The Curious Case of Bobrisky and Other Gender Nonconforming Nigerians

By Amatesiro Dore – Nigerian Author

OCTOBER 28, 2020

I

“I am just who I am,”

Idris Okuneye Olanrewaju aka Bobrisky

In the first month of 2011, Idris Okuneye Olanrewaju wore a wig, a gown and a bra full of sachets of water to serve as breasts. A newspaper report said the nineteen-year-old sat at a bar in Lagos and solicited the attention of men. During a customary groping ritual by a prospective client, a sachet of water fell from the bra and a lack of breasts portrayed the dark-skinned secondary school graduate as a man. It was a social abomination and soon became a national scandal when the police arrested for identifying as a woman.

According to Idris Okuneye Olanrewaju, he [as she then was] had entered into a bet with some friends to dress as a woman and trot around their neighbourhood. As he walked along the road, a car slowed down and a man made advances at him. He “mistakenly” stopped to engage the man but a groping session revealed a lack of actual breasts. The man raised alarm and summoned the police to arrest him. 

That would mark the beginning of the love-hate relationship between Bobrisky and the Nigerian media, and his use of scandals to garner fame and social capital that eventually translated into hard cold cash.

From the ashes of that first national scandal, Idris Okuneye Olanrewaju became popular as Bobrisky the crossdresser and proceeded to the University of Lagos to study accounting. By 2016, he had transformed the colour of his skin from dark-brown to caramel-white. It became another national scandal and he was widely condemned by the media and online commentators. He also became an internet sensation as one of the most searched Nigerians on Google. His social media pages garnered millions of followers and thousands watched videos of him identifying as a woman. Then national conversations began about his sexuality and gender. The identity of his rumoured bae [a Nigerian slang for lover] swirled across the country and his source of seemingly flamboyant income became a subject of speculation.

At twenty-four and the height of public opprobrium, he sat with the editor of Today's Woman, Adesuwa Onyenokwe, for a video interview watched by over two million viewers. During the interview, he identified as a man and claimed to dress as a woman for commercial reasons [to market his products to his fashion and skincare customers]. He admitted to spending forty-eight minutes on his make-up. He opened up about the eventual acceptance of his late mother for his gender non-conforming mannerisms. He revealed that his entrepreneurial activities began as an undergraduate at the university where he sold unisex clothes. He began marketing and selling his own Bob Whitening Cream after the success of his skin colour transformation. However, he disavowed being gay and expressed support for the Nigerian Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition law to assuage the criminal allegations surrounding his sexuality. He would later apologise to the Nigerian LGBT community in a subsequent interview: “I’m sorry for saying that.”

With a fleet of cars and posh living in one of the affluent areas in Lagos, acceptance remained elusive. In 2016, Enough is Enough Nigeria organised The New Media Citizens and Governance Conference and invited Bobrisky to speak at a session titled Engagement Unusual: Unconventional Uses of New Media. An aide to the Nigerian President on New Media, Bashir Ahmed, immediately pulled out of the conference upon learning of Bobrisky’s invitation and participation. An executive of Alder Consulting and social media influencer, Subomi Plumptre, also withdrew her participation from the conference because of Bobrisky’s inclusion. It was a rebuke from the political and business class of the country. It exemplifies the kind of wanton discriminations faced by gender non-conforming Nigerians.

In 2019, Bobrisky affirmed her pronouns as she and her. Shortly afterwards, the Director-General of the Nigerian National Council for Arts and Culture, Olusegun Runsewe, called Bobrisky a “cultural corruption…carrying some medical dangers worse than Ebola”. A few days after, fifty armed police officers invaded the twenty-eight birthday party venue of Bobrisky and arrested some of her guests. Bobrisky escaped to safety and claimed to have lost over ten million naira in party expenditure because of the invasion. Olusegun Runsewe took credit for the invasion and proclaimed on national television that Bobrisky was persona non grata in Nigeria.

Bobrisky has sustained transgender visibility in Nigeria. In 2017, he starred in the Yoruba language movie, Ojuloge Obirin, where he portrayed a gender non-conforming child of an accepting mother. However, following homophobic cultural practices, her character renounces her transgender identity at the end of the movie. In 2019, she also starred in her second Nollywood movie, Bobrisky in Love, and delighted audiences with her portrayal of a man who returned from abroad as a woman.

All by herself, Bobrisky has shaped and transformed public perceptions about gender identity more than any human rights NGO and activist in Nigeria.

II

Yan Daudu

 

Yan Daudu defies western gender classification and stereotypes. It is not entirely accurate to describe them as Hausa men who dress like northern Nigerian women. They are lyrically witty, culturally musical and acclaimed to be spirit possessed according to the Bori cult of the predominantly Hausa Muslim communities of northern Nigeria. They can be described as an indigenous cross-dressing, effeminate and sexually fluid identity that has existed for centuries before the arrival of British colonialists to northern Nigeria. 

Yan Daudu means sons of Daudu, a liberal spirit from the Hausa pantheons. Dan Daudu, singular for Yan Daudu, sometimes serves as a liaison between clients and the Karuwai, traditional courtesans and sex workers in Hausa land. In ancient times, Yan Daudu lived in segregation from their Hausa communities at the outskirts and margins of the community. They were social outcasts from their families because of Islamic teachings and the persecutions of their Muslim communities. After childhood, a Dan Daudu leaves home and would never return to live with their original families. They move in groups as free spirits, working in kitchens and brothels, singing and dancing in bands, never at home in their communities.

Sometimes, a Dan Daudu may have a male partner called miji, husband. Other times a Dan Daudu may have a wife with children. They do not belong to a single gender spectrum. However, there has been a deliberate campaign to erase them from communal memory and history. Notable Islamic preachers have railed against them in sermons. Often caricatured by Kannywood, the northern Nigerian film industry, they remain marginally visible in popular culture. Yet the nationwide Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Law and the Sharia law practised in northern Nigeria have eroded all constitutional protections for the Yan Daudu. Those obnoxious laws have led to beatings, lynching and the communal displacement of the Yan Daudu.

Despite the discriminations and hazards faced by gender nonconforming Nigerians in Nigeria, the rise of Bobrisky and the continued historic presence of the Yan Daudu challenges the notions of gender stereotypes among young people. It is a long road to freedom but there are gender nonconforming Nigerians taking risks with their daily breathes and existence. Lastly, their stories of survival provide perspectives for young people on the possibilities of diverse gender identities irrespective of political and religious constraints.

Amatesiro Dore is an ICORN Region of Tuscany writer-in-residence domiciled in Florence, Italy. He is also a 2019 Fellow of the Wole Soyinka Foundation. He has been awarded the Reimagined Folktale Prize, the Saraba Manuscript Nonfiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award. His works have been published in Harvard's Transition Magazine, London's Litro and in the Johannesburg Review of Books.