Nigeria’s cross-dressing comedians push social boundaries on the internet

Humour is a great way to let someone in, or opine on hot-button issues. In the presence of comedy, guards are let down for a second to truly appreciate a joke about everything from sex to politics and even sensitive topics like religion. Laughter at another’s joke requires a relatability—a phenomenon in which the receiver sees himself in the depictions of situations being recalled.

Online comedy in Nigeria has seen a huge rise with the cap off Instagram’s videos from 15 seconds to 1 minute with those who delve in challenging and traversing the comedy space from the virtual to the physical. Heavyweights like Maraji (Gloria Oloruntobi), Crazeclown (‎Emmanuel Ogonna Iwueke) and Lasisi Elenu showcase the creative use of handy mobile apps and Snapchat filters to create a humorous effect. However, a popular trend has quite a number of male comedians who dress to act the character of a funny female character for their craft.

Cross-dressers are people who wear clothing of the opposite sex. On women who wear agbadas, suit and ties or other traditional male dresses, it is generally not seen as anything unusual but something chic. Men, however, often cannot take such a bold risk without looking odd.

Nigeria is far from being a rainbow country for the LGBTQ, but crossdressing for the sake of humour is becoming more accepted among its youth. Popular comedians include Oluwakaponeski who disguises as the character Mama Tobi. His ability to switch between different characters at any time while imitating the heavily Igbo-accented English  endears him to his audience. Steven Chuks, also another favorite, is able to multiply characters having those in which he is cross-dressed take centre stage. Characters like Cleopatra, representing a high class, exuberant woman who is very fashionable and direct with her words result in something interesting to watch as emojis of laughter flood the comment section.

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Cross-dressing, however, is not new in Nigeria and was not always greeted with laughs. Adenrele Oluwafemi Edun popularly known as Denrele is a media personality with a bold and fearless fashion sense. Edun’s eccentric style has often been the subject of criticism and has even had his sexuality questioned for often dressing like a woman and putting on makeup and very high heel shoes.

The media personality’s style has been described as “crazy, “weird” and “bizzare” and that is putting it mildly. Now, the 33-year-old fashionista has created a space for himself to exist, pretty much like Charly Boy—acclaimed social deviant—did in the 1990s and 2000s, after he was perceived as an outcast for his crossdressing antics on screen and at events, and regarded as someone with “problems”.

For Edun, although he is still a controversial figure, the reactions aren’t as intense as they used to be. There is a general acceptance of the way he is, which he propagated by being comfortable in his skin. But this effect is heightened in another cross-dresser: Bobrisky.

Okuneye Idris, popularly known as Bobrisky, became an international sensation among Africans with her ability to create shock value on her Snapchat and Instagram accounts by not only dressing in female clothing, but also dancing in a sexually suggestive manner while flashing her expensive lifestyle.

Social media has indeed catapulted the idea of cross-dressing beyond infamy.  Some people think it appalling that these cross-dressers are not only acquiring wealth and fame, but are also linked to politicians as seen in a report by Sahara in which residents of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory expressed surprise by the rise of cross-dressed men across the country, showing astonishment at how young Nigerians seem to be more accepting to the phenomenon.

Cross-dressing, contrary to popular opinion is not an imposition from the western world or a conspiracy theory to make all Nigerians queer. In the Northern part of the country, ‘Dan Daudu’ or men who dress or act like women have been part of the societal fabric for centuries while in Yorubaland, some quote evidences that non-conformance to gender ideals was the norm. Since the Sharia law was adopted in the North, however, these cross dressers have been persecuted.

The irony of cross-dressing in contemporary times though is that is it allows men conveniently benefit from the portrayal of women—often in misogynist situations—when the real women are berated for expressions that are considered humourous when men dress up perform them. The men are then rewarded, often in fame, reach and eventually with money.

As cross-dressing takes another turn by the use of humour though, the social acceptance of cross-dressing in a conservative country like Nigeria may create the platform needed to encourage self expression and tolerance for non-gendered expectations and same-sex relations in Nigeria. Homosexuality is against the law in Nigeria and attracts a 14-year imprisonment. Cross-dressing isn’t against the law though, and the emergence of these men who dress like women might be a way to push social boundaries by its normalisation.