At the center of everything, what Idris Okuneye, popularly called Bobrisky, is, is a cross-dresser.
But that’s not the real center.
That’s what you see when all you do is look.
The core is something else: a young man who expresses his masculine identity in non-traditional ways and in a severely restrictive country, has found a way not just to let his voice be heard, but also to parley that notoriety into a viable business proposition – celebrity, beauty products (questionable as they are, but another day’s matter), attention.
He has become a social media sensation, a Snapchat star, pooling up to 100,000 views at a time. A young man whose very existence has spawned thousands of tweets, hundreds of thousands of conversations, and the fear and trembling of those who fear that a global gay agenda has come upon our dear, poor country.
And that is why he was invited, tomorrow, to speak at the Enough is Enough Nigeria New Media and Governance Conference on the topic: Unusual Engagement, a subject that he is pre-eminently qualified to speak about. He has learnt to use unusual strategies to gain attention for himself and, it appears, his business. There are lessons there to be learnt by those who are serious about capturing the attention of mainstream culture for other outcomes – like governance, or the economy.
We understand this keenly because that, after all, is what we concern ourselves with here: how to engage the mainstream culture and, through the media, deploy it to inspire young Nigerians, and Africans to action.
Unfortunately, no sooner had this announcement been made than prejudice was the order of the day. The presidential assistant on new media, Bashir Ahmad, based on religious grounds, tweeted that he would step out of an important event that concerns his primary mandate.
And then, one of Nigeria’s leading strategy firms, Alder Consulting, issued a press release dissociating itself from the event because, according to it, Bobrisky is sensational, and radical. And bringing him to an event to speak about his primary platform takes away from the “seriousness” of said event.
Now, there are those that will wonder: why will a newspaper (that would be us) concern itself, not with the latest manufactured corruption scandal from the confusing halls of the presidential villa but with a young man who many have cavalierly dismissed as frivolous?
The answer is simple: there is nothing frivolous about a young man’s quest to be, and his voice as a minority, as far as identity goes, in a country defined by prejudice. There is nothing frivolous about what his very existence, and stubborn insistence, says about the various gender and sexual identities that exist across the world and, yes, whether you like it or not in Nigeria.
There are those who will cry: but he is so unserious, but he is shallow and vain. He is all about the clothes and the complexion. He lies a lot and shifts his tales, desperate only for attention. He is not making any of these complex statements. He doesn’t even understand what’s going on.
Okay. Take a deep breath.
First, a person doesn’t need to be eloquent or to flaunt verbal depth for what they represent to nonetheless show depth. Bobrisky may not have the words, but his actions speak as loud as any sociological interrogation: he insists on being, just the way he is.
Second, he doesn’t need to be perfect to be a legitimate human being deserving of basic dignity. No, he doesn’t.
And finally, how else did you expect him to be in a country so deeply hateful of gender bending? How else could he live a sane, untroubled life in the urban centers unharmed except to tease and to giggle and to ultimately appear non-threatening so that we laugh, and giggle along with him and point at him as a freak, and then stay comfortable – because after all he is only a joke, he doesn’t mean to do anything but sell his bleaching creams.
And even then, here we are, many on social media flinging hate, disdain and disgust the way of a young man who has done nothing but be himself, the way he feels most comfortable – and that of course harms no one in any way that anyone can prove, save for taste.
There is certainly nothing frivolous about the amount of hate that has been flung his way, including those who petulantly dismiss him as ‘unserious’, even when he is a serious social media juggernaut and an authentic cultural sensation.
And it is important, just as Chidi Odinkalu, the National Human Rights Commission boss has bravely pointed out: that the attacks stop.
That the hate cease. That we should leave alone a young man only trying to find his way in a harsh, unforgiving world.
Yes, it is against the laws of Nigeria (repressivelaws, in our opinion, but still the law), essentially: to be gay, to want a gay marriage.
But none of these laws have yet been violated by this strong-willed young man, as far as any of us can verify.
Thankfully, no one has yet passed a law against cross-dressing.
Of course, this is Nigeria, where our incursions into the personal and the private – moralizing as we go – have no limits; stealing the attention we should focus on actually building the social and economic fabric of our country. So that silly law might yet come.
At least for now, though, and for the sake of the many minorities who live in a country that would rather they do not, we thank God for small mercies.