/ 20 May 2024

Transgender celebrity Bobrisky jailed in Nigeria

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Before Bobrisky, the anti-corruption watchdog successfully convicted actress Oluwadarasimi Omoseyin in February on the same charges. On conviction, she was given the option to pay a fine instead of going to prison. (Photo credit should read STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Bobrisky is hard to define: socialite, social media influencer, transgender woman, queer icon and, now, guest of the Nigerian Correctional Service.

She is one month into a six-month sentence after being convicted for “spraying”, a Nigerian party tradition in which revellers throw banknotes in the air or paste them on their bodies. This amounted to abuse of the naira, according to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Despite the ubiquity of “spraying”, the offence is rarely prosecuted. 

Before Bobrisky the anti-corruption watchdog successfully convicted actress Oluwadarasimi Omoseyin in February on the same charges. On conviction, she was given the option to pay a fine instead of going to prison.

Bobrisky was not given that option. Similar charges were last month brought against another socialite, Pascal Okechukwu (aka Cubana Chief Priest).

There is context for these sudden prosecutions: Nigerian authorities are trying to save the face, if not the value, of the naira, after sharp declines against the United States dollar. In recent months, forex traders have been rounded up for allegedly participating in “speculative activities” and cryptocurrency traders have been accused of sabotaging the naira.

In Bobrisky’s case, however, many — including her detractors — see the conviction as punishment for challenging Nigeria’s claimed conservatism regarding gender expression and sexuality.

Among the EFCC’s court evidence was a video of Bobrisky “spraying” at a March film premiere, where she set tongues wagging for winning and accepting recognition as the “best-dressed female” in attendance.

And within days of her conviction and sentencing in April, the Nigerian government released the news that after a “thorough examination” it could confirm that Bobrisky had not undergone gender reassignment.

Femme, glam, vexatious and iconic, Bobrisky’s rise to fame was rocky and well-documented, especially by herself. She first became popular on Snapchat for skin bleaching, using products that she sold at the time.

Her viral soundbites and videos then ingrained themselves into popular culture. She is probably the most popular queer celebrity in Africa, with five million followers on Instagram.

This was accompanied by constant scrutiny of her sexual and gender identity.

On the identity question, hers has constantly shifted, making her a controversial persona both in and outside the queer community.

But whether she represented or rejected queerness, Bobrisky’s continued visibility shone a spotlight on queer Africans. She is a queer icon regardless of her own politics.

‘‘Bobrisky’s existence is a story of queer resistance. A rather complex and entertaining one,” said Matthew Blaise, a Nigerian activist and founder of Obodo, a queer rights group. “It’s suffused with questions of identity crisis, denial and even communal betrayal.’’

Bobrisky has on occasion said that she is not queer, but only crossdresses for fame. 

When police arrested 67 people in Delta State in August, saying they were at a gay wedding, Bobrisky said on Instagram that they deserved it because Nigerian law forbids gay marriage.

“I think her life has been very effective in communicating queered living to people who would not have understood it on paper,” said Blaise. “I also believe her to be misogynistic, homophobic, classist and hella problematic.’’

Nigeria’s fascination with Bobrisky demonstrates both the power and limits of the internet for the visibility of the LGBT+ people. It is this visibility that has protected Bobrisky, until now. And it is this visibility on the internet that has largely defined the last decade of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in West Africa, even as states have tried to legislate it.

Since the 2010s, many queer Nigerians and Africans have damned the laws that criminalise their lives. This hasn’t translated into a legal shift, but it has contributed to a cultural one: it is now impossible to pretend LGBTQ+ people don’t exist in Nigeria or Africa.

LGBTQ+ activists have been noticeably present in political moments like Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests and Kenya’s march against femicide.

Bobrisky’s visibility — and her continued freedom until recently — didn’t reflect the wider reality of the average trans person in Nigeria. Many are homeless and exposed to the kind of danger and violence that Bobrisky seemed secure from, thanks to the privilege that comes from wealth and fame.

“She had power, influence and access, which put her above a lot of Nigerians,” said Blaise. “People are attracted to power and influence.”

While Nigeria got its collective knickers in a knot over her award as best-dressed woman at the premiere of Ajakaju, Bobrisky continued her influencer life online, apparently unaffected by the national controversy.

Most trans women have to take a different approach. Just a few weeks later, Liber, a 22-year-old student and trans woman, went to her own film screening, and was shocked to wake up the next morning to find her photos plastered all over social media.

“I woke up and there were thousands of people saying all sorts of things about me,” she said, pausing between breaths to calm herself down. “It gave me a lot of anxiety about navigating the internet.”

It also made her scared for her life in the real world. At her university, Liber tries not to draw attention to her gender identity. She spends as little time there as she can and takes taxis in and out.

For lectures, she wears her “Pray You Catch Me” hoodie – a big, black one covering most of her body. But in the aftermath of the online pile-on, she didn’t know if all this suffocating masking would be enough.

“It gave me so much anxiety about physical violence. It is one thing to live with daily anxiety about violence but I now felt like I had been set up for it.’’

Bobrisky did not mask. In her chosen circles, she took up as much space as she liked. This made her a queer icon, but it also made her an exception. But now we know that even this exceptionalism was not enough to protect her. She is reportedly serving her time in the male section of Ikoyi Prison.

We don’t know what is happening to her in there, at the mercy of a state that constantly reaffirms its queerphobia, and, for the first time in her highly visible life, she is unable to tell us.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and  shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at thecontinent.org