Trigger warning: mentions of hate crimes towards lgbtq+ members –
I believe (almost) everyone has caught up with the new season of the well-known Netflix series Sex Education. But just in case you haven’t yet, or perhaps are waiting to watch it until a later date (or not), here’s your SPOILER WARNING. I will be quite avidly discussing the plot (specifically Eric Effiong’s storyline) of the third season, with a focus on episode 6.
If you’re anything like me, you love watching series and movies that fuel romantic fantasies and quench the thirst for drama (especially seeing as those two things are quite literally drying out in my own life thanks to COVID; also, I blame my love for drama on the fact that I am a Leo). However, while I was watching episode 6 of Sex Education, I was very much confronted with the reminder of an issue I, admittedly, have only thought about a handful of times in the past three years.
I’m going to give a bit of background here. I am a white 19-year old English student who has no genetic roots to Africa, but I did live in The Gambia (the smallest country on the continent) from when I was four months old until just after my sixteenth birthday. A lot of my friends are Gambian or African, and I have seen (or rather, not seen, as most people stay hidden because of them) the effects of the restrictions on identity and sexuality that are in place in (many) African countries, especially in Gambia.
Therefore, this episode, in which Eric (a black, gay character) visits Nigeria for a family wedding, at first glance made me feel very much at home, but it also saddened me. Because what he experiences (and this is where the SPOILERS start to come in, for anyone who needs to be warned twice) during the episode is the representation of a slice of freedom in a country where the LGBTQ+ community is restricted. This slice of freedom, by which I’m referring to the ‘secret’ party that Eric attends towards the end of the episode, is often the only thing keeping many members of the LGBTQ+ community sane. This doesn’t take away from the fact that 99% of the time, they are in danger.
To start off, let’s get into the details of the episode. Eric leaves his boyfriend, Adam, and his friends behind in England to visit Nigeria with his mum. The first shot we get of Nigeria is a very realistic one, which I’m very thankful towards the directors and writers and whatnot for. I myself haven’t visited the country before, but from experience I know that there are neighbourhoods which would at first glance appear much more ‘Western’ than the one chosen, but it’s a realistic neighbourhood for a grandmother living alone (which is where Eric is staying) with its warm tones and unfinished buildings and sandy roads.
At the wedding, which is the entire goal of the trip to Nigeria, Eric meets Oba, a friend of the groom’s who is doing him a favour by taking pictures of the event (to which Oba informs “I’ve always taken photographs as a hobby, and [the groom]’s a bit cheap”). By the way that Oba carries himself and the tad-too-long lingering looks at Eric, it seems that there’s definitely… something between them. At least, from Oba’s side of the equation.
Eric seems to notice this too, but he smiles it away and by his stance it’s obvious that he feels a bit awkward. After making the joke above, Oba lays it all out in the open by saying: “It’s funny. I feel happy for them, but also a bit sad. Because I will never have it for myself. Do you know what I mean?”
With this, Oba is referring to the law against same-sex marriage which is still in place not only in Nigeria, but in many African countries. To be exact, 34 out of the 54 African countries outlaw homosexuality, and of the 20 countries where this is not the case, only South Africa has officially legalised same-sex marriage. In the 19 remaining, it is legal but there is no recognition. Nigeria (and Gambia, for reference) are one of the 34, unfortunately. They also belong to the long list where it is punishable by prison.
The fact that being gay is something one should not speak about in Nigeria is not something that is new to the watchers, as Eric’s mother warns him about it before they depart on their trip; however Oba tells Eric that “there are lots of people like [them] here. [They] just have to speak quietly.”
The importance of this scene lies in the perfect parallel that Oba forms, as a character, to Eric. Not only appearance-wise, with Eric wearing a bright yellow/orange outfit, as he is family of the bride (also, I have to applaud the costume designers: I loved the accurate representation of African traditional wear as well as the features of some traditional meals, like jollof rice, which we see a woman scraping every last bit of at the buffet) and Oba is wearing a darker midnight blue and royal purple ensemble (family of the groom). There are also parallels in their personality and demeanour: Eric gets strange looks from a woman because he acts ‘different’ and he represents a more feminine stance, while Oba is more masculine (which makes it easier for him to fade into the ‘background’). Their behaviour is different as well; Oba is used to ‘hiding’ and ‘acting’ straight, while Eric is obviously not and instead overcompensating by trying very hard not to show his sexuality in his behaviour (which seems to not be working by the dirty looks he gets from one woman, the jollof-rice lady as mentioned above).
Oba then invites Eric to meet more people ‘like them’, which Eric seems hesitant towards but eventually, he decides to go. Together, they catch a taxi. The scene that follows (when they are in the taxi) is what inspired me to write this article. Up until this point, Eric’s journey to Nigeria has mostly been pleasant, but once he is in the taxi with Oba, he feels he can be entirely himself. This is the Eric we as viewers know and love, the energetic and outgoing version of himself that he has been keeping subdued around his family. However, he forgets that they are not alone.
The taxi driver starts to eye the two boys up quite suspiciously, and the entire scene made me feel uncomfortable and even a little bit scared. Oba is aware of this immediately, obviously used to having to be on his guard constantly when around strangers. Eric doesn’t notice until Oba shifts his gaze towards the driver, a terrified look on his face. Eric’s energy immediately simmers down.
This simple scene that barely lasts more than 60 seconds tells the story of thousands of other people who deal with this every day. Unlike Oba, Eric isn’t attuned to noticing the threatening looks some may give, or the hostile attitudes others may have. And although this situation is definitely not limited to African communities, the latter are often forgotten. Oba has to watch his every step, his every word. He has to “speak quietly”, or else there is a chance that he will be turned over to the police for partaking in what would be deemed as illegal behaviour. Sometimes it might not even reach this stage; instead the people may take matters into their own hands. This all, of course, is awful. But it is something that happens, and it is good that the lingering threat is represented in a story about a gay African-English boy travelling to Lagos, Nigeria.
Generally speaking, the Western world is quick to dismiss Africa as non-existent. In terms of progression, as can be seen in the beautiful cities that have developed over time like Dakar (also called the African Paris, pictured below) and Lagos (pictured above), but also in terms of being static in many ways, such as with gay rights, trans rights and technology. Although it is improving, it’s doing so at a very slow rate, in comparison to the Western world. One of the main reasons for this? Colonisation (and imperialism). But that’s not the topic of this article (quickly noting this down as a topic for a future article, though, so keep an eye out for that).
By not only including a trip to Lagos in their newest season, but also including Oba as a character and the storyline that follows from his introduction, the creators/writers of Sex Education have managed to make an entire community feel seen. One of my friends, who still lives in Gambia now, actually felt the same as I did: the music, the food, the outfits, it all felt like finally, the beautiful culture is represented in a great way.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a long way to go for the representation of African communities in Western media, but at least this is a good start. I, for one, hope it raises awareness for the crimes and the hate that the LGBTQ+ community have to endure in the countries where it is still criminalised.
Furthermore, the scene after Oba and Eric get out of the taxi is also very significant. Eric grows suspicious of Oba and starts to feel unsafe and frantic because the latter disappears for a little while, but when he returns he explains that he was simply checking for safe exits in case of emergencies. They then walk into the building and join the party, which ends up being a lot of fun for Eric (and Oba).
I don’t have a lot of experience with the LGBTQ+ community in African societies, simply because of the fact that it is penalised and strictly taboo. Sure, sexualities and gender identities of various kinds were mentioned in fleeting, passing comments, but these were always in a negative context and never revealed anything about the lives of these hidden people.
This in its entirety is already saddening, because if it weren’t for the internet and my social media habits that started young, I would have grown up pretty sheltered and isolated from the rest of the world (which, granted, I already did). However, this isn’t about me; I was an outsider to the African societies about which I am writing, which is why I am using myself as a reference point. Because my situation was exactly in the middle, with the ever expanding Western society (with all its imperfections) on one end and the isolated and restrictive African society on the other.
When you look up “LGBT Gambia”, which I did in search of content for this article, you won’t find any stories from people in this community at the top; instead you will find articles about the latest anti-gay bills that were passed (2018) which do include some anecdotes from people with various sexualities, but only vague quotes and passing reports of arrests. This is a perfect representation of what it is like: constantly hiding, always in fear of somebody exposing your secret to the authorities, leading to a beating or an arrest.
However, I must add a little note to this, which my friend (who currently lives in Gambia) suggested: this all does not mean that the people in the LGBTQ+ community are not able to be their authentic selves or come together. This is also represented perfectly in the episode by the party that Oba and Eric attend. The viewer notices immediately how at home and at peace Eric feels here, even when the lingering memory of the threat of the taxi driver is probably still fresh in his mind. This is the same in reality: people are able to come together, but they have to be careful and they have to hide, which obviously is not an optimal situation.
As viewer, we got the ‘easy to handle’ story of the restrictions of LGBTQ+ community in Nigeria. Obviously, as Eric was also a passer-by in the country, we don’t get the full story. However, Eric keeps contact with Oba, so perhaps we can expect to see more of the latter in season 4? In conclusion, the manner in which the Sex Education writers addressed a topic that is definitely tough to approach from an outsider’s perspective was quite close to perfect. We can only hope that someday soon, the LGBTQ+ community will have more freedom in African communities.
Written by Vivian Van Klaarbergen