Transgender Awareness Week stands as a poignant reminder of the challenges trans individuals face year after year, shedding light on their struggles and triumphs. On the other hand, Transgender Remembrance Day is a solemn occasion dedicated to honouring those who have bravely fought for the rights of their fellow trans people.
In the bustling city of Lagos, Nigeria, Fola Francis, an openly transgender woman, emerges as a beacon of resilience and advocacy. As a multi-hyphenate, she has delved into modelling, acting, fashion writing, and even founded her own fashion brand. Since publicly embracing her identity, Fola has garnered a substantial following on platforms like TikTok where she passionately advocates for transgender rights. Fola thrives on fighting for the rights of Transgender individuals and educating people and allies on all Trans people go through and how we can help make our communities a little safer for trans individuals.
In our conversation, we delve into Fola’s journey as a transgender woman in Nigeria, exploring the societal obstacles she faces. Together, we navigate the significance of Transgender Awareness Week and Remembrance Day gaining insight into Fola’s perspective and the collective experiences of the transgender community. Our discussion extends beyond awareness, touching on how we can all be better allies and Fola shares her hopes and dreams for transgender people globally.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey as a transgender individual in Nigeria?
My name is Fola Francis and my pronouns are she/her. I’m a fashion designer, content creator, actress, model and speaker. I started my transitioning journey in early 2021 when I was 27 but I always knew I was a trans person. I know a lot of trans people will say this but I’ve always known I was a girl. For 27 years I was referred to as a boy and it didn’t feel right. My parents raised me as a boy but I discovered I’m actually intersex. I found out when I started going to the hospital to check my estrogen and testosterone levels. I still identify as a trans woman but before my transition, I was intersex.
What inspired you to become an advocate for transgender rights and awareness?
First of all, I’m a trans person. Secondly, at the time I started transitioning, there was no one I could look up to or anyone I could draw inspiration from, as far as being a trans person in Nigeria. Obviously, there were a few people I could look up to Internationally because they were more visible in their journey. I’m talking about people like Laverne Cox. She’s my biggest inspiration but she’s very far away so I started advocating for trans people because I wanted to be that point of contact or that representation every other trans person wishes they had here in Nigeria.
I am happy to say that I have been able to achieve that. So many trans people walk up to me or reach out to me and tell me that my openness and visibility made them settle into their gender identity easily because they tell themselves if Fola can do it, so can I. That is my reason for being an advocate for transgender rights and I also made myself a promise to document my journey and create the representation I wish I saw growing up.
How do you think the landscape of transgender rights and acceptance has evolved in Nigeria in recent years?
There is a law that criminalizes queer people- the SSMPA law which is the same-sex marriage prohibition act. This law criminalizes same-sex marriages amongst other aspects. This law if we’re being really technical doesn’t criminalize trans people. However, the government or Nigerians will never recognize trans people’s gender identity so they still find a way to weaponize that law against us. Notwithstanding, legally, it doesn’t affect trans people in any way.
They wanted to introduce a bill to the SSMPA law sometime last year which was the crossdressing bill but we were able to push against it by protesting and amplifying it with our international community. The bill was never introduced into the law. The reason why I’m saying this is because yes, we trans people still get criminalized but it’s by non-governmental individuals mostly. Like when the citizens take the law into their own hands by attacking trans people and physically abusing us and all of that.
In recent years, it’s gotten worse and that is because trans people are pushing back a lot. I’ve started openly talking about my story more and many trans people have emerged and with every passing day, we become more visible on social media. This visibility comes with a lot more transphobia. This is perpetuated by transphobes, people that are attracted to trans people and even other queer people. I will not necessarily say there has been more acceptance in the last few years but I will say that there has been more visibility and more trans people damming the consequences that come with that.
What does Transgender Awareness Week and International Transgender Day of Remembrance mean to you personally?
Transgender Awareness Week and International Transgender Day of Remembrance simply means that we are remembering our trans ancestors; the people that were here before us, the people that fought for us and even made it possible to have this little visibility we have today. We remember the people who laid their lives on the line for us. Not too long ago, trans people were getting stoned and killed for simply existing or wearing clothes. We use this week and day to remember the people who died when depraved men hated themselves for being attracted to us.
We’re basically celebrating them and saying thank you for your sacrifices and thank you for the things you’ve done for us because, at the end of the day, one of the biggest issues that we as trans people go through is that we are hardly archived. So many trans people have gotten lost in history because no one told our stories. Fortunately, there are a few trans people that we can still refer to who came before us and thankfully some of their stories were archived. We’re remembering the trans people we know about and the ones we don’t know about. Transgender Awareness Week is the week to educate ourselves on our past and our trailblazers.
What advice would you give to other transgender individuals who are looking to be more open about their identity in less accepting environments?
First of all, you don’t have to be open about your identity if you don’t want to be. You don’t owe anyone visibility because visibility comes at a higher cost but if you’re certain you’re ready to come out, then you can start with social media because social media has its ups and downs but it still affords us a certain level of safety compared to IRL.
Additionally, if you want to be more visible, make sure you stay in a very secure area and make sure you don’t compromise on the location of where you live. Just make sure you are extra careful and be very aware of your environment and the people you associate yourself with.
Also, I will say that having more trans friends and having more people like you who understand your journey will help you to be more visible in a safe way. That will be my biggest advice; turn to your trans siblings for advice, people that are more visible with their gender identity, ask them how they go about it, and ask them about their safety measures.
Are there any specific initiatives or projects you’re currently involved in to support the transgender community in Nigeria?
I work with so many NGOs and so many queer organizations as an independent activist to help better the life of trans people in Nigeria. I also have a platform where it’s very trans-focused; it’s called dolls activities. Currently, we’re working on an event we have coming up for transgender awareness week. It’s an event where we help trans people but we’ve made it super cute because we do not want to do an event that’s going to look like a charity event. It’s going to be a vision board party, and also a clothes and food drive. Essentially, we’re going to pick a day when trans people are gonna come and create really beautiful collages expressing how we want our 2024 to go, and things we want to achieve before 2024. We want to do this in a very cute and artsy way.
Also, we received and are still receiving a lot of donations of clothing, shoes and old magazines from our friends, allies and other queer people. So trans people have the opportunity to shop those items that day for free but we say shop because it’s going to be like a boutique service where you pick what you want and add it to your cart and then we put it in a shopping bag for you. There will also be an avenue where you can buy raw food items for free and there will be refreshments and games and just a full day of activities. We get to celebrate ourselves as trans people and how far we’ve come. It’s going to be held in a very very secure location that is not going to be disclosed to anyone until the day before the event. That’s when the people who register for the event will get the address and more info.
It’s basically going to be an event to celebrate transgender awareness week and I’m really looking forward to it because we’ve received a lot of support from our allies and friends.
How can allies and supporters best contribute to improving transgender rights and awareness in Nigeria?
First things first, they need to educate themselves on the laws that criminalize trans people and the basic human rights that trans people do not have access to. For example, trans people do not have access to education, or employment; especially employment in Nigeria. Most trans people are unemployed or have to start a business or sex work to survive. Allies can improve and do better, especially with their privilege by hiring trans people.
Additionally, Trans people don’t really have access to housing as well. Accommodations are one of our biggest issues. The housing issue in Nigeria is very stressful for the average citizen and it is worse for transgender people.
When we go to hospitals, the doctors or the people attending to us look at us like freaks so we have zero access to health care and almost zero access to gender-affirming care. These are the issues that allies can get themselves familiar with. Doing this will hopefully, humanize trans people in the rest of humanity’s eyes.
If there’s any way you can help by hiring trans people, hire us! If you have an accommodation, give it to trans people. There are so many trans organizations now that you can reach out to, you can also reach out to mine as well- Dolls Activities. You can help by donating money, clothes, or just anything you feel will go a long way as far as aiding trans people. These are the things you can help trans people with, these are the things you should be able to know that trans people go through.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about transgender individuals, and how can we address these misconceptions?
People think trans people are trying to trick them when we don’t disclose our gender identity and that is insane cause we’re not trying to trick you, we are mostly considering our safety because when people get hold of that information, they act very differently and most times, more violently towards trans people.
Another misconception I would say is not necessarily a misconception. People just don’t humanize trans people. It’s almost like they see us as freaks, monsters or not human beings and even people who are attracted to us just want to objectify us and fetishize us. They don’t consider us as human beings and other people too, they see trans people as non-living things and this really needs to be addressed. It’s the reason why I do the work I do; advocating for trans people.
Another misconception is that people think that our gender identity or our entire identity is only because we’re trying to attract men which is insane! Why would you think trans people will go through transitioning, trying to make ourselves more comfortable in our skin just to attract a man? That is genuinely quite disgusting to think about.
What do you hope the future holds for transgender individuals in Nigeria and globally?
I hope the future for trans people globally is that we live in a world where we don’t fear for our lives. I hope we live in a world where we can simply just be and we don’t have to tell anyone we’re trans or to keep the information to ourselves. I hope that we can simply just be and go for modelling or acting casting calls, seek employment at any place without the fear of being ostracized or the fear of being chased out and we can access health care like every regular person.
I want a world where we can just have a normal life and have access to normal and basic amenities. That’s the future that I hope for trans people; to just go and rent an apartment without having to get friends to put down their name for us and say this is my friend or I’m married to this friend(this also happens to cis women) but it’s worse for trans people because you have to pray that you pass as a cis sex person so you don’t get clocked and that doesn’t lead to more violence.
I also pray that more trans people get to a level of financial freedom and stability so that they can have access to more basic amenities. That’s my hope for trans people. It sounds like a long shot but fingers crossed.