Matthew Blaise was 11 years old when they realized that the consequences of choosing to live their truth as femme and gay was rejection from family and harassment from outsiders, so they decided to become a Catholic priest.
“There’s this thing that comes with being a priest,” Matthew, who is now 21 and identifies as non-binary, tells me. “You are exalted. So if I got to that position, then no one would question my sexuality because priests don’t get married. People see them as holy. So I thought I could shield my sexuality that way.”
Blaise came to notability last year, during Nigeria’s End SARS protests in October 2020. Queer Nigerians were among the protesters, sounding out how they were being targeted for “effeminacy.” A video of Matthew shouting “Queer lives matter!” at a protest in Lagos went viral. Currently, it has 3.3 million views.
“My friend Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim made the video and she sent it to me and I posted it myself,” Matthew says. “I did not know it would get so much attention and interaction. Most protesters and the media houses were neglecting the queer side of End SARS. It wasn’t just talked about because of how their definition of freedom is cis-heteronormative.”
This January, Matthew co-founded The Oasis Project, an online non-profit whose aim is to promote positive representation and humanization of queer Nigerians. With a staff of five, including the anonymous co-founder and editor and grant writer Chinelo Anyadiegwu, it offers mental and sexual counselling, legal, medical, and housing help, and sexual health testing to people. Its approach is community-led activism.
Yell it in your streets. We get killed for being queer. It’s crazy pic.twitter.com/KIGaaGbKk7
— Son of the Rainbow AKA LGBTQ+ CLASS CAPTAIN🏳️🌈 (@Blaise_21) October 10, 2020
Matthew cannot remember the exact age when they knew they were gay. They only remember feeling a strong attraction to boys.
“But there wasn’t a language for it,” they say. “Growing up as a femme person was difficult for me because coming from a poor background puts you in a position where you have to face a lot of people that are not educated and who see being femme as ‘disgraceful.’”
In 2014, former Nigerian president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA). It mandates 14 years of imprisonment for anyone “who enters into a same sex marriage contract or civil union,” and 10 years for anyone “who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation, or directly or indirectly makes public show of same sex amorous relationship in Nigeria,” or “group of persons who administers, witnesses, abets or aids the solemnization of a same sex marriage or civil union, or supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organisations, processions or meetings in Nigeria.”
Matthew remembers that period as unpleasant. “The president of altar servers in church would say that Obama wanted to come and launch a gay agenda in Nigeria but Goodluck banned it, and everyone would be excited about it. I felt like a part of me died whenever they said that.”
In desperation, Matthew prayed to God to change their sexuality, to make them be attracted to girls. They met priests who prayed for them. They even wrote poems in secondary school about these desires. But nothing happened.
“I think God already answered me,” they say. “Nothing was wrong with me.” Now, they are no longer Christian.
For succour, Matthew turned to social media, because they felt a desire to tell their story and find a community of queer Nigerians. “When I discover someone is gay or lesbian I’m always excited and I always want to talk to them,” they say. “I always want to be around them.”
After their #QueerLivesMatter video went viral, BLOOP named Matthew one of “5 African Queers To Look Out For” and Native Son listed them as one of “101 Black Gay and Queer Men Who Made Impact in 2020.” They won the SOGIESC Activist of the Year award at the 2020 Freedom Awards, organized by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs), and were nominated for The Future Awards Africa Prize for Leading Conversations. They appeared in Defiance: Voices of a New Generation, journalist Harry Itie’s documentary about young queer advocates, and featured in an episode of TIERs’ Untold Facts.
Currently, Matthew combines his job as Communications and Program Officer at Global Black Gay Men Connect (GBGMC) with his programme at Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, where he is a final year student of English and Literary Studies, and where students and lecturers continue to target him.
“The implication it has on my mental health is crazy,” they say of experiencing discrimination at school. “Anxiety, depression, and there are little things which might not likely scare some people, which I find scary.”
In March, The Oasis Project held the maiden edition of Sound Bath, tagged as a healing session for women, femmes, non-binary, and Trans folks. The event was broadcast via Zoom and facilitated by Tobi Adebajo, a queer and non-binary activist.
On Valentine’s Day, the organisation put out a call for love stories about queer people. The stories were published on its Instagram page. There was also a giveaway for a couple. Its website features pieces from queer artists and activists, including Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim and Kayode Ani on religion, and Ado Aminu on classism and exclusivity.
The Oasis Project is extending the work done in LGBTQ activism over the years. It complements organizations such as The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs); Access to Health and Rights Development Initiative (AHRDI), which provides free medical help to queer Nigerians; Safe Hquse, which caters to the needs of queer #ENDSARS protesters in Nigeria; and the Population Council, whose research on the HIV risk of men who have sex with men (MSM) has influenced policy and program initiatives.
Matthew ascribes the reason for this increasing visibility to people being tired of the oppression they face. “People don’t want to bottle up their emotions anymore,” Matthew says. “They want to speak up against these laws and eradicate them immediately.”
During the #EndSARS protests, people harassed LGBTQ protesters, arguing that then was not the time. Last month, the activist Victor Emmanuel staged a one-man protest at the National Assembly. “Every time is the right time to fight oppression,” Matthew says. “Your silence will not win your battle.”
Because of the anti-gay law, The Oasis Project is not yet registered. It has a GoFundMe, and last month, it got its first grant, $5,000 from Women Deliver, where Matthew is a member. It has since announced its first live safe space event, “We’ve Got Us.”
It also has plans to set up a fund for displaced queer Nigerians in the country, release a documentary on the history of queerness in Africa, start an advocacy program and a podcast on mental health, and a comedy series about queerness in Nigeria, self-love, and consent. But its major goal, for now, is building a safe house.
“It’s important to make everyone realize again that if we are fighting for freedom, we have to fight for the freedom of all,” Matthew says. “We fight for your own freedom, we fight for my own freedom, and we can just be together.”
Edited by Otosirieze Obi-Young.
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and has written for Open Country Mag. He has a short story on Lolwe.