Men with thick sweeps of eyeliner, long hair, and glitzy shoulder-baring dresses are centre stage in new Nigerian online publication A Nasty Boy. Its founder hopes to challenge gender norms with provocative images of gender fluidity, particularly in a conservative country with a rigid view of gender binaries and draconian laws against the LGBTQ community.

Richard Akuson launched the magazine in February 2017. At only 23 years old, Akuson is a veteran of the fashion industry with freelance work at Cosmopolitan Nigeria and Marie Claire South Africa, and a stint as fashion editor at lifestyle website Bella Naija. He currently runs his own PR agency The PR Boy which has a focus on fashion and lifestyle brands.

A Nasty Boy’s fashion shoots regularly picture male models in make-up and womenswear, and female models in men’s clothing. One photo story shows a bare-chested man made up with shiny lipgloss and glitter frosting his cheekbones, staring defiantly at the camera; another features two men posing on a beach, oozing sex appeal in sequinned dresses and form-fitting cigarette trousers. The images are glossy and rebellious, and even more so in a country like Nigeria, a strongly religious society where androgyny and cross-dressing are often associated with homosexuality, which is a crime in Nigeria.

Photo sent by our Observer, from shoot '
Not Just A Boy'.

Sexual acts between people of the same sex were already illegal under Nigeria’s Criminal Code. Passage of the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA), which became law in January 2014, drove the country’s LGBTQ scene even further underground. The law bans “amorous” relationships between people of the same sex, and imposes a 10-year prison sentence on anyone who “registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation”.

A screenshot from the
A Nasty Boy website.

“Fashion as a medium can be used to do so much more”

For the moment, the magazine is online-only, but Akuson has already started working towards a print issue. With his magazine, Akuson wanted to open up a conversation about gender norms and sexuality in the country, and make it acceptable for men to do things like wear make-up and nail polish.

The definition of masculinity and femininity is very exclusive and very singular in the sense that there’s never room for people who don’t fit, or people who stand out. I have always believed that fashion could be used as a medium to do so much more.

A screenshot from the website.

Gender fluidity exists in Nigeria without it being recognised as gender fluidity. There are two notable Nigerians who cross-dress. One is a TV personality: Denrele. He has a rock kind of style, big and loud wigs, almost a bit of drag. He was big in the early 2000s and is still very much relevant. The person who is most relevant nowadays is Bobrisky, who cross-dresses, wears wigs, wears make up, lipstick, and does his nails. He looks like a girl.

A photomontage of Denrele. Photos from his
official Instagram account.

Photos of Bobrisky, from
Instagram.

You would imagine that these celebrities wouldn’t be able to exist in a place like Nigeria but they do. Bobrisky has the most followed Snapchat in Nigeria, and you have to pay 10,000 naira [around 23 euros] to get access to his premium account. However, the media has made him into a caricature, more a comedic character than who he is as a person. He’s a sensation, but he’s not taken seriously – people make fun of him.



“The magazine is addressing gender, not sexual orientation”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to William Rashidi, an LGBTQ activist in the country and director of Queer Alliance Nigeria, an organisation that fights to end discrimination against the LGBTQ community, to ask about how people who are gay or genderqueer (who have a fluid gender identity) are treated in the country.

The media is such a strong tool for advocacy, outreach, and education. I really think that publications like A Nasty Boy can open up people’s minds. I think it is pioneering because it is addressing this idea of gender fluidity: we are not discussing sexual orientation here; we are discussing gender. You can be gender-fluid and straight; you can be gender-fluid and gay. What you wear and how you express yourself does not define your sexual orientation. It’s beautiful that we have a magazine that deconstructs this rigidity around masculinity that we have, and expresses the male gender in a very fluid way.



“Cross-dressing is stigmatised in the country – but not criminalised”

Gender fluidity is not criminalised in the country like homosexuality is. Men are able to cross-dress for the purpose of entertainment. But it is stigmatised because it is associated with your sexuality. It’s controversial in a hostile country like this. Celebrities like Denrele and Bobrisky have been very controversial, but lots of followers love them for what they do, and attitudes towards gender are evolving.

Photo sent by our Observer, from shoot 'No Place to Call Home'.

People are beginning to be more open to the idea that people can be gender-fluid. I have seen a lot of Nigerian men wearing shoes or apparel that is typically meant for the female gender. And they’re not thinking about it in that way, but they just want to wear what they want. So the landscape around how people see these alternative lifestyles is changing, even in such a religious country that is intolerant of LGBTQ people.

Photo sent by our Observer.

“This is sartorial experimentation”

Richard Akuson is adamant that the magazine is not a “gay magazine” – he says it’s also about championing youth culture in the country and finding young, new talent with a message to send.

A lot of the models we work with are excited to explore the themes that we are interested in. We worked with one model for whom it was like escapism. It was exciting: he got to be a different person. Often models are very interested in sartorial experimentation – they might be heterosexual but sartorially curious about gender queerness and dressing in clothes that are typically girly. I wouldn’t say that the people we work with are gay or part of an LGBTQ community.


Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist