Ballroom Culture in Nigeria Is Being Revived By Queer Youth

For Sulieman*, a 21-year-old nonbinary person living in Kaduna, Nigeria, Pose was the best thing they had ever seen on television. “The plot was sad, but amid all their struggles and heartbreak, you could see that they were part of a larger community. And in their darkest moments, they turned to each other for support,” they said. “You could see how free and alive they were at the balls. I wanted to feel that freedom too, to feel like I was part of something bigger than myself.”

For queer people across the world, seeing LGBTQ folks celebrating themselves onscreen in Pose was revolutionary. The show portrays a fictionalized version of New York’s queer, BIPOC-led ballroom culture that burgeoned in the 1980s. Drag balls have existed in America since the 1800s, but came to wider popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, At the balls, individuals or “houses” compete in different categories, dressing in drag and Vogueing. Sulieman longs for a similar scene in Nigeria, where being queer is illegal. It turns out, that scene exists.

Nigeria is one of many African countries that operates around legal traditions and Christian doctrines imported and enforced by British colonial administrators. In Nigeria, the “public show of [a] same sex amorous relationship” is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. It is also a crime to dress in clothes not typically associated with one’s assumed gender. Because of Nigeria’s complicated relationship with colonial laws, homophobia and transphobia often goes unchallenged, leaving the misconceived notion that queerness is against our culture. This ongoing oppression necessitated a world where members of the queer community could be together, give meaning to their identity, and experience the freedom and nonconformity that came with it — which is where Nigeria’s secret ballroom culture, an underground world where queer people can freely be themselves like in Pose, comes in.

Nigeria’s ballroom culture has existed for years, but has more recently been driven further underground thanks to stricter anti-gay laws. For Nigerians, ballroom culture challenges social structures and demonstrates the queer utopia they hope can one day exist out in the open. 

Queer Nigerians remember the country’s ballroom scene of the early 2000s as an easy way for queer folks to connect with each other. In these spaces, queer folks were free to express themselves through dance and fashion. Men wore dresses, heavy makeup, wigs, and accessories that accentuated their femininity. It was the best way to defy the strict gender-roles enforced by Nigerian society. Dennis Macaulay, a gay man in his mid-30s, who was active in the ballroom scene as a university student in Portharcourt, Nigeria, talks about attending these underground parties and balls, which he described as glamorous.

“When I first came to the realization of my identity as a gay man, I started to make other queer friends who then introduced me to ballroom culture. The first time they told me about a party for queer folks, I was really terrified,” he says. “I thought about what would happen if the police raided the venue, but I went regardless. I went to balls at least three or four times a month. Sometimes my friends and I would attend one ball on Friday night, another on Saturday night and a different one on Sunday evening. Eventually I began to MC some of the balls.”

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