Breathe Free - Oliver Anene Profile

In honor of WorldPride NYC, we revisit a series of profiles of LGBTQIA+ immigrants to the U.S. from around the world. Seeking asylum from their home countries, these brave members of our community spoke with NYC Pride about the happiness and heartache of their journey to create a new home in the United States. We thank Immigration Equality, the leading LGBTQ immigrant rights organization in the country, for connecting us with these amazing individuals.

This article was originally published in June 2017.

Oliver Anene is gearing up to head to the World OutGames in Miami to speak on African Queer and Gender Nonconforming Communities in the USA. You could call him an expert on the subject; born in the small city of Calabar, Nigeria, Oliver grew up where it was difficult to find community support in a time when African names for identity were being erased.

Growing up with a small group of LGBT friends, he witnessed young members of his community getting killed or dying from health-related issues. This led him to create a support group for the LGBT community in Nigeria that would later become a community network. In 2005, Oliver had his first contact with the Nigerian government. He was volunteering in the capital with his organization when the president arrived unexpectedly. The president stopped by his booth and a fellow volunteer proudly announced that the two of them were gay. This action took a while to accept for Oliver, he pushed it off as a lie saying, “I didn’t come out, he did...”

2006 brought to light a bill that criminalized same sex relationships. This bill targeted not only same-sex relationships, but anyone who was accepting of them, as it punished those who failed to report these relationships with up to 12 years of jail. Oliver’s world began to suffocate him. His landlord wouldn’t renew his rent so he was forced to move home; he had to take a car to and from his gate to work; he couldn’t socialize normally. He recalls a specific example, he was out seeing a movie with a friend and a woman turned to her children and told them that Oliver would make them gay, to stay away from him. The final turning point was receiving blackmail from a close relation.

“I struggle with the idea of fleeing,” Oliver says, discussing the members of his community that are still on the ground fighting for public and LGBT health rights. “At the time, I thought I had committed enough, I needed to be in a safe environment.” In 2012, Oliver came to Washington, D.C. for an International AIDS Conference and he stayed, leaving everything behind with no plan. He met Immigration Equality at the conference, shared his story, and they took on his case. Three months later he received his asylum.

“I didn’t know I was gay until college, moving here it was like, ‘Is this who I really am?’” Those first three months when he was waiting for a decision were extremely difficult. Oliver had nowhere to work, nowhere to stay and nothing to eat. “It was tough, but this is my home,” he says reflecting on New York, “[This city] has taught me a lot; it is my home and I won’t let anyone tell me it’s not.”

“Press forward at all times, climbing toward that higher ground of the harmonious society that shapes the laws of man to the laws of God,” reads the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. memorial, a backdrop to our conversation. Oliver has pressed forward to further the rights of the LGBT community in Nigeria, to give a voice to the need for HIV interventions that target vulnerable populations, to place young people at the front of the advocacy movement for HIV, sexual health, and reproductive rights. He is currently working with the Adolescent Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital providing LGBTQ friendly sexual health services for young people. For more information on supporting Oliver’s organization in Nigeria, please reach out to him at oanene@maleattitudenetwork.com.