African, migrant and LGBTQ: what’s it like to be Limit(less)?

Interview with photographer Mikael Owunna.
Photo by Mikael Owunna, used with permission.

Mikael Owunna is a Swedish-Nigerian photographer undertaking a daring project to increase the visibility of LGBTQ African migrants in Europe and North-America. We talked to him about his project Limit(less), why it is important and the obstacles facing those who must struggle with being both LGBTQ and African immigrants in Western societies.

Limit(less) aims to use queer African style to debunk the myth that it is “un-African” to be LGBTQ. This project grew out of Mikael’s personal experience growing up being queer and Nigerian, two identities he and his family often thought of as a contradiction:

When I was 15, I was ‘outted’ to them and was told that being gay was not of my culture, that I had clearly been corrupted by growing up in the West and around white people. The antidote they proposed was to start sending me back to Nigeria twice a year, thinking that just by ‘re-exposing’ me to my culture, that I would be cured of my gayness. Of course, though, this didn’t happen. So at 18 I was put through a series of exorcisms in Nigeria to ‘drive the gay out of me’. This was incredibly traumatic and put me into a spiral of depression and anxiety for years, where I felt like who I was was fundamentally wrong and impossible to reconcile.”

This project has been for Mikael a central part of his healing process and was partly inspired by the work of Zanele Muholi, a black lesbian South African photographer, and her Project Faces & Phases.

Photo by Mikael Owunna as part of his project Limit(less)

Mikael traces homophobia in some African countries as a direct legacy of European colonialism, stating that precolonial African societies were really at the forefront of ideas about gender and sexuality. One such example is Nzinga of Ndongo, the female ruler of what is now Angola who led a 40 year struggle of resistance against Portuguese. She dressed in all male clothing and had a harem of young men, dressed as women, who were her wives. “It shows you that as Africans we were leaders on multifaceted understanding of gender and sexuality and it was largely European colonialism that destroyed that and brought the homophobia and transphobia we see today.”

While some countries might be slightly more open, such as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique or Kenya, others have a much more repressive policy against LGBTQ. Still, Mikael thinks that class is really what regulates experiences in Africa, and so being wealthy can protect you from raging homophobia even in more conservative countries.

However, while Western societies might be more open concerning LGBTQ rights, race plays a huge role which can be just as opressive: “Because the ‘mainstream’ LGBTQ scene is overwhelmingly white, and that’s reflected in LGBTQ media as well. Almost all of the images and roles for LGBTQ people in the media are of white people. And there is so much racism and xenophobia in the white LGBTQ community which makes it hard for all of us non-white LGBTQ people. So even as I felt pushed away from my Nigerian community due to homophobia, when I turned to mainstream white LGBTQ spaces for respite, I was just met with intense racism and fetishization there instead. So there really was no place that I felt that I could be queer, African and whole. And so I had to create that home for myself.”

Photo by Mikael Owunna as part of his project Limit(less)

Racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia in the West and homophobia and transphobia in African communities are considered the major obstacles for LGBTQ African immigrants. It’s a continuous process of “other-ing” experienced on all fronts. Mikael can relate to many of these experiences and struggles : “I was telling one of the women in the project about my experience being ‘exorcised’ and she kinda chuckled and said ‘me too.’ It was a sad, but sobering moment where we both just understood each other as queer Africans. Despite these experiences though, so many of us find spaces of revolutionary self-love.

It’s been amazing for me to get to capture uplifting, positive images of LGBTQ African people, and learn – through my camera – how to radically love myself as well.” Many of the photographic subjects contacted by Mikael during the project have admitted to fleeing their home countries due to having their LGBTQ identities compromised in their home countries and many more are activists in their adopted countries, fighting for a space for their dual identities as both African and LGBTQ. This struggle is not always recognized by mainstream LGBTQ rights movements: “Because when white people and politicians talk about LGBTQ people and rights in the West they almost always mean white LGBTQ people. They aren’t thinking about people like me. So that’s when the question really gets to at a deeper level, because that’s how it ends up in the policy debates, especially as white LGBTQ people are the ones controlling almost all of those conversations. The rights of LGBTQ people are framed as white LGBTQ issues versus, on the immigrant side, the rights conversation focuses on non-white immigrants.

White LGBTQ people are framed in these debates as fitting into the established social fabric of their countries and as deserving of assimilation into larger white society, while non-white immigrants are framed as the outsiders trying to infiltrate and take away the ‘hard won’ resources of the white majority. And then you have people like me who are LGBTQ and an immigrant. I do get some run-off benefits from the white LGBTQ movement, but because I am not white, my struggle is not centered there in a way that will also help my black and immigrant families. It is very complicated, and for non-white people in the West, we all carry a special burden of exclusion that not even white LGBTQ people will ever face.”

Things get even more complicated when politicians like Marine Le Pen equate defending the LGBTQ community with restricting the entry of immigrants from Middle Eastern and African Muslim majority countries, claiming they are defending the community against fundamentalist hatred. This, in Mikael’s view, only reinforces the idea that LGBTQ are white by deafult. “ What about the LGBTQ Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing ISIS? Are they not LGBTQ people being literally killed by fundamentalist hatred? Where is her heart for them, or do they not count because they are not white and don’t have French citizenship? It’s really just such barely veiled extremist racism and xenophobia, masquerading as a ‘progressive’ policy point while she rallies to strip French LGBTQ people of marriage rights and more.”

Photo by Mikael Owunna as part of his project Limit(less)

Mikael also calls for more support for LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers, those who are by far the most vulnerable in the community, often facing the threat of deportation and not having access to work permits, sustained housing and good pro-bono lawyers, which forces them to become undocumented in order to stay alive and more. It is up to civil society, in Mikael’s view, to step into the vacuum left by their governments.

Mikael hopes that the Limit(less) project can show to LGBTQ Africans that it is possible to be LGBTQ, African and love yourself. “This project has been so key for my own healing process after facing so much abuse and trauma as a teenager, and I hope that they can find healing in these images too and know that they are not alone.” We can all help him achieve that goal. Right now, Mikael has a Kickstarter campaign running until the 8th of June to bring his work to Europe – specifically Belgium, France, the UK, Portugal and Sweden – in order to photograph LGBTQ Afrian immigrants and refugees this fall.

“Any and all support donating to and sharing the Kickstarter campaign will help me tremendously to make this possible and end the project on a high note, including an extensive catalogue of European African stories.”

Here is the link for you to donate to Mikael’s project and help raise awareness and celebrate the diversity of the African LGBTQ migrant community.

GenderHuman Rights
Margarida Teixeira

Margarida Teixeira works for a women's rights organization in Lisbon, Portugal, that advocates for gender mainstreaming in Portuguese society and works on a variety of topics. She has previously worked for human rights and humanitarian NGOs in France and Croatia.
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    Limitless Africans
    13 June 2017 at 1:36 am
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    thank you Words In The Bucket!! <3

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