Behind a tall metal door in a suburb of Lagos lies a world of fun, fashion and flamboyance that most Nigerians have never seen.
Men dressed in elaborate drag outfits – sequins, silk and ruffles – sashay in heavy make-up on the highest of heels, striking provocative poses on a pulsing dancefloor.
Their desire: to give voice to their sexuality through costume and dance and be free to be themselves in a rare safe haven in socially conservative Nigeria.
Same-sex relations are punishable by up to 14 years in jail in Africa’s most populous country, so these balls held in Lagos can only thrive by existing deep underground.
As the beat changes, a fashionable crowd clears the centre of the floor for the category presentation, the crowd’s fingers snapping to Afrobeats music as they fill the hall with a thundering chorus of “give me face, face, face” – lyrics from Beyonce’s song Heated.
Oge Classic, a famed Nigerian drag queen with 24,000 followers on TikTok, and the throng of dancers fold their bodies into an elaborate set of moves: elbows rigid, kicks high and graceful pirouettes.
But it has remained firmly underground because of the country’s harsh anti-LGBTQIA+ laws and restrictive attitudes to same-sex relations.
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 LGBTQIA+ groups, with punishments of up to 14 years in prison.
States in the mainly Muslim north also operate a sharia legal system that can impose the death penalty for gay sex, though this is rarely – if ever – enforced.
Nigeria ranked 161 out of 175 countries for social acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people, according to a 2021 report by the Williams Institute, a research institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Discrimination is common and sometimes spills into homophobic violence – Oge Classic recounted being beaten in an anti-LGBTQIA+ attack while en route to a gig in March.
But for many drag artists, their biggest concern is making a living.
Divine Ahiwe, who performs as Lilith, moved from southeast Nigeria to bustling Lagos and has built a solid online following – even if the kudos does not always translate into paying gigs.
“I mean it’s Nigeria, what I do is not appreciated,” said Ahiwe, who discovered the art long before watching it on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the TV show credited with bringing drag to mainstream audiences.
Another Lagos-based performer, Onyx Godwin, has featured in international magazines – including Vogue and i-D – but has often faced difficulty making money at home in Nigeria.
But the 25-year-old said that while the drag scene was still underground “soon we will get the spotlight our art and creativity deserves”, despite persistent prejudice.
“I won’t allow their personal bias get in the way of my drag journey,” Godwin said.
This story is part of a series supported by HIVOS’s Free To Be Me programme.
Reporting by Ugonna-Ora Owoh.
GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.