Inside The Underground Ballroom Scene Liberating Young Queer Nigerians

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In Nigeria, going public with a homosexual relationship is a punishable crime that could land you in jail for 10-14 years. Wearing anything that is not usually associated with one’s supposed gender, indulging or supporting gay events are also considered crimes. As a result of this strict anti-gay law introduced in 2014, the queer community in Nigeria does not have a lot of safe places which is where the ballroom scene comes in. Trapped in an oppressive society, young queer Nigerians have found a means of escaping from Nigeria’s harsh realities and chaos in the discreet, underground ballroom world. Safe from prying and judgemental eyes, these events are held discreetly for queer people to be themselves with members of the same community.

Creative director and artist, Aaron Ahalu got inspired to start curating balls for queer people after watching certain movies and ballroom documentaries. “I watched a lot of movies, shows, and real-life ballroom documentaries that taught me a lot about ballroom and I have always wanted to curate queer culture like ballroom just for the fun and experience of it and I did with my first ball in June 2021,” he says. 

Since creating his first ball, Ahalu now does a lot more including themed events for pride month and Halloween. In his words, “I have a ball every June for pride month which started in June 2021 with an edition for pride month called the Pride Ball and another in October for Halloween which we called Queerloween”. 

Ahalu describes the ballroom scene as extraordinary. Just like the movies and shows portray, these balls and parties have everything from great music to performances and competitions. Taking us into his ballrooms, he says, “It’s very unconventional. Just like most ballroom parties, there’s a runway, there’s music, there are dance and musical performances, there’s a host and the only thing I do not do is competition because I personally feel our only competition in life is for everyone to be ourselves. I don’t want people feeling salty for losing irrelevant trophies that don’t add to personal development but just ego boost”.

Fola Francis attended her first ball two years ago. Like many young queer Nigerians trapped indoors during the pandemic, this fashion and content creator was looking for something fun and a place to be herself. Reminiscing over the first ball she attended in 2020, she tells us; “a friend invited me to the first ballroom scene in 2020. It was just right after the lockdown. We were looking for an avenue to get away to have fun as queer people because we had been at home for the longest time. I was very excited. I didn’t know the ballroom scene actually existed in Nigeria. When I attended it, it was the most beautiful thing ever. People literally pack their clothes and costume and dress up there and when it’s time to leave, they take it off and wear casual outfits.” 

Francis has since attended more balls; each one better than the last. For her, these events are important;

“It was very liberating being around like-minded people. No one was looking over their shoulders. It’s like nightlife in Nigeria but the set is a hundred times better because it is super queer and liberating. You will feel the freedom in the air and everyone is being themselves. You will see people you don’t expect to dance, dancing. There are different categories. There is a butch queen category, catwalk category, femme queen category and face category. There are several underground ballroom scenes in Lagos you would not believe. I have attended at least three ballroom events by different organisers. There are several ballroom scenes and I know there are about four and I have attended three. The ballroom scene has played a huge role in settling into my gender identity.”

As a result of the deeply-rooted homophobia in the country causing queer people to walk on eggshells, the ball organizers have to take certain measures to ensure their safety and privacy. Prospective ball guests are required to register online and an assessment based on their social media is conducted before emails containing the location of the event are sent. “It usually starts with registration which is done online and everyone is vetted online as well through social media accounts and emails with locations to the party are disbursed on a certain day. Usually a day or two days to the party,” Ahalu says.

He ensures their safety by keeping the location of the ballroom as discreet as possible. Ahalu goes as far as changing the venue every time a ball. In his words, “Locations and spaces that have been used are not new spaces to the community so there’s some sense of safety whenever I throw a ball. Spaces like hFACTOR have done so much to empower the community around them and have hosted my past balls because it’s a very secure location. We don’t necessarily encourage photography for privacy reasons”. 

With people like Ahalu daring to tap into a tradition that started way back in the early 2000s, queer people now have a place where they show up as themselves and have fun without worrying or being anxious. This ballroom culture is helping queer Nigerians feel safe and express themselves freely.