“If he is caught on the streets of this country, he will be dealt with ruthlessly,” Olusegun Runsewe, Director-General of the National Council of Arts and Culture professed back in August. The “he” Olusegun uses is deliberately offensive. He’s referring to Bobrisky, one of Nigeria’s very few openly transgender citizens, a woman whose meticulously documented transition and controversial character has seen her fame skyrocket.
Although Bobrisky’s witty retort to Olusegun alluded to the fact that she was untouchable (“I roll with his bosses in government”), the politician meant business. On 31 August, Olusegun’s threats culminated in a raid on the public figure‘s much-anticipated 28th birthday party, which she had been boasting about for weeks, sharing details of the exhausting party-planning prep with her sizable following on Instagram and Snapchat. Deploying around 50 policemen, the Lagos State Police Force arrested five of Bobrisky’s guests on charges of breach of public peace and indecency. The host herself, fashionably late to her much-anticipated do, was fortunate enough to evade arrest as she had not yet arrived by the time it began.
Born Idris Okuneye Olanrewaju in 1992, Bobrisky – whose nickname is Nigerian Barbie – has said she always enjoyed stereotypically feminine activities – namely cooking and cleaning. Cross-dressing was also a keen component of Bobrisky’s repertoire. Known for her sense of style and experimentation with women’s clothing behind closed doors, one fateful evening, Bobo, as she’s known to her family, carried out a dare to take her private predilections to the streets.
Her childhood nickname Bobo formed the first half of the now infamous moniker, and “risky”? Well, that element is a nod to how she continually challenges Nigerian conservative attitudes. In return for financial gain, Bobrisky proudly donned a tailor-made outfit designed specifically for the occasion, and strutted the streets of Lagos, winding up in jail by the end of the night. But, as she narrated the story to Adesuwa Onyenokwe on Facebook Live, there was not an inch of regret in her countenance, only a timid grin as she recounted the attention and money she received from her first-ever Risky enterprise.
From this dare, Bobrisky was born. She’s become known for publicising her excessive spending, raunchy imagery, sex positivity, unorthodox sources of income, romantic vulnerability, celebrity fallouts, and, of course, her trans journey.
Joining Snapchat in the early months of 2016, as a promotional tool for her skin bleaching products, Bobrisky had already emerged the most searched individual in Nigeria between the months of October and November. The following year, 2017, she made her Nollywood debut in Ojuloge and then toured the United States, where she was paid for her presence at a plethora of events, ranging from club appearances to private one-on-one meet-ups. Now, in 2019, Bobrisky’s three-year reign as the Queen of Snapchat amounts to over 1.5 million followers on the rival social media app, Instagram, and numerous other sources of income.
Bobrisky’s rise was meteoric, but not unpredictable. Nigeria is widely considered a materialistic country, in which wealth – with no regard for how it was acquired – is venerated. Take, for example, the close attention we pay to Davido and his 30 billion gang, or Toke Makinwa and the Big God she serves. Nigerian pop culture has an obsession with frivolity, and it was in this cultural climate that Bobrisky emerged. Where superficiality is as much a source of entertainment as controversy, Bobrisky was primed to thrive.
Nigerians relish at the opportunity to dissect the latest scandal brought to public attention by gossip sites such as Linda Ikeji and Instablog9ja. When it comes to Bobrisky interests pique even higher. This was clearly illustrated during the chaotic aftermath of the birthday raid, as news outlets and social media users all rushed to give their two cents the Olusegun-instigated scandal. Olusegun is a member of Nigeria’s conservative older generation, responsible for upholding the country’s traditional cultural values; naturally, his contemporaries in this demographic rallied behind him.
Social commentator John Asoka penned an open letter commending the Director-General for his action against “this community of confusionists and upholders of negative and insidious appearances”, whilst journalists Ayodele Ozugbakun, Babajide Kolade-Otitoju and Wale Adeoye, on TVC News’s Journalist Hangout show, praised the government for deploying police against this “act of lawlessness”.
Olusegun and the Lagos State police also found supporters in Nigeria’s youth – sharing a similar stance with the Journalist Hangout cast, one Twitter user stated: “Though this is not our major problem in Nigeria today, the way police responded was good. Every law of the land must be kept. Police should please enforce the law that gives all Nigerians right to life. Insecurity in the land is too alarming.”
Of course, the reaction was polarised. A political peer of Olusegun’s, Dr Joe Abah, former Director-General of the Bureau of Public Reforms, condemned Olusegun’s statements via Twitter, calling the Federal Government’s “obsession” with Bobrisky “officially embarrassing”. Xeenarh Mohammed, feminist activist and Executive Director of The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIER), described the country’s governance as “a joke”, going on to sign a statement, along with other human rights advocacy groups and persons, publicly supporting Bobrisky and imploring the Federal Government to “put an end to the harassment and threat to life of Nigerian Citizens by a federal agency that is funded by taxpayers”.
Other public figures, including Toke Makinwa and Nkechi Blessing, also expressed their outrage, with Bobrisky’s best friend and actress Tonto Dikeh sharing some light-hearted advice on what she should do with her wasted eight-tier birthday cake.
“The story of Bobrisky is one that highlights Nigeria’s raging transphobia and prejudices towards the wider LGBTQ+ community”
During all this, Bobrisky returned calm, proclaiming, via Snapchat (of course): “I’m a hard rock, nothing can break me.” Such an apathetic reaction is not unsurprising considering Bobrisky has had her fair share of run-ins with the authorities.
Adding to the plethora of preconceptions about this social media star is that she has alleged intimate ties with government officials who have the political sway to shield her from, or expose her to, legal concerns at their will. Considering how much of her life she exposes to the public, Bobrisky has kept the identities of her enigmatic “BAEs” a well-guarded secret, releasing only small morsels of information. Her confession to sleeping with a government official came in the form of a Snapchat post, revealing that her bae had once used his political clout to have her locked up.
For the most part, however, her supposed baes in Nigeria’s corrupt political class have kept Bobrisky safe. In 2017, shortly after her first public announcement that, she, then still identifying as a man, was gay, Bobrisky was arrested by the Lagos State Police. Rumoured to have been released thanks to the influence of one of her many friends in office – she actually thanked her bae for facilitating her bail – a liberated Bobrisky quickly refuted claims that the recent announcement had anything to do with the arrest.
The story of Bobrisky is also one that highlights Nigeria’s raging transphobia and prejudices towards the wider LGBTQI+ community. Even if she narrowly escaped being detained this time, incidences of gay men being arrested are sadly commonplace in Nigeria. In August 2018, Lagos State Police officers raided a hotel in Egbada Lagos, on the information that “some youths will be initiated into a gay/homosexual club”. Famed dancer James Brown was amongst the arrested party. Speaking out against his wrongful incarceration, in a video that later went viral, James explained that the police were using his HIV positive status as evidence of his sexuality, when in fact he contracted the disease from his mother at birth and repeatedly informed authorities that he is not gay.
Beyond discrimination from the police, violence against the LGBTQI+ community also transpires amongst civilians. A 2012 study conducted by medical researchers at the University of Lagos, recorded several instances of human rights violations against homosexual, bisexual and trans men. Victims of aggression and alienation, the study showed that these men also suffered verbal and physical abuse – including extrajudicial killings, torture and detention and sexual assault. One of such violent homophobic attack in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, resulted in White House Honoree and Gay Rights Activist, Michael Ighodaro fleeing the country for his safety, seeking asylum in America, which he was fortunately granted. Many others have not been so lucky.
Since there is no legal protection against discrimination in Nigeria, violence, homophobia and transphobia against members of the LGBTQI+ community are tolerated. In 2014 there were even celebrations for a ban against same-sex marriage, a law which imposes a 14-year jail sentence on citizens “caught in the act” of homosexuality.
For context, 2014 was the year that Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine and became the first openly trans person to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category. It was the year that 1,000 openly trans Bangladeshis held the country’s first Pride, celebrating one year since their government officially recognised them as a third gender. It was the year that Bobrisky, vacationing in Dubai, discovered the product that would redefine her career as a beauty entrepreneur, forming the foundation of the Bobrisky brand and the basis for which controversy would propel her into fame: skin-lightening cream.
Bobrisky has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Before her current, most prolific business venture selling skin-lightening cream, she had retailed everything from watches to make-up. She even made money as a dance choreographer during her uni days. Studying accounting at the University of Lagos, it was this glaring passion for acquiring wealth that thrust Bobrisky on the passage to self-discovery.
Never more than a few posts away from the pillars of scandal that have sustained her career, Bobrisky’s colourism, rampant misogyny, and opposition to gay marriage earned her countless critics amongst Nigeria’s liberal youth, who otherwise boast full support of the trans icon. A product of the patriarchal structure to which she has been forced to adhere all her life, Bobrisky’s misogyny has been as overt as her gender fluidity, particularly during her earlier days in the spotlight, when her Snapchat was home to offensive body-shaming comments (“fat dirty pig, reduce some weight before I can talk to you”), mandates to her female followers to be subservient to men (“don’t argue with him, always respect him so as to get his attention”), and of course skin-lightening propaganda.
Her infamous Bob Whitening Cream range includes a body scrub, body shower gel, face cream, face soap, knuckle cream and costs 100,000 naira (£200) in total, and she claims that she gets around 17 customers a week. She’s previously made her attitude towards colourism clear with outlandish statements. “I’m so pretty, I can enter the US because I’m not black”.
Despite her transgressions, in certain circles, criticisms never hamper support. Deliberately defiant of Nigeria’s cultural mores, Bobrisky’s success has made an indelible imprint on Nigerian pop culture. Considering how widely members of the LGBTQI+ community are persecuted in Nigeria, unequivocal backing of Bobrisky’s open documentation of her transition is inevitable for the more humane “Twitter Generation”, but more importantly a monumental interval in Nigeria’s cultural history.
Before her, there have of course been trans individuals in Nigeria, but none with such a public profile chose to remain in the country. Nigeria’s first visible trans woman, Miss SaHHara, fled for her life to the UK, and others, namely Stephanie Rose and Mandy La Candy, followed suit, settling in Europe for fear of persecution here at home. Bobrisky is, however, staying put –thereby igniting discourse surrounding trans identities.
“The conversation around trans identities in Nigeria is very minimal,” Emerald Nnoruka observes as we speak over email. The gender-fluid illusionist and sexual diversity expert has been at the forefront of Nigeria’s Trans Rights movement, creating awareness about gender and sexual diversity through his/her widespread Human Rights activism. Having conducted vast research within Nigeria, Emerald attributes the lack of awareness and indignation towards trans identities in Nigeria to a general denial that things outside of the norm can prevail.
“Most times they see effeminate men and call them gay or trans which is often false. The [current] conversation tends to box people up.” Thankfully, however, Bobrisky’s public profile is reconfiguring how Nigerians address what society wrongfully denotes as “difference”, demanding that the country engages with trans identities, regardless of how strange it might be for its largely traditionalist citizens. She does this “in a lot of great ways”, Emerald reports, most especially through her masterful use of social media.
“Most times they see effeminate men and call them gay or trans which is often false. The current conversation tends to box people up.”Emerald Nnoruka
However, the 24-year-old activist still believes there is a lot more Bobrisky could be doing for her community. “[She could] seek backing from civil groups, public groups, NGOs, the media and a whole lot of other high-level advocacy, to ensure a great[er] conversation around this topic and do instigate change,” Emerald suggests over email. But you can argue that Bobrisky’s toil for fame and recognition, in the face of legal ramifications and unending vitriol, is a form of advocacy in itself. It’s certainly not something that should be overlooked.
LGBTQI+ activism, according to Ozugbakun, Kolade-Otitoju, Adeoye and Olusegun, is a parasitical force that cannot go unchecked, comparable to Ebola, drug abuse or rape; to them, members of the LGBTQI+ community are outcasts to be shipped off to Europe and the US, where “that kind of thing” is accepted.
Writing to gal-dem, Xeenarh Mohammed, the Executive Director of TIER, offers someone explanation for this narrow-sightedness, noting that “foreign names complicate conversation about the fluidity of gender in many local contexts”. In other words, many conflate the import of Western terminology for these identities with the idea that transgender people only exist in the West. This mindset is dangerously ignorant of the fact that these identities do in fact exist in Nigeria independently of Western influence. For example, the Yan Daudu, a gender-fluid male subculture, has existed in Northern Nigeria for over a century. Xeenarh goes on to further explain the hateful resistance, saying “intolerance brokered by Islam and Christianity are not helping matters. Where there was integration of people who were different, now we are being taught to reject one another.”
For a long time, these discriminatory practices have gone unopposed. But Bobrisky is leading a Queervolution in Nigeria, just by existing. The standards are higher now, and with every heteronormative attack on Bobrisky, we see the laws of an emerging egalitarian social justice system in full effect, particularly on Twitter, one of the primary spaces for social activism in today’s digitalised world.
Historically in Nigeria, intolerance has reigned supreme. Now, thanks in no small part to Bobrisky, the climate is changing; in 2019, na gay dey reign!. This Pidgin English saying loosely translates to “the queer community reigns”. Bobrisky, trans identities and the LGBTQI+ community at large are gaining more visibility, commandeering mainstream conversations and taking up space in Nigeria – in 2019, into the new decade and beyond. We love to see it.