Victor Iringere shares his story of being gay in a country where it’s illegal, relenting to extreme conversion therapies, and becoming a homeless asylum seeker in the UK – showing us how colonialism creates the perfect toxic mix of fear, patriarchy and oppression that feeds violent homophobia.
What podcasts can’t show is when their hosts cry while presenting them.
When I interviewed Nigerian refugee and proud gay man, Victor Iringere, in Episode 3 of OUTcast, I was reminded of why I created the podcast in the first place.
Victor’s story, as hard as it was to hear, shares his experience of traumatising shame, conversion therapy, fasting, physical abuse and threats to his life – simply for being a gay man. It is essential we hear it.
Victor was born in Lagos, Nigeria. His childhood was defined by a hardworking single mother who is a doctor, and memories of happiness were mixed with increasing struggle due to his sexuality.
Victor was young when he realised he was different from the people around him, and he knew he was gay – although he “didn’t have a word for it” – by the time he was 11. He didn’t like the same things as the other boys, and in puberty he found he was attracted to them.
In Nigeria homosexuality is a crime, and Victor grew up in a religious family, so his life became increasingly difficult.
“When the only gay people that you’ve ever heard of are described as peodophiles or as abominations, people just think, ‘well if you’re that depraved, what else won’t you do?’” Victor explains on OUTcast Podcast. “In Nigeria, there’s also a lot of fear of the unknown, and I think it’s a very complex thing that can’t very easily be explained or solved, but there are a lot of factors that have created this system.”
In Nigeria, Victor was subjected, and subjected himself to, all kinds of punishments due to his sexuality.
“One thing I know is that homophobia was not our culture, it was something that was imported with colonialism,” Victor, who now lives in the UK and works for Coventry Migrant and Refugee Centre, reflects.
“However, as happens with a lot of trauma, when you’re made to feel like you’re less than – for example, Nigerians living in Nigeria under colonial rule couldn’t do certain jobs, their lives were very limited and they were very much second class citizens – one of the only things you have to hold on to is the fact that there’s other people you are better than.”
People hide behind imported religion, namely Christianity and Islam, in the country and use it to scapegoat anyone “other”, especially LGBTQ+ people, according to Victor.
There’s also the patriarchy.
“When you’re a man in a patriarchal society, and it’s almost like you’ve won the DNA lottery, but you do what a man isn’t supposed to do like take on the role of a woman, sexually, in a relationship,” Victor says, “it’s almost like a slap in the face to the patriarchy.”
“It says, well, ‘why have you decided to give up power? What is wrong with you?’ And then other people who are benefitting from that system feel threatened, as well. So I think that that misogyny is a big part of homophobia in Nigeria,” he says.
Homophobia is so rife in the country that the LGBTQ+ community is invisible and underground. “I was convinced that there were maybe ten gay people at a maximum in Nigeria,” Victor laughs.
After the cruel attempts to beat homosexuality out of him, Victor had the opportunity to leave Nigeria to attend university in Coventry, at the age of 19.
“The government had this thing where they were trying to train young people who were going to help make the country better,” he says. “They were trying to develop talent, so they thought, ‘we’ve got to send them to the best schools’.”
This included the UK, and in Coventry, Victor was exposed to cultures from all over the world. He also had the relative freedom and safety to explore his sexuality and there he came out as a gay man.
“It actually taught me, well wait a minute, there isn’t just one way to live and be good,” Victor reflects on OUTcast. “There’s lots of people around you who are living good lives, and they’re happy, and obviously they’re good people, they’re not sinful people who are going to go to hell.”
University in the UK also gave Victor cause to question his religion.
Read more: Meet the trailblazing transgender vicar who’s making communities more inclusive
“I remember going to my Nigerian church when I was in uni and noticing that pretty much everybody in the church was Black and Nigerian. And it just made me think, ‘wait a minute, if our gospel is as powerful as we say, Black Nigerians are the minority in this society, but they are the majority in this church, so clearly maybe this is more about culture than it is about what’s actually right or wrong.’
“Also, there was a boy in my class who was Hindi, and he was talking to me about his Gods, and about his religion. The fire and the passion I saw in him as he was talking about his Gods was the same fire and passion that I had when I was talking about my God growing up.”
He concludes: “And I thought, well surely there’s not that much difference between us? Why am I right and he’s wrong?’”
Victor came to accept himself as the gay man he was, and when it was time to return to Nigeria having finished his degree, he had hoped he’d be able to stay an out gay man, and that things would be different with his friends and family there.
“That’s not what I got,” he sighs. “I got more conversion therapy, more hostility, interventions… just horridness, which led by month seven of being there, to a deep depression and I was ready to die.”
He continues: “It destroyed my family. It cost me everything. It cost me my home, cost me my family, cost me my friends, and so many times, it almost cost me my life.
“But I’m not the only one who’s suffering. The people around me, they’re suffering too, because of it. And then you multiply that by however many millions of people live in homophobic situations, or grew up in homophobic situations, and you start to appreciate just how much the damage it does in people’s lives is. It’s horrid.”
But then – a glimmer of hope.
“My life was saved by my friend,” he tells us. “When I reached out to him, he didn’t try to convince me that it was worth living, but just said, ‘well, you’ve got your graduation in a couple of months. How about you just do that first?’ and I did.”
When he attended graduation, it hit Victor how safe he felt in the UK. “I was sat on a train, looking out at the fields, and I felt safe. I had forgotten what feeling safe was. I thought, ‘I can’t go back.’” he admits.
He sought asylum in 2017, and, even though he was no longer in imminent danger for being a gay man, he was plunged into trauma again – because the UK asylum system made him homeless.
“I walked into the system that’s aptly named, ‘The Hostile Environment’. It’s a system that’s designed to keep people out, not to protect or save them,” Victor reveals.
“The system works exactly as it is supposed to work: a lot of time, effort and energy has been spent trying to figure out ways to prevent people from trying to come to the UK to seek asylum.
“You take away people’s right to work and their right to free movement, because each time you report to the Home Office there is a threat that you’ll be taken and put in a detention centre and removed.”
“You’re working in a system where you are not valued as a human being,” Victor summarises, heartbreakingly.
But, after facing the cruelty of the UK immigration system, there is hope now for Victor. He was finally granted asylum in the UK in 2019, and now lives in Birmingham, happily married and out as a proud gay man.
“It’s easy to not think about pain when it’s not your own,” he emphasises on the podcast. “It’s easy to not think about suffering when it’s not your own. It’s a lot easier to turn a blind eye,” he reflects.
And sometimes it’s healthier, the Nigerian refugee concedes. So, what gives Victor Iringere hope?
“I want to say the first thing, and the most important thing, is to be kind to yourself and to love yourself. And to not blame yourself for the horrible things that the world has done to you.” he responds.
“It’s the way my husband loves me, and the people around me, who, in little ways every day, renew my faith in humanity, that give me hope.
“That’s what makes me feel like, ‘you know what, the world is worth living in and it’s worth fighting to make better, because all these people are amazing’.”
Click here to listen to Victor’s incredible story of cruelty, pain and resilience now on OUTcast Podcast. Visit www.covrefugee.org to find out about Coventry Migrant and Refugee Centre’s work.