READ: invisible men?



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Black queer men’s visibility, vulnerability, and Census 2021

I am an invisible man … I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me … When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952)


I really want to know more about the category of people on these islands who define as Black queer men. I mean that I really want to know. I’ve read the (sparse) literature, and crunched the (patchy) data. I’ve conducted my own research and advised other projects. I share and retweet invitations to contribute to several research studies every week. I’ve handed out surveys in saunas and nightclubs, and challenged policy decision-makers to provide counter-evidence to justify public service inaction when the experiences of marginalised groups uncover unmet needs.

LGBTQ+ organisations have been working together to encourage us to complete the impending Census 2021 this month. Their campaign highlights the benefit they think will result from completing the survey and, in particular, the new voluntary questions on sexual- and gender-identity. I can imagine policy teams across the sector, data-starved for so long, interventions too-easily dismissed, waiting with bated breath for the census results to be published in 2023. ‘Finally, we will be heard’ they assert. In this spirit, we are invited to ‘make history on 21 March as LGBT people we are #Proud To Be Counted.’

Filling in our sexual and/or gender identities questions will in turn make us healthier, able to access justice when discriminated against, and create a well-resourced LGBTQ civil society ecology, funded sustainably by a much-anticipated ‘visibility windfall’.

The hoped for ‘visibility windfall’.

The prospect of a reliable and robust dataset that includes a category for us is tantalising. It means that we may be able to answer the perennial questions for which we to-date only have best guesses.

  •  Are Black men more or less likely than white men to identify as gay?
  • Are Black male same-sex couples really rarer than hen’s teeth?
  • Is there evidence of ‘Black queer privilege’ in the UK labour market?
  • In reality, we can’t ALL be called ‘Jay’, surely?
  • North v South London: who would win?

I really want to know, it would both help with work and satiate my excessive curiosity. However, that is not all I want.

I want need you to be safe.

The tragedy is that in Britain 2021, 45 years after partial decriminalisation of male gay sex, and fifteen years since passing some of the best legislation globally on protection from discrimination, safety is still not guaranteed on disclosure of your sexual or gender identity. If you were to be subject to violence, to lose employment, or be made homeless as a result of a confrontation that erupted in your household due to a clash over disclosing your sexual- or gender-identity for the Census, I cannot, hand-on-heart, promise that, despite welcome progress over recent years, services intended to support LGBTQ+ people in times of distress are always able to be responsive to the particular needs of Black queer people. In the two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, recorded anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime rose at twice the rate of other forms of hate crime. In England, housing for those in priority need has become further residualised as builders seek incentives to invest, while the costs of both rent or sales of private sector housing have become increasingly distant from average salaries. In addition, our post-pandemic labour market is already shaping up to disproportionately exclude younger workers and those from minority ethnic communities – with unemployment rates for Black men already twice those for white men.

The inclusion of a voluntary sexual- and gender-identity question in the census is a marker of having reached a juncture where queer visibility is being demanded by the UK state, ostensibly in order to support its efforts to distribute resources more fairly. A procedural fairness that does not readily take into account the differential risks of personal disclosure facing different parts of our society. We’ve hard-wired our ‘visibility dilemma’ into public policy. San Francisco politician, Harvey Milk famously argued,

Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.

harvey milk (1978)

For the UK’s people of colour, however, experience has shown the stubborn persistence of ‘myth’, ‘lie’, and ‘innuendo’. The relationship between visibility and feeling ‘so much better’ is not always a linear one. Visibility does not automatically mean inclusion – indeed it can mean increased vulnerability.

Justin Fashanu, the first top-flight footballer to come out as gay, could not have been more visible than ‘confessing’ his sexual identity on the front page of The Sun in 1990. Justin would have celebrated his 60th birthday last month, had he not taken his own life in 1998, hounded by false accusations of sexual misconduct.

In 2004, Oprah Winfrey wasn’t winding up Buckingham Palace with royal tittle tattle, but seeking to expose the ‘scandal’ related to Black men who were not ‘out’ to all the people in their lives. Based on powerful anecdote, She famously claimed (in highly insensitive language) that men ‘living on the downlow’, are the reason for the higher prevalence of HIV/AIDS among African Americans when compared to White Americans. Unbowed, and a powerful example of the creativity and confounding nature of associational life for Black queer men, since the ‘downlow scandal’ of 2004, a number of men adopt the ‘downlow/DL’ label as a badge of honour. Invisibility reclaimed, sexualised, and repackaged as a form of resistance (however non-ideal) – claims of fluidity of identification became used as a marker to differentiate between Black and White queer cultural practices.

Last month also saw the critically visible support interventions made by LGBT Rights Ghana turn into vulnerability as a result of a concerted campaign between Catholic bishops, tabloid media, and political ‘leaders.’ LGBT Rights Ghana’s grass-roots initiative – a community-built support centre – has been raided by the police and its staff, currently in hiding as a result of threats of arrest.

Visibility in a racist, patriarchal society can feel like losing one community that offers resilience, e.g., against racism, with little guarantee, and more than enough folk experience of racism in LGBTQ+ spaces – from bars, clubs, civil society leadership, or digital apps, – to raise considerable questions for many of us about which forms of visibility represent a risk worth taking.

To make this assessment an informed one, it is important to understand more about what the census data is likely to deliver, and the processes by which its author, the Office for National Statistics, seeks to ensure confidentiality and anonymity.

It is worth remembering that policymaking is a political activity rather than a purely technocratic one – more art than science. ‘Evidence-based policy making’ is a rarely achieved aspiration, rather than a statement of fact. Some would argue that recent history (e.g. Brexit) has shown us that evidence-based, rational choice-led policies are quickly forgotten, trumped (sic.) by the hidden ‘identity politics’ of the UK’s xenophobic (or at least xeno-wary) little-island, tradition of political thought. It is unlikely that the evidence of Black queer need, alone, would suddenly lead to enlightened change. Ideology matters. After all, our current Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, has made it clear that she is not interested in improving data about us. She has decided not to follow up the 2017 National LGBT Survey, nor to extend research into smaller intersectional groups as her predecessors promised in 2018. As Toni Morrison warned us, the search for ever more fine-grained data about our experiences can be a distraction tactic by the powerful, ‘to keep you from doing your work,’

It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up.

It is also worth considering that the census data is a particularly powerful because of the comparisons that can be made between different time periods. While this census will be ground-breaking, it is likely to be even more useful in informing policy decisions about Black queer lives when data has been collected both this year and in 2031. Until the voluntary questions are embedded into the census (and the public imagination), it would be wise to be vigilant about other data sources that may well be richer sources for contextual analysis. Sources that are currently used largely to sell you stuff that you probably do not need. Sources like Facebook or Grindr. There is much work to be done beyond the census in making the data that we already share about ourselves more transparent to us – particularly as use of AI enables more targeted commercial and public services. The quality and quantity of data is likely to become an even more contested arena for discussion of justice.

BLKOUT’s work, ‘making space for us’, will continue to require activity that helps generate trust in each other. the goal is to create visibility that serves a purpose; to model the shift away from the protective habits of invisibility to the potentially liberating habits of solidarity. These are acts of resistance, destabilising to the existing systems; those that have rarely if ever worked for us.

Our government, with the support of sections of the tabloid press, has increasingly begun to set out dividing lines for a ‘culture war’ between the ‘woke’ and those who Ralph Ellison identifies as ‘sleepwalkers’. Chillingly, he warns us against the risk of stirring them unnecessarily – even when invisible.

“I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.”

On 3rd March, I spoke at a seminar hosted by Open Data Institute about Inclusive Data.

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