Davis Mac-Iyalla has been an LGBT activist in his home country of Nigeria and across West Africa for decades, first with Changing Attitude Nigeria and now with the organization he founded in 2016, Interfaith Diversity Network of West Africa ( IDNOWA ).
"IDNOWA was created to work for the inclusion of LGBT+ persons and a world governed by respect and dignity," said Mac-Iyalla. "When it was established we searched for a country in West Africa to register the organization since it was impossible to do so in Nigeria. We discovered Ghana was the best place for that to happen and our members agreed with this decision. After my appointment as pioneer executive director, I had to relocate from London back to Accra, Ghana where I live with my partner Olivet. I could not be directing and leading the organization from the diaspora."
Mac-Iyalla's journey as an LGBT activist was circuitous. He was born and raised in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, and had a happy childhood.
"I am one of the lucky ones to be born into a family where my both parents where senior civil servants," Mac-Iyalla told Windy City Times. "I graduated from the Teachers Training College in Degema, Nigeria, and taught primary school students and Social Studies and religious knowledge in a secondary school in Nigeria. I was also a principal at Saint John Anglican Primary and Secondary School before I left Nigeria."
Recently, Mac-Iyalla, who is also a lay minister, was invited to speak at the Illinois LGBT-inclusive First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn by senior minister Rev. Seth Ethan Carey.
"It was a new experience for me to speak to a congregation that is mostly white and willing to listen to what I had to say," said Mac-Iyalla. "When I was introduced, I got a standing ovation and that is a good sign. I am hoping our partnership in faith and social justice will continue for a long time. I knew the interest in talking about what folks like myself are going through in Nigeria and West Africa on the whole was real by the questions I got from the attendees."
"As a pastor, I am well aware of texts in the Bible that contradict this theology of being open and affirming to LGBT people; but I also read the Bible through the lens of Christ's teachings, which prioritize love and grace above the laws of ancient societies," said Carey. "We believe that love brings God joy, and we hope to do our part to build a world where love is celebrated in all of its forms.
"I was introduced to Davis by our pastoral intern, TJ Hauger-Williams, who has worked with him in the past. Davis' story is truly a heartbreaking and inspiring one, and I felt it was good for our congregation to know that people like him are working for LGBTQ rights in parts of the world where those rights are the most fragile, if indeed they exist at all."
As for the current situation in Nigeria, Mac-Iyalla said the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act has made it impossible to be openly LGBT in the country. He explained that the law criminalizes LGBT people and anyone who is convicted faces 14 years in prison.
"Most LGBT+ Nigerians live private lives," said Mac-Iyalla. "What we have seen recently and is still going on is police invading private parties and accusing the people of organizing same-sex marriages. Conservative religious leaders in Nigeria are working with the security forces to set up and blackmail suspected homosexuals so they can persecute them. We also have unofficial police who use mob tactics on LGBT+ people, including attacking them violently. In such cases the police and authorities turn a blind eye. LGBT+ people are unsafe in Nigeria. "
In terms of what transgender people specifically face, Mac-Iyalla said they are at risk since people do not recognize that they exist. He explained that Nigerians on the whole believe it is a western identity that has been imported to West Africa.
"Many activists like myself are fighting back by creating awareness about the issues," said Mac-Iyalla. "Others are working on litigation and appealing the law and some of us are using the United Nations system to promote the rights of all people."
Mac-Iyalla is also a member of Global Interfaith Network. He said IDNOWA has received much needed support from International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association and Inclusive and Affirming Ministries South Africa.
As for what role average Americans can play in helping LGBT people in Nigeria and West Africa in general, Mac-Iyalla said, "They can support our local initiatives and developments financially and continue to put pressure on your government to promote the human rights of all people including LGBT+ at the UN and other international platforms. People are starting to show compassion for the rights of LGBT people outside of America and I am hoping that by keeping the conversation going this will grow."
See itdnowa.org/ for more information and/or to make a donation.