The lack of Black LGBTQ+ representation in Westminster has led some political groups to work outside the mainstream. But perhaps that’s the best place to be, writes Adebayo Quadry-Adekanbi.
There are no openly Black LGBQ+ politicians in Westminster. The way we consider that problem matters. Is Westminster an inclusive haven for people such as me – a Black queer British-Nigerian man? Or are the ways Black queer communities organise politically ignored by the mainstream? I think the second statement is the most accurate.
Though society’s prejudice might prevent us from ever entering traditional politics in the first place, the political system also appears flawed. Westminster was not designed for our freedom because Westminster was not established with us in mind.
We find ourselves in a moment where the concept of inclusion is more popular than ever. Intersectionality has become something of a buzzword, and the discussions it sparks have certainly led to some improvements in access, policy and legislation. That makes the lack of an openly LGBTQ+ Black politician all the more striking. My community still struggles to be seen, and that is because we exist in an environment that discriminates against us from all angles, in ways that can be hard to overcome.
Let’s set the scene. We know that Black people are disproportionately affected by systemic racism. Nearly half (46 per cent) of Black households are in poverty. In addition, 11 per cent of homeless people are Black, despite Black people making up only three per cent of households. Black people are more likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19. Black people are also over-represented in the criminal justice system. These statistics are shocking, but they are not coincidences; they are symptoms of an inherently racist system.
Barriers also exist for LGBTQ+ communities. From the passing of a sodomy ban under the reign of Henry VIII in 1533 to the Labouchere Amendment of 1885, which outlawed sexual contact between two men with imprisonment for up to two years, and more recently, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, LGBTQ+ people through history have been forced to confront the inherent violence the UK enacts upon them.
We experience this even now. The government sits on its hands rather than taking the necessary steps to eradicate conversion therapy, even though it has been offered to five per cent of LGBTQ+ people, and two per cent have undergone it. Once again, these alarming statistics are not coincidences; they are symptoms of a discriminatory system.
I know very well that being visible has a high cost. It’s a personal sacrifice
The specific ways the Black LGBTQ+ community is affected by this remains under-researched. Yet those in authority expect us to prove that we face discrimination, and policymakers do not adequately consider our perspectives.
We are either not seen as Black enough because we are LGBTQ+, or not quite LGBTQ+ enough because we are Black. Our communities label us as distractions to their causes. They see including our perspectives as a loss of focus. How, then, can our interests be represented?
The truth is, Black LGBTQ+ political communities exist here in the UK. They do incredible advocacy work. It’s important to point this out because a lack of representation is not the same as a lack of interest, and erasure is not the same as non-existence. Both are symptoms of systemic problems. Sometimes, Black LGBTQ+ political groups purposely choose to work outside the mainstream.
One such person is my friend and colleague, Reverend Jide Macaulay. Around 15 years ago, he founded House of Rainbow. The organisation offers a sense of community to Black LGBTQ+ people, with faith at the centre. It also provides job opportunities, mental, physical and sexual health support, and immigration support. In its way, it does the work of the government.
Still, Reverend Jide says becoming a politician never crossed his mind. For him, focusing on Black LGBTQ+ people and creating safe spaces for us to exist was better than fighting for inclusion within an institution, be it the government or the church. He believes helping at the grassroots “is more empowering, and it creates more freedom and liberation of understanding for the LGBT person, as opposed to trying to change institutions that are not prepared to change”.
Marc Thompson is a co-founder of The Love Tank, which promotes the health and wellbeing of underserved communities through education and research. I affectionately call him Uncle Marc, this is a term of respect bestowed on him, because of his reputation and work in the LGBTQ+ communities. He says he never got involved in politics because he didn’t think he could play the game.
“Politicians will lie, and I don’t deal in the business of lying to people,” he says.
I struggle to see what Black LGBTQ+ politicians would achieve
Uncle Marc thinks this is especially true as his work touches on sexual health and HIV. “Being part of the political sphere [would] strip away my ability to be an authentic and open activist,” he goes on. He points out that Westminster has its own language. Though he doesn’t want to speak it, or work in traditional politics, he has learnt to navigate it. If he refused to, he says he wouldn’t be able to represent his community.
There is another price that marginalised people pay when they enter the mainstream. Even though he has chosen to focus on community, Reverend Jide has faced the consequences of choosing to be seen. “I know very well that being visible has a high cost. It’s a personal sacrifice,” he says. People have attacked, abused and harassed him because he is an openly gay priest in the Church of England.
We have to ask whether we want an openly Black LGBTQ+ politician. Consider what they might face from their colleagues, the public or even other Black LGBTQ+ people. In a world that wants to punish us, we should be allowed to be neither punished nor seen by our punishers.
Work done by Black LGBTQ+ politicians who may choose to keep their identities private is valid. Work done by Black LGBTQ+ communities outside Westminster is essential too. There is power in choosing to work outside of flawed systems or working within them in ways that make us feel safe.
Representation can be positive, but it is not everything. Would an openly Black LGBTQ+ politician be able to prioritise our community’s interests? And can any one individual reflect the values of an entire community?
Take the example of Linda Bellos, former leader of Lambeth Council and a Black lesbian who was instrumental in the founding of Black History Month, who came under attack for both her sexuality and her colour.
She has also expressed views on what she describes as trans politics that I consider transphobic and wears her Order of the British Empire (OBE) with pride – something I consider incompatible with solidarity with African and Asian peoples. That is not a representation of me as a Black LGBTQ+ person.
We need to question the need and possibility of representation. Black LGBTQ+ people are a diverse group with different needs, hopes and political aims. As Uncle Marc asks, “Who are you fighting for?” or, as he also put it, “Who you repping?”
Uncle Marc is clear: “I’m here for all of the community, but if you filter it down, ultimately, I’m about Black gay men,” he says. It’s honest to speak about whom he prioritises in his work, and it doesn’t undermine his solidarity with the wider LGBTQ+ community.
As someone who does limited work with the government, I struggle to see what Black LGBTQ+ politicians would achieve when this system was so clearly not made to accommodate us. For example, would they be able to do more than Reverend Jide, Uncle Marc, or Lady Phyll, a co-founder of UK Black Pride?
I think Black LGBTQ+ people can choose what liberation looks like for us, and it might include representation in Westminster. I respect that for some of us, it would be an important symbol. Perhaps it might even lead to legislation that makes our lives a little easier. However, that’s not the same as freedom. It’s the bare minimum.