By Lana Leonard GLAAD.org | June 8, 2022
Zach Stafford met Edafe Okporo after he gave a talk on the future of queerness at Columbia University a few years ago. At the time, Stafford left his job at Grindr as chief content officer to become the editor-and-chief of the LGBTQ+ news publication, The Advocate.
Okporo approached the microphone during the Q&A.
Unlike the other guests, Okporo left Stafford surprised. The priest, writer and refugee asked the journalist, editor and producer why he left his job at Grindr when so many people use Grindr to build LGBTQ+ inclusive communities in Nigeria—his home.
Okporo left Nigeria to seek asylum in America. His questions, his story and his demeanor left Stafford in surprise. After the Q&A, Stafford began editing articles he encouraged Okporo to write about his life. These articles foreshadowed his memoir: Asylum: A Memoir & Manifesto.“He is willing to tell the truth no matter who he’s talking to, and so many people don’t do that,” said Stafford at Okporo’s book launch Tuesday night.
A crowd of people in the Center for Brooklyn History sat listening to Okporo and Stafford speak on behalf of what it means to be a refugee and a Black, gay man. People sat listening intently with copies of Asylum in their laps.
“When I came here I thought I was just a gay person. I’m also a Black man, I’m also a refugee,” said Okporo to GLAAD.
His story is not one of ease, and his becoming is one of perseverance.
“My young gay life was taken away from me by trauma,” said Okporo.
One morning in 2016 Okporo awoke to a mob outside of his home in Abuja, the capital of the federal republic of Nigeria. He was 26-years-old with a huge decision to make about his future as an individual and for the Nigerian LGBTQ+ community that would precede him—that came before him.
Abuja sits in Nigeria’s center. It’s known as the Nigerian political and administrative capital, where laws are passed. In Nigeria, laws criminalizing LGBTQ+ relationships persist.
Same-sex relationships under the Criminal Code Act and the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013 (SSMPA) are illegal. Men and women can be arrested with a maximum sentence of 14 years. Same-sex relationships, including transgender people, may also be criminalized under Shari’a Law at the state level with a possible sentence of death by stoning. There are other state-level British-colonial era LGBTQ+ criminalization laws as well.
For Okporo, America came with its own set of systemic complexities within the immigration system. This is a central issue Okporo discusses in his memoir, specifically Chapter 3: “Being a New Immigrant in America”. He spent five months and 14 days in a cell before he forfeited his affiliation with his homeland, as millions of asylum seekers are expected to do when they come to America.
He was released and homeless.
Unlike other countries America gives next to nothing to its refugees.
“Being released in forty-degree weather with no sense of direction made the point incredibly clear: the American incarceration system was efficient in jailing, but not in preparation for an inevitable release,” writes Okporo in his memoir.
Stafford asked Okporo about this chapter, the ways that joy overcame him when he came into America to then experience a resurgence of struggle. This struggle is persistent with neoliberalism or the ways in which Americans and politicians claim a fight for equality, while ignoring the systemic violences against immigrants, asylum seekers, and the homeless refugee population, said Okporo.
“Try to look for a shelter for an asylum seeker to stay—right now,” said Okporo. “There is none in New York City.”
Refugees seeking asylum in wealthy countries (like America) are often at greater risk for poverty, cannot afford healthcare, and have higher rates of contracting HIV/AIDS, reports the National Library of Medicine. Sex work is often a circumstantial option for work and, at times, necessary for living. For Okporo, although he came to America with a bachelor’s degree from Nigeria, he had to pay someone $350 to help him get a job picking apples before he went back to school at New York University (NYU).
While in detention, he met a transgender woman from Hondoras. She couldn’t change her name nor her gender markers in her own country, so she was placed in the male detention center. “She couldn’t shower, she couldn’t do any single thing. When you come out of the detention center, you go into a shelter. In the shelter there is a lack of signs of visibility that you are welcome: No pride flag, no stories that talk about you, your pronouns are not affirmed,” said Okporo. These signs show diverse communities that they’re not welcome here, he said.
“I’m a cisgender refugee, imagine being a transgender refugee,” said Okporo.
The published author doesn’t believe politicians will create this change; he believes grassroots operations will. It was a grassroots organization, First Friends, that ensured Okporo had a home after his release from detention, but not everyone has the access nor the resources.
This has influenced Okporo to start his own grassroots refugee organization called Refugee America, a nonprofit with the mission to build human connections through storytelling to empower and support LGBTQ displaced people in rebuilding their lives in new communities.
Last month Okporo finished his masters degree at NYU, he published his memoir, and he is getting married. He says luck and the people who’ve supported him are how he got to where he is. Although America is not the land of the free, it was the one place Okporo could tell his story, and he encourages survivors to tell their stories of overcoming too.
“I didn’t know what I was doing when I started working with LGBTQ people. I knew I wanted to make a change,” said Okporo.
More grassroots immigration justice organizations: