With a gay scene unrivalled by other west African countries, Abidjan plays host to an empowering celebration of gender fluidity
On a warm Saturday night, an events space usually reserved for weddings and baptisms was overtaken by men in flowing gowns and rainbow hair extensions as Ivory Coast’s gay community celebrated the most raucous night on its social calendar: the Miss Woubi beauty pageant.
The event, first held in 2009, takes its name from an Ivorian slang word referring to the so-called “effeminate” partner in a relationship between two men – the one who, as Ivorians put it, “plays the role of the woman” and sometimes dresses like one too.
Thirteen contestants competed for this year’s title, storming the red carpet in bathing suits and evening wear in an event that lasted nearly until dawn.
Ivory Coast, and Abidjan in particular, is reputed to be the most permissive place for sexual minorities in the region, with a gay scene unrivalled by other west African countries.
But while same-sex sexual acts have never been criminalised here, there are also no specific legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ivorians, making them vulnerable to hostile security forces and, occasionally, angry mobs.
As a result, more extravagant assertions of woubi identity are often discouraged by discreet, gender-conforming gay men, who pride themselves on projecting masculinity and moving through the straight world undetected.
The Miss Woubi pageant is an attempt to break down this barrier and bring factions of Abidjan’s gay world together, if only for an evening, say the organisers.
“In general, when there are parties in the community, we want participants to adhere to a certain dress code. Effeminate people are undesirable people,” said Malika, a transgender woman who competed in 2012 and served as co-master of ceremonies this year. “But Miss Woubi is open to the entire community, despite their sexual orientation or gender expression.”
Holding such an event in west Africa, even in a relatively tolerant country, is a risky endeavour. Though photography is officially prohibited, in 2012 the tabloid Allo Police got its hands on pictures of some contestants, publishing them under a headline that read, “The pédés of Abidjan have elected their Miss” – pédé being a pejorative French slang word for a homosexual man.
The unwanted publicity caused the cancellation of Miss Woubi in 2013, and several contestants this year said they were worried about security despite the presence of guards at the entrance.
The pageant is also not without controversy. Some Ivorian sexual minorities have criticised Miss Woubi for being insufficiently inclusive, especially when it comes to travestis, meaning people who were born anatomically male but identify and live as women on a full- or part-time basis. (Very few Ivorians identify as “transgender”, though there is a sizeable travesti population.)
Latiyah, a travesti who sat in the audience Saturday night, said the event seemed designed to honour woubis who dress up as women very rarely, rather than travestis who make female gender presentation part of their daily lives. She attributed this to the fact that gay men in Abidjan are better organised than travestis, with greater support from outside donors.
“There are a lot of travestis, but we don’t know each other,” Latiyah said. “We need our own association to bring us together.”
The structure of the pageant is intended to downplay these divisions, instead emphasising the potential for sexual and gender fluidity in everyone. To begin, contestants appeared before the four-person judging panel dressed as yossis – the romantic partners of woubis who “play the role of the man” and wear what many young local men wear: ripped jeans, trainers, fake gold chains.
One contestant, a crowd favourite from the nearby town of Grand-Bassam, went shirtless, flexing his biceps while sagging his shorts to reveal baggy boxers.
By the second runway round – which showcased “traditional” clothing – the contestants had transformed into women. Holding wooden bowls, they sashayed in outfits made from purple and red fabric inspired by the Malinke ethnic group – a subtle rebuttal to claims that sexual minorities are somehow “un-African”.
It was nearly 4am by the time the runway rounds ended, and organisers rushed through the remainder of the programme. Hastily, and with no explanation, the judges then ranked the runners-up and announced the winner: a hairdresser from Abidjan’s Yopougon neighbourhood who competed under the name “Paulina”.
Before Paulina could receive the Miss Woubi tiara, the outgoing winner, Cami, addressed the audience one final time. A student also from Yopougon, Cami lamented that during his reign as Miss Woubi he had not been particularly visible in Abidjan’s gay community, having chosen to focus on his studies instead.
Nevertheless, he took a moment to convey his gratitude to the pageant organisers. He had only recently come to terms with his sexual orientation when he chose to compete, he explained, and he had never before dressed as a woman. His victory, he said, gave him a much-needed shot of confidence.
“I just want to thank you,” Cami concluded, “for helping me to overcome this timidity within me.”
by Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan
Source – The Guardian