Limit(less) Project: 19

Limit(less) is a documentary photography project by Mikael Owunna exploring the visual aesthetics of LGBTQ African immigrants. For more on the project, follow us on TumblrInstagramFacebook and Flickr.

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19: Queer Algerian-American 

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

I am Algerian, and go by he or they. Queers might call me she while I’m dancing. I never felt comfortable with the term “gay,” though I think that I used it because for a short time because it was the easiest way to identify myself, and my behavior and desire seemed to align with what I understood to be “gay:” attraction to cis, relatively masculine men. Now I identify as queer, and while I’m in a moment of serious gender questioning, I’m in a conservative work environment which pretty much demands conformity to binary gender and so questioning is pretty much where I’ll be for a while.

Q. How would you describe your style?

Queer humility? I don’t spend that much time thinking about clothes. I try to dress functionally, and I like clothes I can dance in. When I’m comfortable, I’m pretty feminine, particularly in the way that I like to hold my body as I walk or stand or speak or gesture. It’s a way of taking up space and trying to stand powerfully in my truth, though I try to do it in an inviting way. I have been comfortable with this affect for a few years, but recent changes in my work space have demanded some renegotiation and assimilation and reinvention.

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

This has been coming up more for me a lot lately, particularly because I spent a lot of time in Algeria recently. I think in spaces where I’m surrounded by White Men and Women with a constrained way of thinking about gender, I feel myself representing myself more by my Algerian identity. When basically any conversation worth having quickly marks me as Other, I find myself talking about my love for my Algerian family, my deen (religion), my strong connection to the place, and my desire to do work there and develop that connection into something deep and sustained.

It’s hard to confront assaults on my identity, on its authenticity and value without isolating myself, which would create a lot of problems for me. But my work is harder to question. People are surprised to hear that I want to spend more than a summer or a week in a poor African country, one that doesn’t have a very vibrant community of white expats. Right now it feels easier to be confident in talking about my work, and I feel whole and present in that way, because the people I currently spend all my time with are mostly not people with whom I can comfortably process, indulge, or develop the links between my gender, my work, and my deen.

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?

Yeah, of course, it was during the ‘gayest’ part of my life. I was with this lovely white boy, and even though it was an unhealthy relationship, I was so attached to that idea of monogamous wholeness, and so I prioritized that relationship and made decisions around it which necessarily required deprioritizing my family, my deen, my Algerian/African identity and their development.

I had a strong enough grounding, and strong enough relationships, though, that I was able to stay curious, and stay open to the wealth of love and togetherness and commitment and accountability that was my messy family life, so that’s more at my center now, alhamdoullilah. Still, like I mentioned above, my queerness remains important to me, and I’m trying to figure out how to keep it all. I’m making it up as I go.

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

I love my big family. Though each person has a different perspective, as a whole they used to be more intent on repressing feminine behavior, particularly during that time I mentioned when I was deprioritizing them. “Coming out” as it’s usually told never happened, and while I had made plans for that at one point, I feel like I’ve come back instead, and things are pretty good. When I think about “gayness,” the construct I’m trying to speak around is one that requires a certain flavor of isolation, an individual pursuit. But, with a practice of accountability more at my center, I’m moving towards something I associate with a strong femininity. I do my best to show up for my family consistently, and I think when I do that, things I do that used to be read as suspect or femme are now just…me. And it’s not that serious.

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

I’m Algerian, I’m African, I’m Muslim, and I’m queer, and I am figuring out how to love all of these things. Or rather, I already love all these things, and am fighting to keep them. I can hold space for a conversation that is critical of LGBTQ…culture or spirit or practice in a colonial or white supremacist context. As part of the diaspora, though, I haven’t yet figured out how to participate in an accountable conversation about gender on terms that Algerians and Africans set. It’s easy for me to say whatever I want, but I didn’t live through the French occupation. I was born into safety elsewhere while most of the rest of my family was beginning to be marked by a decade of horrific violence. The gravity of how recent, how current that trauma is has only hit me in the past year. I don’t yet have the hands to hold all of this, but I have a lot of help, and I feel hopeful, maybe naively.

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

I enjoyed an opportunity to reflect on African LGBT identity as it exists and participate in the creation of African queerness. I look forward to increased visibility and unity, but also for that visibility to reflect our complex realities.

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

A place for complicated stories about messy Africanness and all that entails. I’m excited to think intentionally about Algeria as a part of Africa, because I’ve heard so many stories from Algerians and non-Algerians about why it’s so different, so separate, and those stories are obviously colonized and anti-black and terrible, and they flatten both Algeria and the continent. But again, I can’t quite hold all of it yet. 

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

My blog:

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