Pride 2016 feature: Being black and LGBT in Britain

Photo: UK Black Pride

This weekend thousands of people across the capital will be taking part in the Pride London 2016 celebrations. Many of those joining in the festivities will be people of colour. In the UK there are approximately 400,000 ethnic minority LGBT people. What does Pride mean for black LGBT people in Britain? Does their experience as LGBT and of Pride differ from that of their white counterparts?

Identifying as black and LGBT in a white, heterosexual dominant society

W.E.B DuBois first coined the phrase 'double consciousness,' referring to the identity crisis suffered by African-Americans living in a racist society to which they both belonged and were excluded from; a confusing grey area occupied by a community who were simultaneously both and yet neither African and American:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn't bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.

Using this idea of double consciousness, let us consider how black LGBT people in the West occupy a kind of triple consciousness, if you will, and what kind of issues that can potentially create for them. By no means is this to suggest that all black LGBT struggle with their identity or sense of belonging among black and LGBT communities but to acknowledge that some black LGBT people do suffer from a crisis of identity and belonging (and also discrimination) which neither heterosexual blacks or white LGBT people cannot fully relate to.

Double discrimination

Black LGBT people in Britain are often the victims of double discrimination: disadvantaged and discriminated against for being black; disadvantaged and discriminated against for being LGBT. LGBT and BAME people are both disadvantaged minority groups in the UK who continue to fight for equality, but too often LGBT blacks also have to fight for equality within these groups, defending the other part of their identity.

Last year Pink News ran the headline ‘80 percent of black gay men have experienced racism in the gay community.’ In the article men of colour shared their experiences of being discriminated against within the gay community because of their race, including a black man who revealed, “The only approach I’ve had at a gay bar was when I was asked if I supplied drugs.”

Referring to the double discrimination suffered by black, gay men, Matthew Hodson, a spokesperson for the gay men’s health charity GMFA said: “As gay men we all know what it’s like to be marginalised, to be outsiders and members of a minority. We’ve all experienced prejudice and discrimination first hand. It’s sad and pathetic that we still inflict the same on other members of our community.”

It is no secret that homophobia is still very much present in African and Caribbean communities and of course that creates further difficulties for black LGBT people in Britain, particularly with regards to coming out to family and friends and feeling safe and accepted. Being queer and LGBT culture remains very much a taboo subject among many black people here in the UK, particularly among those who are first generation migrants from countries in Africa and the Caribbean where there is almost zero tolerance towards transgender and homosexual people.

Last year The Only Way Is Essex star Vas Morgan broke down on the show about how confused he was about his sexuality, his struggle to accept that he is gay and revealed that he had been receiving messages telling him that homosexuality was wrong. In the emotional scene Morgan said, “I don’t ever think I’m going to be happy, honestly I don’t.” Some criticised Morgan’s comments on the ‘choice’ to be gay but in interviews since the young man revealed that his family had taught him that being gay was a choice – and a wrong one. Recalling when he bought a gay magazine as a teenager, Vas says, "My parents found it and shut the whole thing down. My mum sat me down and said most kids may think about it, but it is a choice to be gay." He continued, "My family are very religious. They don't understand someone being gay and really judge me. I think they find me an embarrassment to the family and that makes me feel bad."

Vas J Morgan breaks down as he reveals his struggle with being gay

Although Vas has not cited his parents’ race or ethnicity as contributing to their views on homosexuality, attributing their views to their religion, these views – often ‘justified’ by referring back to religion – are prevalent within Afro-Caribbean communities.

Many are trying to address the matter of homophobia within black communities including spoken word poet and hip hop artist Dean Atta, whose ‘Young Black & Gay’ video stirred conversation on the subject. Atta, who worked with BBC 1Xtra on a documentary about homosexuality and hip hop, says:

'I honestly think that this is much bigger than hip hop, and the documentary only scratches the surface of issues to do with masculinity - in particular, the perceptions of what black male masculinity looks like or should be. I think these issues are heightened in hip hop, but I think we're beginning to see more of a "don't ask don't tell" attitude towards homosexuality, rather than an outright intolerance or abhorrence towards gay men. If I were to enter the hip hop arena, I wouldn't want to just be tolerated, I would want to feel accepted and respected for who I am.'

Dean Atta - 'Young, Black & Gay'

Gay comedian Stephen K Amos, made the Channel 4 documentary Batty Man back in 2007 which saw Amos go from south London to Jamaica to try to find out ‘whether young people in the black [British] community are finally ready to accept that it's okay to be black and gay.’ Describing his motivation for creating the programme, Amos said, “I wanted to look at those issues from my own perspective, because growing up in south London as one of a few black kids in my class, the one thing you could hide easily was your sexuality, even if you couldn't hide your blackness. So I wanted to explore the negative attitudes in my community. I knew people who were leading double lives.”

Amos, who says he received some positive responses to the documentary from the black community, seems hopeful overall that there is move toward greater acceptance of homosexuality within the black British community and believes that whether this continues will mainly be down to black LGBT coming forward and speaking out on the matter. “When I was growing up there weren’t many black role models let alone black gay role models. It’s imperative that black gay men and women stand up and be counted. This will show the younger generation that it is OK and there are people out there who are just like you,” says Amos.

Of course there are a significant number of black people in the UK who do accept homosexuality and hold no prejudice. Comedienne Gina Yashere, when asked about her Nigerian mother’s reaction when she came out, joked: “My mum is only interested in me having children,” she says. “As long as I knock out six kids, she doesn’t care how I do it. I could mate with a goat; she doesn’t give a damn!”

Comedienne Gina Yashere

Black lesbians – fighting racism, homophobia and sexism

For black lesbian women there is of course the added discrimination experienced as a woman in a male-dominated society. An article in the Guardian on British lesbian black activist Linda Bellos perfectly captures this unique position of belonging to several disadvantaged groups within the social hierarchy, when author Andrew Anthony writes: ‘When it came to grievance, she appeared to have it all, being black, African, Jewish, working class, lesbian and Marxist. She was angry at economic injustice, racial discrimination, sexual inequality, the oppression of the male gaze, pornography, violence against women and much else besides.’

Bellos admits that when she was younger she “associated lesbianism wholly with white women," testifying to the fact that black lesbians were not as visible at the time.

Black LGBT UK subculture

Of course being black and LGBT provides a broader perspective of each community and those who identify as both not only get to belong to both cultures and communities (and all that they have to offer) but also are creating their own unique space for LGBT black people – where they can celebrate and feel comfortable in both their blackness and queerness among others who are similar and will not judge them for being either.

From dating, to clubbing and Pride, black LGBT people have forged their own spaces in the UK. Dating websites like Pink Cupid, for black lesbians, and the organisation UK Black Pride reflect a desire for black LGBT people to connect with others who share their experience and identity.

Channel 4 ran an interesting series of shorts called ‘The Black Lesbian Handbook’ which offered a snapshot of this subculture both here in the UK and in the United States.

An advert for Channel 4's short documentary series 'The Black Lesbian Handbook'

Recently when thousands of people gathered in Soho to mark the tragic shooting in Orlando at a gay club, three young black men went viral on the internet after they started voguing for the crowd. One of the dancers, Jason A. Cameron, explained the ideals of acceptance and diversity behind the dance: “Vogue is a dance outlet that comes from the ballroom scene, and within the ballroom scene there's many categories, but it was for the queer people of colour, black, Latino, etc., to come together in this world — it was for queer people of colour to create this feel of a ball.”

Three dancers voguing at a vigil for Orlando victims held in Soho

Moving beyond labels and categories

Whilst it is vital that the black LGBT community’s voices are heard and that issues which specifically affect this group are publicised, such as racial discrimination within gay communities or the fact that, according to gay men’s health charity GMFA, there are ‘significantly higher rates of suicide, self-harm and mental ill health among Black gay and bisexual men,’ it is also important that people are not limited or constrained by labels applied to them.

Stephen K Amos has spoken in the past about not wanting to be categorised and viewed primarily through the lenses of race or sexuality, saying: ‘I've been asked to go on all sorts of programmes to discuss those issues and I've just picked a few, because I don't want to be labelled as "the black gay comic". I didn't set out to be this role model, but if it's all in moderation and if you can inspire and encourage younger people, then that's a great thing.’

UK Black Pride 2016 is taking place from 12pm on Sunday 26th June at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – for more information visit:

http://www.ukblackpride.org.uk/events/uk-black-pride-2016/

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