Richard Akuson: the ‘A Nasty Boy’ editor talks the future of his queer fashion magazine and life as an asylum seeker in the U.S.
Although queerness has always existed within our culture, many in the community treat queerness as a surrogate for neocolonialism.
by Kathleen Anaza
Richard Akuson obtained a level of success and visibility that could be the envy of many young people around the world. Before the age of 25, he was a licensed lawyer and opened a boutique PR firm within the Nigerian economy’s all-time highest youth unemployment rate. With all this success, his most acclaimed accomplishment was creating A Nasty Boy, the internationally-recognized gender non-conforming, fashion publication interrogating masculinity in Nigeria, which earned him a spot on Forbes Africa’s 30 under 30 list for 2019.
He provided Nigerian queer youth with visibility and representation that many assumed was outside the range of possibility, and the world quickly took notice. Publications like i-D, BBC, and OkayAfrica enthusiastically featured A Nasty Boy, while at home in Nigeria, the sentiments were extremely adverse. While Richard carefully navigated the legal confines of Nigeria’s Anti-Gay Acts to create content, legal knowledge and international recognition couldn’t protect him. A homophobic attack led him to leave Nigeria.
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Today Richard is a reflective, insightful asylum seeker living within the U.S. A Nasty Boy‘s impact is undeniable, but he is so much more. In this interview, we spoke about support systems, “The Gay Agenda,” his future plans, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How is your transition from Nigeria to the U.S. been? When you fled, how did people show up for you?
Culturally speaking, it’s tough to transition as a Nigerian to an American society, only because there are many ways in which we differ and so many ways we’re similar, so finding the balance was challenging.
I am able to navigate America in ways most asylum seekers or refugees are not. I have a law degree. I’m able to speak, understand, and be understood in English. So that aspect of the transition is easy, but having love and support are essential to me too. A friend of a friend put me up for a month and a half. I was the third wheel to a young couple with only a living room and bedroom, but I had such a great time and we’ve stayed in touch.
Nigerian friends who weren’t able to send money check in on me and ask questions. Nigerians assume license to ask you questions that may seem intrusive, but their questions that make you feel seen and heard. We believe duty is the bedrock of all relationships, familial or otherwise. You are conditioned to go out of the way for people, accommodate them, it becomes second nature.
Sometimes in the U.S., I feel a distance in relationships I haven’t felt before. Someone once told me they didn’t know if they had the bandwidth or emotional capacity to be my friend, this was an articulation of how it felt for them as an American to be friends with someone seeking asylum. With that being said, I’ve also met a few people who felt like lifelong friends instantly, who can be consistent and emotionally available. So I think I’ve been blessed and fortunate.
I was living for the Op-ed you wrote for CNN —“Nigeria is a cold-blooded country for gay men — I have the scars to prove it.” Very rarely do I see Nigerian people talking openly about sexual orientation and homophobia, and when they do, many ignore how economics play a role in someone’s ability to “live their truth.” It’s not the same when you’re making $2 a day, just trying to survive.
A time will come when I will no longer be able to speak about being a gay Nigerian in the context of a person living in Nigeria. I can talk about what has happened in the past, but what life is truly like today is no longer my story to tell. However, from my past experience, I believe that within in Nigeria, there’s an element of class in how LGBTQ people navigate life in the country. I found that the poorer you are, the harder life is, because you have to deal with the worst kind of homophobia. The people who are against you are hungry, they, themselves are going through a lot. So it multiplies the hate, the vitriol, and everything.
Within the privileged circles, I was part of in Nigeria, people were more accepting, and that can shield you from the real dangers of homophobia. I don’t say this to discount experiences of LGBTQ Nigerians who come from money, or who have access beyond the reach of the vast majority of LGBTQ people. I say that as someone who has enjoyed economic privilege. Very confrontational homophobia wasn’t something that I dealt with necessarily until I came head to head with it when I was outed and assaulted.
Poor LGBTQ people continue to negotiate for their lives in Nigeria, where it is illegal to be gay, and cannot leave because they don’t have the access. Many don’t even know leaving could be an option or how to do it, all they know is they live in persistent homophobia. In many ways, life could be much easier for someone who has visibility, some pedigree, and influential friends. There is so much that class can help you get away with.
But remember that half of Nigerians are living in abject poverty. Since there’s such a stark divide between the wealthy and the poor, many people don’t have access to health care or any sort of government protection. There’s a realness to homophobia they experience that the others only hear about from a distance. I’ve seen this in my time in America as well. In hearing the issues that some activists and people with platforms speak about, I’ve asked myself, Do LGBTQ Americans who don’t have access to food or experiencing homelessness mostly worry about the things activists dwell on, or are these issues for people that have all their basic necessities met? Are we advancing certain people while leaving others behind? I ask myself these questions, but I try not to discount how other people feel, of course.
I’ve read articles where you discussed your vision for A Nasty Boy, but these were all pre-departure from Nigeria. How have your experiences and working from the diaspora impacted your work?
A Nasty Boy was born out of my overestimation of my security. I didn’t think that anything would ever happen to me. As a law student, I wrote an appraisal, a long form appraisal of human rights and anti-gay laws of Nigeria. And I felt like I knew that act in and out. That’s why, with A Nasty Boy, I skirt the edges of the act. But even the idea of creating A Nasty Boy is a testament to how safe I thought I was.
There’s a sentiment that homophobia within Black or non-white communities is more savage, uncivilized, or barbaric than the homophobia of white communities. Although queerness has always existed within our culture, many in the community treat queerness as a surrogate for neocolonialism.
One time, my father told me that homosexuality is a Western thing. He said he doesn’t understand why I am choosing to be a part of something that even the West is jettisoning. You know, it’s the idea that homosexuality is alien to Africans and it’s something that the West is imposing on us.
Someone sent me a DM on Twitter, accusing me of being paid. She claimed she knew I’d “made a killing” being a poster child, and she could only imagine the life that I’m living, and she’s sure that I’m paid to say the things I’m saying, so they can continue to colonize us.
A Nasty Boy worked with the fashion industry and presented many gender non-conforming and androgynous images. I think the representation of fashion today is Blacker and more androgynous than before. For the Black people worldwide that feel there’s “an agenda” being pushed onto them, this disorients them. What have been your experiences with these critics?
I’ve been confronted by that criticism. In trying to dismantle that toxic idea of masculinity, we tie ourselves to these things that we have always been taught not to, and I used to think, Is there a way that we can challenge masculinity that doesn’t involve dressing men in clothes and makeup that are traditionally feminine? But then I realized that we are conditioned to think of women and femininity as less than. We’re conditioned to think of anything traditionally feminine as weak.
If me wearing a dress would help someone feel that it is okay to be themselves, then I see the value in doing that. I think that there are people who do it for political reasons, who politicize it, and there is no wrong in that. And then some people who genuinely love wearing “feminine” things, and there’s no wrong in that either. I’m open to ways we can continue to move the conversation about different ways of expressing gender that doesn’t shy away from femininity.
And really, what does it even mean to “emasculate” a man? That concept is steeped in this idea that a man should be this rigid pillar. In Nigeria, everything in your identity comes from your paternal side. You take after your father’s name, identify with your father’s tribe/ethnicity and his language. People have been brought up a certain way and get used to a certain kind of masculinity. It doesn’t matter if it is just ten men they see wearing dresses, to them it feels like the entire world is wearing dresses.
They feel like the world is turning upside down, when in fact, it’s actually just a small percentage of people, but even if every man is wearing a dress, how is that wrong? Really, you know, I think that there can be utterly different expressions of masculinity, and yours could be wearing baggy pants and whatnot, wearing slim cut suits, or throwing on a dress. Whatever that makes you feel comfortable. For a very long time, the press has helped perpetuate toxic masculinity and a very narrow and binary idea of gender; so I think that they have a responsibility to amplify these other voices now.
That’s a good point. Why shouldn’t the challenging of a norm be as visible as the oppressive norm?
There’s an Igbo adage, and it says, “If the prey does not produce their own versions of the tale, predators will always be the heroes in the stories of the hunt.”
We should hear from people who have different ideas about gender. We should see them and how they express their gender. Just because someone is wearing a dress does not mean that I’m going to wear a dress. If it doesn’t appeal to me, I’m not going to do it. That’s how to secure that I am in my self-expression.
Did you intend for A Nasty Boy to be a vehicle for any and all perspectives from the LGBTQ community?
I would love for A Nasty Boy to do more than a narrow point of view, but honestly I’m afraid that I don’t know enough. I’m worried that I might make a mistake. I feel like it’s very delicate to navigate, people are very sensitive. Sometimes the intent does not matter. So, I try to talk about the experiences I know very well. Of course, I’ve been reading, I’ve asked questions, but there’s only so much that you can ask and there’s only so much that people willing to tell.
I feel like, a puppy learning how to walk right, or like a child will learn how to crawl. Until relatively recently, I’ve lived all my life in Nigeria, where gender expression or any kind of expression that outside of the binary of male/female or straight/gay isn’t visible. So this is still a learning experience. I believe, as a community, we should be about continual learning. This isn’t innate knowledge, there should be more room for people to ask questions, and for curiosity.
So you’re focusing on the narrative you can speak to.
You’re the first I’m telling this, but I look forward to passing on A Nasty Boy to someone who lives in Nigeria, because I feel out of touch,like it’s no longer my story to tell. It should be told by someone who navigates life in Nigeria every day. I’d like to see A Nasty Boy live on, even if I’m unable to do it. I don’t feel connected to the stories anymore, it would be very disingenuous of me to continue to.
Would you consider being the editor of the publication and working with freelancers in Nigeria? I believe there’s a power to your distance from the country.
That’s very true, but I can’t say A Nasty Boy doesn’t cause me trauma sometimes. I would hope that it will be the true beauty of it that I pass on to someone else, not the pain.
Sometimes, in my moments of weakness, I regret starting it. I think it has taken a toll on me and I want an opportunity to repair. I would want a chance to heal again. I identify as an activist and an advocate, but I don’t know if this can be my life every day. I see people who can do this, and I’m in awe of them. My friend, who is an activist, every day he’s fighting a battle, and I watch on Instagram like, Wow this is a better person. I’ve met people who live every moment to protest issues and things that we care about. I message them to say that I’m inspired, I am moved, and I wish I had it in me to be able to do all of that.
I’d like to heal and repair, that’s the next phase for me. It’s becoming whole again. It’s getting better. If I’m unable to find someone who can run A Nasty Boy, then I may leave it for a while.
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Self-care and healing can be resistance. So, what do you envision for yourself after A Nasty Boy?
I would love to be in a position where I can amplify and empower voices within the community. I’ve been looking at job opportunities like advocacy manager or communications manager for brands and businesses.
What I don’t see myself being is one of those people that on the frontlines, but I can be someone behind the scene who facilitates for other activists. I would love to practice law again, but I cannot practice law in the U.S. with my law degree from Nigeria. So, I am looking at options for going back to law school or get a Masters, and then hopefully taking the bar exams. I’ll never lose the part of me that wants to uplift, and I’ll do that in some capacity, public service or public interest. Maybe as a immigration or human rights lawyer or scholar, something, I don’t know.
I’m 25. I’m at a point in my life where I have to dream new dreams. You see, it’s like I’m starting afresh. I’ve allowed myself license to pursue a multitude of interests. I want actions that can changes people’s lives, with emphasis on structural reform. What has happened to me will not define my life. I don’t know what’s to come, but I’m ready. I did a lot with and for A Nasty Boy, but I’m excited about new chapters now.
Kathleen Anaza is a storyteller, activist and international educator currently based in Brazil. Her work examines global power dynamics through the cultures, arts, and resistance of the marginalized. She loves music, travel and critiquing international development. Follow her cultural explorations via Instagram @misskallday