arts

Candid portraits explore the lives of LGBTQ African migrants

Published 11th October 2019
Credit: Mikael Owunna
Candid portraits explore the lives of LGBTQ African migrants
Written by Mikael Owunna
Mikael Owunna is an American photographer of Nigerian and Swedish descent, and a finalist in the 2019 FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo. The following are edited excerpts of interviews carried out by Owunna for his new book, "Limitless Africans."
I closed my eyes as the traditional priestess poured a basin of mysterious oils over me. Stinging my body from head to toe, she repeated the motion several times to wash the "gay devil" out of me.
I was 18 and spending Christmas in Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal, as it is in more than 30 African countries. Gay and Nigerian, this was my third exorcism in just a few days' time.
But returning to the United States, my struggles continued. As a gay African immigrant, I existed in a strange middle ground of rejection from all corners. Rejected from white LGBTQ spaces and American society due to my blackness and immigrant status, and from African circles due to my sexuality. I was "unacceptable" everywhere I turned.
I found photography as my voice in this darkness. Over the course of four years, I would travel to 10 different countries across North America, the Caribbean and Europe to document the LGBTQ African immigrant experience.
Shooting and interviewing dozens of LGBTQ African immigrants, nine of which are featured below, I found that every individual had experienced a similar sense of rejection on all sides. This body of work is a collaborative response between me and my community to redefine what it means to be an immigrant, African and queer.

Brian
Montreal, Canada

Mikael Owunna
I am Rwandan by my parents but I grew up in Tanzania, Niger, Kenya, Benin and the Central African Republic. I answer to "him" and "her" and I identify as queer. I, for a long time, thought that I could only fully embrace one of the two identities, that they were mutually exclusive.
When I decided to embrace my LGBTQ identity, I subconsciously pushed away my African one. I found myself becoming what some call a "Bounty" or "Oreo" -- black on the outside and white on the inside. But prior to that I had already tried to push away my LGBTQ identity. It was complete denial.
And then one day I thought to myself 'why not try embracing both identities, just for the sake of trying.' I remember feeling butterflies in my stomach and feeling so light as if an enormous weight was lifted off of me.

Lahya
Berlin, Germany

Mikael Owunna
As a disabled black and fat person, and body non-conforming person, style is empowerment. I'm very much influenced by my African heritage. I like big earrings, earth colors, but also colorful colors, and I like to show my body as it is and to bring it out in the best way I can. For me, it's like the queerness in my outfit is that I wear what I want, even if I'm a feminine person. It's a queer femininity and not a cis-hetero-normative femme style.
As a black intersectional person, I always have to give myself a bit more love than other people in the world give me. I look for other people who have the same or nearly the same identities. I look for homes where I fit in and sometimes I find them, sometimes I find part of them.

Odera
New York City, USA

Mikael Owunna
I have never felt at home with just one community, or any place that doesn't allow for intersectionality (the overlapping of multiple societally marginalized identities).
Recently I have been embracing the Q in LGBTQ. Queerness allows and builds beautiful transformative magical energy that transcends labels and boundaries. So I definitely embrace "queer." My preferred gender pronoun is "they," but I truly call and respond to many gender IDs: he, they, she, Odera, Sailor Senshi, Goddess, Gw0rl.
The first words that come to my mind for my family are, "crazy," "toxic" and "trauma." It would be ridiculous and unfair to not mention, "dedication," "strength," and "resilience." Recently, distance allows for at least the possibility of healing. I love my family, and I know they love me. However "love" doesn't always equate to acceptance.
I am lucky because, I have built a home and inner fire within myself that simply does not accept the binary. And it certainly doesn't accept others defining my identity. It simply isn't in my nature.

Tobi (with daughter Gabrielle)
Essex, UK

Mikael Owunna
I am not fully "out" to all my family members. I have quite a large and religious family tree. The few times I have been back home (to Nigeria) since we moved to England, I almost always have to hide my identity as a queer, non-binary person: take out my piercings, deal with being mis-gendered or read as a woman, hide my shaved sides with unnecessarily long braids, wear clothes that are definitely not my style or choice, and refrain from talking about my partners. It makes me feel "othered" within my own culture and in my own home.
Motherhood means a lot to me and the relationship that I have with my daughter has brought me into my strength in so many ways: physically, spiritually and emotionally. Knowing that I have no other choice but to cherish, protect and create a space in this world for another human is magic personified.

Terna
Boston, USA

Mikael Owunna
Something that's important to me is that, as much as is possible, especially if I'm going to an event, I wear some sort of African clothing. You'll never find me in a cocktail dress or anything like that.
It's an ongoing struggle, having both my African identity and my identity as a queer person. Those things have definitely created a sense of fragmentation in my life. They have affected my family, and that's been really, really difficult. In some ways, I think that's been the central tension or conflict of my life.
My response to folks who say that being queer is un-African, I would invite them, really invite them, to look at the narrative that they're holding about colonization and what it means to own who you are, where you come from and your heritage -- without pushing out those who belong to that heritage, too.

Aru
Brussels, Belgium

Mikael Owunna
I grew up in Zimbabwe and Botswana, and the moment I realized I liked women, age 14, I did not have the vocabulary to even express what I felt, nor to understand the complexities of sexuality and identity.
I had no problem at the time feeling proud of being African, so I wouldn't say I was being pushed I away. I felt more challenged about my African identity when I moved to the UK and Belgium.
Having to hide who I am, or act a certain way to keep the peace around relatives for fear of causing arguments, were the times I really felt pushed from my identity. People fear what they do not understand. And when someone doesn't understand what it is to truly be themselves and love who they are, then I'm really not surprised that there is such resistance to having an open mind.

Brook
Silver Spring, USA

Mikael Owunna
The LGBTQ community was a lot more accepting for me, so it was easy to distance myself from my African culture. But I've always been deeply rooted in my Ethiopian culture, history and even religion. Support from a few people in the Ethiopian community helped a lot. But more than anything, rediscovering old Ethiopian music made me realize that I have as much right of heritage as any other Ethiopian.
With the exception of some people -- my brother and cousin -- I honestly don't feel accepted by my family. After lots of conversations, my family and I have reached an understanding to be civil with each other and be in one another's life as we need each other. But I don't feel accepted.
I think this sentiment (that being queer is "un-African") is due to Western influence during the colonial era and continual pressure now. There is lots of historic evidence showing LGBTQ inclusion in many African cultures' pre-colonial eras. Homophobia is what's foreign to the continent.

Samuel
Stockholm, Sweden

Mikael Owunna
I identify as a queer person. I love how the term gives me the freedom to be as I am (and) how it allows me to express myself freely.
I had a hard time coming out and telling people around me about my queerness. It was probably one of the most difficult times of my life. I think a lot of Habesha (Ethiopians and Eritreans) queers can relate to that stress.
After a lot of soul-searching and a lot of struggle, and with the help of friends around, I started to dare more, to live as I wanted and it just got better. And the more I became myself, the more I loved myself. There is really not much that can be compared to being yourself. It is amazing!
Being accepted means just being able to be myself all the time without switching some sort of on-and-off switch.

Nolizwe
Oakland, USA

Mikael Owunna
My name is Nolizwe and it means "the nation" in Xhosa. Before, I went by Lizwe and in some cases Liz. I was ashamed of my name growing up and tired of everyone mispronouncing it, so I figured it would be easier to shorten it and not deal with any of the nonsense. As I continue to learn ways to love myself, I've fallen in love with my full name, and value its importance within my ancestral and personal journey.
My mom is supportive; my dad is a work in progress. I went to South Africa this past summer and it was the first time going back in five years. Since my last visit, I (appeared) more "masculine," so there was definitely a lot of thoughts around how to present myself, especially considering my visit was (for my grandmother's funeral). I'm pretty sure everyone knows about my queerness but it's definitely not talked about.
"Limitless Africans," published by FotoEvidence, is available from Oct. 11, 2019. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.