I can’t quite believe that it was 15 years ago that I persuaded my bestie to join me on an indeterminate coach trip to an indeterminate coastal destination with a group of strangers. I’m so glad that he agreed to come.
Not because the idea of a coach trip was strange to me at the time, my childhood summers were full of coach trips to the seaside. [Historical note: Black people in the 70s and 80s went to the seaside in massive packs, in part for safety in numbers, in part to spread the costs, sometimes because we must have found a strange form of pleasure in getting really annoyed waiting around for the inevitable latecomers to arrive, so that we could stop at every motorway services we passed in order to wait for the same latecomers again, but primarily so that Aunty could show off exactly how superior her fried chicken was to that of Cousin Myrtle]
I can’t quite believe that it was 15 years ago; so much has changed in the intervening years, it feels like much longer.
We boarded a coach to a strand of beach near Southend-on Sea in 2005, because the thought of persuading even a hundred Black queer people to celebrate their existence in the full glare of public scrutiny in London was simply unimaginable.
The fact that we were organising at all felt like a breath of fresh air. Our nightclubs were usually run by white people on our behalf, like the pubs and bars that we used to frequent – nipping hurriedly, downstairs in Kudos near Charing Cross, to lurk in the video gallery, or down the dark alleyway to Substation Central (a walkway now erased by the sprawling Elizabeth Line station) – but always on a school night because we were never deemed worthy of the prime Saturday night slot before Queer Nation moved to Brixton or Bootylicious was able to hold down the Vauxhall Coliseum. That one of these spaces that collected Black queer money, might be Black queer-owned remained a pipe dream.
Our under-pressure organisations didn’t seem able to hold their own – Big Up, our response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, being forced to merge after losing out in the cut and thrust of the fight for voluntary sector funding that saw (sees) Black-led organisations, and by extension, Black people, as inherently risky. Campaigns against violent homophobic lyrics in dancehall music were highly contested but despite emerging Black leadership, Peter Tatchell and Outrage! had the experience and media clout to call the shots – often leaving the less attention-grabbing, behind-the-scenes negotiations, and the visceral contempt of dancehall music fans for Black activists to manage.
So a sunny summer coach trip seemed fitting – getting away from it all, seemed a reasonable ambition. A coach to the seaside, importantly also felt grounded in a Black experience. It was the first hint of the sensitivity of Lady Phyll, Khi and the other organisers of what would come to be known as UK Black Pride, to the needs of a community that was (is) in the process of becoming.
Demonstrating the truth of, ‘If you build it they will come‘, inspired by success and attracting greater attention, the event moved from seaside to private central London space, Regent’s College, and wisely built a coalition of support from more enlightened sectors of the queer media, trades unions, and the voluntary sector. Patrons were required to pay for a ticket to enter – not always easy for all to afford, but with the benefit of reinforcing a sense that this was our space, one that we had a stake in, a space of co-production and shared ownership. As a result, the event began to grow into something that we had long needed but had not really been able to articulate – an annual act of shred endeavour, owned by ‘us’, a space for ‘us’.
Having sampled the taste for collective, community ownership at UK Black Pride, the last decade has witnessed Black and minority ethnic queer communities start to take ownership in other spaces and reach for more ambitious goals. UK Black Pride has been instrumental in that change. BLKOUTUK has learned so much from engaging with the UK Black Pride experience.
While there have been, and will most likely continue to be, challenges in pulling together a broad coalition across sexual identity, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, class and age, in an equitable manner, UK Black Pride is now the gold standard in our communities, not just in terms of Black and minority ethnic queer organising, but also in terms of Pride events nationally and internationally.
In 2019, there were over 130 Pride events in the UK. The queers seem to love a chance to wave a rainbow flag on every high street and municipal park. The COVID-19 enforced hiatus this year, may mean that many of them will not return or will after taking the time for reflection become different kinds of events that recognise the diversity of our experiences and needs. UK Black Pride remains head and shoulders above many of them because it is first and foremost grounded in community – it is a celebration of its attendees rather than celebrities, of our efforts rather than an opportunity for brands to engage in marketing to the hard-to-reach. It’s popularity and reach mean that it may become so well attended by allies that some Black and Asian queer people may end up stuck in a queue rather than participating in the ritual mass electric slide. That would, of course, be a shame, but to those of us waiting for latecomers on a bus to an indeterminate location seeking our liberation in 2005, such popularity would have been beyond our wildest dreams; a nice problem to have.
So, today we raise a glass to UK Black Pride and the phenomenal efforts of all those who have made it what it is over the past 15 years.
Thank you UK Black Pride from all of us at BLKOUTUK for believing in the power of us.
Thanks too for the deeper love that we know continues to drive your work.
Here’s to 15 more years!