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WHY WE'RE PROUD TO BE GAY

The black community traditionally views homosexuality with suspicion and disgust. Yet in major cities across the nation black gays are coming out of the closet. Mike Burgess talks to the men and women who say they're proud to be gay.

"As a black gay man who's only just come out, it's very difficult because the black community at the moment has been brainwashed to believe that black lesbians and gays do not exist," says Michael Owen, a 19-year-old black gay man living in Brockley, London.

"At one stage people like me did not know that there was a place for us to meet and that we could have a network so that lesbians and black gay men could get together. I felt isolated because, as a gay man, I had met white gay men but I didn't get to meet any black people and I honestly thought I was the only one. So when I first realised my sexuality I completely thought it was a white thing and that I was the only black gay man that existed".

Since April 1987 Michael has been a regular at the South London Lesbian and Gay Young People's Group, the youth club which he believes helped him to build a positive image of his own identity.

The Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project is a black group which meets in the London Borough of Camden. There's no formal membership and attendance at the group varies from night to night between 10 and 40. Its mailing list exceeds 600 names although one of its organisers has stated that for every one of those, he knows of 10 people who won't join because it's not safe for them to receive mail at home.

Shunned

Avril is 24 and a black lesbian, "The black community does encourage the belief that there are no black lesbians and gay men. I'm African, and if being a lesbian or a gay man is something you learn about, I learned about that in Africa. But the black community would deny that there's any existence of black lesbians and gay men".

Much of the repulsion felt by the black community towards homosexuality is because gay practices are considered unnatural. Black homosexuals are shunned for having been seduced into "the white man's disease". Avril rejects the criticism.

"It's a big myth that gay black people have simply been corrupted by white people. What makes me angry about the myth is that while I know black lesbians and gay men that are very active in the black community, that are poor because of the black community, you see them in the local labour centre, you see them supporting things for the community regardless of what sexuality that community is".

Some of the harshest criticisms of homosexuality have come from the black church. Many denominations have condemned the practice as a sin. Pastor Nelson of the New Testament Church in Brixton is especially repulsed by gay activities. "If God wanted man to have sex with man, he would have created Adam and Adam". Other church leaders have spoken out against homosexuality and are in favour of banning gays from holding positions in the church. Michael acknowledges that this attitude influences the black community's attitude.

"A lot of black people are very very religious and my mother really took it very badly last year when I told her I was gay. It's such a taboo subject that black people don't talk about it. To some extent my mother accepts it provided we don't talk about it. It is sad because when I'm at home I almost have to fit into a heterosexual mould which isn't me".

Avril's experience was similar, and to some extent responsible for her making the decision to leave her parents' home.

"My parents didn't ask me what they did wrong. They just wondered how I came to be a lesbian, whether it was biological, or whether it's a psychological thing. Basically that was their response. We haven't talked about it much in the four years since I told them.

"I don't know if they fully accept me yet. That was one of the reasons why I had to move out and live somewhere else. I suddenly realised that I wanted to explore my sexuality a bit more and I didn't feel I had the freedom to do that at home".

The hostility towards black homosexuals means they can often be in physical danger. Michael suggests that the hostility is based on ignorance.

The black community largely cannot understand that black people can actually be gay or lesbian. He says we have been taught for so long that it is something that affects white people.

In December 1987 there was an incident in Brixton when a number of young gay men were badly beaten while leaving a club. Michael has been receiving threatening letters and phone calls. "That's the sort of thing I have to put up with because of my sexuality. Black people cannot come to terms with the fact that we do exist."

Racism

But the hostility doesn't all come from the black community. Black homosexuals often find it difficult to gain acceptance in the white gay community.

"It's a majority white middle class scene", says Ayo Oyebade, 20. "There is racism really". He went on to allege that there's a tendency for white homosexuals to take advantage of black gays who aren't at ease in the gay scene. "Black people feel more vulnerable."

Lesbian, Denise Worms, 20, confirms that black people often face rejection from their white counterparts. "There's a lot of tokenism as well," she explained, "If you get one black person involved they'll be asked to come to all the marches and get involved with all the protests." Denise detects a growing number of black people willing to 'come out'. She points to an increase in the number of specialist clubs and associations. "There's a black lesbian scene which is very supportive."

After several relationships with white women, Denise decided that she would be happier with a black partner. "I want to be able to share my culture and the way we were brought up."

Dirk Aab-Richards, of the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project, is the senior worker in charge of the South London Lesbian and Gay Young People's Group. Both projects are likely to be closed when Clause 27 of The Local Government Bill comes into force prohibiting 'promotion' of homosexuality. Says Dirk, "It's important that everyone unites against this fascist law which is offensive to black people with any decency."

Eric isn't gay, but as a black barrister at Brent Law Centre he warns that "Clause 27 could men lots of things. At its worst interpretation it could probably mean that if we advertise the existence of certain groups, that can be seen as promoting or otherwise helping the sort of things Clause 28 (as it now is) is aimed towards stopping, then Law Centres will be breaking the law.

"Whether that means we will be prosecuted or whether that will be used as an excuse to withdraw our grants is another issue. That depends on a buffer being created between the Tories and us by the local authorities. The whole aim of this kind of legislation is to drive the whole thing underground. At this stage we don't know what's going to happen yet. We'll just have to wait and see."

"Clause 27 affects me so much because I'm young," says Michael, "And if they cut all the ways that people are becoming aware of being lesbian and being gay, people like me would not have anywhere to go."

Closeted

Avril too is very worried about the younger generations of lesbians and gay men, "...especially the black ones because, if they don't have the facilities, then we are talking about a life-threatening situation. Already there is quite a high figure of suicides amongst young people and I think not having the facilities and the resources is kind of life-threatening and I'm totally against that. Those facilities weren't available in 1983 and I know that they mean a lot for young people.

"When they are coming to terms with homosexuality they need a lot of support and if they tell their parents there's always a possibility that they might get rejected. I don't see why anyone should be driven to being crazy or to committing suicide because they are ashamed of what they are."

Avril regrets that when she came out there were no resources for young black lesbians and gay men to meet each other. "My role models were the writers James Baldwin and Audrey Lord and those two people gave so much to the black community.

"Not only were they out as gay, they also carried on working within the black community as a whole, and refused to be closeted. That's what stops me every time I think I'm going to become closeted. I think of those two people and the fact that their speaking out was my salvation. And if they'd been silenced then there'd be a lot of things I didn't say.

"Sometimes I think there is pressure on me to go back into the closet. At the moment I work in a community so it's easy, but if I was working with heterosexuals it would be very difficult for me to come out. I might have to stay in the closet just out of survival. It's not because I want to. It's survival."

"We are getting so much bad publicity at the moment," says Glenn, a black health care professional who does not wish to give his correct name. "Gays have a right to be themselves. It isn't always that easy but there's such a positive side to this rather than all that stuff about how gays are physically and verbally attacked. Everybody knows about that because most likely they've done it themselves.

"We should be publicising the positive contribution made to the community by black lesbians and gays in local authorities, on police committees, in business, in music, in entertainment, and in medicine.

"People just imagine, because the word 'homosexual' is always used in debates about sex, that gay people just go around having sex all the time. They think we're perverts who have it off with children, whereas statstics show that 90 per cent of child abuse is heterosexual.

"There's more anal sex in the heterosexual community than there is in the gay community. I currently don't recommend that people have anal sex at all at this stage, even with a condom.

"The black press is going on about lesbians and gays who are really doing their best to survive at the moment. As a gay man myself, I can't understand the lack of information in the entire community. Most gay people coming to the hospital are the once who don't carry the virus because they have been well educated about AIDS. It's the heterosexual community that is not taking much notice at all."

Statistics

And yet it's the AIDS threat which has created a situation in which a traditional reluctance to accept homosexuality has become a danger to the whole black community. Disturbing statistics published in the American magazine 'Ebony', reveal that "Women make up 7 per cent of all AIDS cases and a staggering 52 per cent of them are black".

One quarter of those women contracted the disease by having sex with men who carried the virus.

Medical experts estimate the number of black gay and bisexual men in America to be about 10 per cent of the black male population.

Guilt

American gay rights advocate, Gil Gerald, says "There is usually a strong denial process that gay and bisexual men go through before they can accept their sexual choices. So in order to counteract the feelings of guilt, you develop relationships with women to support the notion that you're really not gay, that maybe it's just a phase you're going through.

"A lot of women with bisexual partners could be at risk," admits Gerald, "since many men do not admit to being gay and do not identify with the gay community where education and AIDS information is available to them.

"Consequently, they aren't receiving the information about safe sexual practices that they and their partners need for protection. That is one of the reasons why AIDS education and prevention efforts targetted to the black community are so crucial."

January 19, 1988 The Voice

The Voice 1988