Long Read: Counted As Warriors?



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no person, trying to take responsibility for her or his identity, should have to be so alone. There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors.

Adrienne Rich

A movement for queer liberation, intertwined in moral purpose and method with radical Black political organising in the US, in which Black people were not only present, but prominent, was largely met with suspicion by campaigners for racial justice in the UK. Active resistance towards solidarity, or benign neglect of allyship, or denialism of Black queer existence became the approach. The repercussions of the trauma caused goes largely unrecognised. The waste of talent and potential driven by suspicion of those identifying as both Black and queer, and the missteps that could have been avoided by choosing the side of the oppressed over the oppressor echo and reverberates across movements for racial justice, even today. 

There is a particularly English flavour to the lack of leadership, uncomfortable silences, and ‘polite’ avoidances that have typified a half century of non-responses to the needs of Black and brown queer Britons. Throughout the 90s and 00s there was next to zero intervention from racial justice organisations on behalf of queer people of colour. Section 28? – nothing. Equalising age of consent? – ambivalence. The army, same-sex couple adoption? The silence was deafening. The debate was left to the religiously dogmatic to argue with queer Black and Asian folk. Way to ally. This failure still needs to be addressed and atoned for among racial justice advocates here. The claims of a greater proximity to religious beliefs/practice as the fig leaf behind which to shelter, ring particularly hollow in hindsight. The visibility and challenge posed by queer leadership of Black Lives Matter in the US, posthumous awards given by President Obama to Bayard Rustin, or the rediscovery and re-presentation of James Baldwin’s writing, cannot be claimed as evidence of meaningful change in UK-based movements for racial justice by a mystical diasporan association. The blank looks I get today when I ask Black youth employment organisations, adolescent mental health interventions, or minority ethnic financial inclusion courses about the patterns of discrimination that impact on the Black queer people they work with, are testament to how far we have allowed heterosexual ‘insecurities’ about sexual identity to lead to worse services for Black queer people.

There needs to be a reckoning with those parts of British movements for racial justice yet to acknowledge those times where the violence and harm wielded by our oppressors came to be understood as the lingua franca of struggle – as if liberation for some could ever truly be won at the expense of the further subjugation of others. Stand back if you are ‘too Black’, ‘too unconventional’, ‘too controversial’, ‘too queer’, your liberation can wait. Those thrown under the bus in the quest for the weak sauce of temporary tolerance are numerous – in exchange for this week’s favourable news coverage in a paper that will happily trash your work next week, or to look fashionable by siding with the teenage reggae artist (just because it’s a hot riddim that he demands your brother’s violent execution to). Ultimately, they would discover, in a lesson learned much too slowly, and at vast expense, it is only truth that sets you free.

Too often missing in action in addressing sexism and homophobia, movements for racial justice lost out on the insights of Black queer people. We are currently victims of a ‘Jedi mind-trick’ (just not the one Labour leader Kier Starmer has identified), where in the wake of the latest series of Black ‘lynchings’ in the US during a global pandemic, the establishment talked up the prospect of a ‘racial reckoning’, and then, almost imperceptibly, shifted to discussing that same ‘reckoning’ in the past tense, as if it happened and we missed it. All reasonable requests for accountability are subsequently met with a roll of the eyes or an exasperated sigh. ‘You’re obsessed! Not again, hadn’t we dealt with this already?’ they remark, usurping the position of victim, and asking for mercy. Calling out racism ‘again’, is regarded as the action of a ‘bad sport’, or worse a self-serving liar whose demands ought to be disregarded. 

I am increasingly proud of the next generation of activists here in the UK who have grown up with the shorthand of memes and hashtags that so elegantly call out lazy thinking and are less forgiving of rank hypocrisy. Similarly, I’ve encountered some amazing minds from activists across the diaspora, who are building utopian queer communities, often in social contexts and regimes that threaten their lives. For too many Black queer people globally, a public kiss-in today would mean more than clutched pearls, or a series of strongly worded letters to the Telegraph. Despite 50 years of visible activity and inspiring campaigning here in a favourable social climate, we are yet to experience what the full inclusion of queer voices in Black and brown communities in the UK could deliver for the benefit of all. While it is great to see some of the work undertaken in the 80s and 90s being documented, we cannot yet forget or forgive those who failed to lead, and there must be a collective commitment to repair the damage done, and to learn from those mistakes, lest we repeat them.

Our aim, through BLKOUTUK, is to support the creation of digital and IRL spaces where Black queer people will be able to build those networks in which they will be able, in Adrienne Rich’s words, to

“sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors”


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