Natasha Joibi interviews members of the LGBTQ+ community to discuss the need for wider queer POC representation.
When EastEnders introduced its first Muslim lesbian character, Iqra Ahmed, last year, it marked a huge step forward towards promoting diverse LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream media. Similarly, when Taiwanese LGBTQ+ rights advocate Weng Yu Ching was named one of five young leaders driving change in Asia in 2019, it signified a call to action for budding activists to defy the stereotype that East Asians are quiet, passive and submissive.
For queer people of colour (POC) inhabiting the intersection of various systems of oppression, greater and more diverse LGBTQ+ representation helps them feel less alone. No one understands this better than Indigo Korres from the Students Representative Council (SRC), who believes that it is important to provide a safe space for queer POC to just be themselves. In her capacity as the SRC’s LGBTQ+ Equality Officer, Indigo has initiated several programmes to help foster a stronger sense of belonging among queer POC, who may sometimes feel excluded from Glasgow’s predominantly white LGBTQ+ community.
She recounted her own experience of feeling like she had to “tone down” her Brazilian identity in some queer spaces just so she could easily fit in with the others.
“As a trans woman of colour, when the only thing you have in common with the community is your LGBTQ+ identity … you don’t really feel part of that community. I live with another trans person of colour to whom I can easily talk about experiences such as being on the receiving end of xenophobia. It’s more comfortable talking about this with my flatmate compared to others who may not understand,” she explained.
Knowing full well the struggles faced by people with intersectional identities, Indigo encouraged queer Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) students to attend the bi-weekly LGBTQ+ POC coffee sessions held on campus. The sessions - jointly organised by the Glasgow University BAME Society and Glasgow University LGBTQ+ Society - represent a safe space for queer POC to socialise with others in similar dispositions and feel comfortable in their own skin.
While she contends that there is still more work to be done to promote inclusivity in the LGBTQ+ community, Indigo commended the efforts of some lecturers and staff who are doing their best to decolonise the curriculum and ensure that there is diverse queer representation.
For example, educators and staff participated in the most recent “Pronoun Pledge” initiative introduced by the College of Arts to make it more comfortable for students to be themselves in class. This, in effect, makes the academic experience more enjoyable for students and motivates them to study. The Pronoun Pledge initiative is part of the “LGBT in the Classroom” workshop, usually facilitated by Dr Amanda Sykes (World-Changing Glasgow Transformation Team) and Mx Nicole Kipar (Learning Enhancement Academic Development Service). This workshop provides an opportunity to start understanding why it is important to make the classroom inclusive and suggests simple ways that could make a big difference.
Religion is another axis which intersects with the identities of many LGBTQ+ individuals. Despite losing friends after coming out as bisexual, Hafsa Qureshi - who works for the Ministry of Justice in Birmingham - continues to play an important role in helping increase the visibility of queer people of colour and faith. At a time when the LGBTQ+ rights movement is increasingly criticised for being whitewashed and gay-centred, efforts to boost the visibility of queer POC and highlight their contributions to the movement are a welcome change.
For queer POC whose social environments prevent them from coming out, having their intersectional identities represented in the media is also a much-needed reminder that they are not alone in their struggles. According to LGBT equality charity Stonewall, the intersectional identities of queer POC make them vulnerable to discrimination from multiple groups in the society. As a result, they may feel isolated from their communities and risk having their mental health affected by this sense of exclusion.
Osman is a member of Hidayah, which is a national organisation for LGBTQI+ Muslims in the United Kingdom. Growing up in a predominantly Pakistani community in Scotland, Osman was not able to find anyone in the LGBTQ+ scene who looked like him. After spending his formative years in the closet, he faced racial discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community just as he was starting to explore his sexuality outside of Scotland.
“I left Scotland and traveled all the way to London so that I could never be outed. I remember wearing my best clothes to the first bar I went to because I wanted to impress. Two guys approached me and the first thing they said was, 'we don’t do P*kis here’. That was my first experience of racism within the LGBT community. After that experience, I got so upset I took an eight-hour bus ride home. I went back to the community that, in my opinion, was my community … the Asian Muslim community. Although they didn’t accept me, I had to go back,” he lamented.
Osman noted that there has been a rise in queer POC representation in the media over the past five years, with films like Moonlight (2016) enjoying success with mainstream audiences and receiving a string of awards.
“Now that might not be a big thing to other people. But it is to someone like me, who hadn’t had a role model from my community. Now you have TV shows like Coronation Street and EastEnders portraying characters who are brown and LGBT. That is really powerful, but it only just happened in recent years,” he said.
LGBT Unity Scotland is a group that provides support to LGBT refugees, asylum-seekers, and other migrants. Group coordinator Solomon Bright Adebayo also agreed that diverse queer representation was important for people who have intersectional identities to feel more included in the LGBTQ+ community.
Solomon fled to the United Kingdom from Nigeria in the late 1990s after almost being beaten to death because of his sexuality. His partner was tragically killed in the attack. Having survived the traumatic event, it took a long time for Solomon to settle in his new environment and to be open about his sexuality. But with help and acceptance from his friends and church, Solomon can live his life as a gay man without fear of reprisals.
“Being LGBT in Glasgow and Scotland is fantastic. They welcome us and let us know that we are in a safe space. They do everything to guide and protect us from discrimination,” he said of the LGBTQ+ community in Scotland.
“Here I can hold my boyfriend’s hand while walking down the street. This is something I cannot do in Africa. I can be myself here,” he related. For Solomon, living in a city which allows him to be openly gay is a privilege that comes with the responsibility of speaking out against hate and ignorance.
When he defended Bobrisky (a Nigerian transgender woman and internet personality) on Facebook, Solomon received a barrage of cyber-threats from strangers who continued to harass him on his personal page. However, he remains undeterred in continuing to speak up for the LGBTQI+ community: “Being here in the UK, I can help people and speak up for them. I can educate others if what they are doing is not right.”