Nigeria’s selective aversion to gay aesthetics hurts only the poor

Painted nails. Vibrant lipstick. A head full of richly coloured hair. These are features the average Nigerian won’t look twice at on a woman. It is expected. On a man, on the other hand, heads are bound to roll. Unless you are Ezra Olubi, co-founder of Paystack – an e-payment platform now acquired by Stripe in the biggest Fin-Tech acquisition deal in Nigeria’s history. It wasn’t always like that even for him whose lifestyle as he described it is “mostly indoorsy.”

His aesthetic is not new in Nigerian culture. As far back as 1970s Nigeria, Igbo performer Area Scatter attained great acclaim as a singer. He dressed in full female regalia with female silhouette to boot. He would pass in an auto accident. Around the same time a star was rising by the name Charly Boy whose own penchant for makeup, relaxed and braided hairstyle and ‘women’s clothing’ will both stir controversy with Nigeria’s increasingly ultra-conservative society and raise his image. His acclaim and eccentricity have not waned to date, even as he enters his 70s.

Most recently, Idris Okuneye, popularly known as Bobrisky, continues to enjoy awed adoration from millions of social media followers. Bobrisky, who maintains a constantly shifting relationship with identity but insists on being addressed with female pronouns was once a man – in all appearance. Her profile seems to be on an upward trajectory that has no expiration date.

For Ezra, his identity is quite simply androgynous. Androgyny is the melding of masculine and feminine identity into a whole that is ambiguous.

With the exception of Area Scatter whose base was the heart of Igbo land, all the aforementioned had raised that eternal go-to question that trails all men who step out of the bounds of traditional masculine presentation into the no-go – for men, area of femininity; are you gay?”

What if they are?

Nonso (M, 20) is a gay man living in Lagos. The first time he painted his nails, a bold glistening black he loves till today, his uncle threatened to beat sense into him – for one has to have lost their mind to wander off into that taboo territory of blurring the lines of perceived gender. He cleaned it off. You painted your nails? Why? Were constant questions he got asked by strangers. He laughed it off because that is far from the worst of it.

Seun (M, 22) another gay man living in Lagos who pierced his septum both to follow a rising body modification trend among younger Nigerians and because he loves it was threatened with bodily harm if he doesn’t remove it. By no other than his father. “He said he will rip my nose off with it. It was bad enough that I walk and talk like a woman, do I want to now do like a prostitute?”

He snuck the nose ring back up into his nasal cavity and keeps it that way to keep what he dearly loves while protecting himself from violence.

While Ezra, Bob and the Area Fada himself are protected by their celebrity life and monetary privileges as they partake in this ‘aesthetic’, gay man whose very sense of self-expression can be watered by this ‘aesthetic’ and who have historically normalised it continue to face violence for partaking in it.

It raises the question, is the due for freedom paid in fame and money or is it enough to just be? The answer is all around us.

It is in the arbitrary arrest of unplatformed cross-dressers and the harassment or ridicule of unplatformed androgynous people.

Nigeria’s diverse society is better served when everyone can live the fullness of their being without harassment whether they are monied or not. Celebrity or a little known young person living in Hadejia.

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