In 2019, 27- year-old activist Tanya Compas was facing her first Christmas without her family. After a falling out, Tanya found herself homeless, sofa surfing with friends and grappling with what Christmas would look like without the normal trappings of her home.
Instead of sitting in a pool of despair, like many of us would do, she decided to use her own sadness as a catalyst to help others. She realised that she couldn’t be the only queer black person facing a Christmas without her family and so, she created Queer Black Christmas, a Christmas Day celebration built especially for her community.
“I fundraised for it online. I was only aiming to get £200 but I got like £7k,” she explains, “It was so much work finding venues, hiring furniture, recruiting people, buying supplies and getting stuff sponsored; it was like my entire career had been preparing for this moment.”
Tanya was, indeed, perfectly equipped to stage Queer Black Christmas, an event that was such a success she is now making it an annual occurunce. Tanya has dedicated her entire career to youth work, working for years delivering programming to young girls in South London, constantly searching for physical space to host them, constantly building communities just like Queer Black Christmas.
It’s why she prefers the term “community builder” to activist, a descriptor she feels better encompasses what is at the heart of everything she does. And for her, much like the catalyst that created Queer Black Christmas, it’s personal.
“The more that I’ve grown and built my identity and grown with my community; the more I have felt indebted to queer black people,” she says, “There’s not a huge amount out there for us and most of the space that does exist is all built around clubbing. What people need to do is share resources; space or people to deliver workshops and create sober spaces too. I came out when I was 23 and I yearned for these platonic relationships in the community which I just couldn’t make on the clubscene.”
“When I put together some of these events, for some people, it’s the first time they’ve ever been around other queer black people. That is so important for me,” she explains, “I have learnt so much about myself from being around other queer black people. These spaces are so integral, but these spaces need funding.”
Fundraising is, however, something that Tanya is eye-wateringly successful at. After leveraging her social media platform to beat her target for Queer Black Christmas, she set up the Exist Loudly Fund in June. Now a registered charity, it was originally a fundraiser to support the needs of young people in the queer black community, from monthly workshops, mentoring projects and fun activities, to physical supplies, like breast binders. She set a target of £10k. She has raised, at last count, £110k.
“I cannot believe how much we raised! It means we can actually do some real work now,” she says, “We are working on projects to help queer young people be more independent, because for so many of us, being queer or trans means you may have to leave your family home when you don’t want to. For many people that can be so hard- how do you cook good meals, how can you do budgeting, how can you build stuff, put up shelves? Little things all add up and are important. We are providing help for all these things. This is the real work that needs to be done, that goes beyond the performative allyship we see on social media.”
Tanya sees social media as a double-edged sword. Though she admits it was her social presence (23.6k followers on instagram and counting) that allowed her to fundraise so spectacularly, she is acutely aware of the shallowness of activism online.
“I think my fund did so well because, in the midst of Black Lives Matter, people are actually watching. To be unapologetically black and queer now I think really gets people engaged,” she explains, “ But this engagement goes one of two ways. You can actually make a choice to engage in the work that’s been done and educate yourself. But then there is the other kind of person who feels it is better to be seen to be doing something than to do nothing. That becomes Empty Allyship.”
“Social media can be used to create social good, but that comes with a lot of responsibility. when it can translate into something tangible like donations or real learning, then it’s a powerful tool,” she adds.
Tanya says she has seen brands reaching out to black creatives – almost profiting from the situation – but wanting them to work for free. Or, brands have started initiatives, without researching to find out if there is an existing group in the black community which is already doing the work, and might need their help. For Tanya, a boots-on-the-ground community builder who does the hard graft behind the gram, it’s the work you do unseen that matters. And often, it’s about putting your money where your mouth is.
“When I am asked to be in campaigns and stuff, sure, its representation and that’s important, but I’d much rather say to that brand: hey, why don’t you donate £10k to sponsor a community event or help existing grassroots organisations?” she explains.
Yet she is hopeful that this current moment feels different; perhaps the perfect storm of lockdown, BLM and social media has kept the discussions moving.
“I think through this I have become a lot more unapologetic and more sure of myself. I think I’ve just become more confident at saying; don’t ask me to do something for free and at repeating the fact that black, trans and queer lives still matter,” she says, though she worries about the dust settling; “I am still getting booked for jobs now – but ask me again in 2 months time if I’m doing anything outside of my care work. We are so used to working within seasons- pride, black history month- people only seem to care within those seasons. Everything becomes an exercise in tick boxes. But people like me consistently work in these communities all year round and not just because people are watching. The most important action happens when no one is watching.”
For Tanya, whether the black squares fade and the caring dies down online or not, she will still be working in this space, she will still be building communities, still be fighting that good fight. And one of the most important battles she is waging is – quite simply- for joy.
“So many people think that the only time to bring people together is trauma or protesting the deaths of black people,” she says, “I think we can and should be brought together and create joy, and find pockets of happiness together. I hope we can show with Exist Loudly, the real power that can come from spaces of joy.”
Find out more about Exist Loudly Fund at https://uk.gofundme.com/f/exist-loudly-fund-to-support-queer-black-yp