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Who Died and Made Bobrisky a Nigerian Cultural Leader?

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Okuneye Idris Olarenwaju is apparently a hero.

According to Wikipedia, Idris, who is better known by the name ‘Bobrisky’, is an “internet personality and philanthropist who is known as a prominent transgender woman in Nigeria, a country with no LGBT rights.” Having gained prominence by becoming a well-known social media shock-jock peddler offering a counterpoint to Nigeria’s conservative social norms, Idris is now a bonafide celebrity and something of a cause celebre within LGBT and – for some reason – feminist communities in Nigeria.

Nobody appears particularly sure why.

Bobrisky’s alleged claim to fame is a reputation for loudly and visibly challenging the forced invisibility of LGBT people in the oppressively anti-diversity cultural context of Nigeria. Every Instagram and Snapchat post showing Idris pointedly referencing expensive favours and gifts from sexual relationships with male clients – having been born as a man – is apparently a brave statement of resistance against Nigeria’s open and violent homophobia.

Perhaps because the vast majority of anti-Bobrisky sentiment is predictably driven by the usual Nigerian homophobia, intolerance and lack of imagination, no one has really thought to interrogate the issue from a dispassionate sociological point of view. The time has now come to ask certain hard questions that have been glossed over. Is the character actually helping Nigeria’s LGBT population or does ‘Bobrisky’ just help Idris alone? Is Bobrisky’s presence helpful or harmful to Nigerians with non-CisHet orientations? What is the cultural impact of the Bobrisky phenomenon, and is it a positive thing in the long term?

Who Benefits – Nigeria’s LGBT Community or Just Bobrisky?

Homophobia is hardly a uniquely Nigerian cultural trait. Even the most pluralistic and tolerant countries on earth still struggle with anti-gay violence in many forms. Nigeria is however, one of a handful of countries that have laws expressly criminalising homosexuality and prescribing a harsh punishment for it. While the legal mechanics of establishing guilt are unclear, the law states that people convicted of homosexuality are liable to face a maximum prison term of 14 years. In this environment, simply existing as a gay person is a significant risk.

Against this backdrop, the emergence of a flamboyant social media superstar from the LGBT ecosystem has been heralded as an important piece of Nigeria’s social evolution puzzle, as the country struggles with its ongoing existential identity crisis. Whether he even identifies as part of the ‘struggle’ or not, Bobrisky has been adopted as the face of LGBT in Nigeria, and heralded as a fearless, game-changing presence.

Amidst all of this, it apparently has skipped everyone’s minds to ask this character about his thoughts on the issues facing non Cis-Het Nigerians. The few times anyone has actually bothered to sit down with Idris and ask questions about real LGBT issues like the anti-gay law and police brutality against suspected members of the community, his responses have been nothing short of stunning – for all the wrong reasons. He has a history of publicly denying the LGBT community whenever identifying with them might be seen as advocacy, or would not add anything to his profile. 

In addition to publicly denying being gay on multiple occasions, he also has a dangerous penchant for throwing out not-so-subtle hints that effectively ‘out’ the identities of closeted gay Nigerians he knows – information that could potentially be deadly in this environment. What is more, he is not much a feminist ally either, because he famously sees women as his competition for rich male clients. Speaking to Vanguard’s Potpourri in 2017, he stated that he is “prettier than 70 percent of Nigerian women.”

So if Idris’ does not do anything to advance the interests of the LGBT and feminist communities who have claimed him without being asked to, then who exactly does he benefit? The answer is – himself pretty much. Apart from several endorsements – he reportedly charges $11,000 to endorse a single hair brand –  he also has several rich clients, on-screen appearances and partnerships with questionable skincare brands promoting “skin lightening,” i.e bleaching.

That is the sum and total of Bobrisky’s efforts.

“A Guy Wearing Makeup”

Even more importantly, the unsolicited annointing of Bobrisky as a Nigerian LGBT lodestar ignores the fact that he himself views his identity as somewhere between an inside joke and a TV character. Is Bobrisky a gay man? A transgender woman? Or simply a cross-dresser who is skilled at working and monetising this unusual identity within the Nigerian attention-economy? He himself answered this question in a 2018 interview with TW Magazine publisher, Adesuwa Onyenokwe, where he said:

I think it is because of my look. Like imagine, a guy wearing makeup. Outside Nigeria like UK, America, they don’t find it new. They feel its normal but in Nigeria, they feel you are mad. We are in Nigeria and there is this law which I am in support of because I see no reason why your mother will give birth to you and you will say you will not give birth in future. It is not possible now. If my mom and dad did not give birth to me, I wouldn’t be this Idris.

bobrisky denying the lgbt community in a 2018 interview with tw magazine

To understand the significance of this quote, perhaps it would help to get a little refresher in LGBT terminology from TIERS Nigeria, a civil society organisation that focuses on human rights and combating anti-LGBT violence.

In the above quote, Bobrisky expressly distances himself from any sort of LGBT identity. Is he gay – absolutely not, he says. In fact he expresses support for the anti-gay law that poses an existential threat to gay people who are not protected by powerful friends, a large social media following and a fat bank account. Is he a transgender woman – also not the case, he says. He is “a guy wearing makeup.”

Understanding the significance of this is central to deconstructing the myth of Idris as a Nigerian LGBT icon. Whereas actual gay people – some of whom I know personally – are constrained to live a never-ending double life because of Nigeria’s uniquely toxic brew of ignorance, homophobia, religious fanaticism and poverty, Idris gets to dip in and dip out of the LGBT conversation whenever he likes, depending on what suits his interests or catchesh is fancy. He will even happily jump on the anti-gay bandwagon if he thinks it will help his career or boost his publicity. 

Whereas transgender women have to fight through some incredibly difficult conversations and viewpoints about their identity, Bobrisky gets to use their struggle as a prop for his self-acknowledged circus act. Depending on what side of the bed he wakes up on, he can either be the woke trans-woman who wants his pronouns to be feminine, or the social media troll who describes his entire schtick as “a guy wearing makeup.” 

He may actually be gay, transgender and a flamboyant cross-dresser, all of which are individually valid identities, but the trouble with him is that it’s all a performance to him. Nothing is sacred or worth fighting for in Bobrisky’s world except his bank account. Depending on where he is and who he is speaking to, he can be an LGBT hero using his platform to advance the interests of that community, or he can be the LGBT equivalent of Uncle Ruckus from ‘The Boondocks.’ 

It’s all a game to him where only the performance matters, nothing is set in stone and the only metric for success is this:

The conversion of Bobrisky into a bona fide Nigerian cultural hero among LGBT and feminist communities is completely unwarranted and potentially dangerous, because this is an individual who only cares about his own bottom line – nothing and no one else matters.

Idris Okuneye Olanrewaju is a distinctly selfish individual whose only agenda is self-enrichment while enjoying protection from powerful associates, unlike the vast majority of Nigeria’s LGBT community who remain in constant risk of real physical harm. Bobrisky does not in fact ever speak up on LGBT issues and related human rights topics except he is directly and unambiguously threatened. He rather spends his time boasting about material possessions and brand endorsements, while promoting dangerous, cancer-causing skin bleaching and setting the clock back for LGBT inclusion by muddying important narratives. 

He is the furthest thing that exists from a hero. Nobody should be afraid to say it.

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