On the 14th August, Black Pride is celebrated in the UK – Europe’s largest celebration for African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Caribbean-heritage LGBTQ+ people. This huge event was first organised in 2005, by a small social network of black lesbians in the UK, snowballing into an event with almost 8,000 attendees annually. Co-founder Lady Phyll, describes the festival as a “safe space for LGBTQ people to celebrate through arts, education, and advocacy.” (Vogue, 2019) She explains how it is an opportunity to celebrate not just being queer, but also look at the challenges faced on a daily basis while campaigning against, homophobia, transphobia, and with the structural systemic racism that exists in society.
In their 2022 statement following Pride month in the UK, Black Pride acknowledges and honours those whose lives continue to be excluded from meaningful recognition all year round. They raise some of the most prominent issues facing the community such as; the rise in hate attacks (especially transphobic and racist ones); refugee and asylum-seekers forced to live on £40.85 a week; the lack of mental health and wellbeing support for LGBTQ+ people of colour, and pride movements’ refusal to acknowledge Pride’s intersectional roots and one-dimensional representation of the community.
When we look at the history of our movement, all too often people of colour have been erased from the narrative. You only have to look at the movie Stonewall, which portrays white cis-gendered gay men throwing the first rocks in the protests, when in reality it was icons such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (black trans women) who were at the forefront of Pride activism. This whitewashing is prevalent throughout the movement and our history. Over in the US, HIV disproportionately impacted Black Americans – representing 12.4% of the US population but accounting for 43% of HIV diagnoses, and 44% of deaths. Since the epidemic began over 290,000 Black Americans have died from HIV, something rarely mentioned in white queer circles. This systemic discrimination remains pervasive – of all the LGBTQ+ youth in juvenile facilities, 85% of these are people of colour. As Lady Phyll puts it: “Pride is not just a celebration, it's about change”.
To get an insight into what we should be doing to advocate for this change, I interviewed young professional Giselle Williams, who spoke about her experiences of being a queer woman of colour in the UK in 2022.
Thanks so much for getting on this interview with me, I appreciate your time today. To start with, please introduce yourself!
My name is Giselle, my pronouns are she/her, and I identify as a bisexual, mixed-race woman. My bisexual identity is something I think about a lot because it’s something I tried not to think about for a long time.
What does being queer and a person of colour mean to you?
To start with - you are the most colourful person! There is, especially in the UK, the phenomenon of double phobia, in that you experience both racism and homophobia. (Or transphobia) The communities you build in these intersections are really loud and fun. When you're with the people in both of those communities, you're able to celebrate being both those intersections - especially being West Indian - we love to party! It’s in our culture - Pride is basically Carnival for the gays and theys - there's campness, feathers, jewels and dancing - it’s the same thing.
In your experience, how have you found that culture/race has impacted your experience of being queer? (And vice versa)
I've definitely found that my race has an impact on being queer, as my race is the most visual identifier of me. You can tell I'm a person of colour in some regard, but you wouldn't instantly know I'm bisexual. Especially being half West Indian, because if you deviate from your plans that your parents had for you, you feel you've taken advantage of them by being queer. Especially if they've emigrated and they worked hard for your opportunities.
You think, I already have being a person of colour against me, why would I take the homophobia as well? Being a person of colour in a very straight white community growing up, I almost didn't have to think about being queer but looking back there were so many signifiers. People weren't paying attention to those signals though; they see you as 'just a black girl' - because people never see the two intersections together. Queer people are white, and bisexual girls are white with long hair - I don't fit that. It’s expected that you have to explain yourself if you have an intersectional identity - for me my bisexuality and race are all combined in a little package called Giselle!
What is the best thing about being queer and a person of colour?
I think that a lot of queer culture has been influenced by people of colour, and people are just starting to celebrate and amplify that. I celebrate when people who look like me, love like I do. I was only 19/20 when I learnt about Marsha P. Johnson, and I had a surge of pride - another black woman who was a performer, activist and helping people who needed it. She took in homeless people, and there's that sense of even when people from your own community are beaten down, you can still help someone else. Even if you experience that discrimination, someone else does too.
Especially being a queer femme person of colour - we really have led the way! Look at queer culture, drag queens, long nails, femme clothing - this all comes from a long history of black women celebrating ourselves. People are able to make the connections between those parts of queer culture and the people of colour who built those trends in the first place. Seeing people of colour being able to celebrate their own culture within queer art spaces that they didnt have access to before is amazing - and white queer folk embracing this art is equally as important to the community.
I just can’t describe the racial and queer pride when I learnt about Marsha P. Johnson - black trans women at the forefront of the Civil rights fight.
Why is it important to celebrate Black Pride?
Because to start with, there are a lot of queer black people who feel underrepresented in queer culture, or what straight, cis people see as queer culture. From my own experience, West Indian and Black British communities see the queer community being separate from them. They are seen and treated as less black because of queerness and gender identity. Having black and queer pride can coexist together, and they don't subtract from each other. In the same vein, other black queer identities doesn't take away the straightness of another black person. The more you keep them separated, the more you put them against each other, it makes black queer kids think maybe it would be easier to choose one over the other - even though you can’t.
Even in my experience, speaking about my sexuality with my West Indian family is limited to my cousins. We're all in the process of unlearning cultural homophobia and transphobia. They get to see they have a cousin who is mixed and queer, and there are many people with similar intersectionality. That visibility means I won’t be the first person they meet like that, and hence less alien.
Out of interest, have you had those conversations with others in your family?
Regarding the rest of my family, my mum is aware but it’s taken her a little bit of time as she only saw me as someone who dated men, but she now realises it’s not a result of her raising of me. It’s funny, we'll talk about race and the races of people I've dated (historically more mixed or white) and that's an easier conversation, she can talk to me about that due to her own experiences of an interracial relationship with my dad. The sexuality side, she can’t relate to, and doesn't know how to ask those questions.
Me and my cousins always joke, what would be worse, if I brought home a white girl or a white guy? How far off the path do we deviate? My family is pretty mixed, but if I brought home a white girl, she's white AND a girl. Their fear would be people looking at us - if I dated a gender nonconforming person, that would be even further off the path! In West Indian culture gender roles are there and very evident and being in a relationship with someone who doesn't fit those gender roles or a specific binary gender would cause them to wonder how that relationship could possibly work. It’s just so reinforced in West Indian culture due to colonisation.
They don’t want to hear about our history of people with beards and still having breasts - there has always been queerness in so many cultures. Gender roles are so enforced in our culture, and homophobia is so common. It's influenced by the church and colonialization. So many colonised communities took on the cultural aspects of their colonisers for survival, and the church was a massive part of this in the Caribbean. So many West Indians feel their culture is heavily tied to their religion, and for my older relatives, this is very important. You don't want them to think you're turning your back on your culture, but they can see it as you've been "corrupted".
Through this lens, they'll sit and watch a black man in drag if they're making fun of black women in the community but appreciating Tayce from Drag Race is letting the side down. You can only be effeminate if you're mocking black women, but if you like feminine things, you're wrong. This is why I've always had a conflict with my feminity as a black woman - now I'm able to have short hair and still embrace my femininity as a black woman.
What does representation look like for you right now?
For me, representation looks like the Dora Milaje in Black Panther. They have shaved heads, and tattoos and are warriors. They're stunning, strong and bodyguards along with being feminine black women - it’s really cool to see. Being able to see black and mixed queer people is great too, for example, Zoë Kravitz playing Catwoman with short hair. If you're mixed or black, we're socialised that our hair has to be done in a weave or braids - aka as close to Caucasian hair as possible. She has really short, natural hair - you can’t argue she's not feminine, she's a mixed-race black woman with bisexual energy - it’s so queer coded!
I also really like what Jordan Peele's films do, different genres of horror and thrillers with black people as the main characters. Because of that we see more variety, a villain, and a hero. Keke Palmer in Nope is a good example, flirting with girls down the street. Seeing different types of black and people of colour is always going to make me happy and seeing queer people of colour who have good relationships with families is so important to see on the screen.
This leads me on to my next question - why is representation important?
Linking to the above, I would like to see a black family on tv where there isn’t bigotry from them to their queer/trans family member. If it’s always the opposite, it shows queer people of colour they can’t come out. Of course, in some cases this is true - safety is the most important thing. However, how families deal with these situations are influenced by what they see, if we were able to see families who love their children regardless of their queerness and navigate the cultural implications of that, this would be really powerful.
To speak about this further, this cultural perspective is very much tied into religion. For people like my grandparents coming here in the 1950s, going to church with other West Indians is how you built your community, it was the only opportunity to do so. When homophobia exists in those close church bonds, it is hard for them to see how a family could exist outside of their known norms. For them, success in life is through being in a heterosexual couple, with biological children and specific defined roles. If someone exists in a relationship outside of that (for example, in a queer relationship), my community's fear is that it’s going to make everything so much worse for us, however, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Back to representation, seeing black queer people with their families thriving takes that fear away.
More generally, representation is important as it’s always good to have a wide array of people contributing to media, along with a wide array of people consuming that media. The more variety of people you're going to get producing it, the better it’s going to be. It gives you the language to understand other people. On a business level as well, if all writers are straight and write, they won’t accurately portray folk of different backgrounds.
What empowers you?
I think what empowers me is the queer community's ability to include everyone. (Though not always the case!) I have been able to find a really good group of people who lift me up as a bisexual black woman, which encourages me to lift them up as well. Shared empowerment makes me really happy.
Seeing more black women in media now, it empowers me by showing how black women can exist in lots of different ways - sexuality and gender are just some of those ways. Laverne Cox, for example, is so strong and feminine, which makes me consider and appreciate my own black feminity. Trans black women being celebrated and celebrating themselves makes me feel so good about my feminine identity which has always been questioned. They empower me, and I want to empower them - black trans lives matter!
A lot of queer or black women can feel internalised misogyny and use trans people as a way of deflecting this. If you are a woman of colour, you may have walked into bathrooms as a kid, and been asked what that little boy is doing there.
Could you tell me more about that?
On my first day of secondary school (I was wearing a skirt but no makeup) I was asked what a boy was doing in there by two white girls. It was the first time I realised that no matter how feminine I present, people see a mixed-race person with short hair - and my gender is instantly assumed, my blackness essentially is seen as 'taking away' from my femininity. I was one of the only black or mixed kids in my year and all the bullies would point out things like my hair and nose, the things that racialize me as black. After this I tried to become hyperfeminine in order to counter this - but it wasn't just that I became hyperfeminine, I was trying to get as close to white cis-het femininity as possible because I saw friends who fit that description who weren't getting the same abuse I was. It was a safety net.
Trans women say the exact same thing - they've been telling cis people this for hundreds of years! As a queer black woman, you want your feminity to be recognised to hard, and it's important to remember that trans people are not the ones threatening that. The systems in place are the reasons we're fighting each other - your identity is given a numerical cost amount, and you fight tooth and nail for any extra cost. This translates in reducing a gender nonconforming person of colour to less than because of who they are. We need to stop valuing identity and accept all.
In your experience, what are the main issues facing queer people of colour right now?
We really need other queer people to recognise our colour - rather than limiting or separating it from us. We've already had to deal with being a person of colour living in a very white community, the last thing we want is people of our community to say "I don't see that part of you." In the same way that straight people do that, when a queer person does that to you it reduces you - almost saying that my queerness makes me more white, one of their people. I am the intersection of the communities as opposed to the 'other'. One part of who you are doesn't take away from the other, and sometimes in white queer spaces you can be exoticized - I'm still the 'Black gay friend', rather than my blackness being an inclusion of my queerness. There are also harmful stereotypes that all black gay men are flamboyant and loud, and if a black gay man isn't like that, people are shocked. Even with progress, there's still 'one type' of black gay man or woman.
What could white LGBTQ+ people and straight people of colour be doing to uplift other members of their community?
A really good rule of thumb for white LGBTQ people - listen with empathy with queer people of colour - not separating them from the queer community. There's also importance in celebrating our heritage, culture, and race in conjunction with our queerness and being equally worthy. There needs to be empathy on why homophobia and transphobia exist in those cultures. It comes from historical reasons and generational trauma. If you speak with a relative or a friend, there's so much trauma in communities of colour, and people spend a lot of time unpicking that generational trauma - looking at "how can we build it up, so it no longer applies to me and stop the continuation?"
For straight people of colour, a good start is learning about other cultures' pre-colonialism. The relationship between queer couples and royalty, third genders in India and two spirits in Native America. The best thing I can say is that as a black person, someone else's queerness doesn't take away from your sexuality as a straight person. The same way you talk about their partner, they're doing the same, by taking away the fear of who your partner is, you're removing the fear of "I'm talking to a gay person". Also, it's okay to make mistakes, to correct yourself and move on. There's humility in not knowing everything.
A lot of people see transness in a very medical sense, we need to step away from this and just see it as someone's identity. Understanding and empathy are the most important things, respond and listen, don't ask a million questions - that's not a dialogue. I've been in situations like that from the Black Lives Matter filter, where groups of white people are projecting their racial anxieties on you. We don't always want to hear "that must have been so hard for you", sometimes I just want to have a beer and be asked how I'm doing as a person! The same goes for my queerness. Issues are systematic but affect people on a personal level, to really start solving this we need to speak to people, listen - and call to arms!
For someone who may be part of none of those communities, what could they be doing?
The main thing is remembering that not every minority on TV is the same as people in reality. You don't have to understand everything, and respect shouldn't be granted on the basis of understanding - show someone respect regardless of whether you understand their experience or not. It is a good practice in humility, and this is what it comes down to.
What strategies could we implement?
Supporting legislation to give queer people of colour a better life. If you're voting for parties that put barriers in place making it harder for folks to exist, regardless of how much you tell them you love them, you're not being an ally. It comes from a systematic level down right, and you can have as many diverse teams in your workplace as possible, but if you're not making opportunities for them and creating an environment where they're valued or safe, you're not helping them thrive. Sometimes companies have the ethos of 'feel lucky you have this' - this is not equality.