There are only two genders in Nigeria: men and everybody else. Across Africa, the conversations about feminism and gender discrimination have eaten up what attention is left for anyone to ask important questions about LGBTQ rights.
From Pittsburgh, Mikael Owunna is using emotive, victorious photos to explore LGBTQ identity and self-love in the African Diaspora.
Michael’s story was highlighted in a feature piece by New York Times.
Michael’s course draws inspiration mostly from his own experience dealing with his identity and the cultural tensions that they spurred.
It was while dealing with things on the home front and deep anxiety that he happened on an exhibition of Zanele Muholi, a storyteller who documents the queer experience in South Africa.
The experience changed him so much that he began a project to discover and immortalise other queer Africans.
Telling their stories
For someone who barely knew how to be a gay African outside Africa, meeting people like him changed his perspective.
“I grew up feeling invalidated from every single corner”, he said. “I never felt there was a space that existed for me”.
After refining his idea, Owunna decided he would focus on documenting queer Africans in the Diaspora, a project that quickly highlighted self-love and community building.
His project took Owunna to 10 countries where he met and photographed more than 50 LGBTQ Africans across Europe and North America.
The photos are bright and colourful but perhaps most importantly, in a world where narratives are easily hijacked and skewed for personal gain, it shows the importance of telling your stories.
Owunna’s goal is simple: to make people confident in their identity. But if he was to turn back home, he would see how this small imperative could lead to an arbitrary jail sentence.
Gay marriage, groups and membership of such societies are punishable by a term of 14 years under a law enacted buring the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
Suspected homosexuals are often the victims of bullying, hate crimes and inn some cases, violent physical attacks.
Being gay in Nigeria
Nigeria’s homophobia is well documented but while the status quo remains, young people, quite like Owunna, are exploring LGBTQ issues with nuance and helping persons in hiding to come to termswith who they are.
One that comes to mind is the highly controversial editorial series by aNastyBoy, a youth-centric publication with a taste for LGBTQ matters.
The editorial featured photos of male models getting intimate and in suggestive postures, with an emphasis on the nature and emotion of homosexual relationships
While the editorial was berated for appearing faux deep in some circles, it played the important purpose of acknowledging alternative sexual orientations in a distinctly conservative society.
Such storytelling projects also help young men and women afraid to come to terms with their identity to find the courage to express themselves.
We are definitely a long way off from having any semblance of LGBTQ rights in Nigeria, but within photos and projects like these are part of the few avenues for expression in a culture we seem so eager to suppress.