Report for African Studies Program Award 2023: Nneoma Onwuegbuchi

I am grateful to the African Studies Program for funding my research trip from June 3rd to August 13th, 2023, to several Nigerian cities. At private and secure locations, I interviewed several middle- and upper-class trans women influencers about their roles as fashion brand ambassadors, stylists, and online content producers. Also, I engaged in participant observations at queer fashion balls, interacted with trans activists at round table discussions, and attended the premiere of 14 Years and a Day (a trans-themed Nollywood movie with one of my research participants as a lead actor). Likewise, I conducted evaluative surveys about slurs like ‘Senior man’ and ‘male Barbie’ to highlight how Nigeria’s mainstream audience use these terms to discriminate against trans women who reject masculinity.

Since my transnational dissertation project focuses on the experiences and representation of transgender individuals in West African media, such as in films, novels, and social media outlets, my visit to various Nigerian cities helped me to assess one aspect of my project: how the bodily practices and clothing rituals of trans women influencers are essential to ongoing conversations about global capital and bodily or aesthetic labor. A recurring theme in interviews with trans women influencers is the freedom that social media affords them. Positioning themselves as postfeminists, women who claim that they do not need feminism because they are empowered, these participants spoke about confidence as an asset for living authentically online and offline. Other recurring themes in interviews include the importance of capital from endorsement deals and the independence it brings.

In Nigeria, queer people are both invisible and hyper-visible. Trans women suffer multiple layers of erasure, including verbal and physical attacks, limited job opportunities, familial rejections, and poor access to healthcare. However, because I interviewed several transgender influencers about their celebrated beauty practices across different media, I was initially convinced that Nigeria is a gender-progressive country because these women presented themselves as empowered. However, their shared personal experiences with cyberbullying and offline discrimination shattered this implicit bias that Nigeria is a trans-friendly country. Interviews with everyday trans people confirmed that despite the media visibility of trans women influencers, Nigeria still victimizes transgender individuals.

Furthermore, I attended several LGBTQI-themed events including the premiere of 14 Years and a Day, a Nollywood film celebrating trans identities, and a queer fashion ball themed, ‘Resilience in Retro Reel’: an event that merged the vibrancy of old Nollywood with ballroom culture and reimagined a history of Nollywood where queer people were celebrated and tolerated. At these events, I engaged with trans activists and artists and gauged how they celebrated fashion, maneuvered spaces of confinement, and negotiated structural constraints.

Once again, I am very grateful to the African Studies Program for funding this research trip, without which I could not engage the pain, despair, joys, and resilience of trans women influencers living in Nigeria whose beauty practices and clothing rituals help them to navigate the country’s murky terrains.

Nneoma Onwuegbuchi’s Bio

Nneoma is a PhD candidate in African Cultural Studies at UW-Madison where Dr Jacqueline-Bethel Mougoué serves as her dissertation advisor. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality in West African media cultures, particularly Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon. Her dissertation project examines the representation of gender and sexual minorities in various forms of media, including films, novels, and social media. Through her transnational work, she aims to explore the connections between gendered body politics in West Africa and broader global issues such as neoliberalism and consumerism all within the context of diverse media capitalism. Various awards from institutions such as the UW-Madison African Studies Program and the CUNY Graduate Center have provided research support for her work.  Nneoma holds a B.A. in Literary Studies from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and an M.A. in African Cultural Studies with a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies from UW-Madison.