Unsure of what the future holds for you?
Sceptical about the quality of data public services use to make significant decisions about your life?
Feelings that have become widespread in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on the verge of a second period of national lockdown are revealed today as ‘business as usual’ for Black gay and bisexual men in the capital.
A new, community-led research report from BLKOUT_UK, the Black queer men’s collective, presents the results of a ground-breaking research project that included a survey and semi-structured interviews of Black bi/gay men who live or work in London.
The research project, funded by a grant from the Mayor of London, was undertaken a year ago, as part of our efforts to create more relevant, regular support for each other.
We were exasperated by the lack of publicly accessible data about our collective experiences an absence only matched by the confidence with which service providers told us we were being catered for; in the last five years we had been
- left out of the Government Equalities Office National LGBT survey ;
- ignored by the Race Disparity Unit’s efforts to reduce the inequalities experienced by Black people, with no place in its plans for future ‘quality improvement’,
- serially failed by the sexual health sector, that habitually used targeted sexual health funding to little discernible effect
- and routinely ignored by other public services
BLKOUT_UK took it upon ourselves to produce data that enables comparisons between the experiences of Black queer men and those of other Londoners.
We found worrying patterns of alienation, loneliness, and feelings of powerlessness:
- 1 in 5 Black men in London feel that they very strongly belong to their neighbourhood; 1 in 20 Black queer men felt the same
- 9/10 Black men in London always have someone to call on to socialize or for company; Only 2/10 Black queer men reported the same
- 1 in 6 Black Queer Men in London believe that if we come together, we can change our city; 1 in 2 Black men believe the same
Our report is released just days after Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch MP, dismissed calls to include the experiences of LGBT people in her ongoing review of COVID-19 health inequalities, claiming not to have found any disproportionate impact on LGBT communities. In direct contravention of our findings and those of the LGBT Foundation, LGBT Hero, and many others. Perhaps she has access to information that we do not. More likely, the Minister seems to have forgotten that Black queer people are also Black.
The tragedy of summarily closing down the possibility that there are specific needs and circumstances driving inequality facing LGBT people (and Black LGBT people in particular), is that it terminates any chance of gaining insights from our experience – insight appears to be all too rare, while so very necessary right now. Given the responsibility for reviewing evidence on inequalities during this pandemic, we would urge the Minister to take it.
The patterns of loneliness, isolation, and pessimism about our collective ability to change the situation for the better, make for sobering, if unsurprising, reading, However, our perspectives on this period of lockdown, and our ability to build community; to find each other, construct new forms of family, celebrate difference, and cultivate joy are strengths that many need. The report, rather than a litany of woes, is presented as a series of four provocations to encourage discussion and encourage a drive to delivery of change; asking what changes in policy or practice would free us to build on what we have.
‘We are all Black queer men now‘; as others face up to the inevitable challenges of the next few months and start to rebuild what will have been lost, our experiences and the lessons we have learned will be of more widespread use. We have learned, often the hard way, about insecure job markets, for example; or that home is where both heart and hatred can thrive. More people are discovering what it takes to make the behaviour changes necessary to control, and start to beat a life-threatening virus that impacts more on Black people, and for which there is no vaccine. We have had to learn lessons that others might benefit from. Our exclusion from consideration in reviewing COVID impact is an error for more than just us.
Inspired by analysis of the quantitative and qualitative data collected in 2019, the report focuses on the issues of data/data governance, mental health, community cohesion, and community assets/social enterprise. It makes 8 recommendations for action in 2021, and list 4 longer term public service reform goals. .
For many years, Black queer men have been at the vanguard of cultural change – out of necessity we have been asking and testing solutions to the challenging questions about what and who the modern man, family, neighbourhood, and community are really for. Uncle Jimmy teaches us that ‘not everything we face can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced‘.
Facing up to the reality of our lives in a society in which homophobia and racism continue to thrive, we have learned to our disappointment, that it is not enough to merely gain public attention in the hope that the powerful will simply realise the error of their ways, and become advocates for social justice. Public visibility can be subject to public amnesia. Attention can quickly revert to silence or denial of our presence and contribution.
Reflecting on what felt like a coming of age for Black History Month this year, over the past century, London’s Black Queer Men have both led and been part of movements towards Black liberation, and sexual freedom; writers, performers, artists, wartime air crew, activists, playwrights, TV directors, actors, magazine editors, and footballers. Yet somehow our very presence remains a novelty to many, exceptional and transgressive – their constraining stereotypes of queer or Black not malleable enough to be able to fit us – we are employed as a symbol of others’ virtue or lack thereof. displayed as a meme to reinforce those same systems that initially imposed limits on who we are ‘allowed’ to be. Deployed for use as a subject, as victim of physical and epistemic violence, occupying a narrative we cannot control, then blamed as a cause of division and disloyalty when we seek to break the silence.
By contrast, this project seeks visibility and voice with purpose embedded in our liberation – visibility to and for each other, so that we can build the ‘we’, the connections we need to deliver the changes to which we aspire, individually and collectively.
For these reasons, ‘In The Picture; London’s Black Queer Men in Focus’, has to be more than an academic treatise, it must also be a launchpad for action. Activity led by Black queer men, working with our communities, allies, and friends, informed by those deemed to be at the margins, offering urgent and vital support to the more vulnerable among us; whether government ministers decide that we ‘fit the description’ on this occasion or do not. We are, by now, used to deciding for ourselves who and what we are. Under the banner ‘WE_ARE_BLKOUT’, we are inviting those willing, and with the capacity to engage, into project alliances, and partnerships focused on Black queer men’s liberation.
There has been remarkable progress over the last generation toward the removal of legal barriers to equity. Freedom from constraints is necessary, but insufficient. Freedom requires space to live, opportunity to learn, a healthy mind and body; our freedom requires each other. BLKOUT has been testing ways to build digital, creative and physical spaces in which we can put our Black queer freedom into practice, and ways to use the proceeds to re-invest into building real community; a group of people who support each other to be all that they could be.
We were never ‘all in this together‘. We only hope that the global reckoning on racism sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests, and the opportunity for empathy created by the pandemic, will mean that in overcoming COVID-19, we never return to a society that could leave Black queer men, or any group experiencing marginalisation on many fronts, out of the picture.