Bisi Alimi looks at the problem of invisibility of black and Asian LGBT people in the media and highlights a forgotten gay hero of the civil rights movement
On the night of 4 November 2008 the whole world was about to witness something historic. To prepare myself for the night and the drama that was about to unfold, I spent the whole day drinking coffee. I had to stay awake, I had to see for myself what was about to happen.
Earlier in the day Americans in their millions turned out to cast their vote. This was not just another election, this one would make history as the first time an African-American or what many people will comfortably call a black American, was on the verge of being president.
Not only were Americans awake to see what was about to happen, millions of people were glued to their television all over the world as the results of the election started coming in.
By morning it was all over, Barack Obama had defeated John McCain and become the first black American president; this is something that Reverend Jesse Jackson had struggled to achieve for so many years.
The celebration was not just in America, it was just as significant and inspirational in Africa. And more generally this realization of the American dream made blacks across the diaspora, most particularly in Europe, start to believe that they could do it too.
Four years before not a single American, white or black, had expected this would happen. Now the UK, for example, is beginning to tip Labour Member of Parliament Chuka Umunna as a possible first black prime minister in the future.
This is the story of role models, the story of representation and inspiration, of going beyond stereotypes, discrimination and patronization. It is the story of achieving our potential irrespective of race, religion, sexuality and gender.
But put the most liberal community and movement in the world under the microscope and you’ll find the opposite is the case.
I am talking about the LGBT community. And I use the word ‘liberal’ because this movement has been at the forefront of championing fundamental human rights, promoting equal opportunity for everyone and advocating for self-respect and self-esteem.
So I was again upset, while I was on holiday this past week in the South of France with my boyfriend, to come across the birthday edition of British gay magazine Attitude.
I was quite excited to see and read it, as that edition was also being used to push for equal marriage in Britain.
Inside was a spread showing all the front covers Attitude had produced over the last 18 years. Suddenly I found myself counting how many people of color had featured.
It was shocking. I could only count six, and of these only two were gay men. Don’t get me wrong, I am not out to critique Attitude magazine, I think they have done a great job promoting the LGBT culture for 18 years.
I was just 19-years-old when the first copy of the magazine came out. And at 19, I had no black gay role model; I was living in Nigeria where I was still struggling with my sexuality. I was growing up looking for answers and being terribly depressed as a teenager and also taking risks with my life.
At that age, all I would have loved was just one Nigeria man or woman to say I am gay or lesbian and that would have just helped me through my troubled teenage years.
But the fact that 18 years later, and in the UK, gay people of color are still invisible is shocking. I can moan all day about the limited number of black gay men on the front cover of Attitude, but it was even shocking there was no single gay Asian.
Over the last few years, I have seen the subtle ways the LGBT and mainstream media have pushed what the ‘gay’ identity should be. This supposedly perfect identity is really an illusion that has driven many young LGBT people to depression, loneliness and even suicide.
I can already predict people will comment on this piece, accusing me of being up my arse with irrelevant things… But I will like to conclude by going back to my earlier illustration of the power of representation.
Today in America and in a western world dominated by white people, black and Asian people can now aspire to the position of president and prime minster. This was based on the story of one man. Though Obama may have made it a reality, the story dates back to the black struggle in the US during the time of Martin Luther King. This was the story of the ‘dream’.
However, while the world chose to celebrate the great leadership skill of King, we allowed history to pass by one key part of that story – the name Bayard Rustin was systematically removed from the greatest story ever told of the black race.
Rustin was the strategist for King, he was the man behind the civil rights movement in America and he was the man that wrote the ‘I have a dream’ speech as delivered by King. But Rustin was relegated to the background, not just by King, but also by other civil rights activists just because of his sexuality.
The story of Rustin would have challenged and changed the whole discourse of ‘you can’t be black and gay’. It would have celebrated the brilliance and presence of black gay men. But we allowed it to pass us by.
So when I read gay magazines that still subtly promote the whole concept of homosexuality as being ‘white, blond, blue eyed’ I am not only angry, but feel betrayed and disappointed.
This is because I know that a face of a black LGBT role model will go a long way to prove to that little black boy and girl out there that they are not alone, that there are people like them with same sexual orientation, that being gay or lesbian is not about being white but about being human.
I look forward to when LGBT magazines will change their ways and not only have black or Asian stories when it comes to criminalization of same-sex behaviour but also when it comes to the beautiful things of life, like getting married. And you shouldn’t have to be a celebrity to make the front cover of a magazine. LGBT magazines should and must be about inspiring people and not about celebrity.
Bisi Alimi is a human rights campaigner who started his work in Nigeria in the late 90s before fleeing to the UK where he was granted asylum in 2008. He is a co-founder of the LGBT Kaleidoscope Trust where he serves as the director for Africa. He is also the convener of the Migrant African MSM Sexual Health Project, and project seeking to work with the African MSM community in the UK and Europe.