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"Let LGBT People Of Colour Speak For Themselves"

Photo: Getty
When it comes to TV, Hollywood films, newspapers, magazines... any media really... there tends to be a hierarchy in terms of representation; somewhere near the top you have the straight, white, cisgendered man; somewhere near the bottom, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of colour. This pecking order produces some complex problems, namely: If black and minority ethnic (BAME) LGBT communities aren’t present to have our voices heard, is there an expectation and acceptance that, sometimes, “allies” will have to speak for us?

The past two weeks have been a tumultuous, heartbreaking and incredibly difficult time for the LGBT community, particularly LGBT people of colour. In the early hours of the 12th of June, during Pride Month in the US, a gunman entered a gay club in Orlando, Florida and shot and killed 49 innocent people. The perpetrator, was – according to his father, as reported by NBC News – spurred on by homophobic feelings, deliberately singling out the Pulse nightclub, which was hosting its weekly Latinx club night.

Just hours after the shooting, white, openly gay journalist, author and political commentator Owen Jones stormed off Sky News during the channel’s newspaper review segment after host, Mark Longhurst, and fellow panellist, Julia Hartley-Brewer, both also white, attempted to deflect the fact that the shooter had deliberately targeted an LGBT establishment. What both Longhurst and Hartley-Brewer failed to notice was that, by trying to universalise the incident as an attack on, as they said, “the freedom of all people”, they were attempting to both whitewash and 'straight-splain' Orlando.

Over in the US, meanwhile, a vigil was held at the famous gay pub the Stonewall Inn in New York just days after the attack. Popstar Nick Jonas was invited to give a speech. The decision to include Jonas was a controversial one given his divisive position in the LGBT community. At an event to honour those that had lost their lives, many of whom were people of colour, the validity of having a straight, white, cisgendered male who is often accused of “queer-baiting” – that is, when public figures and the media deliberately trade on homoeroticism to entice the gay community – was questioned.
According to a report on Fusion, footage from the vigil saw the crowd chanting “say their names” in an attempt to draw focus away from Jonas, while Senior Politics Editor at the New York Observer, Jillian Jorgensen, claimed over Twitter that, as Jonas looked out into the crowd, a man yelled: “You see money!” This came as The Guardian reported that the Hispanic Federation had to hold a press conference to point out that, of those who lost their lives in the attack, 90% were Hispanic. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a representative of activist group Equality Florida, told the paper: “There has been a lot of scapegoating [...] I think what has been lost in that message is that this was an attack against the Latino community and the LGBT community.”
Dr Madison Moore is a Research Associate in the Department of English at King's College, University of London. His work focuses on queer studies, pop culture and the media. “As a queer person of colour, it is exhausting to try to bring people to my side of the picture, which is what you are always doing when you are queer, of colour, or both,” he sighs. “People who are in the majority – so cisgendered, male-bodied, straight and white – nearly never have to think about this.”

This, Dr Moore claims, feeds into a wider rhetoric surrounding representation and the media. Earlier this year, rapper and activist Mykki Blanco pointed out how there was a lack of BAME, as well as Latinx, cover stars on gay publications, utilising the hashtag “#gaymediasowhite”. Blanco highlighted how these publications would often favour straight, white cisgendered men, forging the variety of LGBT voices.

Take for example the recent cover of UK gay publication Attitude, which revealed Prince William as its star. In the accompanying article, the Prince comes out in support of LGBTQ+ issues, taking an anti-bullying stance. While the historical significance of the first royal appearing on an LGBT publication was applauded, the cover polarised members of the community.

Some claimed that William’s stance was admirable, and others that it just wasn’t enough. Journalist Hannah Jane Parksinson, writing in the Guardian, argued that the Prince’s appearance on the cover would only do good things in terms of having the future leader of the Commonwealth “speak out against anti-LGBT practices”. On Twitter, others complained that the cover wasn’t radical or representative enough.
Ryan Butcher, deputy editor of rival magazine Gay Times, while publicly disagreeing with Attitude’s choice of cover star, agreed that it can be easy to forget the impact of seeing straight allies advocating for gay rights can have on young LGBTQ+ people. “As the community takes time to grieve and heal [in the wake of Orlando], we need to look to our heterosexual brothers and sisters to help us out,” he told me. “We need straight allies to change the hearts and minds in their own heteronormative world...” As long as, he adds, they “don’t assimilate into our world and use it as an opportunity to sell a record, tick a box or make themselves feel better."

Allies might be one thing, but Dr Moore believes we need to focus on putting gay and BAME people on front covers. “The issue I have goes way beyond the lack of representation and the cultural repercussions of that invisibility,” he explains. “When you grow up not seeing yourself represented in media it can have detrimental effects on your self esteem, your sense of worth and place in a community that, on the surface, doesn't look like, care about or cater to you at all.” What Dr Moore is describing is a vicious cycle; when LGBT people of colour are not represented, we grow up believing there is no place for us.

Yusuf Tamanna, a 26-year-old gay South Asian man living in London agrees. “A few years ago when I wasn't out, I was very closeted. I don't think I cared about the LGBT community because I didn't feel a part of it,” he says. “I was hiding. I was on the outskirts of it. Now that I'm out and I have the confidence, I will challenge someone who says something to me. But I know a lot of South Asian men won't do that.”

Yusef's explains that a lack of of BAME LGBT voices isn't always down to white, straight people talking over us, but sometimes it's down to policing from within our own communities. When growing up, he says, many of his family members repeatedly discussed anti-gay feelings, with claims that “being gay is a white person problem”. He adds, “It's crazy to me that you have second and third generation South Asian people living in the UK that still harbour those opinions. But how you go about changing that, I don't know.”
Mahta Hassanzadeh, an out Iranian lesbian who works in music, had similar experiences growing up in a Middle Eastern community. “In Iran, same sex relations are illegal and unfortunately that has influenced the way my parents and how many other people of colour from similar cultures look at homosexuality,” she says. “This displays a lack of understanding around the social and cultural aspects of coming out to your family and friends.”

For Mahta, it’s these archaic views surrounding sexuality and gender that need to be addressed, along with how much white privilege “permeates, influences and dictates” BAME communities. “As long as white privilege exists in the way it does, BAME LGBT voices will never be clearly heard because they are not only fighting to be heard within the LGBT community but also within the BAME community,” she says. “There would be far more tolerance in these communities if we had successful figures like ourselves to point to, not just our gay white counterparts.”

The debate rages on about the extent to which BAME LGBT communities have the responsibility to break the cycle that silences them – a responsibility to make themselves heard. This is, after all, something that, while appearing to be objectively simple, is easier said than done. In terms of the media, to paraphrase Ghandi, change needs to happen from the inside. While obviously straight, white cisgender allies are important, those that occupy positions of prominence need to know when to step aside and let LGBT people of colour speak for themselves.

“BAME LGBTQ+ voices are woke,” says Dr Madison Moore. “The last thing we need in times of strength and community building is straightsplaining and whitesplaining.”