Writer and activist Vernal Scott pens an open letter about racism in the LGBT community...
I thought that I would find refuge from racism in the gay community, but this was not to be the case. Despite our shared history of oppression, including being subjected to legalised discrimination, some ignorant white gay men and lesbians still find reason to discriminate against black people.
The leaders of the UK LGBT movement (you!), decided that Marriage Equality was the pressing priority. Of course they did; they are mostly, if not all, white. If they were black or from another ethnic minority group, then they would have, without hesitation, prioritised an anti-racism drive. Our representatives appear to suffer collective amnesia; conveniently forgetting that black LGBT people, through our earlier Civil Rights (and Stonewall) struggles, helped to create the template and foundation for the later equality achievements upon which they now stand and assume credit.
Their memory lapse is compounded by a lack of empathy with today’s black LGBT experience, and I strongly suspect that they would prioritise becoming the first LGBT passengers on a return flight to the moon before dealing with racism in the gay community; because eradicating its putrid stench will require an unpleasant look in the mirror and an acknowledgement that they are part of the problem. Oh yes, they will give the impression of ‘solidarity’ by funding soft events, like the annual UK Black Pride party; oblivious to their own ignorance and perpetuation of a common racist stereotype: ‘All black folk can do is dance.’
And while we’re busy dancing we won’t be bothering them with our futile requests for a place at the decision-making table: ‘Yes, Master, you enjoy the cake and we will hope for the crumbs – but only after we party!’ If our leaders don’t want to come across as self-serving, as they currently do, then they would ensure black and minority ethnic representation at the top table. It's nice to know that Lady Phyll of UK Black Pride is about to join Stonewall, however, our lack of representation to date is not an accident or matter of fate; it’s a choice by those already there. Also, talking about racism within the gay community isn’t a distraction, as some at the top table think; it’s essential to our future cohesion as a community to have these now long overdue conversations.
If it’s okay to discuss ‘black homophobia’ – not that homophobia has a colour – then it must be okay to discuss the gay community’s racism. We need responsible, conscientious, and inclusive leadership, as well as agendas that reflect the experiences and aspirations of all the LGBT community; plans should seek to add substance to the ‘rainbow’, not more rhetoric. And we won’t be fooled by window dressing either; it is not enough to just have Black, Asian and Latino LGBT people adding to the colour scheme in the meeting room when the key decisions have already been made over tea at Carluccio's in Hampstead. We must be key decision-makers, too.
Frankly, I believe there is something quite odd, or even shameful, in our achieving marriage equality before we’ve dealt with racism within our own community. Let me be clear; marriage equality is indeed a just cause, but it has an air of privilege to it, especially when racism is your everyday living reality.
London’s ‘queer spaces’, comprised of trendy eateries, cosy places to drink, and sweaty night clubs in the hubs of Soho, Vauxhall, and Old Compton Street, have been ‘whitewashed’ to mirror white-run gay publications. It truly catches my eye when I spot a black face in the gay media, and they are usually limited to the clubbing or paid escorts sections at the back. It’s the same with social settings; if I see a black face, I automatically do a double-take to make sure my eyes aren’t deceiving me. The subliminal message is white = money and blacks don’t!
So, denied social opportunities that whites take for granted, black LGBT people, like a sub-class within a sub-class, must go elsewhere to find people who look ‘like them’. If we do venture into the hubs, black gay men are more often than not perceived as eye-candy fetish-material, and/or hyper-exotic sex toys; not as holistic people. We are also seen as somewhat subservient; designed to please white men in the bedroom, on the dance floor, in the kitchen, or on stage as their entertainers. We are excluded from intellectual pursuits, on the supposition that this will be beyond our capabilities. In other words, the various identities and stereotypes of black gay men have not made the progress enjoyed by our white counterparts in recent years; we remain marginalized, minimized and traumatized. The major stumbling block to our progress is the white gay community. We are painfully invisible to them where matters of significance are being dealt with, and this should be condemned, shamed, and redressed.
Racism isn’t just a word; it’s an experience. It scars to the very soul and carries an impact akin to the death of someone close; you will forever relive the time and place of its occurrence, especially, how it made you feel; the hurt and damage to your dignity and self-esteem. A white gay man cannot comprehend, or more importantly, feel, the experience of being black and gay and the ‘double-minority’ status and discrimination that come with it; although some believe that they do; citing their sexuality as substantiating evidence. A black gay man will be racially profiled by the police in the street or by staff at a department store, and then be treated with suspicion or even hostility when trying to get into a gay bar. If allowed inside: SHAAZAM!!! Like magic, he’s suddenly invisible. The black gay man can now expect to grow a full beard from nothing while waiting to be served his well, well, well-deserved drink. Ignoring him is a not so subtle hint from behind the bar that they are wise to his criminal intent: Trying to buy while black. You’re the wrong colour in the wrong bar, Bro! The hint feels like a hammer blow as his patience morphs between undeserved embarrassment and anger. They’ll proceed to serve everybody but him until it is beyond obvious that he will not give up. Experience will have taught the black gay man that white people find innovative ways of expressing the derogatory intent behind the word n*gger, without actually saying it; but the impact is always painful. His only strategy must be never to give in to it. Anyway, with a drink at last in his hand, and having regained his former visibility, the black gay man must now navigate through the white guys who have made a deliberate bee line in his direction. They are keen to be the first to pop the old familiar question: “Are you selling, mate?” Yes, my Brother; you’ve just been hit with that infuriatingly common assumption; you’re a black man, and therefore, must be a walking portal for drugs and other illegalities. As for racist sexual stereotyping; well, the night is still young. The guy who’s been checking out the front of your pants really isn’t interested in your name; your cock size will do. Yes Brother, you have yet another assumed role to fulfil before the night is through, ‘top’ man!
So, what’s being done about the racism in the gay community? Well, not very much, it would appear. Stonewall, the leading gay rights organisation in the UK, is to be commended for much its work to date, including the production of a report in 2012 highlighting the experiences of black LGB people, but, frankly, it could have been written twenty years earlier, as the issues have not changed substantially in that time. Noticeably, nowhere in the report does it acknowledge racism in the (white) gay community. I mean nowhere! This is regrettable, because there is little point in promoting my rights as a gay man – or even my right to marry – whilst ignoring my experience of racism as a black gay man. As I’ve made clear, colour matters in the gay community, as in the wider world; people will always see skin colour well before they see sexuality.
This acknowledgement of the distinct experience of black gay men is made more urgent by the fact that they are disproportionately represented in new HIV statistics in the UK, and present late for diagnosis and treatment. There is little evidence that their needs are being prioritised by leading organisations, such as the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) and Gay Men Fighting AIDS (GMFA). I have a great deal of respect for the work of these organisations, but this apparent apathetic response to the needs of the black gay community is ominously similar to my experiences at the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, so I would like to believe they are just running a little late, and that plans are being devised as I type to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. I am ready to assist if needed. The needs of black communities must not be an after-thought or add-on, but an integral part of core planning and service delivery of all modern organisations.
Talking about racism is necessary but cheap. It's 2015 and we need action, not rhetoric, please! I'm happy to help.
Words by VERNAL SCOTT