‘I was able to be my openly queer self without worrying about being attacked’: the organisers behind Pride In Lagos and several attendees share their experiences
There aren’t many spaces in Lagos where queer people can congregate safely, watch drag performances, listen to queer artists perform, or watch a voguing competition. In 2014, the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) was signed into law by then Nigerian President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. The law prescribes a 14-year prison term for anyone caught having sex with a member of the same sex in most of Nigeria, with an exception for the Muslim majority north, where it is punishable by death by stoning under the Sharia Law.
The law also criminalises queer social gatherings and civil rights groups advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. And while there historically haven’t been many legal persecutions, the law has emboldened homophobes who prefer to take the laws into their hands to lynch suspected queer people and groups. These actions have successfully eroded many queer safe spaces into non-existence, and have effectively made things like a Pride celebration in Nigeria seem like a far-off dream. However, for Olaide Kayode Timleyin, a producer and founder of Queercity Media, this was a dream he was determined to make a reality.
From June 20-26, Pride In Lagos hosted a series of events dedicated to creating a safe space for the queer community in the city. These events included a panel discussion in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Lagos, which showcased the work of Wolfgang Tilmans. Virtual panel discussions also allowed queer Nigerians, who couldn’t physically attend, to participate in a closing ball that featured voguing performances and a drag show. “Last year, after we were done with Glow-Up Pride 2021, a virtual event, I told the team I wanted to organise Pride in Lagos,” Timleyin tells Dazed. “[I wanted to] have people travel down [to the city], instead of the modus operandi of queer Africans travelling across the world to experience liberation.”
To pull this off, inspiration was taken from the New York ballroom scene, with global drag culture adapted to fit the Nigerian aesthetics and cultural habits. “The inspiration was Paris Is Burning,” Fola Francis, the host and one of the organisers of Pride in Lagos, shares. “We wanted to reenact the iconic underground New York ballroom scene here in Nigeria and make it true and original to our aesthetics as queer Nigerians.”
However, hosting a queer event in Lagos comes with many issues, with security being one of the biggest. For Timleyin, it was essential to ensure the space was safe, which meant most of their financial resources had to be dedicated to getting online and in-person security round the clock. “We paid heavily for both external security guards and also, in-house security, totalling ten security personnel, and we had to first not publicly disclose any venue till 24 hours before the events,” Timleyin explains.
Despite all the challenges, Pride In Lagos was a roaring success, with attendees still on the dancefloor at 6am the following Monday, unwilling to leave, with smiles on their faces and make-up and glitter smeared all over them. “I danced all night, it was one of the few times in all the years living in Nigeria as a queer person that I was able to stay outside, dance with guys, and be my openly queer self without for a minute worrying about being attacked,” Collins, one of the attendees of Pride In Lagos’ closing ball, tells Dazed. “It seems like such a small thing, but for queer people who have lived in Nigeria, we get why a space and an event like Pride in Lagos is truly so monumental and liberating.”
“It feels like a break from Nigeria,” says another attendee who gave his name as Igwe. “For a while, we can mentally pretend things aren’t as bad and have fun surrounded by our community.”
For many of these attendees, the highlight of the week was the Pride In Lagos closing ball, which began with live performances from several Nigerian queer talents. It was then followed by several runways walks in the style of the New York ballroom scene, with categories like “vogue assassin”, “butch queen realness” and even very Nigerian categories like “owambe realness”. The ball ended with a lip-sync performance to “Break My Soul” by Beyoncé between two drag queens. Once the winner was declared, the floor was quickly filled with attendees who danced all night long.