Kate Harris interviews Yemisi Ilesanmi
Published in Workers Liberty’s Solidarity Newspaper
How did you get to where you are today as an LGBT activist and out bisexual woman?
It has been an interesting, tasking, journey towards self-awareness. It is also a journey that has involved studying society and finding my place in it. It is a continuous journey and one where I have to constantly remind myself that I have a right to be who I am in a world that is desperate to make me into what they would rather I be.
I started being politically and socially aware of my human rights at an early age. I was born in Nigeria in the mid-70s and grew up in a society that was marred with constant military coup d’états. There was no stable democracy. It was confusing because people took to the streets to celebrate successful coup d’états. I wondered why it was a good thing for the military to forcefully overthrow elected officials. But the people’s response was that the elected officials were corrupt. However, after having a taste of what military dictatorship means, people stopped celebrating coups. This started the difficult journey towards demanding and organising for a civilian regime where they would have a say in electing their own political leaders.
The military regime and its abuse of power, which includes but is not limited to the suspension of the constitution, denying citizens fundamental human rights like freedom of expression and dragging perceived opponents (mostly human rights activists) to prison on trumped up charges, made me politically conscious of the need to have my fundamental human rights asserted and protected.
As an undergraduate, I became more politically active. I joined the socialist movement in my university and also became an active student union leader. From there, it was a constant battle against the oppressive military regime and a battle towards securing a democracy. The battle caused us to lose some of our comrades to the bullets of the military junta. Also, many of us had to spend years fighting trumped up charges in courts; we had our degrees withheld for political reasons.
After leaving school, I was recruited into the trade union movement and started working for the Nigerian Labour Congress. It was another 10 years journey of fighting for and defending workers’ rights, locally, nationally and internationally.
Having gone through all the struggle to secure a democracy, it comes as a shock when as a bisexual woman, the democracy I fought hard for is now being used as an instrument of oppression. Those civilians that are now at the helm are no better than the military juntas. They have no basic respect for human rights and have no interest in equal opportunities for citizens.
They recently passed a law that stipulates 14 years imprisonment for anyone who engages in same sex relationships and 10 years imprisonment for anyone who advocates LGBT rights. Freedom of expression and association are being crushed under the draconian boots of elected leaders.
If I was bold enough to stare down military rulers, it is a must that I continue to fight for my freedom in a civilian regime. We need the dividends of democracy which we gallantly fought so hard for; unfortunately we are yet to reap the expected dividends of democracy. Nothing much has changed, it is still business as usual.
I refuse to hide my sexuality, especially when I know it is a fundamental human right for me to be able to be who I am, express my gender identity and sexual orientation without fear of oppression or discrimination. The draconian anti-LGBT law has been passed but the battle continues. Advocacy and educating the masses are tools I use. Not being silenced by fear is important. I have chosen to be openly out and I will continue to speak out against all forms of oppression.
When did you become, or realise you were, a socialist?
I became a socialist in my early twenties. My university had a rich culture, a hot bed of left movements. I became a member of the Marxist group, Campaign for Workers Alternative (CWA) and also a member of Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM). It was all exciting reading the Communist Manifesto, discoursing and debating socialist works and it surely was interesting relating all that to our present society, especially considering that all this was during the reign of military regimes.
We had military-appointed university Vice Chancellors who were doing their best to clamp down on student union organising and union activities. So we always had collisions with the school authorities.
Some of us got suspended and we had to resort to the courts to overturn the unfair suspension. It was a difficult time, academically, we did not get much done because the school timetable was never stable. It was either the academic staff union were on strike or the university was closed down due to students’ protests. It was a politically active time but our education did suffer. But no regrets. I think joining the socialist movement on campus was one of the best decisions I ever made.
How do you deal with the hate speech that you are subject to?
I do get a lot of hate speech from homophobes, biphobes, transphobes and religious people on account of my fight for LGBT rights and also for being an outspoken atheist. I just put it down to ignorance and continue to do my best to educate people and put information within their reach.
Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate and hate leads to violence. Ignorance can be the most violent element in society, therefore it is important for us to try and combat ignorance in every way possible.
I do my bit by providing information. I wrote and self-published my advocacy book titled Freedom To Love For ALL: Homosexuality is not Un-African. The book is available on Amazon. I also have a blog called YEMMYnisting where I write about current issues, including LGBT rights, feminism and atheism. I use social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread awareness. This also means I get a lot of hate messages but it also means people are talking and the message is getting out there. Subjects that were once considered taboos are being raised and openly discussed. I consider this to be a step in the right direction.
How important is it for socialists to be secularists?
Religion is an instrument of oppression. Socialists must be conscious of the ways religion has been used and still being used to manipulate people, cause division, keep people suppressed and used to turn women, men and ethnicities against one another. It is one big stumbling block towards workers’ unity across borders.
Religion divides, and only the rulers and oppressors benefit from keeping people divided. Socialists must understand that it is important to have a secular state and a secular constitution where religion does not interfere with politics or the laws and policies of the land.
It is important that socialists understand that religious beliefs cannot be a reason or excuse to deny women or sexual minorities their human rights. It is important that socialists understand that religion truly is the opium of the masses. It is a tool the rulers use to numb the people to stop them from revolting against the government. It is also the tool many rulers use to incite the people against themselves. A democratic state must be a secular one.
How does being a feminist interact with the rest of your politics?
Being a feminist is an integral part of my being. My feminism is not a cap I put on and off, it is constantly with me. Feminism is both personal and political. The political is personal and the personal is political. I demand to be treated as a human being and accorded all the inalienable human rights accruing to every human being.
If any of these rights is being denied on the basis of my gender or sexuality, I speak out. I fight back. I assert myself. It is present and visible in my daily interactions. It can be in the privacy of my bedroom, in a room full of family members and friends, in my workplace with colleagues and employers, or a public platform. Wherever I am, I assert my rights to enjoy my inalienable human rights and not be treated as a sub-citizen or sub-human being because of my sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. So my feminism is with me 100% of the time.
What impression do you have of the British left?
So far, my impression is that there is not much left in the British left. The British left strikes me more as reformist. This is not peculiar to the British left. I hope that there will be a vibrant left movement in UK colleges and universities because these places should be a hotbed of political ideas and the left movement should have no difficulty making its presence felt, especially considering how much capitalism has failed the people.
Is there anything you would like to draw the particular attention of Solidarity readers to?
The need to unite across borders. Reach out to left movements in developing countries especially in Africa. There are many passionate young and old socialist comrades in many African countries. It would be great to establish international solidarity and build our strength across borders. Workers of the world unite should not just be a slogan, it should be something we actively strive to achieve.