Fola Francis is making a difference with the Lagos Ballroom scene

Decked in a black Weizdhurm Franklyn gown with giant metallic silver spheres, Fola Francis pranced on the midnight black 14 Days and a Ball stage, amping up the audience with her chants, reading the looks of the contestants and holding court as the host of the ball and queen of the Lagos ballroom scene.

The Lagos Ballroom scene has become the hottest underground activity, second only to the EDM raves that have taken the city and the country by storm. We wanted to understand how this unique queer subculture has found its way into Lagos, what it means for the communities that call it their own and how queerness is making safe spaces in a country with laws that seek to criminalise queer expression.

The responsibility of hosting a ball is bestowed on someone who is a community anchor and we feel Fola has been that and more for the trans community in Lagos. Fola is many things, an entrepreneur, activist and out trans woman and organiser of ballroom events, and we wanted to see the scene from her eyes.

Hi Fola, 2022 was a quite important year for you. You walked the Lagos Fashion Week Runway, participated in an international photography project that highlighted trans and non-binary persons, acted in your first film and of course, you were the host of the Inaugural Pride in Lagos ball. What was it like to be a visible trans woman in a country like Nigeria?

Being an openly trans woman in Nigeria is quite something. Being visible opens me up to a lot of scrutiny and criticism from the larger community and the queer community. This is because in a system where queer people are erased, everything I do becomes the standard representation for all trans women.

I live my life daily to break more ground and do more things that people think I should not be able to do as a trans person living in Nigeria. If I am going to be tokenized, then I want to offer positive representation for the trans community and challenge every restriction the system tries to place on trans women.

The 2022 Pride In Lagos ball was different from all the other places where you held space for trans visibility. What was it like to host an event for queer  people by queer people?

Pride in Lagos Ball was an idea Olaide Kayode Timileyin and I came up with. He is the Executive Director of Queercity Media and Production.

He wanted to host an event to celebrate Pride and I wanted to hold a ball, so we collaborated and merged our ideas into the first Pride In Lagos ball, hosted during Pride in 2022.

Our first ball was modest, but this year we were able to get more sponsors and funders. It’s an exhilarating feeling to be able to meet a specific need for queer people, the need for safe spaces where queer people can take up space, be visible and find community.

I have immersed myself in the ballroom culture, especially the New York Ballroom culture, and I wanted to replicate that feeling of safety, community and positive representation. At our balls, queer people can take up different personas, dress up in extravagant fashion and make up, celebrate aspects of themselves such as femininity and masculinity that would otherwise be repressed in the larger world. There is nothing more fulfilling that for us as organisers.

Were there any particular memories you hold from last year’s Ball that encapsulates the spirit of the Pride In Lagos Annual ball?

After the ball there was an outpouring of genuine gratitude that we were brave enough to host a queer ball in Nigeria. So many people reached out to me to thank me for hosting the ball, to express their happiness at being able to experience undiluted queer joy in one space and recognised the work we were doing to create such spaces for them.

It was the positive feedback that we got from the first Pride in Lagos event that gave us the push to start actively planning the next one to be even bigger and better.

This year you returned as the host of two separate balls, one for Pride in Lagos and the other for 14 Years and a Day, the film you were cast in. What was it like preparing for two separate balls back to back?

It was extremely difficult preparing for two balls back to back. Pride In Lagos was held on 16th of June and 14 Years and Ball was held the next Friday. That entire period I was nursing myself back to health after a nasty bout of Malaria but these balls were of the utmost importance to me so I did a lot of manifestation and self affirmation and took my meds religiously.

The Pride In Lagos ball seriously raised the expectations of the audience and drove ticket sales for the second ball and  the fact that we screened our film, ‘14 years and a Day’ the evening of the ball made the stakes for success even higher. I had to bring it because the guests expected bigger and better things, and I had to make sure that I came 100% correct. It was a lot of pressure but we pulled through and I’m so glad that everyone had a great time, the judges had a great time and I had a great time as well.

June was really a crazy month for me, but I am grateful to be in this position where I can give back to the queer community in Lagos.

Fola Francis
A still from 14 Years and a Day, directed by Ayo Lawson and Uyai Edu

The turn out for both balls was really impressive. Not just the audience who came to experience a specific aspect of queer culture but also the participants who walked the categories. Why do you think more people are gravitating towards ball culture in Nigeria?

Queer people need to socialise and enjoy the company of other queer people, and unfortunately, even the most well intentioned allies still do not understand what is at stake when a queer person lives their truth. I think more Nigerians are gravitating towards ballroom  because we do not have enough diversity in our queer spaces in Nigeria, spaces where they don’t have to hide in plain sight, where they can express their queer joy without limitations.

We cannot allow the violent laws in this country to completely erase us, and in my experience more and more young people are openly rebelling against these laws and the rampant homophobia and transphobia in Nigeria and living their lives in spite of it. Queer-centric events help them see that they are not alone, and their lives, dreams and aspirations for community are valid.

Queer people come out in their numbers for our balls because we have earned the trust of our communities. I am visible, I am vocal about queer rights and I live my life in a transparent way. I understand the risk involved in living visibly as a queer person, and the people who attend our balls know that I will prioritise their safety over any other objectives I have. They come to our balls because they appreciate the massive risk we take to create these queer-centric spaces and reward us by making these events a success.

For those who aren’t really conversant with ball culture, could you please talk a bit about the categories that were up in this year’s balls. There were some unique categories. Why were those categories chosen?

Originally, there are some categories that exist from the OG ballroom scenes in New York, and these categories mirror aspects of our real lives and these are the categories that exist at all balls. We included these categories in our ball because they are a part of the scene and the genre of performance. Femme Queen, Butch Queen, Vogue.

At the 14 Years and a Ball, we included certain categories to align with the theme of the night which was referencing our film, 14 Years and a Day and the Nollywood film industry. Yes, we took the ball very seriously, but it was also important for us for everyone who had the courage to walk the categories to have fun.

The ballroom culture in Nigeria is growing and I hope more people will create more balls, because I don’t want people to have to wait a whole year to be able to walk at the Pride In Lagos ball or the 14 Years and a Ball ball.

Fola Francis
Judges judging a category at 14 Years and a Ball

I’m very curious about one of the new categories that have been included in this year’s Pride in Lagos ball, Mother of Year. What is that category about?

I came up with the idea for the Mother of Year trophy for this year’s Pride In Lagos ball because there are so many individuals who give a lot of themselves to the community and take on a nurturing role. They create safe spaces for queer people to meet and find community, they help out queer people in need, they nurture, they provide financial assistance and even go as far as opening up their homes to those who need temporary accommodation. The ‘Mother of Year’ category already exists in other ballroom scenes, especially in New York and I felt that was an aspect of the culture that we could bring here.

That kind of self sacrifice needs to be recognised and I felt we could do this publicly at the Pride in Lagos ball.

Ballroom culture references another underexplored part of queer culture, the concept of Houses and house mothers, can you share a bit more light on what a house mother is?

I think the concept of a House Mother is self explanatory for queer people, but for the benefit of allies, I can explain a bit. When queer people voluntarily come out or are forcibly outed, they are often thrown out of their homes and disowned by their families. When they are abandoned in this way, people within the queer community often step up to support these people and provide the love and support they lack from their birth family. These are the people we refer to in the queer community as a ‘mother’.

I have my own house, The House of Ivy, and I have people who look up to me as a visibly trans woman who has lived through transphobia and has some experience in navigating queerness in Nigeria. As a house mother, they look up to me for emotional support, advice and mentorship, in whatever way that I can offer this. They become my chosen family and we support and love each other.

Ballroom culture is also one of the few places where cis queer persons and trans queer persons truly share a community. As a woman of trans experience, why do you think the ballroom subculture is able to achieve this?

Ballroom is a space that celebrates femininity and queerness in all its glory. It is a space that celebrates drag, gender fluidity, and queerness as the mainstream as opposed to something considered wrong or evil. It is a space where our collective yearning for freedom irrespective of our gender expression or sexuality is recognised and affirmed.

Ballroom gives the purest form of freedom and because of that all kinds of people, cis, trans and queer can come together and have fun. Anyone who enjoys these things is welcome to the ballroom and everyone is welcome to walk the categories irrespective of their lives outside the ball. You get to tap into a different part of your self, your most expressive, fantastical self in a safe space where you are affirmed.

Ballroom allows us to suspend all the rules and biases of the real world and allow us to experience unimaginable freedom and zero judgement. That is what this space gives that no other space, not even other spaces in the queer community give.

What do you hope the queer and trans women who are either attended the ball or witnessed it via social media take away from the experience?

All I want my trans and queer siblings to take away from their experience at the ball is that we are here, we are queer and we are going to take up space. This is just my second year of hosting balls and in the last year alone I have hosted 4 balls. The balls will just keep getting bigger and better and more people keep finding self expression and community within these spaces.

You experience more safety, more space to be yourself and just have fun, you will continue to take up space. There is still a lot of work to be done as to changing public perception and fighting the discriminatory laws that criminalise our existence, but in the meantime we are going to continue to live loudly and rebelliously, without any care for what others think we should and can do.

What is your wish for the queer and trans community in Nigeria this Pride?

My hope for the queer community in Nigeria is that we evolve to a place where we stop apologising for our existence, our sexuality or our gender expression. I hope we get to aplace where we no longer have to explain queerness or justify our choices to people who do not care about us. I hope we get to a place where we no longer have to ‘come out’, that we can just exist.

I know I am very optimistic about the future for queer people in Nigeria but I strongly believe this is possible. Above all, I hope that instead of hostility and violence, future generations of parents in Nigeria will prioritise the safety and wellbeing of their queer and trans children and work to become their biggest champion and allies, creating safe spaces for them to be their fullest selves.

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