Limit(less) Project: Yahya

Limit(less) is a documentary photography project by Mikael Owunna exploring the visual aesthetics of LGBTQ African immigrants. 

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Yahya: Queer Moroccan (USA)

Q. What’s your name, country of origin, ethnicity, preferred gender pronoun, and how do you identify in terms of your LGBTQ identity?

My name is Yahya. I am half-Moroccan and half-American, born in Casablanca, but raised mostly in the United States and visiting Morocco frequently. Racially I am white/arab/north-african mixed. Race and ethnicity is so complicated and interesting in Morocco, I think that most of my dad’s family would identify as Arab, and many would identify Arabs as white. The way white supremacy and arab-centrism plays out in Morocco has led to the erasure of many Moroccans’ Amazigh/Berber/Indigenous ancestry, where if someone can claim Arab identity, they do.

I identify as a second generation radical queer (on my mom’s side), pansexual, and the gender identity that feels comfortable these days is “boi”. I aspire towards a queered masculinity, with tenderness and self-awareness. I like they/them pronouns.

Q. How would you describe your style?

Post-punk business casual? When I called my little brother up and asked how they would describe my style, they said “whimsy-core”. I like glitter, leather, good jeans. I love my boots, leather suspenders, and I just got some leather shorts I plan on rocking all summer. 

Q. How do you think your style incorporates/blends elements of your African and LGBTQ identity?

To be honest, I think I reserve most of my Moroccan clothing for special occasions. I think the examples that have been given to me of powerful queerness have mostly been through a Euro-American lens (which is why this project is so important!). There is something in me that is only spoken to when I am wearing my gandorra and blgha, but there is also so much that feels muted by that.

My beard feels like a connection to my Muslim heritage, and it feels transgressive to wear it with this body, living the life I do. 

Q. Was there ever a time where you felt pushed away from your African or LGBTQ identities? If so, how did you overcome that personally?

As I described earlier, I think many Moroccans have a mixed relationship with African identity. Many feel both Arab and African, but I think because of the cultural sphere Morocco is in, and because of colorism and anti-blackness, Arab comes first, Moroccan comes before both of those, and Muslim comes before everything else. So as a sometimes white passing African from the North, I think I have always felt some amount of awkwardness with my African identity. This is something I am trying to challenge myself on, and I think being in this project is a big step towards that. 

Q. How is your relationship with your family, and what does being “accepted” by your family look like for you?

I have a fantastic relationship to my mom, who is a Queer Muslim leader, and who in many ways is the reason I am the activist and organizer I am today. I feel like I am constantly in conversation with him (my mom is a trans man) first through my journey to understand my identities. I also have a fabulous relationship with my brother (who I share my mom with), and my mom’s partner. Additionally, I have a core chosen family that I love endlessly and are a big part of who I am today.

I am very closeted about most of my identities with my father. While I have a good relationship with much of my Moroccan family, it is under the guise of being someone who I’m not. Being accepted would mean not having to alter what I say or how I present myself around my family, to be authentic. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to experience that. 

Q. What would you have to say to people who say that being LGBTQ is “un-African”?

I would point to my existence and the existence of everyone in this project. I would point to all of the queer Africans. For queerness to be un-African would mean that we should not or could not exist and we do. 

For those who feel like queerness is a product of colonialism, sure words like “gay” “lesbian” and “queer” are western words, and I think many of us come to understand ourselves through those words. However, there is a rich a diverse history of non-binary gender expression in African cultures, and a diverse history of non-heterosexual love and sex. If anything, colonialism has erased many of these histories, and taught us to value heterosexual patriarchal family structures. 

Q. How was participating in the Limit(less) shoot?

It was really fabulous to be a part of the shoot. I felt like a star for a day! If there was one thing I wasn’t prepared for is the vulnerability of having a camera focused on me for hours. It’s rare for someone to spend so much time one to one and for so much of the attention to be focused one direction.

In all seriousness though, it was incredibly empowering to be a part of the shoot. To know that I am telling the story of my Queerness and Africaness through these pictures. 

Q. What are you most excited about for Limit(less)?

I am so excited to see the diversity of people’s stories, and all the ways people are both Queer and African. I am excited for everyone who gets to see the final product and has their world view expanded a little bit. I hope there are queer Africans that are unsure how to hold both truths who see this project and feel free to be themselves in all their beauty and #queerafricanmagic. 

Q. Where are you comfortable with people reaching you on social media?

Instagram, twitter, tumblr, youtube: @gsowobblie