The Angelic Troublemaker

Influential HIV and LGBT activist Bisi Alimi explores stories of courageous everyday heroes

Considered one of the most influential African LGBT people in the world, Bisi Alimi made headlines when he became the first man to come out as gay on Nigerian television. In this special Guest Post, the actor-turned-activist explores the remarkable lives of everyday people changing the world

How really do you change the world?

“How really do you change the world?”This question might sound a little challenging for some, and it could be the starting point for many, but irrespective of its impact, it’s a question I have heard many times and asked many of my friends.

The answer is never clear-cut.

The world is such a vast place, with over 7 billion people living in it and with many challenges, ranging from climate emergency to child mortality, from poverty to sexism, and from globalisation to racism. These are just the tip of the iceberg, which is why the answer to this question can be overwhelming.

As a young man born in Lagos into poverty, who grew up amid violence, I saw first-hand how the world should not work, but I have no idea how it should.

A young Bisi in Lagos

Along the way, I became aware of my sexuality in a country where being gay can mean death and then I found myself in a situation where I asked myself the question again. I mean, “how really do you change the world?”. 

When I moved to the UK and experienced racism, I was curious what would drive such hate, and the question popped up again.

These experiences have shaped my hunger to find answers. 

As a young boy, I remember seeing my family rationing food, then going to school and listening to my classmates talking about holidays abroad. There and then, I wished for a world where my parents wouldn’t have to work so hard for piecemeal.

In 2004, after coming out on national television in Nigeria as a gay man, just at the start of my acting career, and seeing everything that I had worked so hard for disappear before my eyes – not because I couldn’t act, but as I know I could as a matter of fact, and I have been told many times, that I am a good actor – but because, in such a very homophobic country, how dare someone like me to come out.

Suddenly, my rising career was killed, ending a dream I had nurtured all my life.

Later, a group of men entered my home and attempted to kill me. I fled to the UK as a refugee until I was granted asylum and British citizenship. 

One summer afternoon in London, just after Brexit, a white man screamed the N-word at me from across the street, and I was left perplexed and broken because I was just a Black man on my way to the gym in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.

Events like these take one on a quest to find the answer to the question: “How really do you change the world?”

I came across something that will change the course of this search once and for all. I had just written an article for The Daily Beast when a friend on Twitter commented: “Angelic Troublemaker incarnates”. I had no idea what she meant, so I went searching. 

But it was not just a singular event that introduced me to the concept. In 2009 while a columnist for Gay Star News, I was given a brief to write about Black LGBTQI people in history. While researching this, I came across the name, the man and the quote.

“We need in every bay and community a group of Angelic Troublemakers.”

These words were said by a prominent civil rights activist and gay man, Bayard Rustin.

While this had strong meaning for me as soon as I read them, I couldn’t deeply connect it to how you can change the world. However, as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, I found the answer I sought. 

I will never be able to make 7 billion people in the world change the world. But I can take a strategic decision to recognise “my bay” and “my community” and take a chance to make a difference.

The world I crave to change when it comes to climate emergency is not so much the globe as my immediate environment. Changing the world starts where your impact will be most felt, and this is very important because, as the saying goes, “charity begins at home”. 

The man beyond the quote

To understand why Bayard Rustin’s quote is one of the greatest in the world, it is essential to know the man behind it.

Bayard Rustin was a Black American civil rights activist who was a gay man. In 1963, he was the lead strategist for the March on Washington for Job and Housing, a landmark in the civil rights uprising in America, and the rally where Martin Luther King made the “I have a dream” speech.

Bayard Rustin (left) with Martin Luther King Jr in Los Angeles on 18 August 1965 | Photo by  AP Photo/Don Brinn

He played a fundamental role in the struggle for Black equality and gay rights for over five decades, rising to fame as the right-hand man to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

But he was fired after King learned that he was gay.

Bayard Rustin in London’s Trafalgar Square, 1983 | Photo by Walter Naegle courtesy Estate of Bayard Rustin

Before his death, Rustin realised that America, Black people, and LGBTQI people were his bay and community. He realised that for change to happen, he would not only have to be an Angelic Troublemaker, but he would also need to inspire, recruit and actively empower other people.

Over the years, I have come across individuals who have taken the words of Rustin to heart. Let me introduce some of them.

Meet the Angelic Troublemakers…

Lady Phyll – Proud mother of a movement

Photo courtesy of Black Pride by Kofi-Paintsil for Gay Times

Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah – aka Lady Phyll – is the co-founder of UK Black Pride and executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust. How did a Black lesbian in London turn an experience of racism at a Pride event into creating the biggest Pride event in the world? It takes an Angelic Troublemaker like Lady Phyll to protest in a way that makes the world more inclusive and colourful.

Follow Lady Phyll on Twitter @MsLadyPhyll and Instagram @ladyphyll

Greg Owen – Global PrEP spokesperson

Greg Owen worked hard to highlight the need for PrEP | Photo by Nuno Lopes @NunoEd)

Then there’s the story of Belfast-born Greg Owen, who used his advocacy to push for free access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for gay men in England. When the government refused, he took them to court. He launched I Want PrEP Now in 2015. The legal fight saw doctors, activists and AIDS charities come together to overturn a controversial NHS decision. This singular act of courage to fight for the game-changing pill has reduced HIV infection in England drastically – saving thousands from getting the virus.

Follow Greg Owen on Twitter @Greg0wen and Instagram @gregowen1

Professor Sue Black OBE – Technology evangelist

Photo by Ali Tollervey

And the passion of Prof Sue Black, who left home and school when she was 16 years old, got married when she was 20, and by the age of 25 was living in a shelter with her three kids, using housing support due to domestic violence. She later became a leading computer scientist in the UK who saved an iconic historical treasure, Bletchley Park – once the top-secret home of the World War II codebreakers – from being swept away by the bulldozers.

Follow Prof Sue Black on Twitter @dr_black and Instagram @realdrblack

Charlie Craggs – Award-winning trans activist

Photo courtesy of Charlie Craggs / Instagram

When attacked for being a Trans woman,Charlie Craggs did what many would not. She started a nail salon to increase Trans visibility. While her attackers aimed to inflict pain on her, she turned the situation around like a typical Angelic Troublemaker and made the moment teachable. The award-winning author (To My Trans Sisters) is also a “sort-of model” and “voice of a community”, according to Vogue.

Follow Charlie Craggs on Twitter @Charlie_Craggs and Instagram @charlie_craggs

Gulwali Passarlay – Influential Afghan political refugee

Gulwali Passarlay now resides in the UK 

Gulwali Passarlay left home at a very young age into a world of the unknown. As an in Afghan young boy running away from war, he headed to Europe to find a new life and purpose. The journey was not as he planned; after travelling for many years and spending many times in adult jail while still a child, he found his way on a dingy boat to the UK. Just like many refugees, he refused to let this moment stop him; he went to achieve his degree and went on to get a master’s and set up an organisation to help newly arrived refugees. In 2012, he was honoured as one of the Olympic torch bearers. His book The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape To A New Life in Britain (Atlantic Books, 2015) brilliantly and tragically illustrates everything that is right and wrong with humanity.

Follow Gulwali Passarlay on Twitter @GulwaliP and Instagram @gulwali_passarlay

These are stories of courageous everyday heroes who have worked out how to create practical change and the movements redefining our world. From Malala to Barack Obama, Mandela to Greta, individuals on local and global stages are pushing the boundaries for a better world, a world that can make it easier to live together as one.

I am a prisoner of hope and love to explore the work of many inspirational Angelic Troublemakers – finding out how they are causing trouble to change systems around the world – while answering the fundamental question of “How really do you change the world?”

This question might sound a little challenging for some and it could be the starting point for many, but irrespective of its impact, it’s a question I have heard many times and one I have asked many of my friends.

Bisi Alimi organised the first-ever LGBT event In Lagos in October 2019

Every day we wake up, we are presented with increasing global challenges, from polarised political debate to climate emergency without political willpower. Coronavirus showed us that health care disparities are a global health crisis that all of us must demand justice and the increasing dehumanisation of refugees.

The old-time issues of homophobia and sexism have not gone away; they have just taken a new form and added transphobia. Far-right politics is not just attractive anymore; extreme racists, fascists and sexist leaders now have access to power.

Being an Angelic Troublemaker is not a selfless drive; it is driven by a passion for creating a world where you can live in peace and cohabit with others with love and respect.

How really do you change the world?

What’s so good about this?

The world needs people who dare to make a change; to stand up and be counted. The world needs Angelic Troublemakers. Do you know of somebody making a difference, against the odds? Tell us about them by pitching a story.

Read more in TOPIA’s original series:

The Papercut explores tales that sting, but just a little bit.

Tales of Metamorphosis focuses on stories of rebirth from chaos.

Meet the writer

Lagos-born Bisi Alimi is a gay rights and HIV activist, and human rights campaigner. In 2004, he became the first person to openly come out as gay on national Nigerian television as a guest on a national talk show after his university’s magazine publicly self-outed him. He was later forced to flee Nigeria after threats, and has engaged with the media for social change ever since. He’s the founder of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which advocates for the rights of LGBTQ people in Nigeria, and one of the founding directors of the Kaleidoscope Trust. “My story is not a story of a victim. It’s a human story.” Bisi lives in London with his husband.

‘There should never be another Ibrahim’ was listed as one of the 14 most inspiring queer TED Talks of all time. 

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