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Nigeria’s Cross-Dressing Activist

Over in homophobic Nigeria a cross-dressing social media star nick named “Africa’s male Barbie” has shot to cyberspace fame, sparking a heated debate in a conservative country where queer lifestyles remain taboo and is harshly punished by law.

Okuneye Idris Olarenwaju, who goes by the name Bobrisky on SnapChat, sells skin-whitening creams for a living while chronicling his life of luxury in Lagos online.

Bobrisky’s fame really took off in late October, when an aide to President Muhammadu Buhari and a marketing executive pulled out of appearing with him on a social media panel in Abuja, the nation’s capital.

“The inclusion of Bobrisky unfortunately sensationalises and radicalises what should otherwise be a serious discourse on new approaches to media engagement,” said Alder Consulting, whose social media executive withdrew.

Meanwhile, Buhari’s social media aide Bashir Ahmad said he would be “unavailable for the event”.

Bobrisky went ahead with the talk anyway.

“The organisers invited me to speak on the fact that people are talking about Bobrisky,” the 25-year-old told AFP, characteristically referring to himself in the third person.

“Them withdrawing wasn’t nice. In Nigeria, the majority of people here judge you so fast,” he added.

“We are in this life once, people should be given the freedom to express themselves.”

In the wake of the scandal, Bobrisky has earned himself a reputation for being a rebel.

It’s a dangerous reputation in a country where in 2014, former president Goodluck Jonathan signed the same-sex marriage prohibition bill, forbidding not only marriage, but same-sex cohabitation and any “public show of same-sex amorous relationship” with penalties ranging from 10 to 14 years in prison.

But Bobrisky, who gets over 150 000 views on each video he posts, insisted his appeal isn’t because he’s a civil rights crusader.

“People love the fact that I’m real,” he said, speaking at his apartment in Lekki, an upmarket suburb in Nigeria’s commercial hub.

“It’s about the way I dance, because I’m a very good dancer, and my makeup.”

Bobrisky says he “doesn’t bother” with the haters and instead is focussing on launching a YouTube channel where he’ll do makeup tutorials.

It’s exactly that born-this-way defiance that endears him to fans.

“He doesn’t have to take on a leadership role,” said Olumide Femi Makanjuola, deputy director of The Initiative for Equal Rights, a Nigeria-based non-profit organisation advocating for LGBT rights.

“People like Bobrisky are creating the conversation. They didn’t start out to be an activist, but it happened. That’s one of the powerful things of pop culture.”

Meanwhile Transvestites are almost invisible in Nigeria, while gay men are regularly the victims of violence.