Brave, resilient, authentic – these are the words that best describe Fola Francis. As a trans woman living in Nigeria, Fola Francis has channeled her pain and molded it into an oozing aura of queer joy and pride. When Fola started her fashion brand (The Fola Francis) in 2018, she started off with the motive to spread “love, sarcasm, and fun” but, what she did not know was that the brand would eventually evolve into a unique representation of queer visibility in Nigeria. If you are quite familiar with the online queer community, there are chances that you have come across the famous “Ask me about my pronouns” t-shirts, which is one of Fola’s bestselling designs.
In a predominantly homophobic country like Nigeria where laws like the 2014 Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill exist, daring to embrace your queerness and living as the most authentic version of yourself requires an outstanding level of courage. Nigeria has a long history of categorizing conversations surrounding queerness as “abominable”, and “shameful” and even “criminal”, and this is the leading reason why the LGBTQ+ community continues to remain the most marginalized and mistreated community in the country. However, with the new wave of online queer-rights advocacy, many young, queer Nigerians are making it known that they would no longer be denied of their right to love unapologetically and live authentically.
For someone like Fola who has gone viral on social media a few times for her popular mini-vlogs which she calls “A day in the life of a trans woman living in Nigeria” , it would take more than an unfair law, clout-chasing gossip blogs, multiple death threats and thousands of cynical cyber trolls to make her go back on her decision to live rigorously in her truth.
During her interview with The Moveee, Fola Francis spoke with the poise of a woman that has attained a significant level of confidence in her sexuality and her femininity.
Being queer in Nigeria comes with some unfair stereotypes and challenges. Could you please share some of the experiences that have shaped you into the woman you are today?
I’d say hate is the major experience that has shaped me into who I am today, that is probably weird and I would not recommend this at all. The hate that I’ve experienced over the years has helped me grow a tougher skin and expect the worst from people. Although I also try to see the best in people because I understand that not everybody is hateful. I mean, you’d be surprised by the number of good people that still exist in this world.
I’m sorry about that. Let’s talk about The Fola Francis brand. What is the motivation and the core values behind the brand?
The motivation behind my brand is derived from a place of pure sarcasm and love. When we launched in 2018, our first releases were the “Okurr” T-shirt, the slogan that was widely popularized by Cardi B. From there, we’ve made other popular t-shirts with sarcastic or fun inscriptions that can make people laugh and still pass a strong message.
As for our core value, I’d say it is to promote inclusion. We make sure that our clothing pieces are very inclusive, irrespective of body size, social background, or gender identity. Everybody can shop Fola Francis, straight people can shop from us and queer people can shop from us too. We don’t exactly have a target audience; everybody is our target audience. We even go as far as making custom orders for children and old people.
Running a queer-owned business in Nigeria must be really challenging. Would you like to walk us through some of those challenges?
The challenges associated with running a queer-owned business in Nigeria are quite many. My business is a self-named business and people that know my name would easily recognize that it is my business. So, in some cases, people might doubt the authenticity of my brand or the quality because they know that I am the owner of the brand. Running a queer business and making it known as a queer business basically means that there are higher expectations that I have to meet. For instance, the quality of my pieces has to be top-notch, the quality has to be good enough to compete against any international or local brand. We have to be good at what we do and aim to even be better than our competitors. Also, because my brand is named after me, many people use the opportunity to send transphobic comments, especially if they cannot access my personal Instagram on social media. Another challenge would be hiring queer people. Sometimes not very easy to hire queer people that have everything that you’re looking for in an employee. There was a time I had this assistant who I instructed to create some T-shirts. This was during the End SARS protest and I was very swamped with the protest and trying to help my friends, there were just too many things happening at once. Because of this, it was impossible for me to go to the workshop. So, I asked him to create ten T-shirts that say “queer lives matter”. I had intentions to distribute these t-shirts at the protest the next day but when I received them, the inscription on the t-shirts was wrongly written as “queen lives matter”. I was really upset about this. When I confronted him about this, he said he assumed that I made a mistake. I repeated this several times, I even sent a text and he still assumed that it was a “mistake”.My friends and I wanted to wear those t-shirts to make a statement at the protest but he completely ruined everything. These are just some of the challenges that we face. Coupled with the fact that Nigeria is not exactly an easy place to run a small-business, it can get really hard sometimes.
I can only imagine how heartbreaking this must have been. Let’s talk about your gender identity for a bit. It is very safe to say that Nigeria is a predominantly transphobic country. I can’t help but wonder if there are some religious or societal factors that stand as barriers against your queerness. Would you be comfortable sharing some of them with us?
Thank you for raising that question. I grew up in a very religious home. My parents are both pastors. It was basically the kind of Christian family where you’d wake up early to gather together for morning devotion before school. Even on Sundays, we’d still have our family morning devotion before we actually go to church. We have those devotions before we go to sleep at night too. Growing up, religion was a major factor that stopped me from owning my gender and sexual identity. I actually settled into my sexual identity at 22 and settled into my gender identity at the age of 27. So, you can tell that I’ve come a long way. I had to deliver myself from the shackles of religion about 6 to 7 years ago. But I’m still very spiritual, I still believe in God. I just removed myself from the whole religious vibe and freed myself from doctrines that didn’t align with my identity. I have a personal relationship with God and that’s all that matters to me. My spiritual beliefs affirm my queerness and my gender identity and that’s all that truly matters.
I love that for you. Now let’s talk about Fola as a content creator. You have some really enjoyable mini-vlogs on Tiktok and Instagram. What inspired you to start making those videos?
When I came out as a trans woman in August 2021, I made a promise to myself that I would not live in fear, that I was going to document my journey and I would do all these things unapologetically. I told myself that I would embrace my journey without shame and cover every part of my journey that needs to be covered. I also made a promise to myself that I would create the kind of representation that I would have loved to see as a child. I don’t know what kid is scrolling on TikTok, watching one of my videos but if they can relate to my journey, I want them to be able to see that there are people like them because representation matters. If I had any kind of representation growing up, I probably wouldn’t have spent 27 whole years trying to settle into my gender identity. But that is also fine, even if you are 40, you can still come out as who you truly are. There is no age limit to when you can figure things like this out.
Amazing. Speaking of mini-vlogs, you were very vocal about the series of cyber bullying and threats that you received as a result of the wide circulation of those videos. How did this unfair experience affect you?
After I got to know that my videos had gone viral on Instagram and Twitter, I had the craziest anxiety ever because my intention was to document my journey so that other trans people can get the representation and visibility they deserve. I didn’t want to capture the attention of the wrong crowd but I knew for a fact that it was going to happen eventually but I didn’t imagine that those videos would go that viral. I started receiving death threats via DM, the comment section of my Instagram and TikTok accounts were full of hateful words. On Twitter, there were many people hauling curses and insults at me too. It was a whole lot to deal with. I ended up having horrible panic attacks. Due to the circulation of the video online, my neighbors at my current apartment started threatening and harassing me physically. It got to a point where I had to flee for my safety. Now, I’m trying to look for another apartment even though my things are still in my actual apartment and my rent is not even due. But I have to put my safety first. I have to remind myself of the promise I made to myself to not live in fear but to live vicariously and document my journey. So, when that happened, it wasn’t enough reason for me to go back on my promise. In fact, I saw it as a notch to keep on going.
Your outlook of life is very admirable. Let’s go back to Fola Francis as a brand. Where do you see your brand in the next five years?
In the next five years, I am sure that The Fola Francis brand would still be creating representation in the little way we can. We’d still be creating more fashion pieces for trans and non-binary people but definitely on a larger and international level. We’d also be enlarging our coast when it comes to pieces and not restricting ourselves to only lounge wears and t-shirts. We’d also be creating more home wares like table cloth, table mat, ceramics and things like that.
Love to hear that! Finally, just like the “American dream”, there is definitely a “queer dream”. What does the “queer dream” mean to you as a trans woman living in Nigeria?
The queer dream for me would be to witness the repealing of all these laws against queer people in Nigeria. . If then that the same-sex marriage bill could get repealed, that would be my short-term queer dream. If the crossdressing bill gets stopped as well, that will also be my queer dream, to be honest. It would also be great for us to get to a point where but we don’t hear news about queer people getting killed, getting harassed, beat up or imprisoned in Nigeria. My long queer dream would be for us to get to a point where we are able to openly express queer pride and host pride parades on the streets without the fear of getting harassed by the police or without us being afraid of getting killed or harassed. So yeah, those are my queer dreams, they are quite a lot.