LGBTQ+ Nigerians Face Hurdles In Quest To Access Healthcare


Iniobong Iwok

…….Turn to alternative medicine, self-medication

…Campaigners say discrimination violates rights

In early 2023, Toyin, a transgender woman from Lagos who spoke on the condition of anonymity, visited a health centre to treat an infection. After a stern look, the doctor told her, “You are wrong to alter God’s work.”

Toyin swiftly left the medical centre without receiving treatment and never went back.

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people in Nigeria, visiting hospitals and clinics for medical care can be an unpleasant and traumatic experience, especially when seeking treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Activists say this reality has forced many LGBTQ+ people to withdraw from the healthcare system in favor of buying treatment for their ailments online and from unqualified health care professionals. Many sink into despair.

Transgender and non-binary people are most affected by this stigma and discrimination.

Mercy, a female transgender person and LGBTQ+ rights campaigner who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said this discrimination often starts with security guards before even entering a health facility.

“That is why we are having cases of suicide among us”, Mercy noted.

Although experiences differ among LGBTQ+ people, rights campaigners say widespread homophobia has deterred many from seeking medical care.

Femi, a gay person in southwest Nigeria who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he walks into any health centre to receive treatment for illness like malaria but goes to specific health clinics to receive treatment for health issues related to his sexual orientation.

“In accessing healthcare, the majority of us (gay persons) know where we are going. I have my regular hospital where my mum and siblings go for normal medical care,” Femi said.

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Femi laments the homophobia queer people in Nigeria face and advocates for repealing the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) law, which then President Goodluck Jonathan signed in 2014.

The law bars not only same-sex relationships but also any public sign of same-sex affection or membership of LGBTQ+ groups, with punishments of up to 14 years in prison.

The law was first put to test in December 2019 when 47 men arrested by the police in a hotel in Lagos the previous year were arraigned in court, accused of publicly displaying same-sex affection.

In 2023 in Delta State police arrested 100 people at a hotel accusing them of participating in a gay wedding.

“I know a lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community that were killed here last year. Repealing the law may stop it,” Femi said.

Joy, a non-binary person who lives in Lagos and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she prefers to seek medical care from private hospitals rather than public ones, noting that she often faced discriminatory questions from healthcare workers in government-owned hospitals.

“When I have tried to get healthcare from public facilities, I keep hearing questions like; ‘when would you get married?’ This plus other societal perceptions from the healthcare workers,” Joy said.

Cheikh Traore, a public health expert and LGBTQ+ rights campaigner, said LGBTQ+ people’s reluctance to speak openly about their sexual activity for fear of judgement and discrimination from narrow-minded health care workers exacerbates the barriers they face.

“Some of them do not have the confidence to go through that judgmental attitude,” Traore said.

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Another aspect of the problem LGBTQ+ rights campaigners cite is a lack of knowledge among healthcare workers about effective and affirming treatment for LGBTQ+ people’s specific health needs and concerns.

“They don’t probe into health issues when there is one. They only give the general medical advice, not the medical advice that is [specific] to the needs of the community,” said Bolaji Damola, who works as communication officer for the Lagos-based nonprofit the Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs).

Sheriff Moshobalaje, clinical psychologist with TIERs, said part of the problem is that LGBTQ+ issues are not discussed in tertiary institutions in Nigeria, making
it difficult for service providers to know how best to treat queer patients.

Ray of hope

Many LGBTQ+ rights campaigners say the solution to overcoming these barriers is to create dedicated healthcare facilities where queer people feel empowered to access services.

TIERs, which has been advocating for the rights of queer people since 2005, describes the barriers queer people face when accessing health care as a human rights violation.

To tackle the challenge the organisation runs a clinic in Lagos where health service is provided for LGBTQ+ people.

“Queer people prefer to come to our facility. There is something that they see here, and that is professionalism,” Damola stated.

“The organization has tried to evolve from provision of inclusive health service to human rights services.”

Oluwafisayomi Azeez, who works as Program Officer for the Centre for Population Health Initiative, says despite improvements in health-seeking behaviour among LGBTQ+ people, more advocacy to younger persons and people in remote areas would further improve the situation.

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Many queer people say access to health care is part of the basic human rights they have as humans and should be respected.

Growing awareness

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and most Nigerians hold negative views of same-sex relations, with only a minority tolerant of gender and sexual minorities.

However, a 2022 survey in 36 states in the Country of Origin Information (COl) report by the United Kingdom government shows growing acceptances of LGBTQ+ people particularly among young Nigerians.

Another 2019 poll by TIERs found 60% of Nigerians would not accept an LGBTQ+ family member, down from 83% in 2017.

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