For centuries, U.S.-based evangelical Christians have traversed the continent of Africa spreading messages of homophobia and transphobia against the LGBTQ community.
People like Scott Lively, an anti-gay extremist, for example, who was subjected to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts (pdf) because of his travel abroad to promote Uganda’s anti-gay propaganda—the Anti-Homosexuality Bill—in 2014. Although the law was annulled that same year, it did not change widespread perceptions of how LGBTQ people were viewed: as toxic, immoral and ungodly.
This misperception—the colonialism, pillaging and thievery—has led to one unfortunate misapprehension: that people cannot be both African and LGBTQ. Queer Nigerian American Mikael Owunna resists this rhetoric in his groundbreaking project Limit(less).
If you grew up in the United States—a country that continually exports our versions of democracy and “humanity” abroad—the mindset that LGBTQ identities are an exclusively Western phenomenon may be understandable at first glance. But the notion that LGBTQ identities are a result of colonialism is an alternative fact; LGBTQ people have always existed on the continent.
Make no mistake: The idea that African homosexuality is an external import is a myth and has been disproved many times. In Limit(less), Owunna bravely shows this by highlighting the blackness and queerness of Africans throughout the continent.
Through art and pictorial storytelling, Limit(less) seeks to visually deconstruct the rigid sexuality and gender binary that states that one cannot be both LGBTQ and African.
Owunna explains that he has been interested in photography for eight years, although he didn’t begin calling himself a photographer until two years ago. “I was part of a merits scholarship program at Duke University, where a group of students went to Oxford the summer after freshman year. One of my uncles is a photographer, and he helped me buy my first camera and taught me how to approach the basic tools,” Owunna told The Root.
“What was pivotal is when I was featured in a few art shows and when I was a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan. My mentor taught me to attack art and express cultural identities through happiness, pain and the range of human emotions,” Owunna continued.
Limit(less) does just that, and a simple exploration of the imagery shows someone’s lived experience. Get a taste of the black queer magic here:
Despite his later realization that one could be both queer and African, this didn’t make growing up any easier for Owunna—or for any of his participants. In fact, the more he pushed against a cultural taboo, the more he was met with resistance.
“I was outed when I was 15 to my parents, and I knew they would not accept me based on my sexuality,” Owunna explains. “They are Catholic and African, so I knew it would be considered unacceptable.
“So my parents started to send me to Nigeria twice a year with the goal of [my] being straight again,” he continues. “I was put through a series of exorcisms while in my village in Nigeria.”
Such resistance has resulted in the kidnapping of journalists and artists, causing many people to keep silent out of fear. Earlier this month, Nigerian writer Chibuihe Obi was kidnapped for using literature to push back against anti-LGBTQ hate and discrimination. Obi went missing just days after he published “We’re Queer, We’re Here”—an op-ed for Brittle Paper, about the queerphobia he experiences in Nigeria. It’s therefore important to realize that what people like Owunna and Obi are contributing is not mere art, but revolutionary art that places them at risk.
All people have an equal right to live free from violence, discrimination and stigma. But as the ironic beauty in these photographs underscores, that right is not yet realized for LGBTQ African people. In 2015, in 78 countries (pdf), same-sex behavior was criminalized, and at least five of these countries make these sexual acts punishable by death.
These punitive laws, enforced on the basis of actual—or perceived—sexual orientation and gender identity, not only make it nearly impossible to publicly identify as LGBTQ without fear but also restrict the queer and transgender community from receiving critical lifesaving information.
To put this in context, studies have shown that young bisexual and lesbian women are two to seven times more likely (pdf) to become pregnant than their heterosexual counterparts. Evidence also suggests that trans women are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population. These stories must be told.
When Limit(less) commenced, Owunna never imagined that it would be so popular. So far he has traveled to several countries photographing the experiences of LGBTQ Africans; he was interviewed by NPR; he has started a Kickstarter campaign; and he now has art to debunk LGBTQ as un-African.
Owunna told The Root: “Initially I was just focused on my own personal journey of what it meant to be queer and African. I dealt with depression for so many years centered on these identities, and I was trying to figure out how do other people find a way to love themselves.”
He continues, “I was looking to them to find an answer for myself and was simply trying to figure out my own baggage.”
We must continue acknowledging that LGBTQ Africans exist and that they live all over the world. With the work of Owunna, Obi and other artists resisting dangerous stereotypes and unfounded tropes, perhaps that conversation can get better for marginalized communities every day.