Black, Queer and Vis­i­ble

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS josh lee

From the Stonewall ri­ots to Black Lives Mat­ter, his­tory-mak­ing re­sis­tance and ac­tivism are in the dna of the black com­mu­nity. In cel­e­bra­tion of black his­to­ry­month, we meet­ja­son okun­daye, Trav­isAla­banza, MNEKand Mun­roe Bergdorfto find out how the new queer gen­er­a­tion is fight­ing

racism in 2017.

When you sit at the in­ter­sec­tions of race and sex­u­al­ity, your un­der­stand­ing of op­pres­sion in all its com­plex­i­ties is nat­u­rally more in­ti­mate. Take that knowl­edge and fun­nel it into ac­tivism, and his­tory is made. You’ve got Mar­sha P John­son, the van­guard of the queer civil rights move­ment; Au­dre Lorde, one of black fem­i­nism’s most rev­ered thinkers; Ba­yard Rustin, who or­gan­ised the march that led to vot­ing rights for black peo­ple in the US, and pro­pelled Dr Martin Luther King Jr into the his­tory books; more re­cently, DeRay McKes­son, who be­came the face of Amer­ica’s Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. And Black Lives Mat­ter it­self was cre­ated by three queer black women: Ali­cia Garza, Pa­trisse Cul­lors and Opal Tometi.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen far-right views that were once pushed un­der­ground swell back into the main­stream. Ho­mo­pho­bic hate crime has in­creased by well over 100% since Bri­tain voted to leave the Euro­pean Union, while anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment grows more toxic by the day. In the US, white su­prem­a­cists are given Burger King by po­lice af­ter mur­der­ing black wor­shipers at church, while black men are stran­gled to death by cops for sell­ing cig­a­rettes on the street cor­ner, or shot dead af­ter traf­fic stops. Here in the UK, black peo­ple con­tinue to die in po­lice cus­tody at dis­pro­por­tion­ately high rates.

Within the LGBT+ com­mu­nity, racial in­equal­ity is rife. Be­yond the harm­ful dis­crim­i­na­tion on dat­ing apps and in gay bars, black queer men are twice as likely to con­tract HIV as their white peers, and black trans women face a level of vi­o­lence and per­se­cu­tion that the rest of us can’t re­ally be­gin to imag­ine.

As re­gres­sive pol­i­tics push back on the progress made over the past 50 years, black queer peo­ple are lead­ing the re­sis­tance once more. In ed­u­ca­tion, arts and me­dia, they’re forc­ing peo­ple to re­think their bi­ases and act­ing as cat­a­lysts for re­sis­tance.

How­ever, be­ing vis­i­ble, black, queer and po­lit­i­cal comes with a price. Univer­sity of Cam­bridge stu­dent Ja­son Okun­daye knows this well. In Au­gust this year, his tweets about the preva­lence of racism in all parts of white so­ci­ety were taken out of con­text by Katie

Hop­kins and the Daily Mail. A hit-job en­sued: Con­ser­va­tive MP Bob Black­man called for Ja­son to be ar­rested for in­cit­ing racial ha­tred, while the press called on the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge to in­ves­ti­gate Ja­son, who’d re­cently been made pres­i­dent of the stu­dents union’s BME cam­paign.

“Calls for tak­ing a ‘mid­dle ground’ or treat­ing ‘both sides [racists and anti-racists]’ as equal are weak and ridicu­lous,” Ja­son told us, ex­plain­ing the strong lan­guage in his tweets. “It’s like say­ing an­ti­bod­ies pro­tect­ing the body against pathogens from dis­eases are ‘just as bad’ as the dis­ease for fight­ing back with force, rather than at­tempt­ing po­lite ne­go­ti­a­tion.”

Ja­son was first in­tro­duced to race ac­tivism at the start of his univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion in 2015, and has been prom­i­nent in bat­tles to “de­colonise” cur­ricu­lums:

“By de­colonis­ing we mean en­sur­ing that cur­ricu­lums don’t sim­ply present het­ero­sex­ual white men as dom­i­nat­ing our re­sources, and en­sur­ing that the voices of women, queer peo­ple and peo­ple of colour are rep­re­sented in ed­u­ca­tion.” He was also in favour of re­turn­ing the Benin Bronzes to Nige­ria – arte­facts that were stolen from the African coun­try in 1897 and placed in in­tu­itions in­clud­ing the Bri­tish Mu­seum and Univer­sity of Cam­bridge.

Whether it’s the press or his fel­low stu­dents, back­lash has fol­lowed Ja­son through­out his po­lit­i­cal work: “The level of hos­til­ity you can re­ceive for speak­ing on race is un­prece­dented,” Ja­son says. “Of­ten this hos­til­ity is the re­sult of those around you feel­ing that you are be­ing ag­gres­sive or ac­cus­ing them of en­gag­ing in racially vi­o­lent be­hav­iour against you. Hon­est and frank con­ver­sa­tions con­cern­ing race re­main con­tro­ver­sial and in­flam­ma­tory, even at the most mun­dane level, be­cause they re­quire a level of in­tro­spec­tion and dis­com­fort many peo­ple aren’t will­ing to com­mit. But that cer­tainly doesn’t de­ter me from continuing.”

Be­ing mis­con­strued as ag­gres­sive or di­vi­sive for dis­cussing racism is an is­sue that non-bi­nary per­for­mance artist Travis Ala­banza grap­ples with too; they even say they’ve “lost book­ings or po­ten­tial work be­cause peo­ple have been afraid” of what they might say in a per­for­mance. But sep­a­rat­ing pol­i­tics from art was never a pos­si­bil­ity for Travis: “From the mo­ment I started mak­ing work it was birthed out of a need to sur­vive, to process and to work through what I had ex­pe­ri­enced as a (at that time) 16-year-old queer, black kid.”

Out of a “ne­ces­sity to be heard,” Travis be­gan cre­at­ing art that has taken them all over the UK and be­yond. In 2017, they re­sponded to the lack of racial di­ver­sity in the Tate Bri­tain’s Queer Bri­tish

Art ex­hi­bi­tion with a per­for­mance of their own at the same gallery, called Left Out­side Alone. The per­for­mance used lip-sync­ing and pop mu­sic – the most im­por­tant weapons in any queer per­former’s ar­se­nal – to “cri­tique how gal­leries

“My work was birthed out of a need to sur­vive and to work through what I

ex­pe­ri­enced as a queer, black kid.”

of­ten use us as props, as to­kens, as some­thing to fill one event and never ac­tu­ally al­low us to have own­er­ship.”

It might sound ab­stract, but the main mes­sage of Travis’ art can be used by al­lies in daily life. They be­lieve al­lies need to look at how they can “re­dis­tribute and dis­man­tle” all white spa­ces, from art gal­leries to of­fices: “Is your work place all white? What would it look like for you to dis­rupt that?”

While Travis has al­ways in­cor­po­rated pol­i­tics into their art, 22-year-old singer-song­write rpro­ducer MNEK has only just be­gun with his video for Par­adise, which dealt ex­plic­itly with po­lice vi­o­lence against black peo­ple. In the video, a black man strolls through what looks to be an idyl­lic al­ter­nate

world; but as the song pro­gresses, the im­agery be­comes more omi­nous un­til the fig­ure is met with a vi­o­lent po­lice­man in riot gear. The lyrics echo the vi­su­als’ mes­sage: “Noth­ing like what I saw on the news yes­ter­day/an­other man down, blood on the ground/Makes me wanna just run away.”

It was shift in sub­ject mat­ter for the hit­maker, who has writ­ten for every­one from Lit­tle Mix to Madonna and Bey­oncé, but one that felt timely, given the grow­ing promi­nence of racial equal­ity move­ments. “I’d writ­ten this song with the in­ten­tion of it touch­ing a nerve that I hadn’t in my previous re­leases, and the re­flec­tion of that was the video,” he ex­plained. “The goal for me was to hint at what was hap­pen­ing in the real world in a cap­ti­vat­ing way and I’d like to think that was achieved.”

When ac­tivist, model and ac­tress Mun­roe Bergdorf was cho­sen to be part of a di­ver­sity cam­paign for L’Oréal, it felt like a huge deal for trans and black rep­re­sen­ta­tion. How­ever, af­ter a Face­book post call­ing out racism and white priv­i­lege was shown to L’Oréal, she was swiftly dropped. The makeup brand, with­out a shred of irony, re­leased a state­ment say­ing that Mun­roe’s com­ments were “at odds” with their com­mit­ment to “di­ver­sity”. She’s had to en­dure ha­tred, death threats and even

Piers Mor­gan as a re­sult.

“It’s def­i­nitely made me much more savvy and aware that big brands will ex­ploit any­thing for a profit,” Mun­roe said, re­flect­ing on how her views on cor­po­rate di­ver­sity have changed since the L’Oréal. “They wanted my au­di­ence but didn’t want me to talk about our op­pres­sion. This needs to stop hap­pen­ing. You can’t just take our money but ex­pect us to say thank you for op­pres­sion.”

Mun­roe’s post was provoca­tive (“Your en­tire ex­is­tence is drenched in racism” was a par­tic­u­larly fiery line), but what the likes of the Daily Mail had failed to men­tion in their re­port­ing was that her post came the morn­ing af­ter Au­gust’s NEONAZI march in Char­lottesville – a night that filled black and brown peo­ple across the US and UK with dread, fear and rage that things had re­gressed this far. “I am an­gry. I’m an­gry as hell,” Mun­roe tells us. “The fact that white peo­ple ex­pect us to mind our p’s and q’s when it comes to talk­ing about racism is the height of white fragility.”

Be­ing an ally, as Mun­roe sees it, is about fac­ing the anger that mi­nori­ties have to­wards a racist so­ci­ety and en­gag­ing with it hon­estly and openly. “White peo­ple need to re­alise that this anger is valid, it’s im­por­tant. Lis­ten to that anger. That anger is the symp­tom of our op­pres­sion. Not the cause of more di­vide, as the me­dia tried to spin with me.”

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