On June 19th, global streaming giant Netflix released ‘Disclosure’. A long-awaited documentary, revolutionary for many reasons. It tracked the history of transgender persons in Hollywood and explored how their representation in film over the last 100 years has been largely exploitative. It also featured a number of working transgender actors, some of whom have managed to transcend this exploitative representation and advocate for roles for transgender persons that do not portray them as stock characters, sexual or moral deviants or victims of violence or assault. Freed of the restrictions of mainstream media, streaming giants like Netflix, Apple TV, Hulu, and HBO have championed a different kind of storytelling for queer people, one where queer people of all orientations are invited to do the storytelling behind and in front of the camera.
We have come a long way from the earliest representations of queerness in media and culture. Much like racism, queerness was codified as deviance and used to contrast ‘acceptable’ heterosexual culture. Depictions of transness were used as comedic relief or as a plot device to move narratives along.
Queerness was hypersexualized or codified as dangerous and ‘resolved’ with either the death, punishment or restitution of the queer person, a nasty trope that persists in Nigerian cinema and mainstream media. This growth can be directly attributed to the democratization of media consumption and the enduring power of queer culture to receive mainstream acceptance.
History of queerness in global entertainment
The first recorded mention of contemporary drag culture happened in the 19th century and it was mostly negative, inspired mostly by ignorance. The AIDS crisis of the 1980’s was the cataclysmic event that forced many LGBT communities across the world from the fringe of media to its mainstream, in a bid to correct the negative representation and stigma that came with the crisis.
The 1990 documentary Paris is Burning was a tipping point for the documentation of queer culture and its influence on the mainstream. It was created to explore American ballroom culture, a subculture that arose because queer people in America were excluded from many significant aspects of American life and sought to ape, if only momentarily the many social cadres of American culture accessible only by socially conforming persons. The influence of Paris Is Burning endures, especially in how it was able to influence colloquial language. The whole idea of ballroom culture was to ‘pass’ as a chosen social cadre through dress and pantomime. The directors could have scarcely predicted the
documentary’s impact on mainstream culture, as many of the slangs and language unique to ballroom culture such as the concepts of ‘shade’ and ‘reading’ would not only pass into mainstream language but come to dominate it, albeit stripped of its original context and meaning. It is not uncommon to see prominent Nigerian media like BellaNaija and Instablog9ja use ‘throwing shade’ when describing altercations between celebrities.
The seed planted with Paris is Burning has grown into a massive industry exporting queer culture to mainstream audiences. The beauty industry has acknowledged many of its most successful innovations have come from queer culture and the outsize influence of queer designers on hip-hop and by extension popular culture is well documented. On Youtube coming out videos are a huge trend, leading to hundreds of thousands of views and follower surges. Youtuber Todrick Hall has parlayed successful career around queer bent reimaginations of popular culture and satirizing queer tropes.
Shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race have managed to demystify the drag queen subculture through high performance art, savvy direction and charismatic characters who share their queerness in just enough quantities to elicit sympathy without alienating audiences. The show has been instrumental in helping drag culture have managed to crossover from queer oddity into mainstream success. The polls are in, queer creators and consumers are driving popular culture.
Paris Is Burning and the handful of documentaries and fiction series that have followed it are only but a drop in the ocean of hetero-focused media. When queer people are invited to participate in media and film, they are often expected to embody caricatures and harmful stereotypes that affirm popular conventions about queerness. What queer people without privilege and access experience in media is a double violation where incidents of violence or public humiliation are immortalized through media and propagated as a form of entertainment, retraumatizing the victims of this kind of exploitation. A prominent example is the case of the #Egbeda57, where police officers arrested and publicly humiliated 57 Nigerians suspected of homosexuality. An enduring image from that encounter is the
‘They Didn’t Caught Me’ meme, which was taken from an illegal interview of James ‘James Brown’ Obialor, one of the 57 persons accused and publicly paraded before they were charged with any crime.
This moment of public humiliation where Obialor’s HIV status is revealed contravening Nigerian law continues to reverberate online and offline, stripped of its original humiliating context. Obialor is one of the lucky few who was able to reclaim the moment and monetize it. But this practice of consuming queer pain and public humiliation for entertainment continues to thrive through memes and reaction videos. These violations of human rights are why so many African queer creators prefer to leave the country to more accommodating societies where they thrive.
Loving Nigeria from the abroad
Homophobic laws and extreme prejudice (as evidenced by incidents like the #Egbeda57) has led to an underreported but no less powerful exodus of talented African creators. Driven to create representation in their work and unable to fight the oppression that prevents them from exploring queer identities and issues through media, routes like asylum or educational scholarships become escape routes for stifled artists and creators. As more people make the move, the cache of queer African creators in the diaspora are growing into an undeniable force whose status as diasporeans allows them to influence popular culture in the country.
Rotimi Fani Kayode (related to Nigerian politician Femi Fani Kayode) was a queer photographer whose work continues to draw conversation decades after his death. Zanele Muholi the reverred South African visual artist is renowned for her body of work which documents queer life in South Africa.
Edward Enninful the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue UK is a queer creator whose success is a direct consequence of his family’s decision to move to the UK when he was a child. Ib Kamara who moved to the UK at the age of 16 to study science, came out, embraced his queerness and has become one of the most in-demand artistic directors in the world, working with Beyonce Knowles on her ‘Black Is King’ film. Richard Inanoshe Akuson ran a queer focused magazine from Abuja Nigeria, before a hate crime forced him to seek asylum in the US. For artists who do not identify as queer, the distance that relocating to progressive countries provides allows them to explore queerness and identity as allies or casual observers. Photographers like Eric Gyamfi, Ruth Ossai, Nadine Ijewere, Campbell Addy and Mikael Owunna have all explored LGBT themes in their home countries, expanding the scope of conversations around queerness and how it influences popular culture.
In a roundabout way, the success of these creators and their decisions to continue to public identify as citizens of their home countries dispels the myth that queerness is not ‘African’ and that queer Africans are deviants or misfits and forcing important conversations about how much queer culture is repurposed for mainstream audiences without proper acknowledgement or compensation.
For the queer Nigerians who cannot afford to relocate to countries more tolerant of their sexualities, identities, and gender expressions, technology has provided a virtual escape. Driven by their desire to find their own communities, queer Nigerians were among the first to seek out the internet, finding each other via online forums in the ’90s and closed groups in the 2000s. They were the first to embrace Facebook as a social networking tool and adapt the unique functions of Twitter (private accounts, lists, and DM groups) to create hidden-in-plain-sight communities. Social media simplified the process of creating an online avatar and created low-risk spaces for queer Nigerians to express their identities, indulge in interests that would lead to unwanted scrutiny in offline spaces, and most importantly show their power as consumers of culture.
Sex work is one of the spaces where this cocktail of online participation, fringe interests, and consumer power plays out most prominently. In an article for Dazed, Nigerian writer Vincent Desmond profiles a Nigerian amateur pornography model, discussing his very engaged audience, his 7 figure earnings from running a subscription service where he regularly shares videos of himself engaging in consensual sex with willing collaborators who contact him via his social media handles. This pornography model is only one of a growing community of queer sex workers who are creating monetized content specifically for queer audiences.
Queer baiting and queer outrage
Queer audiences are severely underrepresented in media and other spaces. This lack of representation compounded by misrepresentation when queer communities are included in mainstream fora and the stigma that follows being publicly identified as queer even in progressive communities has led to a near obsession with seeking out and supporting queer-focused media, events, and initiatives. It has taken African businesses some time, but they have finally become attuned to this phenomenon and some are seeking ways to profit off it through two distinct marketing practices, ‘Queer Outrage’ and ‘Queer Baiting’.
Queer Outrage refers to the response organizations receive from misrepresentation or outright negative action towards LGBT communities. It is a subset of the much larger Cancel Culture where consumer audiences seek to correct/punish high profile individuals and organizations by utilizing public shaming and refusing to engage products and services from said individual/organization.
Outrage can potentially damage reputations but it can also provide increased engagement with minimal consequences when deployed against an oppressed minority. A prime example of this has been the roll out of musician Burna Boy’s 5th album ‘Twice As Tall’. As part of promotion for the album which hinges heavily on unifying Africa to the diaspora, Burna Boy collaborated with gay non- binary icon Sam Smith on love song. The collaboration raised speculation that perhaps Burna Boy was openly identifying as a queer ally as Sam Smith gender identity and sexual orientation is public knowledge. However mere weeks later fans would find out his album included a song with lyrics that could be interpreted as homophobic, even though some have offered an explanation that it was simply a slang for courage. The collective outrage and think pieces that have followed have helped to keep the album in conversation, at the detriment of the queer community.
Queer Baiting is subtler but no less insidious. It refers to the practice of incorporating elements of queerness into mainstream media as a way to pique the interest of queer audiences without actively alientating their heterosexual mainstream audiences. This happens because queer audiences are more likely to seek out representation than heterosexual audiences. Some queer baiting is admittedly accidental, but much of it is not. Take for instance, Nigerian popstar Simi’s 2017 hit ‘Love Don’t Care’. An anthem that seemed to support the universality of love transcending social bias with lines like ‘Love don’t care, who you be where you dey’, the song was quickly adopted as an queer anthem and Simi lauded an LGBT icon. That assumption was dispelled in 2020 when she expressed overtly homophobic sentiments on her Youtube show Stoopid Sessions. It would take 5 months for Simi to finally recant on her homophobic statements, a convenient 24 hours before her husband Adekunle Gold, who himself was in the middle of a decidedly queer-influenced rebrand was announced as the cover star for a magazine that promotes queer artists. The backlash led to the magazine being pulled and all promotional materials scrubbed off the internet.
Reclaiming space and time
Once a rare occurrence, consequences like this, for misrepresentation is forcing individuals and organizations to consider honest collaborations and creating spaces for queer people to own their narratives and monetize their creative ideas. James ‘James Obilor’ is a prime example of an openly queer person monetizing their visibility. With 123,000 followers on Instagram, Obilor is openly queer, performs in drag and collaborates with a number of high profile brands including social media app Vskit. Idris ‘Bobrisky’ Okuneye has spent the last four years at the helm of his own self produced reality show amassing 3 million followers on Instagram and garnering several brand endorsements.
Nigerian drag queens and trans women garner hundreds of comments on their social media handles, converting this public fascination into viable influencing careers.
Though less overtly, organizations are co-opting queer energies offline. Often couched in inclusive language but stopping short of overt support, organizations like the Lagos Fashion Week and the Ake Book and Arts Festival have become unofficial safe spaces for local queer communities and benefit greatly from the energy, innovation and ideas they bring to these events. By extension, the organizations who sponsor these events and collaborate with these brands get to indirectly benefit from queer culture, position themselves as more inclusive of minority groups and leverage the committed audiences within these groups to further their own agendas. They are learning from these interactions that culture has become significantly queer, and how best to engage queer creators and audiences productively.
Whether it is Simi’s apology, the use of Bobrisky and James Brown memes, the co-opting of drag by Nigerian comedians, the increased interest by international media organizations in African queer stories, or the tacit engagement by mainstream Nigerian companies across several sectors, through activities and campaigns that are considered queer adjacent (fashion competitions anyone), Nigerians are finally acknowledging that queer energy drives the culture. The work of queer Africans in the diaspora who are invited to collaborate with organizations within the country suggests that spaces are opening for queer people to control the way queer energy is channeled and utilized. It is only a matter of time before these pockets of queer resistance end up influencing Nigerian politics and by extension its laws.