted to go and take my breakfast, my mom just shouted. ‘Don’t touch the spoon!’ ‘Don’t touch anything!’ They already separated my own spoon, my own plate. Even in church, they would separate my own chair. If they want to talk to me, there would be a gap between us, and I should not come closer. I don’t have access to talk to my brothers or my sisters. Even, even my mom.”

There was also a sense of Nigeria’s power structure. You could live your truth for an amount of wealth or power, therefore creating the elites who avoided imprisonment due to Nigeria’s corrupt legal system.

“Being queer in Nigeria is nothing for the poor man”

Queercity Podcast Host.

Nigeria’s underground community depends very much on chosen family, those who have lived through the trials and tribulations of being gay in the country with them. Towards the end of the film, the roommates of The Royal House of Allure gather together with Michael holding their hands in a circle, praying, giving this sense of community. Through circumstance, these people have found each other and are now bonded for life.

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A party scene from The Legend of the Underground. Credit: Common Sense media

Through emotional stories and personal experiences, The Legend of the Underground conveyed the self-growth of Nigeria’s LGBTQIA+ community. They no longer rely on Nigeria’s government or its legal system for their freedom or self-expression and instead see each other as the community they need to survive. Touchingly, at the end, Michael sums up his story of self-worth:

“For me, my motivation was to prove to myself that, more than my sexuality, I am brilliant, I am smart, I am worthy. I can achieve whatever I want to achieve in life regardless of who I am or who I sleep with in my bedroom or what people perceive me to be.”

Michael Ighodaro