In remembrance of Fola Francis, an icon in Nigerian Fashion, Activism and Ballroom Culture

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Editor’s note: On the morning of the 22nd of December 2023, it was sadly confirmed that Fola Francis, LGBTQIA+ rights activist and a shining star in Nigeria’s LGBTQ community, had passed away. In this piece originally scheduled to be published on the 21st of December, we remember her life and times—as told by her—as an iconic figure who lived her truth, broke boundaries and created inclusive spaces for queer people in Nigeria. We would also like to share our heartfelt condolences with her loved ones and wish them comfort in this time of grieving.

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Amid Nigeria’s prevailing homophobia and transphobia, characterized by laws such as the 2013 Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, presenting as queer and living authentically demands exceptional courage. The nation’s history of deeming discussions on queerness as taboo is being challenged by a rising wave of online advocacy which is empowering young, queer Nigerians to assert their right to love openly and embrace authenticity.

Fola Francis made history as the first trans person to walk the runway at Lagos Fashion Week in November 2022, and in her life, she lived as a groundbreaker wherever she stepped her feet. Living as a trans woman in Nigeria requires bravery, resilience and authenticity, traits which Fola embodied to transmute oppression into an effervescent aura of queer joy, liberation and pride.

Beyond the glamor of the fashion industry, she was a strong activist advocating for inclusivity, and acceptance of queer and trans people. She was also a Ballroom host. Fola Francis served as a point of inspiration to many queer and trans people by living her truth and showing that people like her are capable of achieving great things. 

In this interview, we sat to explore her groundbreaking journey in fashion, activism and ballroom culture, as well as narratives which aim to achieve visibility for queer people, and significant positive change in understanding the humanity in everyone. 

Could you share a particularly impactful moment or story from your work as an LGBTQ+ activist that stands out to you as a milestone in your advocacy journey?

Fola Francis: I would say last year when they were trying to introduce cross dressing to the already existing same marriage prohibition act law. That was a moment when I was amplifying the bill on social media and got invited by BBC World Service Radio to talk about the bill with the international community on the harm it would do to queer people. It was beautiful as it made me feel like my voice matters beyond just talking on social media.

As someone who is breaking barriers and advocating for change, what are your future goals and aspirations, both for your career and for the LGBTQ+ community in Lagos and beyond?

Fola Francis: Number 1, I hope all the laws that exist to criminalize queer people get repealed. I hope that Nigerian politicians would stop using queer people as a ploy to rally citizens in getting votes because that seems to be the trend. I hope queer people can walk around without the fear of being attacked or harassed. Another issue is when we organize safe spaces, queer people do not feel safe wearing what they want to, so they have to pack extra forms of clothing. I hope we get to a point where we can express ourselves through our clothing and mannerisms without the fear of being looked at as something else.

What does queer liberation mean to you as a trans woman in Nigeria?

Fola Francis: It basically means all I have said. In a sense where we do not have to come out because hetero people do not have to come out to say I am straight. I hope we get to that point where we are just like every other person and it’s not special moments where you are brave. I hope we get to a point where we are seen as just human beings having human experiences, and people like me can just exist without having to be a monument or activist to push certain changes.

What does queer joy mean to you or how do you experience it? What moments where you felt validated?

Fola Francis: I experience queer joy a lot. My life is just a bunch of queer joy. Living with my friends is queer joy, being able to go out with friends and dates with people. Being able to share monumental things or milestones with my chosen family. Existing in my gender identity is my queer joy. Looking at the mirror every morning and liking who I see is so much joy. I am very big on amplifying queer stories that are joyful instead of focusing on the bad stuff.

How would Young Fola feel about Fola today, seeing you do and achieve all these?

Fola Francis: OMG!! Young Fola will be so grateful. I did not have a happy childhood but young Fola won’t believe this as we always thought it was just a pipe dream. I am not where I need to be yet but I am definitely not where I thought I could be which could be worse. I am living in some of my answered prayers which I am eternally grateful for. It was basically having a fantasy with my younger self but now I am living in some of those manifestations. I am still inside my young self so I am just grateful.

Can you tell me about your journey as the first trans model to walk in Lagos? What were the challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Fola Francis: In early 2022, I nurtured myself to sign things off my list and one of them was to focus on the runway. I started researching and reaching out. I realized no trans person has ever walked Lagos Fashion Week. A trans person has walked at Arise Fashion Week but they weren’t Nigerian. I became determined to try this and reached out to a bunch of designers but got a lot of refusals. I knew if I went for a casting, I won’t get it due to transphobia. A designer finally told me yes and the designer’s show got canceled so I found myself back to square one. It was now two days to Lagos Fashion week and going back to the schedule, I reached out again that I would at least get one positive answer . Two designers agreed to have me and that’s how it came to be.

I did some snooping on instagram and I saw you have a fashion brand. The shirts have some of the funniest things on them. As both a model and entrepreneur, how have these two aspects of your life influenced each other? How does your experience as a model inform your entrepreneurial endeavors?

Fola Francis: They are completely separate. Most people don’t know I have a fashion brand. Those who even know about the brand have no idea I am affiliated with it. I have had the brand for 5 years and we have been going on strong. I would say the only crossover is that it’s a very pro-queer and gender-neutral brand. 

When the EndSars period was happening, we gave shirts out which said “Queer Lives Matter ” to queer protesters at the toll gate. One of our best selling t-shirts are the ones which say “ask me about our pronouns” which resonated with a lot of trans and non-binary people. When I tell people I have a fashion brand, they expect something non-functional but later find out it’s very functional and basic. I am starting a new brand which will allow me to put more of my artistic and creativity ability. 

What do you believe needs to change within the fashion and beauty industry to create a more inclusive and accepting environment for individuals of all gender identities and backgrounds?

Fola Francis: I would say de-gendering fashion and beauty. Let it be a beauty and fashion for all. No articles of beauty, items or clothes are meant for one side or gender. We all have bodies and skin, ultimately we are all humans. Making sure a particular item doesn’t specifically just belong to one gender.

I have to ask about your vogue shoot. What did that feel like? How did that come together?

Fola Francis: It was a photographer friend that takes pictures for Vogue where he does Top 50 street styles in Lagos fashion week who always puts my pictures. It was beautiful to see. 

I just want to say that you were such a standout character to me in 14 years and a day. You delivered the iconic line “the straights are not cultured”. LGBTQ+ representation in film is a critical topic globally. How do you feel your role in 14 years and a day contributes to the broader conversation about inclusivity in the Nigerian film industry?

Fola Francis: I don’t believe a trans person has ever acted in the Nigerian film industry and that alone was something. My character, who was also a trans person, was not even like a caricature of a trans person but just another girl chilling with her friends. It was not like a big moment of “wow she is trans”. That’s just the way we are. We are just like human beings trying to live their lives… I feel like being able to see a trans person as a person is very important. I hope that we get to see more trans people in the media. Not even just in the Nigerian film industry but everywhere else.

I have to ask how you feel about having this level of visibility and actually being able to say “I am the first” or at least on record being the first person most can account for trans representation in Nigeria

Fola Francis: If I am being honest with you, it can be a lot of pressure sometimes. I have to keep reminding myself when I came out and started my transitioning, that I was going to be visible and document my journey. It’s that promise I made to myself that always keeps me grounded. Other than that, the outside voices can be a lot and there can be pressure as many people are looking up to me for answers. At times it can be a lot but I have been able to find balance by having my chosen family around me who support me with advice or even going to my trans friends who even started their journey before me. Seeking their advice around situations helps me a lot. 

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Lagos, how do you see your experiences and stories reflected in the movie, and what impact do you believe it can have on audiences?

Fola Francis: I do think it  plays a vital role because representation matters a billion times. Just a little character goes a long way. Seeing another trans person on television act a role that is not humiliating or embarrassing could inspire the next person. That if Fola can do this, I definitely could do way more. I always felt that my dreams could not come true as I felt placed in a box where trans lives don’t matter and had to just be content with my identity as a trans person and not be ambitious. For other trans people to see I can do this helps reaffirm their dreams and aspirations.

How do you envision the future of LGBTQ+ representation and acceptance in the Nigerian film industry, and what role do you see yourself playing in that evolution?

Fola Francis: I hope we get to the point in the Nigerian film industry where trans people can go for casting calls without the fear of being attacked. We get this invitation to be a part of a role where it’s not a caricature of a trans person. It’s basically us existing and not being isolated to feel like freaks or different. Apart from the industry, queer people will exist without dehumanization of any forms.

Let’s talk about your involvement in the ballroom culture especially as a host in the Inaugural Pride in Lagos Ball. The ballroom culture often involves fierce competition and unique categories. How do you come up with creative themes and concepts for your events, and how do they resonate with the community?

Fola Francis: To be honest, I go through ball rooms all over the world and get references from them and even shows. I look at all the MC’s perform and see what we can infuse with the Nigerian culture. I try to make it more Lagos so we still maintain that unique culture. This is by having categories such as “Owambe” and Nollywood vibe which is very ground and full. Everything Nigerian is going to always be over the top. Our ballrooms are always still extravagant because we go all out. 

Can you share your insights into the evolution of the Lagos ballroom scene since you first got involved, and what changes or developments do you foresee in the future?

Fola Francis: Ballroom has always existed in Nigeria and been underground but ever since I started hosting my own Balls, I pushed it a bit more accessible and crowd accepting, especially the last Ball, “14 years and a ball. It was almost mainstream and had nollywood actors as our hosts such as Nse Ikpe-Etim, Denrele, Daniel Obasi. We had prominent people in different walks of life and lots of people were also in attendance. The venue was 250 but we were maxed out. Since I got into organizing, it has become phenomenal and more people want to be there. 

What are the most memorable moments or events that you’ve hosted in the Lagos ballroom scene, and what makes them stand out to you?

Fola Francis: From the balls I have made, everything has been revolutionary. Seeing everyone irrespective of their gender identity or sexual orientation have fun has been amazing to see. Even trans people who don’t want to be seen out of their safety are in these spaces where they are coming out of their shells, unashamed and having fun. This is monumental and means a lot to me. 

As a queer identifying person in Lagos, could you talk about the importance of having safe space for queer people in such a country or how that has impacted you?

Fola Francis: That’s very important. All we have is community and the only way we can express ourselves. We have achieved a lot through push backs against laws that exist to criminalize our existence. Many people have created a lot of safe spaces. Initially, there were very few spaces. Before I became visible, there were so limited, like just games nights that people would host at their homes. Now there are events every other week for queer people and mental health programs. It’s important for queer people and I am so glad we have so much more now.

As a host, what challenges have you encountered in shaping and sustaining the Lagos ballroom culture, and how have you navigated these challenges?

Fola Francis: My biggest issue is being able to access those spaces. As queer people, you have to be very financially stable, it’s like buying your own safety. Most times we don’t have access to these funds and have to look for friends or allies to sponsor us. Another challenge is getting extra security to remove ourselves from harm usually caused by state or non-state individuals.

What advice or message do you have for those who are interested in participating in the Lagos ballroom culture or for individuals who may feel hesitant due to societal norms and expectations?

Fola Francis: I would say take your time and you are not alone. There is no rush. Whenever you are ready, we are here to embrace you. There is a community out here rooting for you. Ready to accept you with open arms.

Finally, what message or advice would you like to share with other aspiring trans models, entrepreneurs, or LGBTQ+ activists who may be looking up to you as a role model and source of inspiration?

Fola Francis: The only advice I can give is that not much work can be done on their own part but rather from the industry. My experience was different because I was privileged to know certain designers who helped me get through the door. My only advice for trans people wanting to become models is that it’s possible and go for it especially when the opportunity arises.

5 Comments

  1. I enjoyed it just as much as you will be able to accomplish here. You should be apprehensive about providing the following, but the sketch is lovely and the writing is stylish; yet, you should definitely return back as you will be doing this walk so frequently.

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