Such worries were validated again this week when 47 men pleaded innocent to a charge of public displays of affection with the same sex.
They were among 57 people arrested in a police raid last year on a hotel in the West African nation’s commercial capital, according to Reuters, after officers accused them of being “initiated” into a gay club. (The men said they were attending a birthday party.)
The judge granted each man bail on Wednesday, as long as he could pay 500,000 naira, or about $1,634, and hearings will resume Dec. 11.
The trial comes five years after then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a law banning same-sex marriage and activities deemed “amorous” outside the bounds of heterosexual relationships.
The measure triggered international outrage, but it stuck in Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy, which is known for its art scene, technology prowess and entrepreneurial spirit. Activists say the restrictions fuel human rights abuses, thwart progress and contribute to Nigeria’s well-documented brain drain.
Homosexuality is outlawed in 32 African countries, where socially conservative values reign. Many leaders see decriminalizing same-sex unions as promoting them, which, they say, is at odds with their religious traditions.
South Africa is the only nation on the continent where LGBTQ rights are guarded in the constitution. Other countries police gay expression with public obscenity charges.
Those who break the law in Nigeria — which can carry a penalty of up to 14 years in jail — typically face extortion and blackmail, activists say.
Others who don’t hide their sexuality face harassment and beatings.
In an essay for CNN.com, Richard Akuson, a Nigerian lawyer and founder of A Nasty Boy magazine, which seeks to challenge traditional portrayals of masculinity, described a brutal assault in his hometown.
“They accused me of being gay and ‘spreading a gay agenda,’ as they pummeled me,” he wrote. “Each punch was an assault on who I was.”
At one Lagos club in 2017, police apprehended 70 men and boys for public displays of affection.
Prosecutors in the northern state of Kaduna that year also charged 53 people for “conspiring to celebrate a gay wedding,” according to the BBC.
Recent polls suggest a growing, if shaky, acceptance of gay men and women in Nigeria, which is largely Muslim in the north and Christian in the south.
The Initiative for Equal Rights, an advocacy group that has polled Nigerians on their attitudes toward sexual orientation annually since 2015, found that 60 percent of respondents in a June survey would not accept a family member who is gay, compared to 83 percent in 2017.
Three-quarters of respondents said they supported outlawing same-sex marriage — a steep drop from the 90 percent who reported that belief four years ago.
“Everybody deserves equal rights, and we are very happy that more people are recognizing this, and attitudes are changing,” Xeenarh Mohammed, executive director of TIERs, said in a statement. “There is more work to be done, and we hope that more people will join in the fight against discrimination.”