“That’s got to be some kind of joke”, I said, through nervous gritted teeth.
In my job at gal-dem, a magazine created by women and non-binary people of colour, I’m used to poring through outrageous news stories about racism and homophobia every day. But this story seemed implausible. A colleague had just told me the Home Office was set to have its own stall at UK Black Pride.
After a storm of criticism online, the organisation released a statement backtracking on the decision, but the fact that it happened at all is worrying all the same. In case you’re unfamiliar with UK Black Pride, it’s an event that takes place on Pride weekend akin to a small festival – dubbing itself the “largest celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent.” It takes place on the Sunday, which means throwing together a strong look after the main Pride event and celebrating in a space that is both queer, and free from the white gaze. It is truly a beautiful event.
It should go without saying that the Home Office represents everything that Black Pride does not. As Home Secretary, Theresa May can be credited for devising the brutal and inhumane Hostile Environment, whose “Go Home Vans” paved the way for Brexit. Racially motivated hate crimes, forced deportations and the Windrush Scandal followed soon after.
We must not forget that all of these events are interconnected – and they are also closely intertwined with LGBT+ rights. Statistics published in November showed that 78 per cent of asylum claims related to sexual orientation were refused in 2017-18 – a total of 1,464 LGBT+ people denied a safe home. Last month, the Home Office also threatened to deport Kenneth Macharia, a gay man, to Kenya, where “same sex sexual activity” is illegal. This year 15 activists, including my friend Ben, awaited a verdict on whether they would be jailed for stopping a charter flight set to deport 60 passengers, some of which were LGBT+. In short, the Home Office is not our friend.
Black Pride was established very deliberately as a space where queer and trans people of colour could go that was distinct from the whiteness of London Pride, but also safe from the pinkwashing, commercialism and government affiliation that is now so present at the event. The wider LGBT+ community has kept it no secret that the commercialisation of Pride is something to be resisted. This year in my circles I’ve seen pinkwashing being discussed more than ever, with organisations including the Home Office, the NSPCC, and Sainsbury’s being called out for donning rainbow flags, despite not having earned their stripes.
This is why Black Pride’s near-association with the UK Home Office is more than a PR crisis, it’s a bleak symbol of the ways in which movements that resist dominant power structures are so easily infiltrated, co-opted and abused by those very structures themselves. Jason Okundaye told gal-dem yesterday: “How could it ever be expected that black and brown queer activists and asylum seekers could party and protest alongside the very institution they’re railing against?” It seems both paradoxical and nonsensical, but the terrifying truth of the situation is that it’s actually highly possible; after all we saw the same form of co-option take place with London Pride.
On Saturday’s London Pride parade, you can now go and see Barclay’s, the British Army, Goldman Sachs and Shell performing their allyship, most likely on expensive rainbow floats. Considering UK Pride started as a commemoration of Stonewall, it’s a cautionary tale to Black Pride, demonstrating the huge threats that safe spaces face.
Talking to a friend about this disheartening story yesterday, she asked, half-rhetorically: “Do you think when this happens we just have to give up and make new spaces? Or do you think we have to resist it?” It’s a good, but difficult question, and I think the answer depends on lots of complex factors.
In this case, though, I won’t ditch Black Pride. I want to believe that it’s not the fault of the festival organisers. After all, the fantastic Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, who founded the event, has spoken in-depth about migrants’ rights and the dangers of surface-level solidarity. In writing off the event, we’d also certainly be destroying a crucial space that is sacred for so many LGBT+ people of colour who feel alienated from majority-white queer spaces. But I do hope this offers a moment of reflection for the organisers themselves.
Ultimately we must remember that liberation is not about shiny rainbow optics – it is about all those queer people of colour who are invisible and unseen. Being unseen means being an easy target for bodies like the Home Office, it means not having the right documentation, it means charter flights in the middle of the night. And crucially, it often means the wider community, general public and politicians alike failing to extend their solidarity.
The government’s violent hostile environment has cost lives, and torn families and worlds apart. Any Pride that supports those values is not a Pride I want to be a part of.
Micha Frazer-Carroll is first person and opinions editor at gal-dem.com
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