In the summer of 2015, I attended UK Black Pride (an annual event celebrating African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Caribbean-heritage LGBTQI+ people). It is one of the few places where I feel truly among family. My difference as a queer person of colour disappears in the sea of black and brown faces dancing in the sunshine – jumping around to the likes of Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack and Jazzy Jeff’s Summertime; songs that also bring back memories of London in the 90s, the London of my teens.
I come from a working-class, multicultural, east London community, but, after graduating from university, I also graduated to the middle classes. At UK Black Pride, I was reminded how far away I now felt from that world and, in that instant, recognised why love seemed to elude me. I dated men from my “circle”: men I’d met working as a lawyer or through university friends. Men who were middle class. Men who were often (but not always) white.
My biggest reservation about dating someone like this was the lack of shared heritage and what it meant for my identity. As a minority, there were few examples of cultural heritage that I could really own. Before Walthamstow was overrun by high-end bakeries and microbreweries, it was home to garage music, R&B raves and Europe’s longest street market, serving the many different flavours of street foods that reflected the background of its inhabitants. This was my heritage and, surrounded by R&B music and vendors selling jerk chicken and chicken tikka once again at UK Black Pride, I knew this was what I had to offer someone. If a potential mate could exist in this subculture, stand at this intersection, in celebration of being a minority within a minority, then we might just work. I began to daydream of sharing this moment with someone, of dancing with such a man, rather than on my own.
The next year, I returned to the same event – but this time I’d invited a date. We had met a couple of months earlier in a bar and I had been instantly charmed by his Irish accent and kind eyes. As a Catholic, raised in the shadow of the Troubles, he was able to recognise what it meant to live in a society whose structures were not built to support you. Over a short space of time, I felt increasingly able to be myself around him and inviting him to UK Black Pride felt like a test of sorts.
The first thing that surprised me was his dancing. “Irish boy got moves!” I thought to myself. He was one of the few white faces in the crowd, but seemed entirely unfazed, and I was impressed by his grasp of lyrics to even the most obscure R&B tracks. I watched him join the crowd of people cheering at the DJ, throwing out old-school summer song requests. Spending that afternoon together, it felt like my daydream from a year ago had come true, and I wanted to remain in the warmth of that peaceful sunshine for ever.
“That’s got to be the best party in London,” he said on the way home. Although it would be a few more weeks before I’d summon the courage to say the words aloud, that was the first moment I knew I loved him – not because of his taste in music or because he could dance (although, honestly, I’m not sure I could be with someone who lacked rhythm), but because he was able to exist so easily in my world, and helped me to feel more content there too. If it weren’t for Covid, this man would now be my husband (it is still on the cards but, perhaps unsurprisingly, not until people can dance at weddings) – but if it weren’t for UK Black Pride, a community that taught me to celebrate my difference, I’m not sure I could have known to ask him to marry me in the first place.
A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi is out now, published by Vintage.