lifestyle

I was told to decide whether I was Black or a lesbian


As lesbians, we felt it was important that we had our own identity and that we were seen (Picture: Skittles)

It was the summer of 1985, a week before the main Pride march in central London.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I wore a bright pink ballgown – we had a message, but it was also a cause for celebration, too.

About 200 women, including myself, were on the Lesbian Strength march – and though it was a fraction of the crowd that would show up the following weekend, the energy of the atmosphere could be felt all around.

We felt it was important that we had our own identity and that we were seen.

At that time, being on the street as a group of lesbians took a lot more courage than when we walked as part of a big, very vibrant mixed Pride march. The marches were quite small in those days because it wasn’t easy.

But I think it had a much greater impact on the community; the people that we passed were more affected by seeing these groups of women.

Me and my friend – who’s carrying one side of the banner in the picture above – happened to be the only Black people there. In the space of 90 minutes, we were asked if we were on the right march about four times – we weren’t what people expected when they thought of lesbians, you see. But that made it all the more important that we were there.

This picture is just a snapshot of my life in the 1980s, when I was dedicating all of my free time to activism. After coming out in the late 1970s, I just wanted to be myself fully – and part of that meant helping other people be who they wanted to be.

After a gay colleague at my job told me about volunteering for a helpline specifically for our community, I signed up right away. Nowadays, you may know of it as Switchboard, but at the time, it was called Gay Switchboard – the biggest advice source for LGBT+ people.

I wasn’t just a lesbian, I was Black, and that had a real impact on my experience (Picture: Skittles)

At least one shift a week, I’d be part of a team answering calls from queer people with questions. You had to be ready to answer calls about anything.

One call would be from someone who wanted to come out; the next from someone whose friend is gay; another call could be from a person whose work found out that they’re gay and they’re in trouble, and then there’d be a caller looking for advice on what to wear to a club night.

As time went on, I was involved with recruiting and training new volunteers, before spending some time as the chair of the organisation.

I was so involved in activism, because, in some ways, it felt like my duty. If there was a demonstration, I’d be on it. If there was a way of trying to get the media to respond to a particular cause, I’d be writing letters and turning up on TV – I wanted our voices to be heard.

Not long after I started volunteering for Switchboard, I had a part in founding the country’s first Black Lesbian group. It came out of a chance meeting at a Black women’s conference, held in London. There was a workshop taking place that was specifically about being Black, being a woman and being a lesbian – I’d never seen those three things being discussed in a forum, with several hundred people present, before.

I remember thinking, ‘This is great!’ Those of us who were there at that time decided that it was a space that we’d like to nurture and continue, and so the Black Lesbian group grew from there.

We began to meet monthly at women’s centres across London. Women hitchhiked and travelled up and down the country to come along to those meetings. We offered support services, we answered letters and visited women who were isolated and couldn’t make the meetings. It was really exciting.

While the black and white version captured the importance of the event and our adventures there, the colour captures the joy (Picture: Skittles)

On the day the picture was taken, it felt a bit like a responsibility to be marching, specifically with a banner for Black lesbians. It was important for me because I wasn’t just a lesbian, I was Black, and that had a real impact on my experience.

For one, it meant a lot of rushing about between awareness meetings. I’d be involved in lesbian events, creating a newsletter, and then rushing off to a meeting full of Black people, struggling for racial equality.

Once, I was a little bit late to the Black meeting, coming from the lesbian meeting and a man said to me: ‘You’re going to have to make up your mind, whether you’re a lesbian, or whether you’re Black.’ I thought, ‘It doesn’t quite work like that.’

But that was quite common; people thought you were one thing or another. Another time, me and my friend, another Black lesbian, turned up to a club’s gay night. We got to the door, and the bouncer looked at us and said: ‘It’s not Soul Night, you know?’ It just didn’t occur to him that we’d be coming into a gay club.

People weren’t nasty, they were just puzzled, because it wasn’t what they usually saw. That’s a reason why visibility, and inclusion, are so important to me.

Not just as a person living a lesbian lifestyle, but also as a professional, I’ve wanted to make a difference; make things easier for people like me to be exactly who we are.

As lesbians and gay men, especially as we go back a bit, often we’ve been erased (Picture: Skittles)

Going to demonstrations like the Lesbian Strength march felt like a responsibility. You have to get up and get out there; you have to be seen – not just to educate the wider community, but to show young Black lesbians in particular, that this is a way they could be.

For years, I’ve seen the picture from the march in black and white – and it’s powerful. But now, seeing it in colour as part of Skittles’ Recolour The Rainbow campaign, along with Switchboard, Gay Times, and Queer Britain, it brings back the heat of the day.

While the black and white version captured the importance of the event and our adventures there, the colour captures the joy.

As lesbians and gay men, especially as we go back a bit, often we’ve been erased, sanitised, overlooked, marginalised.

Looking back and seeing validation of your past gives you validation of your present. If you know that others came before you, it gives you the reassurance that you have the right to be where you are.

I’d encourage any LGBT+ person who might have a picture of a pivotal moment of their past, or even an everyday photo with some joy in it to think about submitting it for the campaign, via the website.

It’s an opportunity to put your bit of personal experience into history – where we deserve to be.

As told to Nicole Vassell

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk

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