WRITTEN BY MARK KOLSEN, GUEST WRITER OF AAI NEWS TEAM
John Adowye’s story is almost unbelievable. A gay Catholic priest who could never overcome his fear of hell, he left Nigeria for the United States, hoping he could turn straight. After three futile years, John not only has accepted his sexual orientation but has become a strong, critical voice of religious oppression.
A gay Nigerian boy who enrolled in seminary and became a priest to escape bullying? Who didn’t grasp Catholicism’s anti-gay doctrine until the age of 22? And who, fearing the fires of hell, immigrated to the United States after reading an Exodus pamphlet promising him he could “convert” from gay to straight? Yet, a Nigerian who today says, “Africa has too much religion”?
Today, the 55-year-old Nigerian expatriate works in the University of Chicago’s Hospital Office of LGBTQ, which provides educational, social and professional opportunities and resources for the university’s students. An openly gay man, Adewoye also works for the recently formed group CLASP, a Chicago LGBT asylum support program now lobbying the U.S. government to grant asylum of gay men around the world. In 7 countries—including Nigeria—gays can be sentenced to death. Adewoye helps house gay refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. and in fact has five refugees living with him now. But how Adewoye got here is itself quite a story, a story that illustrates his assertion that “Africa has too much religion.”
Bullied throughout his childhood for his “feminine” behavior and desire to become a nun, Adewoye feared more threats in Nigeria’s high schools and therefore purposely failed his high school entrance exams. Having been raised in a strict Catholic family, and thinking that working as a priest would provide him a safe refuge from bullies, Adewoye entered seminary at age 13, and eventually served as a Catholic priest from 1987-2003. However, as a priest, he still suffered occasional “subtle jibes” from other priests who sensed his gay orientation.
Interestingly, as a priest, Adewoye was much more bothered about his sexual orientation than about his non-celibate behavior. In Nigeria, he said, the understanding is that if a priest is not going to have a family, he may discreetly have sex, and there is a “deep silence” on the issue. Sexual activity must be kept within bounds: a Nigerian priest found guilty of child abuse would, he says, be severely punished. On the other hand, Adewoye thinks that if the Catholic Church “faces the reality of human sexuality…and has a way out [of celibacy] for a priest…let celibacy be a matter for those who can…then probably there will not be child abuse” in the Church.
Adewoye’s life took a sharp turn when, one day, someone slipped a pamphlet under his door. The pamphlet had been printed by Exodus International, the infamous, now-disbanded organization that promised gays could change their sexual orientation through prayer and psychotherapy. Not only did Adewoye “gasp” when he read it; he immediately moved to the United States to determine if he could change his orientation. Although as a cleric, he had done effective work that made his family proud, Adewoye wanted “to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Bible, he knew, said homosexuals would burn in hell.
At the University of Chicago, Adewoye took two years to realize that Exodus was a fraud. Sexual orientation, science told him, was primarily innate. In 2001, he decided to leave the priesthood, but not because he could now accept his gayness. Rather, he concluded that he could attain eternal salvation by forming relationships with women, an obvious no-no for priests. For a year, he and an ex-nun got “close” before he recognized that the relationship had not changed his attraction to men. She, too, discovered a preference for women. Yet, the specter of hell still had not dissipated in Adewoye’s brain.
We can thank the internet for John’s liberation. On AOL, he met a 72-year-old gay Catholic marriage deacon, who introduced him to a GLOW-sponsored (Gay, Lesbian or Whatever) group of believers. Their racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual diversity amazed Adewoye: a new world opened, a world in which Adewoye recognized the wide-ranging nature of homosexuality. When Adewoye met his Nigerian bishop, a bishop who had ordained and worked with him for years, Adewoye revealed his sexual orientation and proposed that he minister to gay and lesbians in Nigeria. The bishop “was not for it.” Adewoye decided it was time to sever his ties with the Catholic Church. He knew “I can’t be a gay advocate and a Catholic priest at the same time.”
Today, John Adewoye says “Africa has too much religion.” Gays are oppressed and threatened by those “who look at the world from a spiritual angle to the detriment of pragmatic reality.” Just returned from Nigeria, Adewoye says 98% of the Nigerian population supported recently passed anti-gay legislation there because “god says” gays will burn in hell. But according to Adewoye, religion also poisons politics and the economy. Quoting the Bible, Nigeria’s corrupt leaders persuasively argue that their rule is ordained by god. People are rich, it is believed, “because god put you there.” As for the poor, whose numbers have substantially increased since the mid 1970s, their religious lens allows political and economic elites to ignore them with impunity. The more desperate poor, ironically, support extremist religious groups like Boko Haram, which, since 1982, has occasionally gained popularity, especially in the north, as people seek any alternative to Nigeria’s failed civil society. In the end, as Adewoye says, “Nigerians are religious to god’s embarrassment.”
Is Nigeria a hopeless cause? Adewoye thinks not. He belongs to several secret LGBT Nigerian communities on Facebook. He says that “conversations there raise tension…a good number of people are saying ‘there is stupidity here’ and ‘we need to give up religion.’ And some are saying ‘with my religion, I just have to apply my common sense, and if religion does not appeal to common sense then common sense rules.’” The latter is a principle that Adewoye, still a believer himself, lives by.
Adewoye also thinks that the Internet will change Nigeria, just as it changed him. Most Nigerians are not connected at home, but mobile phones are now a viable alternative. For Nigerians, the connection opens pathways to fellow Nigerians like Adewoye, who himself checks in on many internet sites, and offers an alternative viewpoint Nigerians might not otherwise hear. Every time he talks with Nigerians, he stresses the importance of “critical thinking…reason….logical thinking….and asking questions.” Education is the key, he says, and not just for the young. Adewoye says that older Nigerians should also be required to take a compulsory course in critical thinking, and that anyone refusing such education “should be expelled from Nigeria.”
AAI News Team's guest writer is Mark Kolsen, Managing Editor of the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter