Jay Boogie has tens of thousands of fans on Instagram, where she posts sultry images of herself in lingerie and swimwear – but the transgender Nigerian could be jailed for cross-dressing if a proposed bill becomes law.
The amendment – currently in parliament – would make it illegal for a person to wear clothes in public that do not match their gender assigned at birth, or in photos or videos from a private event.
Boogie and other LGBTQ+ activists fear it could be used to target trans people.
“We’re born different and should have the right to live how we want to,” said Boogie, 24, an online brand ambassador living in Port Harcourt.
“I’m always careful with places I go to … (If the bill passes), there are people that wouldn’t take it lightly. They don’t even want to see us.”
Nigeria is among the worst countries in the world for LGBTQ+ equality, according to legal rights index Equaldex, with gay and trans people facing stigma and violence in a culturally conservative society.
In 2014, the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act was signed into law, which bars not only gay relationships but also any public sign of same-sex affection or membership of LGBTQ+ groups, with punishments of up to 14 years in prison.
A draft bill would amend the act to add a ban on cross-dressing, with punishments of up to six months in jail, or a fine of 500,000 naira ($1,200).
It offers exemptions for theatre productions “or in any bona ﬁde public entertainment”.
LGBTQ+ campaigners said the draft law was primarily aimed at trans people, who have no way to change their legal gender. Non-binary identities – neither male nor female – are also not legally recognised by Nigeria.
“One of the loopholes for the (same-sex marriage law) is the lack of provision for the criminalisation of trans people,” said Olaide Kayode Timileyin, a non-binary Nigerian and founder of Queercity Media, an LGBTQ+ media outlet.
“(Lawmakers) are looking for a way to do that. To them, a way to do that is to criminalise their idea of a trans person – (as) cross-dressers.”
‘PEOPLE WOULD GET KILLED’
Trans rights campaigners say the bill could be used a pretext for harassment and attacks.
“If passed, it’s definitely going to be a catastrophe. There’s going to be more harm, and trans and non-binary people would receive the heat and hate from it,” said Adunni Tiwatope, a 25-year-old trans woman living in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
“People would get killed – and it even already happens.”
The amendment was introduced for a first reading in April by Muda Lawal, a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party, and is still going through parliament.
LGBTQ+ campaigners and lawyer Funmilola Maverick Salami said it was unclear whether the bill had enough support in parliament to become law.
“Is there a potential for this law to be passed? This is Nigeria – anything can happen,” said Salami, lead counsel at Maverick-Forte Legal practice in Lagos.
He said the draft law conflicted with Nigerians’ constitutional right to free expression, and it also raised questions about what might be deemed men’s or women’s clothing.
“Freedom of expression cannot be circumscribed … by the proposed cross-dressing bill – this is my opinion,” he said.
Some trans rights campaigners said the proposed amendment may be an effort by the APC party to distract its critics and win support from socially conservative voters ahead of elections next February.
“If you check the history of when lawmakers bring draconian laws like the (same-sex marriage law) into the parliament, it’s close to an election year,” said Nell Thompson of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, a Nigerian LGBTQ+ rights group.
Timileyin, of Queercity Media, agreed, saying: “In Nigeria, there’s only one subject that unites everyone together, regardless of tribe or religion, and that’s the subject of homosexuality and LGBTQI+ persons. It’s a sure way to distract people.”
The APC party did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
LGBTQ+ rights groups are pushing back against the bill, with The Bisi Alimi Foundation saying it was hoping to gain support from international and diplomatic organisations.
“If the government listens to the kind of effect this has on both queer and heterosexual people, then it might not be passed,” said Judith Airiohuodion, its country director.
“I don’t think that when it’s discussed, they’ll listen to people. (But) I’m hopeful that they do.”
(Reporting by Elvis Kachi; Editing by Sonia Elks. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)