The Difference and Diversity Essay
This is why I am endowing a N1 million prize for difference and diversity in Nigeria
by Chude Jideonwo
Last year, I wrote a piece on CNN during Pride Month—a month set aside to celebrate sexual and gender diversity globally—to spotlight the progress Africa is making overall (though not fast enough) on the matter of LGBTQ rights. It was not the first piece I had written on the matter. I consider it the number-one civil rights issue of our time. But yet again, there was backlash, even from people I like and respect. Comments on my Instagram page, especially from people of my faith, verged on heartbreak: How can you, Chude, say this kind of thing?
I could sense the pained conflict: People want to like and respect you—and they want it to be uncomplicated. They don’t want to encounter parts of you they don’t agree with. They don’t want to confront the idea that they respect someone who has diverging views on such an important matter.
Others who already knew where I stand wanted silence. Why can’t you just support it quietly, someone asked. Why must you continue to talk about it, even at risk of attack? Apparently, it would be easier for them to forget that I have an opinion (a worldview, actually) on this matter if I could just stake my claim and move on. They want it to be a passing fancy, whispered only. Because on this matter, many people I like and who like me, disagree fiercely.
The reason for this is that we are looking from very different perspectives. I see diverse sexualities and genders as inevitable consequence of evolution; simply a matter of difference. They see the same as perverted. And for those who mix this distaste with religion, it is an affront on God’s law. I might as well be defending rape, or bestiality, or child marriage. It’s beyond the pale.
The more charitable of these allow themselves the dissonance of liking me even though I support something they detest, by reassuring themselves: it’s the influence of the West. It’s because of all those books he has been reading. As Emperor Festus said to Apostle Paul in the Christian Bible: “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning has made you mad.”
How can I be a Pentecostal Christian who goes to church and speaks in tongues—something actually mocked by most of my liberal tribe—and at the same time be a homosexual-supporting, transgender-affirming, pro-choice person? How does it even make sense? What are they to do with me?
But that doesn’t mean I understand homophobia or transphobia. I can understand not liking something, not wanting to participate in it. But I cannot understand harming people for doing things you don’t like.
People, especially cosmopolitan Christians, often say: I hate the sin, not the sinner. But that confuses me even more. How else could you hate someone worse than denying their human rights, supporting laws that prescribe their torture and death, refusing to employ them, or even worse—as I have heard some people do—cheer when they are killed by angry mobs? How much more can it be possible to hate a person than for a father to disown his child? Is it not enough to disagree, even to disapprove?
Make no mistake: I do not consider homosexuality to be a sin—sin being a separation from God. It is a demonstration of diversity on par with other beautiful things in the world: marriage, childbirth, heterosexual sex, gardening, prayer, worship, creation, love, relationship. I believe that diversity is the very force of life. Nature evolves into further complexity, diversity, difference. Thus the wonders of biodiversity, cosmopolitan cities, even empires—the more diverse, the more thriving.
But even if I did consider it perverted—which it bears repeating, I do not—I would still be confused by the hate; the insistence on treating people as other, not because they hurt anyone, but because they exist differently.
A lot of people don’t agree that women should be in politics, join the army, use birth control, or have divorces. Would we allow such women be hurt by those people just because they disagree with the things they do—even if these are lifestyle choices?
It is not necessary to convince people that homosexuality is right or natural, for this lesson to shine through. Why? Because we don’t need to agree with people in order to respect them, embrace them, leave them be, and love them.
Love is at the core of my faith. The Christian idea of love doesn’t wait for people to become what you want them to be before you love them. It’s about loving them as they are. And there is no love without action. To love a person is to do loving things to the person—to protect them, to engage them, to embrace them (even if you don’t embrace what you don’t agree with), to validate them as humans, first and foremost.
“It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” the Christian Bible says in 1 Corinthians 13:7-8. “Love never fails.”
Duty fails. Miracles fail. Professionalism fails. Wealth fails. Care fails.
But love? Love never fails.
Using the instruments of oppression, punishment, legal intimidation, force: how can that be love? Can we agree that prescribing murder, disowning a child, or firing a person for their sexual or gender identity cannot be love?
This is not just about LGBTQ rights; this is also about all future rights given to people who do no harm to society—wherever biological and social evolution will take us, whatever mutations of the human condition will follow. New rights and new identities will continue to come up as they have throughout history—for women, for Muslims, for Christians, for children, for Black people, and more. I don’t need to know what rights will be demanded or to agree with those rights before I embrace, accept and love the people as they are.
This conversation about love—and with it acceptance and justice—matters. The consideration of love as the fundamental ethos of a society that wishes to thrive and ensure the greatest well-being for the greatest many, is as urgent as it has always been. If we all had to wait for people to understand us before they loved us, what kind of world would we have? Without people ready to suspend judgment and empathize with things they cannot understand and cannot prove, who would we be?
We ask people to live honestly and live in their truths, and yet we tell them to shut up and stay hidden, because we dislike their truths.
We say I don’t have a problem with them. But how can you have no problem with a person’s life and yet want that person to hide that life, to never speak of it, to never “flaunt” it in public? Why is it so important to take away their power and their voice? And what kind of person does that make you, if you must shut down the spirit of a person you disagree with?
Love and acceptance cannot really be love and acceptance until we see what they do when they encounter something they don’t like. That is love’s truest test. And love and acceptance are why I can’t just let this matter be.
My heart breaks with each hurtful word, each harmful action, each attack, each oppressive response, each demonstration of hate. There is so much avoidable pain and loss, caused by us on each other, for no good reason. How can I not bear witness?
I remember at this point, Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, to fellow ministers who asked him to be quiet, at least for a while.
To their defense of attacks on minorities based on the law, he answered: “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s …laws.”
To the members of his faith who stood by while other citizens were oppressed: “I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.”
And to those who called him extremist in his demand for equality, he pointed to Jesus: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
I like the idea of being an extremist for love and acceptance. It calls to something deep within my spirit. Because it is not homophobia or transphobia alone that break my heart—it’s inequality and oppression with regard to gender, to race, to religion; any part of the arena of human existence where being a minority or being different puts one automatically at risk.
That is why, as an associate producer in 2003, when I was barely 18, I was proud to help put the first openly gay person on a national TV interview in Nigeria, and to follow it up with a magazine cover. That is why I am set to do the same with the first interview with an intersex woman on national TV. That is why I stepped up to help tell the story of a woman alleging rape by a powerful Nigerian pastor. That is why I have launched a faith platform that integrates as many voices as possible, from atheists and agnostics, to people of the Bahai faith. That is why the stigma and discrimination that often follows issues of mental and emotional health engage my attention.
“Here I stand,” the first Martin Luther declared 600 years ago, in front of the most powerful men of his day. “I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”
That is why today I am announcing the launch of The Nigeria Prize for Diversity and Difference, and literally putting my money where my mouth is by endowing the prize for its first year. The prize will find and support young people across Nigeria who are creating safe spaces for and giving voice to people who are different in seven key areas: gender, sexuality, faith and spirituality, mental and emotional health, art, special needs, and human rights.
Applications open today on diversity.ynaija.com, and the criteria for the prize are also on the site. I am especially looking for those who work in states and communities where it is most dangerous, even fatal, to be different; people and organisations who may not know how to navigate funding, spotlights or networks. I want to help them, in my personal capacity—using my voice, brand, networks, and talents—in their quest to make us more fully human.
There is a corollary to this. By sticking my neck out and planting my flag firmly, I hope to invite conversation from people who don’t understand but want to understand; who are open to seeing this from another angle—that of love and acceptance. I do not desire change in doctrine or worldview, not even to convert or persuade on the rightness of this or that difference. Only the humility to say, like Paul the Apostle who once persecuted Christians: I now see differently.
“Come, let us reason together.” Let’s help each other on a journey towards better understanding those who are not like us, who don’t live like we do, who may never agree with us. Come, let us help each other on a journey to becoming better, in and through love. And let that urgent journey towards love and acceptance be powered by compassion for those who are queer, marginalized, oppressed and attacked unfairly: the stones the builders rejected, that are nonetheless crucial for building the fabric of a society that can fully actualize itself.
There was a time when my default was white-hot rage at prejudice, as I refused to explain my stand or to justify where I stand, for fear of playing defense on a matter I consider righteous; my only desire to create the conditions that make prejudice unfashionable. But that desire has ripened into something more supple.
I Corinthians 13:11-13: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
To respond with compassion and empathy is not to be on the defensive, I have now learnt. It is to choose another kind of offensive.
Of course, I bear no illusions. Habits die hard, so resistance and abuse will yet come in response to this. I wish it wouldn’t; but where it does come, it will be welcomed. This is a prize about difference and diversity, yes, but it is also a prize about defiance.
You see, when I decided to do this prize and to write this piece in February, scheduled for Pride Month, I couldn’t have known that—forced into global reflection by COVID-19—there would be a global reckoning of the track records of those who did nothing or something while the voices of minorities were being silenced in the workplace, in government and by the forces of the state – #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #WeAreTired. That a global protest for equality and safety would be the backdrop of this announcement.
But I could not have been surprised.
Here is the rub: Nigeria will change, whether we like it or not. That is the inevitable nature of society. In 50 years, many of these rights I fight for will be enshrined because the moral arc of the universe bends only one way: towards justice. And when that time comes, our children will wonder if we had lost our minds when we insisted on this exclusion and oppression—the way many today wonder at history’s legacy of slavery, child marriage, and the suppression of voting rights for women.
When that future comes for Nigeria, the records need show that some people stood up and stood in the gap. So that our children will fight their own battles secure in the knowledge that this race of justice is a relay across generations; that they are not alone in the fight for the fruits of love—acceptance, empathy, compassion, temperance.
Nigerians and Africans cannot be fighting for Black lives—which are a minority in the West and the East—while oppressing their own minorities here at home, and resisting the urgency of diversity. No.
Black lives matter. Gay lives matter. Trans lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Atheist lives matter. Agnostic lives matter. Autistic lives matter. Neuro-divergent lives matter.
This is the same cosmic battle humanity has been having for all of time. And Life is asking us the very same question it has asked those before us, and will continue, for all of time, to ask those after us.
Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
I choose, enthusiastically, to be an extremist for love.
*Jideonwo is host of the TV and radio network #WithChude, which is creating safe spaces for conversations about mental, emotional and spiritual health across Africa. He is also co-founder of human flourishing company, Joy, Inc.