On May 19, 2019, a woman in Abuja met her match from Tinder — another woman — at a restaurant. After drinks, the date invited the woman to her place. When they got to the house, two men grabbed her, forced her to strip, and took photos and videos of her naked, which they threatened to send to her family and post on social media if she didn’t pay them.
On July 19, a man in Lagos made plans to meet a man from the internet. At the designated location, a group of men took him to an unfinished building, where they beat him and left him tied up for a night. They called his family, said that their son was gay, and demanded money, threatening to kill the man and dispose of his body in the canal. The family paid 80,000 naira (about $200) as ransom.
It is illegal to be queer in Nigeria: In 2014, Nigeria’s then-President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, effectively criminalizing same-sex relationships with penalties of 10 to 14 years in prison. After the act was passed, violence against LGBTQI Nigerians spiked. It is a sign of how dangerous life is for LGBTQI people that most won’t even talk about it with their names on the record — the above accounts are attributed anonymously in a 2019 report by The Initiative for Equal Rights.
A new app seeks to help queer Nigerians navigate attacks online: Qtalk, a free counseling service that launched on Android in late January 2020. The app connects queer Nigerians with psychological and legal support and provides LGBTQI news via RightsAfrica.com, part of the African Human Rights Media Network, which publishes commentary about human rights on the continent.
Qtalk offers a chat room-style interface where members of the queer community can anonymously share their opinions. As the first social counseling app made by and for LGBTQI Nigerians, Qtalk is designed not to find romance but to find support. Community members can pose questions or concerns to a volunteer counselor, via voice or text message — “Can I change?” “Can I stop being gay?” “Can I be Christian and gay?” — and receive a response or a referral to an outside service. The conversations are encrypted and automatically deleted after 30 days. The admins work on a volunteer basis. Grants and donations cover the app’s operating costs. Qtalk does not generate a profit, and access is free to anyone within Nigeria.
As of July 2, 2020, Qtalk had over 1,800 users and 10 counselors. In order to gain a larger audience, the app runs targeted Facebook and Instagram ads and partners with local LGBTQI groups. Users are verified as human when they download the app by providing their phone (a Nigerian phone number is required to register) and an email address.
Qtalk was founded by Mike Daemon, a Nigerian journalist focused on promoting the human rights of LGBTQI people. His name is a pseudonym, a relic from his early days in activism when he wanted to protect his identity. “I am now living openly as gay, and the name has sort of stuck,” he said.
In 2015, Daemon started NoStringsNG, a podcast meant to “dismantle the myths around homosexuality.”
As the podcast grew into a website, he noticed that many readers were sending in questions related to sexuality and health. In response, Daemon dreamed up Qtalk as a platform to “allow members of the community to connect, get their questions answered, and also have the opportunity to socialize with each other,” he said.
In its first five months, Qtalk has already had an impact, which Daemon measures through the total number of active and resolved issues in conversations with counselors.
Recently, according to a post on the website, the mother of a gay teenager wrote to a counselor, asking for advice on how to broach the subject of sexuality with her son, who had not yet come out to her. “I love him so much but I am worried about his safety,” she wrote.
The counselor shared links to online resources where she could learn how to start conversations with her son and gave some insight into how difficult and scary the process of coming out can be.
In another session, a teenager who said he was raped by his cousin confided: “Sometimes I think that it is my fault. I have blamed myself ever since then. I hate myself so much that I think about killing myself.”
In their messages, the counselor tried to help the teen understand that the rape wasn’t his fault, referred him to a health facility where he could be tested for sexually transmitted infections, and gave him access to a WhatsApp group for survivors.
Another teenager was outed to his family, during lockdown, and kicked out of his home. Qtalk helped connect him to an organization that provided him with emergency shelter. Another Qtalk member, reading this story in a forum, contributed money to help him pay rent.
In Nigeria, homophobia is culturally reinforced in churches, within families, and online: 60% of Nigerians will not accept a family member who is LGBTQI.
Nigerian police often target people whom they might suspect are gay. In 2018, 57 men were arrested in a police raid on a hotel in Lagos for public displays of affection with members of the same sex; 47 of those men went on trial last December and could be sentenced to a decade in jail. In early 2019, a high-ranking policewoman advised LGBTQI Nigerians to leave. “If you are homosexual in nature, leave the country or face prosecution,” she wrote on Instagram.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for on-demand counseling and support. Jennifer Okoba, an employee at the One Action Foundation, an organization that works to improve the mental health and financial well-being of LGBTQI people in Nigeria, told PRI’s “The World” that the foundation has been overwhelmed by requests during the pandemic. In addition to monetary support and food, many LGBTQI Nigerians, she said, “just need someone to talk to.”
While anyone in Nigeria can download and create an anonymous account on Qtalk, everyone on the app is advised to stay anonymous. Community guidelines discourage any form of harassment, abusive language, threats, hate speech, spam, or scamming. If someone feels uncomfortable with another person’s language, they can report a user to the admin. Accounts can be investigated or deactivated. So far, the app hasn’t had any major problems with harassment.
“In our promotional messages, we try to let people know that this is not a hookup app,” Daemon said. “[Attackers] are discouraged from getting on the platform, as it will be difficult for them to get victims.” Because people know that they are unlikely to meet in person with those they contact on Qtalk, blackmailers turn elsewhere.
Qtalk is not the first online forum made to help fight homophobia in Nigeria. A variety of LGBTQI apps, news sites, and resources have emerged since the anti-gay law was enacted six years ago. In their own ways, each has helped chart a path closer to acceptance. The Rustin Times, named in honor of Bayard Rustin, a gay civil rights activist who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., reports on international and local LGBTQI news and pop culture, with the aim of increasing visibility. AfroQueer, a podcast started in 2018, amplifies the voices of queer Africans on the continent and across the diaspora.
Others are more directly focused on safety, like Safe Queers, a website launched in January, and Kito Diaries, a database where queer Nigerians can submit photos of their alleged kito attackers and note where the incident happened. (In Nigerian slang, a “kito” is a person who blackmails a member of the LGBTQI community based on their sexual orientation.)
It is illegal to be queer in more than 70 countries, the majority of which are in Africa. Elsewhere on the continent, there are signs that homophobia is losing its chokehold. In 2019, Angola and Botswana removed their anti-gay laws. Changes in Nigeria, though, are likely years away. Though some politicians have paid lip service to the cause, “It was only with the intention of getting votes and attention to their campaign,” Daemon said. Queer Nigerians remain invisible and underrepresented in the country.
Qtalk is less focused on outward visibility than it is on providing the LGBTQI community with much-needed internal care. “LGBTQI Nigerians face and experience discrimination on a daily basis,” Daemon said. “All this takes a toll on their mental health.” The app, anonymous and free, is one way for the community to receive the support it needs to thrive.