By: ELIVIS KACHI
When Ms. Fola Francis, an openly trans woman living in Nigeria, joined a trend and posted a video of her transition on TikTok, it was for her to be celebrated by her community for her resilience and acceptance of her identity. The trend was named “the son my parents thought they had vs. the daughter I became.” Unfortunately, the video went viral and into harmful watchdog accounts in Nigeria, and she had to take it down due to transphobia and physical threats.
Francis couldn’t control the virality of the video, and as it entered the screens of homophobic and transphobic Nigerians, she had to flee her home to a different city in Nigeria because the online transphobia began to manifest physically. She reports being continually assaulted by her neighbours when they discovered her identity.
“Times when my videos got picked up by public homophobic accounts, it opened me to transphobia because the vast majority of Nigerians are transphobic,” she tells Minority Africa.
In January 2014, ex-president of Nigeria, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, passed into law, the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, SSMPA, which criminalizes Nigerians who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. In other northern Nigerian states, there’s the practice of the Sharia Law, one of whose provisions is the stoning to death of people who identify as LGBTQ+.
Nine years after the Act, the queer community in Nigeria continues to grow strong by leveraging a tool as powerful as social media.
With Francis, coming into full acceptance of herself and living freely on social media isn’t just about her, but for other queer people who constantly doubt their identities and reasons to exist. For her, this is activism, and social media has helped her reach a multitude of people in conservative countries. “My core of doing this [on social media] is to create a form of representation to affirm that I exist and do this here,” she says, “And to give people hope that they’re not alone.”
Chisom Peter Job is an openly gay Nigerian journalist and story consultant who’s still recovering from the homophobia and attacks he had to experience when a tweet about his coming out to his father went viral. In the now-deleted tweet, he opened up about how his father became a safe space for him to live expressively. Job has a major health challenge, and he admitted that the virality of the tweet and the homophobia that came afterwards caused a relapse in his health.
“I received nasty comments and messages, and it was very triggering for me. I deal with anxiety a lot, and that really triggered it,” he says to Minority Africa.
Beyond this, though, social media has also helped a lot of queer Nigerians find their tribe and build their communities. It has allowed them to settle into their identities, even before making any official comments to those in their lives. “Even though some of us have been unable to be visible with our queerness in real life, social media has given us that platform to find ourselves,” Francis says. “It has been the safest way for us to express ourselves and build our community.”
Social media has also been a way for queer Nigerians to share information and discuss primary issues that affect the community. From the #EndHomophobiaInNigeria to #RepealSSMPA and #QueerLivesMatter, which trended on Twitter (now X) for days, conversations about queer people in Nigeria that would otherwise not see the light of day if those conversations took place physically, have been amplified.
Speaking with Thought Leader, Matthew Blaise, one of the pioneers of these hashtags, said, “The Queer Lives Matter video went viral because of the swiftness of Twitter. It is a powerful platform for organising and amplifying the works of local activists.”
Even with physical meetings involving queer people living in Nigeria, social media has been used as a tool to disburse information about secret locations, times, the reasons for events, speakers, activities, and the likes, since this would help reach more people in distant locations.
“Away from this harassment, social media has been able to create a ground for us to be able to talk about issues affecting us as a community,” says Job. It’s a way to be expressive and a way to connect with like and sane minds.
Most times, virality is unexpected and comes with its price. For most people, it causes psychological trauma; for others, there’s the anxiety of what to post and what not to post. For some, it’s the uncertainty of targeted trauma, because with most social media apps, both followers and non-followers are allowed access to you.
“Creating a community is one thing, but keeping the community safe away from targeted harassment and hate crime is also hard,” Job says. However, he’s found a way to manoeuvre through it. “With the way [most of these apps] are set, targeted harassment is very easy.”
One of the best ways openly queer people in Nigeria have protected themselves from social media harassment and violence is by forming communities where they feel safe to fully express and be themselves.
“When my post went viral, having a community of people both online and offline greatly helped,” Job recalls. He had a lot of online conference calls with friends to ensure that he was safe and prevent anxiety from kicking in. With social media empowering people to be vicious with their comments and DMs, there have been features like the block and mute buttons that have reduced the amount of homophobia and transphobia queer Nigerians have to undergo.
“There’s this thing I tell people around me— ‘Block people on social media’,” Job says.
In an affirming quote, Francis says “putting yourself on a public platform opens you up to a lot of harassment, and for a minimum, I block at least five accounts daily.”
Several other features like reporting an account for posting your content without consent have been developed, and queer Nigerians are using them to their advantage. Most times, the response is slow or ignored. Other times, it works, but this is a welcome improvement.
“Thankfully, a friend sent me a copyright form. [Most of these social media platforms] have this infringement form where if your original content is being uploaded without your consent, they’re authorised to take it down. That’s what I’ve been doing,” Francis says.
Queer Nigerians, however, are seeking these platforms to create tools that enable safety measures, especially for individuals living in conservative countries. For example, certain keywords and slurs should be blocked out from being used.
Francis suggests that there should be a way for these platforms to verify that a user is part of a minority in a particular country or location. She also suggests that for the usage of these platforms in conservative countries like Nigeria, certain functions like screenshots and screen records should be limited, like what the gay app, Grindr is doing.
“They can also take reporting seriously,” Job adds. “Bots shouldn’t be behind these reports, as they can be very serious, and bots can take a while before they respond. Social media has to invest in people who’re willing to check on these reports, flag them, and take them down.”
This story was first published on Minority Africa and appears with permission in this publication.