In this conflab, Ade Adeniji, Co-Founder of The Quest and Sunny Bahra, a previous participant of The Quest workshops, talk about the journey of black/Asian gay men and the importance of having conversations about race, culture & sexuality.
Ade: As you know, The Quest is co-organising an event this coming Friday titled “The Rainbow Intersection – a dialogue about Race, Culture & Sexuality in Modern Britain“. The intention of the event is to engage people in a conversation about multiple identities.
I’ve heard some say there is no need for such events, for the UK is now considered progressive when it comes to issues around sexuality. What’s your take on this?
Sunny: I think it’s incredibly important. The UK is leading the way as an integrated multi-cultural country. It’s because of this that I think we can and need to have conversations about race and sexuality. Lets face it racism exists, whether it’s in Europe or in Africa. It’s another significant layer of shame that we, as gay men of colour, can feel.
Ade: When I came out in my late 20’s I must admit that I did feel that once I entered the ‘illusory gay community’ everything else will not matter – that I will be accepted wholeheartedly and that the pain of rejection and shame that I had carried for so long would simply disappear. A feeling that this was going to be a place where my race will not be an issue, as that had always been an integral and visible part of myself. And as I have gotten older, I have approached this differently. For it is not about whether race is or is not an issue, it is about the fact that Race is relevant and a crucial part of the narrative of our journey. This is because, in order for me to share my story as a gay man, I also have to share my story as a black man. I cannot tell one without the other.
Sunny: I totally agree with you, both are an integral part of identity. When I came out in London in the early 90’s, the scene was just exploding and there was an incredible vibe in London. However, I was very conscious of being one of a handful of Indian gay men on the scene. It was very white and segregated, much different to the melting pot of races that it is now. I felt that race was an issue then as I was so visible and different within the gay community, or at least I felt that way.
Ade: Yes I can relate to that, I did not get to meet other black/Asian gay men until a few years of being out. I think there is also a cultural element to that. To my knowledge and observations, fewer black and Asian people come out. I think largely for cultural reasons. In my case it was the issue of ‘being gay was something shameful and therefore needed to be hidden and never spoken about’.
So it feels like a double edge sword, we stay in the closet and feel suffocated or we come out and might potentially be isolated for a short while.
Sunny: Yes I agree, and that’s why it’s essential to have this discussion. There are so many aspects to shame and the cultural / religious layers that come with being gay and black/Asian (or many other ethnic groups) that are hugely significant. I do feel that it’s a major stumbling block to many gay men when they are trying to come to terms with their identity. The isolation is often internalised and that becomes even more unhealthy.
It’s a multi-faceted problem. Even when we come out, there are not that many Asian/black men on the scene and then instead of banding round to support each other, the opposite seems to happen.
Ade: Speaking to a number of my white friends during the early years of my coming out, their views were ‘we are all gay together and that’s what matters’. It almost felt like I had to leave that my ethnic and cultural side at the door and I remember often looking forward to being with my black friends (even though they were all straight and I knew would not accept me for being gay) – for me, I wanted to have conversations that allowed me to bring all of me to the table, but that was difficult because both sides did not fully understand.
So, in addition to having events like this one coming up, what other things do you feel need to start happening?
Sunny: Yes I do remember “leaving my ethnic and cultural side at the door” when I came out. But that was often because I just wanted to have fun and it was too much to deal with / think about. However, when the fun is over, it’s still there waiting to be addressed. I still get that feeling with many of the Asian and black men that I come across on the scene. There is a feeling of “I don’t want to talk about it – I’m out with my friends having fun”.
I believe that a huge part of self acceptance as a gay man comes from being totally out and comfortable with being a gay man. It’s incredibly hard for Asian/black gay men to do that due to various cultural and religious issues. Without any specific case histories or role models it can often seem an insurmountable task to overcome and so often Asian/black gay men continue to split their lives and identities. From experience, I know how unhealthy that is.
So I think more articles would help for a start. I recall reading something in FS magazine a while back about being black and gay. I think we could do with more of that. Just to raise the issue and to let people know that they are not alone. Also there is an ongoing education process that needs to happen. I still see things like “I only date white guys – no offence it’s just a preference” on dating profiles. Reminds me of “no blacks or Asians” signs in B&B windows in the 80’s. I would like to believe that most of that stems from ignorance and not deep racism. At least not in the UK.
Ade: I so agree with you about sometimes leaving the ethnic and cultural side behind, because I just wanted to have fun and forget or because it was too much to deal with. And that still sometimes applies to me today. I remember having to speak to a number of family members last year after my mum passed away and all the stuff around rejection and non-acceptance came to the surface and it felt like I had been living in a cocoon – all the cultural and religious stuff was there waiting to be addressed. I simply wanted to forget it and put my head in the sand.
Yes, we do need to start talking about it, as that will help create more understanding for everyone. Actually when I think about it now, I suspect that people who are not part of that minority ethnic community do not understand the challenges, because it’s not their reality.
In terms of the dating profile stuff, I must admit that I do not get it. In my mind I feel that because we as gay people know what its like to be rejected we will be a bit more sensitive to issues of non-acceptance; but I guess we are all human – being gay or straight does not take away narrow-mindedness! More articles and discussions will certainly help enlighten people.
Sunny: Something interesting came up for me when I did the “sticker exercise” at Clapham street party. Most of the Asian men that I approached to put a sticker on (there were about 5) said no. But the body language was interesting – It was almost as if I was branding them. It brought up some interesting issues for me as well, the most salient being that as gay black/Asian men, our shame can run very deep and anything that helps raise this can only be a good thing.
Ade: Wow, that is interesting. Perhaps when we are confronted with our sexuality in that manner, particularly by someone who is just like us, that reminds us of our own unresolved issues. I guess that’s why many of black/Asian gay men do not always support each other on the scene. I remember bumping into an old acquaintance sometime last year, another black gay man. He told me that he found black gay men bitchy and did not mix with them. As the conversation continued he then said something to me that I perceived as unkind and I told him that ‘I see that bitchiness cuts both ways’ – he fell silent and did not know what to say.
Yes, this is not just a matter of ‘them out there’, its also a matter for us too – feels like a very long journey and process!
Sunny: Yes it is – I sometimes get the impression that many black/Asian men steer clear of each other on the scene as it just reminds them of who they are and triggers the issues that are buried deep inside. That’s not something that people want to deal with when they’re out having a beer or in a club. The bitchiness really does cut both ways – “If you’re unhappy with how you fit into the gay scene due to issues of race and culture then it’s highly likely that you’ll lash out at someone similar, especially if they seem to be happier and more at ease with themselves”?
Ade: So it sounds like there are multiple sides to what we are talking about – how we as black/Asian men are with each other, and how other races/cultures are with us. We will make sure we cover both sides during the discussions on Friday, as they are both crucial.
Any final thoughts before we round off? For me, I’ll say that I’d love to see more of these dialogues taking place, its not about demonizing any group or race, but simply about having conversations that matter and move us towards a space of more acceptance as a wholehearted LGBT community.
Sunny: I agree – It really is about greater awareness and putting the discussion out there. Anything that makes people less isolated and helps them to engage better with themselves and others is a good thing.
I think it’s also about encouraging people to be role models, to share their stories.
The Rainbow Intersection – a dialogue about Race, Sexuality & Culture is organized by The Quest for Gay Men and Bisi Alimi Consultancy as one of the 2013 Black History Month events and takes place on Friday 25 October at UCL, London (6.30pm – 9.30pm).
For more details and ticket information click here.