OUTcast S1, Ep 3 • 11 Oct 2021 • 54:40
Rosie: Welcome to another episode of OUTcast, the podcast where we share coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people all over the world.
I’m Rosie Pentreath, your host. I identify as a lesbian woman, and I’ve shared my coming out story in personal settings, in online articles, and as part of LGBTQ+ panels on coming out and being queer at work. And now, I want to hear other people’s stories.
I’ll be interviewing people from all walks of life – from hardworking queer people behind the scenes, to more familiar faces you might have never known even had the coming out stories they’re about to share.
That’s what it’s all about: OUTcast is me and my guests sharing stories, creating a space for us all to talk, to listen, and to celebrate being proud queer people in the world today.
You can follow us on social media at @OUTcastLGBT and you can find us online at outcastpod.com.
It’s great to have you with us.
Rosie: This week, we are joined by Victor Iringere. Victor is a Nigerian refugee who lives in Birmingham with his husband. He works at Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, and campaigns for refugee and LGBTQ+ rights.
He was born in Lagos in Nigeria, and was from a religious family. He has been subjected to conversion therapy, exorcisms, starvation and violence due to his sexuality, and he sought asylum based on his sexual orientation in 2017 in the UK.
He was granted asylum in 2019, but not before becoming homeless due to the current UK legislation preventing asylum seekers from having employment.
Victor’s story is honest, heartbreaking, shocking and just harrowing. But it ends with hope – he is happily married, a proud gay man, and living here in the UK safely.
Before I start this episode, I do want to warn listeners that Victor’s story does contain triggering details around mental illness, conversion therapy and violent homophobia. But it is also incredibly hopeful and loving. He’s truly an inspiring and beautiful human, and I feel privileged to have met him.
He also had some building work going on in the background of our chat, so there may be some fluctuation in the quality of this recording. But it’s not a story you’re going to want to miss, so I had to include everything.
Rosie: Victor – welcome to OUTcast.
Victor: Thank you. Thank you, Rosie.
Rosie: You have an extraordinary story to share – it’s heartbreaking, but I think it’s important that people hear it so we can spread awareness of what it’s like to be an LGBTQ+ person from Nigeria.
Rosie: Tell us a bit about yourself. You identify as gay, and you’re married and you live in Birmingham…
Victor: That is correct, yes. I’m a 27-year-old gay refugee from Nigeria with a mental health illness and I’m Black. I think I tick a few diversity points to be honest!
I was born in Nigeria to a medical doctor, my mother is a doctor, and my father, he never quite landed on any profession. He didn’t have a very easy life, so I grew up with my mother and my sister in Lagos.
And I lived in Nigeria until I was 19, when I came to the UK – Coventry, specifically – for university. And I did that for four years, and then went back to Nigeria for ten months and then, after that, I had to flee and come back to the UK and start over here and try to make it my home.
Rosie: And we’re going to find out more about your story as we chat. What was your childhood like, first of all?
Victor: There was a lot of love. My mother is an amazing, amazing human being. I think of her as a superhero, almost. You know, when we were very young, she never expected to be a single parent. She had to make the decision for her safety and for the safety of me and my sister, to become a single parent. And that was incredibly difficult for her, a young unmarried, or divorced woman, raising two children in the 90s in Nigeria wasn’t very easy.
We were under a military dictatorship at the time as well, and so even though she worked for a government hospital, there was so much corruption that sometimes she wouldn’t get paid for months. And so she had to take, at one point, two extra jobs, two evening jobs in clinics, and I think she did that for years, just to take care of us and ensure we got the best education and we didn’t suffer a lack.
So she worked a lot, she worked very hard and she gave us everything that we could possibly need. She kind of carried it all on her own, so, you know, for a large part it was happy.
Rosie: Mm hmm.
Victor: You know, it wasn’t without its challenges, especially as I started to hit my teen years. Things started to go downhill as I started to realise more and more that I was different from all the people around me. And I didn’t understand why, lots of people didn’t understand why, so there was a lot of pain as well, sort of in my later childhood. So it was very mixed, it was very mixed.
Rosie: Mmm, your mum sounds like an extraordinary woman.
Victor: She is. She is, absolutely.
Rosie: Yeah. So, you describe feeling different. When did it start to creep in that you knew you might be gay?
Victor: I didn’t have a word for it. Even before I knew I was different, everybody told me that I was. The earliest incident, or one of the earliest incidents I can remember, I was five, I was in nursery, and I remember I’d come to school wearing girl’s socks. They were very flowery. I don’t know why I chose that sock, or why those socks were chosen for me, but I liked them. And I got made fun of by my friends and teachers for wearing girl’s socks.
And through the years, there were a lot more incidents. People told me I acted like a girl, I looked like a girl. It wasn’t like an innocent observation, it was almost like an accusation.
Victor: I didn’t understand what I was guilty of. In school I wasn’t interested in a lot of the things that the other boys were interested in. I had no interest in football, I wasn’t as strong as they were, I didn’t want to play the same games as the boys wanted to play, so most of the time on the playground I’d be with the girls playing.
I remember one time, for example, while the other boys in the neighbourhood were out downstairs playing football, I was with the girls sewing clothes for Barbies. That was the sort of thing I was interested in, so I knew I was different. I didn’t understand why, and I didn’t have a word for it.
Victor: I think the first time I had a word for it was in church, when I was about 11 or 12, and they preached against homosexuality. And it dawned on me, “oh my God, that’s me.” But also, actually, when I got into secondary school at 11, that was the first time that people called me gay or homosexual. But I didn’t internalise it, I think, until I heard it in church, and they preached against it, and I started to think, “hold on a minute, I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”
Because when I started to hit puberty, I wanted to hang out with the boys, but not because I wanted to play the same games as them. I just, you know, liked them and I wanted to be around them, you know. That was when it started to dawn on me that I was gay.
And I will say, as well, that, up until I was 16 or so, even though I had had the language for it, and I’d understood it as a sin, I still felt very alone. I was convinced that there were maybe ten gay people at a maximum in Nigeria. I didn’t think that there was anyone around me who was feeling the same things, or who understood the same things, or who was the same.
Rosie: Yeah. Of course you know that’s not true now, and I think it’s so important to know that there are people going through the same thing as you, and that’s a crucial part of self-acceptance and coming out. In terms of the way they were preaching against homosexuality, was it quite passionate, strong preaching against it specifically? Or was it sort of more mentioned within sermons?
Victor: Oh, it was very passionate. I think the only thing that was more vilified than homosexuality was being transgender.
I was a Sunday School teacher, I think from the age of 14 or so. Before Sunday School, we would meet on Saturday – all the teachers – to kind of discuss the material and prepare the lessons that we were going to teach on Sunday.
And I remember one of those discussions, the topic was sexual immorality. When you talk about sexual immorality, the top thing that comes to mind is homosexuality. I remember they said all other sins are sins, but homosexuality is an abomination. And that was lifted from Leviticus, you know, so it was considered worse than any kind of other sin as far as I was taught. And the only thing that was worse than it was being transgender: the way that they explained it was that, when you decide that you are better able to create humans than God, and you’ve taken the body that God has given you and you’ve spat in God’s face and said that He’s wrong and you change yourself into something that God hasn’t made you to be, then you are a living, walking abomination.
Rosie: We have an incredible episode of OUTcast featuring a transgender Anglican priest, who explains her approach to this question really, really well. She explains how her belief in God works side-by-side with her gender, and how she made that journey, and it’s an incredible listen.
For listeners of the podcast as well, for context it is illegal to be homosexual in Nigeria. Victor, where do you think such a strong, anti-LGBTQ+ approach comes from, in Nigeria?
Victor: I think it’s a mixture of a lot of different things, you know. And I have spent some time thinking about it. One thing I know is that homophobia was not our culture, it was something that was imported with colonialism. That’s absolutely true.
However, as happens with a lot of trauma, I think one of the things that happens is, 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, 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.
And, religion served up that scapegoat on a platter. There’s very much that sort of, “yeah, I might be suffering, yeah things might be bad for me, but I’m still better than that person, they’re a walking abomination. At least I’m doing my best to be right with God but they’re not.” So I think there’s that.
Obviously there’s patriarchy as well. The reason why – and this is something that is seen across a lot of homophobic societies, certainly in Nigeria – lesbianism is more permitted than homosexuality, because it’s not taken as seriously. But then I believe that’s also due to patriarchy, because patriarchy says that women don’t own their sexuality. Women’s sexuality is a tool to pleasure men, and so if a man thinks, “actually I can be okay with two women getting along, it gives me pleasure”, that’s more permissible.
On the reverse side, when you’re a man in a patriarchal society, and it’s almost like you’ve won the DNA lottery, you’ve kind of won a lottery at birth where you have more privilege by virtue of your gender. One thing that we know about oppressive power structures is that they are very, very weak, very, very susceptible to threats, because they oppress people by the very nature of being oppressive. So one of the only ways that you can hold on to that power is by keeping other people in line. So when a man does things that a man isn’t supposed to do, quote unquote, you know when a man decides to take on the role of a woman, sexually, in a relationship, what have you, it’s almost like a slap in the face to the patriarchy because 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 it, as well.
So there’s the religion, there’s that culture or there’s that history of trauma and oppression, and how Christianity and Islam were introduced into Nigeria, and how people were scapegoated. There’s that fear, there’s that patriarchy, and also, you know, there’s just the lack of understanding. We fear the things that we don’t understand.
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?” So I think 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 and those factors continue to feed it.
Rosie: Yeah, it is incredibly complex and I think it’s such a demonstration of how one issue leads to another issue leads to another issue, and this trauma that you speak about is creating this sort of will to survive in people. It’s almost like a survival mechanism to create that hatred and pulling people down, because you want to just get by, and that’s almost what’s happening in the leadership, by the sounds of it.
Victor: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Rosie: Once you realised that you were gay, you’ve spoken about confessing that to a priest, is that right?
Victor: The first time I spoke to my pastor about it, I think I was about 14 or 15, but I realised I was gay when I was about 11 or 12. So those years were years of silence, because as far as I knew, there was a sin inside of me. I had all these sins in the Bible that I had to take care of by praying, by getting closer to God, by practicing the things that I’m supposed to practice: speaking in tongues, and praising God, and dedicating my life to the service of God, and begging God to heal me of this sin.
I did that on my own for three or four years. The first time I spoke to my pastor about it, I think I’d gotten to a point where I’d been praying and fasting for a long time, and I felt like I needed some help, so I went to one of my pastors and I told him.
I will never forget the look on his face when I was explaining to him the things that I was feeling and what I was doing about them. It was almost like a puzzled disgust. It was almost like, I don’t know, it was almost like I’d been explaining to him how I go to the sewers every day and drink a bucket of poo. It was that kind of reaction that you would expect to see when you said something like that.
He said to me I needed to fast and that he was going to pray for me and help deliver me. And one thing that he said that puzzled me – and I don’t know why he said it – he said he wasn’t going to pray to God to take away my feelings, because taking away my feelings would make me inhuman. But he was going to pray to God to give me the grace to deal with them.
Now that flew in the face of everything that we’d been taught, that I understood, that they taught in church; that he taught in church. So I didn’t understand why God couldn’t just take away the sin. Even if I didn’t do anything about it, when I saw a boy I was attracted to him. I felt that I was committing the sin of lust, but it was worse than the sin of lust because I was lusting after another man. So it was the sin of lust and homosexuality. And so it’s like, “okay, but you’re not actually taking away the sin. You’re just telling me to cope with it.”
Rosie: Did it change your view of God? Did it change your religion?
Victor: No. No. No absolutely not. Absolutely not. Because one thing that I’d been taught about God was that God was loving and God was merciful and God was kind.
So by the time I got to 16, about two years after this, that was when I had my first relationship with another boy in my class. We became friends, we were very attracted to each other, and then we started to explore with each other sexually.
There was a lot of guilt around that, you know, I felt very guilty. And in all of this, of course I never blamed God because I’d been taught, I knew that God was perfect. It was described to me that when you consistently live in sin, God will turn his face away from you.
At the time I was dealing with a lot of depression, but I understood this as God turning his face away from me. So, really, I just kept going on and on trying to find my way back to grace with God. So I was not angry at God, I was ashamed at myself. I felt unworthy. I felt like a fraud.
It got to a point when, every time I would go to church on Sundays, and they would start the worship, which is the slow music that helps you to connect with the spirit of God, it would get too difficult for me to be there and I’d run into the bathroom and I’d stay in the bathroom for about half-an-hour just crying, because I felt so horrible, I felt so guilty, I felt so unworthy. How dare I stand in the presence of God, how dare I stand with all these holy people knowing what’s inside of me.
You know the Macklemore song, ‘Same Love’, that bit where it goes, “I’m not crying on Sundays”. That hit me, and I was like, “wait, crying on Sundays was literally my teenage life.” I was like, “I connect with this so much.” I was crying on Sundays because I would go to church and feel like I was unworthy.
Rosie: I’m so sorry, that’s so awful. It’s awful. That terrible choked up depression you felt. I think I can guess what the answer is to this, but are you still religious in any way?
Victor: I’m not religious, no. I consider myself a humanist. However, I have made my peace with religion. My husband is a Christian, and I’ve been able to come to a place where I can appreciate the benefits that it has for other people – the solace and the succour that they get from it. What I get from meditation or mindfulness, a lot of people will get that from religion.
I think I’ve got to a point where I can actually see the benefits of it for other people, while saying this is not for me. So, no I’m not religious but I’m not anti-religion either. I think it has its benefits for people certainly.
Rosie: Mmm, that’s really strong and inspiring – to see the value for other people, whilst you’ve made your peace and don’t necessarily need it any more.
So, going back to your story and to the battle inside you between religion and your sexuality when you were younger, what did the conversion therapy you’ve talked about involve?
Victor: There were quite a few, of varying degrees. The first one was obviously just praying and fasting, but they started to get intense after I came out to my mother at 16. That was when the conversion therapy started.
I don’t remember all of them. I think one of the first ones was, my mother had brought a prophet. He brought this bottle of very dirty water – I don’t know what he put in it – and he brought some really weird soap, and another small bottle of a more concentrated liquid. And so I was supposed to put that liquid in my bath, and I was supposed to shower with the soap, and I was supposed to drink that water every day, and those things were supposed to help cure me. Well obviously that didn’t work.
I also was taken to a church somewhere in Lagos where I had a one-on-one counselling with a pastor, and he put me onto the American-style conversion therapy. So this was actually run by a Christian ministry in America, and there was a number of courses that were supposed to help you change your mind and help correct what’s wrong inside of you. Obviously that didn’t work. That one was called Door of Hope, I remember that.
I was taken to another city where, as part of the conversion therapy, I had to fast every day for two weeks. And so I could only eat once in the evening. I’d spend the entire day in church about three times a week. There was all sorts of things. We’d put lots of denominations of currency on the floor, and there were little bottles of olive oil and I had to sort of dance around them, and break them against stones. I had to roll around the floor from one end of the church to the other. I was basted in coconut water and sand. There’s been a lot, there’s been a lot, and I think every time my mother would open up to someone else, they would suggest another pastor or another priest who they’d heard could cure me.
One of the ones that was probably the most dangerous – and I’m so grateful that I got to escape that – was, a priest was brought in from another city and my mother put him up in a hotel. And he’d come to our house every night and would do all-night prayers, but then he would talk about taking care of me. One of the first things he said to me is, “oh, are you on Facebook? We should be friends. I want you to be friends with me, I want us to be close.” And he also said to me, “I travel a lot, I go abroad for conferences and things, I can take you with me.”
He was basically trying to groom me, to take advantage of me sexually. And thankfully this happened shortly before I fled. One of the things that he had said was that I was going to have to come to his church in the other city, and spend some time after he gets back from his trips. I knew what was going to happen when I went there, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything to stop it. I just knew. This man was a creep.
And he was doing all of this in a guise of converting gay men into straight men, or running an ex-gay ministery or what have you. And I keep thinking about how many boys have been sent by their parents to their abusers, in the name of trying to find a cure for homosexuality? And, of course, there was nothing that I was ever going to say to anyone that was going to make them believe a homosexual over a man of God.
Rosie: Mmm. Exactly, it doesn’t really bear thinking about. It’s so infuriating and hypocritical and just terrifying, Victor. Let’s bring it back for a minute – in terms of first speaking to your mum, do you remember her reaction?
Victor: It was one of the most horrible things that I have ever experienced and I’ve been through some horrible things in my life. It was the first time I felt that my mother was done with me.
And when I told her, she didn’t say anything. It’s quite customary for her actually, when she’s faced with difficult emotion or difficult information, she goes away and she processes. And so the first time she spoke to me was, I think, later that night or a couple of nights later. She woke me up in the middle of the night, and she asked me, “what is it in boys that attracts you?”
And then I started talking about my, quote unquote, boyfriend. We didn’t call each other boyfriend, but he was the boy in my class that I’d been with. And I started talking about the things about him that attracted me, and I could feel my face lighting up. I could feel that there was a big smile on my face as I was talking about him.
And then I caught myself, and I was like,”what am I doing?” and then I looked at her and on her face was this look of horror; of disgust. You know, seeing me talk so deeply about loving another boy.
She tried, bless her, she tried. She tried to fix me, she tried to find help, you know. She told me that, “look, I know that you’re quite effeminate, and a lot of people have said to me that there’s something wrong with your child because he’s very feminine.” She said, “well no, some people are just creative”. And she said that when she was in uni, she had a classmate, and he as very effeminate, but he was a very lovely person and people used to say that he was gay, and she said, “well, no he’s not, he’s just a very creative person.”
So she said, there’s nothing wrong with being effeminate, it doesn’t mean that you have to be gay. I think that she believed that I had internalised the fact that people had been calling me gay because I was effeminate and then I’d manifested that in myself.
She was trying to correct that. She spent a lot of time trying to correct that, mostly with religion.
And then she got more… she would get more upset; more angry. I was 16 at this time, I left Nigeria when I was 19 for the first time, so over those three years, she would try. At first, she tried very hard. It didn’t work, obviously. And then she would get frustrated and she would get angry, and she would stop trusting me.
I remember when I went away to college for the first time, I sort of started to explore myself and the things I loved, you know, because it was the first time I was away from home. I actually met other gay people – I realised that there’s more then ten gay people in Nigeria!
One of the first things actually was I found a Facebook Group and there were over a thousand people. It was called Gay Men in Nigeria and I was like, “Oh my God, there are a thousand gay men in Nigeria?”
I actually made some gay friends. I went to a gay party. I started dating, you know, I was trying to explore myself. Obviously I was still conflicted with religion and all of that, but I just needed to find myself, you know?
And things went downhill when I got outed in class. And it became very dangerous for me, and people were plotting to kill me, and a gun was pulled on one of my closest friends: there were people trying to kill me in school because I was gay. And I had to tell them everything I’d been up to, and at that point, I think, that was when she just thought, “this child is incorrigible.” We’ve been trying to help you, and you just don’t want to be helped. I believed that she was done with me. And the more I grew to understand and accept myself, the more I grew away from the person that she hoped I would be. And I think it just kept breaking her heart over and over and over again.
Rosie: Mmm. Mmm. It does sound like you do have a deep respect for her, in spite of that. Did you gradually manage to rebuild a relationship over the years?
Victor: Yeah. We’re still working on it. It’s been very difficult, but one thing I know is that she did everything she did out of love. And, yes, I carried anger for a very long time, and I might still have some of it. We’ve had a lot of conversations, and recently I started to realise a lot more about myself and my mental illness, and so, that allowed me to put a lot of things that happened when I was growing up into perspective.
I think where our relationship started to turn around was about two, two-and-a-half years ago. I did an interview in The Guardian. It talked about the night shelter that I slept in when I came to the UK and sought asylum and became homeless. I was excited – ”I’m in The Guardian!” – you know? So I sent it to everyone, and I sent it to her.
And she didn’t respond. And then two days later I thought, “oh my God, you literally just told your mother that you were homeless on the streets of England.” I started to panic, so I called her and I said, “you haven’t spoken to me since I sent you that article.” And she was like, “how would you go through something like that and not tell me?”
And I got angry. And I yelled at her and I said to her, “how could I tell you? What has being honest with you ever gotten me, apart from pain and hurt?” It was the first time I was completely honest with her about the ways that she had hurt me, and the ways that she had taken my honesty and my trying to connect with her, and trying to share my truth, and used it against me.
We spoke that day, she called me the next day, and she was in tears and she apologised to me. She said, “I failed as a mother” and hearing her say those words broke my heart.
Victor: Because I knew that she hadn’t. As angry as I was – and I was angry, I was so angry at her – I knew that she hadn’t failed. I knew that my education, the person I am, my character, a lot of that comes from her.
I saw the sacrifices that she made, and she wasn’t happy. She had a very difficult life and she was carrying it all on her own. And hearing her say, “I have failed as a mother”, that completely took away my anger, because I love her, and she’s amazing. I know she didn’t fail. She made mistakes and it took me a long time to deal with a lot of the mistakes that she made, and there were a lot. I had to get to a point of realising that she couldn’t do any better, because she didn’t know any better.
She was as much a product of her surroundings, of her society, as anyone else. And she grew up in a society where she had been taught that this is the way to be a good, upright person.
She felt that she was trying to save me from wasting my life. I had to first of all heal from the hurt. I needed that apology from her, and then I needed to be able to forgive, and remember and realise that she did it all out of love.
And I think that’s one of the most complicated and difficult things about dealing with homophobia, or about dealing with injustice from the people around you who love you.
Somebody explained it like this: if you’re sitting in a crowded theatre, and you can see that there’s a fire, you’re going to try and save the people around you even if they can’t see it. If you say, there’s a fire, let’s go and they’re like, “well no, there’s no fire”, they’re going to stay, but you know if they stay they’ll die, so you’ll do whatever you have to do. You’ll punch them in the face if you have to, you’ll push them out, to save their lives.
But a lot of the time, what the people who are trying to save us from the fire don’t realise is there actually isn’t a fire. And so, you know, in that situation, yes they’re doing it out of the best intentions, but they’re still hurting you. This person I love is still punching me and pushing me and trying to shove me out of the theatre, when I want to watch this film.
Understanding that, it helps, but it’s still hard. There’s still a lot of hard work that has to be done with forgiveness and reconciliation and self love.
That’s one of the most difficult things I had to learn, was loving myself and valuing myself enough to put myself first.
Victor: And to say, “I’m not going to apologise for who I am. I’m not going to apologise for living my truth. When I’ve done that, and when I’ve made my space for myself, then I can be generous to other people and I can be understanding of them.”
Rosie: Yeah, mmm hmm.
Victor: Moving out, finding my own place in the world, starting to build my own life from scratch, that’s helped with that forgiveness journey.
Rosie: It sounds like the time and space that you have created moving away has allowed you to be incredibly generous. The way you’re speaking is generous, and so open and so understanding.
Victor: I think we’ve gotten to a point of tolerance, and it’s better than it’s been in a long time, but it still breaks my heart.
Rosie: It’s such a sort of powerful and heartbreaking demonstration of how damaging homophobia is.
Victor: Absolutely, absolutely. 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.
Rosie. Mmm hmm. And it’s something… being gay, being LGBTQ+ is something that has nothing to to do with anyone else outside it, which is the most awful puzzle piece. Because, you know, who we love or who we are is our business, and we’re not asking anyone who’s not interested in; we’re not inviting them in. It’s such a nonsensical, devastating and just disgusting situation in the world, really.
Rosie: So much did happen to you in Nigeria. You willingly and unwillingly did this conversion therapy. I know you’ve talked about exorcisms and really extreme approaches, but let’s talk about your escape if it’s okay to call it that. Did it time with university in the UK?
Victor: To go to Coventry University, I got a scholarship from the state government to come to the UK for university. And that’s because English universities are just better than Nigerian universities. The government had this thing where they were trying to train young people who were going to help make the country better. They were trying to develop talent, so they thought, “we’ve got to send them to the best schools.”
So there was the UK, Canada, America, you know, the countries with better education. I sat the exams, I passed, I got on the scholarship. Before I left though, my mum’s best friend said, “I’m not sure if going to the UK is the best thing for him, because there, they celebrate this thing. What’s he going to become when he goes?”
In the end, they agreed it was best for me to have the best education, and that’s why I came to the UK. And coming to the UK really, really did change me. I was sat in a class with people who came from all over the world, who had completely different approaches to life than anybody else that I’d ever grown up with all around, than anything I knew.
It was quite a bit of a shock. It actually taught me, well wait a minute, there isn’t just one way to live and be good, 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.
It caused me to question my religion. It was a lot of things that I was seeing. 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.”
Through different lenses, because I was exposed to different information and different ways of life. There was a boy in my class, and we were friends, and he’s Indian and he’s Hindi. And he was talking to me about his Gods, and about his religion, and the fire, 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. And I thought, well surely there’s not that much difference between us? Why am I right and he’s wrong?
So I actually started to question a lot of things, and that led me down a path of self acceptance. It was slow, it was gradual, it was painful. I had to unlearn a lot of things, but I did. And then it got to the point where I finally accepted myself, and I was like, “I’m a gay man and there’s nothing wrong with that. This was how I was made. This is who I am.”
And then going back to Nigeria, I started to have conversations with my mother, you know, hoping that perhaps she would accept me, or she would understand. I sent her some materials from the American Pediatric Association, some scientific research. She’s a doctor so I thought, okay, she’ll respond to science that shows that, actually, people are just born gay. So, clearly, it’s not unnatural like I’ve been taught. We’ve been wrong.
And so, going back home after uni, I really, really, really thought that finally I’m going to be able to have a conversation with my mother about who I am. And that, actually, I would be okay. That wasn’t what I got.
Rosie: What did happen?
Victor: I got more conversion therapy, more hostility, interventions… just horridness, which led by month seven of being there, to a depression and, you know, I was ready to die.
Rosie: Victor, it’s so hard to listen to. I’ve read about your experiences of ongoing conversion therapy and things that were as extreme as exorcisms, so it’s not surprising that you were in that place; that you were ready to take your life. What happened next?
Victor: My life was saved by my friend. When I reached out to him, he didn’t try to convince me that it was worth living – and I knew I was going to die that year; I was sure I was going to die that year. He just said, “well, you’ve got your graduation in a couple of months. How about you just do that first? Just hang around until then?”
I don’t know if he knew what he was doing when he did that, but I did. I decided I could give it another couple of months. What the heck. I’m going go to my graduation and have a good time anyways.
I’d been here for a couple of days. I was on a train. I was sat on the train, looking out at the fields, and I felt safe. I had forgotten what feeling safe was. I thought, “I can’t go back.”
It just, that was when it dawned on me: I can’t go back.
I didn’t actually leave Nigeria with the intention of fleeing or seeking asylum, you know. Just being removed from immediate trauma and constant re-traumatisation, and of course you know the people around me – the friends who kept encouraging me – it gave me hope and it told me, “actually, maybe there’s a life for you beyond 2017 afterall. Maybe there’s a way to do it.”
Rosie: I’m so sorry, it’s so so sad. It sounds like that friend did truly change your life; saved you. So, you sought asylum in the UK. You’ve described how, when you seek asylum, you’re unable to work, is that right? Due to UK legislation?
Victor: Seeking asylum and coming to the UK, I was safer. There was no immediate physical danger or immediate physical threat to my life. What I didn’t realise was how much re-traumatisation I was going to go through.
Because – 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.
And so the system works exactly as it is supposed to work. It’s a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of 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, you take away their right to free movement – you can’t live wherever you want to live, you’ve got to go to the Home Office and report once a week, or once a month, and each time you’re going 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.
There was not a single officer, in that system, who worked for the Home Office, or G4S at the time – now Circo – who I felt any shred of kindness from. Except one, one lady who worked for G4s. She only came around once and then she was replaced, I don’t know why.
And it’s a system that is deliberately designed to be hostile in every sense. And so, while fleeing homophobia, I was fleeing for my life, I then came into a system where my very worth as a human being was constantly attacked.
Rosie: It’s vile and it’s completely backwards that you would treat people like that who are fleeing a dangerous situation, or who need humanitarian help. It blows my mind that you would lack the humanity at that point.
Victor: Yes, I’ve struggled with the question of, “how do people who do that to other people sleep at night?” And then I realised that it’s just human nature.
Humans are humans wherever you go. Humans here aren’t better than humans back there. The government here isn’t better than the government in Nigeria. It’s humans, and human nature is selfish. And human nature has an incredible ability to be cruel. And all they need is a justification for cruelty.
And, you know, I used to think that I could run and find a place in the world that could be cruelty free. Now I don’t believe that anymore. I think all of us – myself included – we all have the ability to be incredibly cruel, because it’s easy to not think about pain when it’s not your own. It’s easy to not think about suffering when it’s not your own. It’s a lot easier to turn a blind eye.
Rosie: Yeah, Yeah.
Victor: And sometimes actually, it’s healthier, because you can’t carry all the pain and the suffering in the world. So I think that the only way to actually ensure we don’t become the monsters we claim to be trying to protect other people from, is by actually taking a look at our own behavior in our life every day.
And actually think, “who am I hurting, and is there a better way to do this?” Because, at the end of the day, the people who are pushing anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, they’re not doing it because they want to be cruel. All of those thousands of people who work in the system are not doing it because they want to be cruel. They don’t consider themselves cruel people, and so, if I actually start believing that these are cruel people, these are enemies that I need to fight, what’s going to happen is they’re going to get defensive and they will become enemies.
I do believe that while we all have a capacity for incredible cruelty – and I’ve experienced a lot of that in my life – we also all have a capacity for love. That’s what’s been able to help me make peace with my mother: she did a lot of horrid things to me, but she didn’t do them thinking that she was being horrid, or wanting to be horrid.
I do believe that, absolutely, there is a place for activism and I will help, you know, in any way possible to fight the good fight, for those who are less privileged than me, absolutely. I will donate money, I will go on marches, I will do all of that.
But I think the real value lies in talking to people. And in reminding them of humanity. If I actually go to somebody who’s voting in a way that continues to harm people like me, I want to believe that if I put my story in front of them, and I say, “look at me, am I less human than you?” And I say, “this is how what you are doing is hurting me.” And then I say, “can we try to find a way where, you can get the things that you want, you can feel that job security that you love, and you can feel that my being here isn’t taking anything away from you, but you can actually make space for me to be alive, and to be safe.”
I think that’s the conversation we don’t have enough. And that’s why I want to take every opportunity to tell my story to as many people as possible, and get them to think.
Rosie: Mmm hmm, exactly.
Victor: And, I still want to believe that there’s good in all of us. And that we all want to be good, and we just need to find a way to do it.
Rosie: Yeah, yeah. People who hear your story will be changed, it’s guaranteed. And I wish more people did think more, all the time, about how their decisions are hurting other people.
Victor, you’ve been through more than anyone should have to go through in a hundred lifetimes, let alone one. What would you like to tell anyone listening to this podcast who may have been through similar experiences, or who may be going through similar experiences now?
Victor: 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.
I was listening to Oprah yesterday, with Prince Harry, and she was talking about what happened to you. She said, “rather than thinking about what is wrong with me, think about what happened to you. What are the injustices in life that have caused you to be in the place that you are?”
And I’m not saying absolve yourself of bad behavior. If you notice you have behaviour that’s hurting you, and hurting others, change it of course. But from a place of love and kindness. Because, as much as we can rely on other people, all that we’ve got is ourselves.
And it sucks, and it’s horrible to think that the person who’s going through those horrible things still has to be the number one person taking care of themselves, but it’s the harsh reality of life that I’ve learnt.
It’s not going to make all the problems disappear. But it’s going to give you the strength to deal with them, if you love yourself and you’re kind to yourself. So if you don’t know how to do it, learn. I didn’t know how to love myself, I’m still learning: I’m listening to tapes, I’m doing mindfulness, trying to remind myself of all the wonderful qualities that I have.
Rosie: Yeah. And now you’re in the UK, you’re married, you work for the Refugee and Migrant Centre in Coventry. You do have this life that, on the outside – and I hope it’s true – does have hope in it, hope and love. What gives you hope now, and what gives you hope for the future?
Victor: I’m a very broken person. Like you said, I’m a person who’s dealt with enough trauma for a hundred lifetimes: that leaves its mark on you.
But in those moments, it’s the people around me who care for me. It’s my husband who, you know, I mean no one’s perfect, we fight a lot, like any other couple. But it’s seeing the way he loves me.
It’s my friends who have got difficulties – I mean, when you’re a traumatised person you tend to be drawn to other people who share trauma as well, and so, my closest friends have had very difficult lives as well – and the way that they’re there for me and that I’m there for them.
It’s my boss, who is an absolute trooper! No matter how hard I try, because of my trauma, because of my mental illness, sometimes I’m just not strong enough. He tells me, “it’s okay, you know. You’ve got to take care of yourself first before you can take care of other people.”
It’s the people around me who, in little ways every day just renew my faith in humanity. That’s what gives 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.”
It’s the love that I’ve found, even after all of this or with all of this horridness. That’s what gives me hope.
Rosie: Absolutely, absolutely. Victor, thanks so much for sharing your story. Even if one person listens to it and it changes their life, that means everything.
You’re incredibly inspiring, you’re so strong, and, you know, you’ve been very open about your mental health as well, your mental illness – I hope you keep having that strength and you keep sharing and finding ways to be strong and to survive that, and to keep enjoying the love you have, with your husband and with your friends.
Victor: Thank you, Rosie. And thank you so much for just giving me the platform as well. Your time, and for this amazing work that you’re doing, I think it’s so important. And I really do hope that it helps a lot of people as well.
Rosie: Thanks so much.
Thank you for listening to OUTcast, a podcast with interviews and coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people.
I’m your host, Rosie Pentreath, I hope you can join us again next week.