Abuja, Nigeria: The 2019 0scars have come and gone. Being a fashion enthusiast, one of the most fascinating aspects of the awards as far as I’m concerned, is the fashions on the red carpet.
From Jason Momoa’s scrunchies to Spike Lee’s heels, all boundaries were pushed when it came to men’s dressing and the traditional definition of masculinity. However, the most audacious of the night was Billy Porter’s outfit. The actor and singer wore a ‘velvet tuxedo ball-gown’ made by Christian Siriano. Some people have gone as far as to posit that this was the best outfit for the 2019 Oscars. To some others though, it seemed unclear whether Billy wanted to represent a new face of masculinity; had simply set out to channel his inner female or if he had been downright confused about both choices.
In other events and settings, Porter’s outfit, while may not have been outrightly condemned, may not have been welcomed with open arms. But then, the Oscars is not short on the outrageous and has a long and glamorous history of people going off the reservation (or off the carpet in this case) with their dressing. As a matter of fact, when it comes to the Oscars, drama is literally king and what people wear is as important as (maybe even more important) than what awards they win. Yet, even with such a reputation, the ‘velvet tuxedo ball gown’ took the ball.
Naturally, this was considered a huge milestone for the LGBTQ community as Billy Porter himself is gay. By that singular appearance, by that choice, by that dress, he had accomplished in one night what the community may have taken eons to achieve. This once again highlights the longstanding relationship between fashion and the LGBTQ community as a tool of expression and awareness.
Nowhere is this relationship more important than in Nigeria and a lot of other African societies like her. In Nigeria, homosexuality is a crime punishable with as much as 14 years imprisonment. The law which is called Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA) more or less prohibits the marriage of people of the same sex. Along with prohibiting marriage, there are a litany of provisions that prohibit sexual activities between people of the same sex as well as any activities that may be construed as “public show of same sex amorous relationship.” This of course includes participation in, or support of gay clubs and activities.
While this might give you the impression that Nigeria is an extremely conservative society, that is not really the case. Nigeria, I think, is as liberal as any other country rooted in culture and religion can be. My society more or less operates on the unwritten policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. This means that you can be privately gay as long as you publicly give no one else a reason to confirm your sexual inclinations. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending who you ask) this policy has now been somewhat expanded by the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act to include any suspicious behaviors or ‘queer’ gatherings. This has served as a tool for local miscreants and the Police (often one and the same) to extort and blackmail members of the LGBTQ community.
This is an area where fashion has played an invaluable role. While some people have openly defied the norms and even the law, a lot more have chosen the more subtle tool of fashion to defy the law. The benefit here is doubled over; with fashion, you can achieve self expression while at the same time remain on the safe side of a society that would rather you not be overt about such things. In this way, it would also be difficult for the police to make arbitrary arrests based on their suspicions and other communal miscreants would have a hard time proving any wrong doing.
To most Westerners, this might sound awesome; a victory. Finally, young people have found a way to express themselves. But you see, that is not quite the sentiment here. Many Nigerians might not take up arms against these “weird dressing gay” people, but nobody is about to give them welcome hugs either. The reality is that here, gender roles are the “constructs” upon which much of this society rests. Therefore, those who, more often than not by their dressing try to challenge this are regarded with disdain or with mild amusement. The result is that such “gay dressers” if not celebrities already, are often raised to that status in the estimation of the youngsters, once they step into their dresses.
The cascade effect of this is that fashion has become the easiest way to express oneself as a rebel against the existing order in African countries such as mine; perhaps a way too easy. It has in addition become the easiest path to seek and garner attention and spark social outrage; an escape path for young people too scared to work on untangling their webs of personal issues. Fashion in itself has become in this way, a new kind of high. Speaking to an artistic friend who has always been on the fringes of the LGBTQ community, he opined that a lot of the people who were wont to make these fashion statements often did so, not out of a need to express themselves, but rather to seek attention. Sometimes, he says, it seems easier for a young man to jump on an easy train out of his personal challenges (the train here may come in the form of nail polishing or wearing heels) rather than face his problems head-on, and steadily work his way out of them.
I would have glossed over this point of view. My position would have been that the refusal in itself and the resort to the ‘quick fix’ of queer fashion was an expression of sorts, except for my experience at the GTBank Fashion Weekend last year. There were grown men and women confidently making fashion statements about their sexual preferences through their dressings (which tended to be more subtle), but there were also younger people and teenagers (mostly male) with their pierced eyebrows, gaudy colours and painted lips who looked so lost it was painful to watch. I spoke at length with some of the latter, and I left with the feeling that their fashion choices did not stem from some deep-seated desire for self-expression. The reason was much simpler; they were desperate to be noticed. In the noisy world of fashion and glamour, they were hungry to be seen.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with this in itself. As I pointed out in this article about the influencer culture (an article inspired by the same fashion event), we all want to be seen. Popularity is the currency of this generation and excess has become a commodity.
As with most “causes” where the “activists” appear not to be the real deal, the Nigerian mainstream society has continued to reject the positions of these ‘activists’. You see, the average Nigerian understands the difference between working on one’s problems and ‘fashioning’ ways to escape them. Society then looks at this new form of fashion activism as championed by people who are afraid to unpack and sort out their personal issues (to me this is simply unacceptable) hence their “weirdness”, or to be a bunch of attention-seeking youngsters.
Either way, the outlook is far from desirable. The result is that the impact of such expressions through fashion is diluted, watered down and lost on African societies such as Nigeria.
A wise man once proclaimed, “Man, know thyself” and I agree wholly with him. Someone else says to speak your own truth and again, I couldn’t agree more. These statements are intertwined, I think. To know yourself, you must find your truth. Until you do, fashion can only remain a quick fix, a new escape tunnel; a different kind of high.
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Title image of gay pride in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg. South Africa. October 28th 2017. Gay pride on a continent that is generally hostile to LGBT people. Gays from as far away as Kenya came to celebrate. Credit: Shutterstock.