This February marks LGBT+ history month. It comes at a time when public and political support for the advancement of the rights of this community seems to have stalled or even be in decline. Moreover, in both LGBTQ+ spaces and across wider society, racial intolerance and islamophobia remain prevalent. Rohit K Dasgupta looks at how projects to amplify minoritised voices can be a force for positive change.
It is LGBT+ history month again and like each year we have seen a wave of rainbow flags and performative gestures by big organisations affirming their support and allyship with the LGBT+ community in the United Kingdom. The stakes have never been higher for the LGBT+ community. We have seen a steep rise of homophobia and transphobia not just in the UK but also globally. It is a stark reminder that rights are far from permanent and if the UK’s example is one to go by then it takes very little to shift public opinion on a vital equality issue.
The stakes have never been higher for the LGBT+ community.
The fight against section 28 was hard fought and it took a lot of convincing, public engagement and education before it finally became a relic of the near-distant past. It would be worthwhile to point out that this fight did not just take place on the green benches of Parliament but a lot of it came down to grassroots organising which finally pushed it onto the mainstream party-political agenda.
As a queer scholar of colour, I have often found myself in a fraught space navigating structural racism within Britain’s mainstream spaces including queer spaces, which, far from celebrating differences, have often continued to perpetuate stereotypes of racism and islamophobia. In a previous research project, I argued that queer Muslim subjectivity in this country is situated in the margins of wider queer culture where the onus is on queer people of colour to disavow their racial and faith identities to gain access to certain spaces. In such a framing, to be brown or of Muslim/Sikh/Hindu faith is to be viewed as backwards, as someone who will always be “out of place” and not quite belonging.
Drawing from diaspora experiences
More recently I have just completed a multi-year project with Dr Churnjeet Mahn on South Asian queer migration to the UK, where we recorded around 30 oral histories across different generations to yield new knowledge about what the lived experience of LGBTQ+ people of South Asian origin has been in Britain. Queer people of colour have often found their lives heavily structured through discussions around securitisation, especially following the 9/11 attacks in the US and 7/7 in the UK.
We also found the role of culture and cultural production was very important with rich histories of transnational organising happening across Britain and North America. Examples include festivals such as Desh Pradesh and creative outputs from a range of artists such as Ian Iqbal Rashid, Parminder Sekhon, Sunil Gupta and Pratibha Parmar, to name just a few. Political Blackness and Black activism provided an important space for a lot of South Asian queer artists to make important work challenging whiteness and heteropatriarchy influenced by anti-capitalist class politics.
The role of policy-makers and especially local authorities is quite important. Sunil Gupta, for example, in his interviews recounted the progressive policies enacted by the Greater London Council which awarded several community grants to artists and projects supporting minority groups. In his own prolific body of work, Gupta, who worked between Canada, the UK and India documents some of the most significant moments of queer history – gay liberation in New York, the impact of Section 28 in Britain and the fight to decriminalise homosexuality in India.
Latent and overt racism persists in queer culture
Queer people of colour remain marginalised, facing racism from LGBTQ+ venues. In a VICE article from last year, Ben Hunte reports how queer people of Black, Asian and Latinx heritage have been called slurs and often blocked from entering venues because of their race. This chimes with my own research where queer individuals of South Asian origin have reported not just facing racism from mainstream spaces but often also homophobia from their own communities.
This is of course not a homogenous story and there is a diversity of experiences. There is often a strong desire and call for visibility that in itself is part of a larger neoliberal queer assimilation project. Often social progress in this case is measured by securing rights to marriage and adoption while erasing issues of oppression and social injustice faced by queer people of colour and those from working class backgrounds. I am not saying that visibility does not matter – in fact it very much does, but there is often a paucity in the kinds of visibility being championed.
Earlier this week, Jasvir Singh, a prominent gay Sikh voice, declared how he had been facing intimidation and threats for being gay and despite never hiding his sexuality, had felt compelled to now talk about it publicly and share his story in his own terms. He rightly challenges the argument that faith and sexuality are often exclusive. Similarly, in an editorial some years ago, Asifa Lahore, a well-known South Asian drag artist, described being censored when she tried to talk about being a proud Muslim who also identified as queer. In an interview with the project team, she described her struggle with mental health, the importance of religion and confronting bigotry.
Local authorities play a crucial role
As a local councillor in the London Borough of Newham, I have experienced first-hand the importance of community and the role local authorities can play in terms of policy and strategies when it comes to combating hate and bigotry. I was proud to have played a small role in Newham becoming the first borough in the country to proudly fly the inclusive progress flag on LGBT+ History Month to celebrate the diversity that makes up this borough. in 2019, when anti-LGBT leaflets were distributed outside schools, the council took a robust position in calling out the rise of homophobia and challenging protestors spreading misinformation about inclusive relationships and sex education.
Local programming for events such as South Asian Heritage Month, Black History Month and LGBT+ History Month has always been inclusive so that no part of our identities are siloed. Last year I chaired a discussion on Queer Migration and Intersectional Activism with scholars, artists and activists. Newham also hosts the Forest Gayte Pride which, since its inception in 2017, has grown to become a valuable community asset creating safe spaces, offering support and undertaking public engagement and outreach.
We currently face the devastating impact of the cost-of-living crisis with public services being decimated, increasing gender and racial pay gaps and attacks on our educational spaces. Inclusive LGBTQ+ spaces are being vandalised.
Policy cannot be effective if formulated for tokenistic performative reasons.
But it is not all doom and gloom. The government in Wales is planning to make it easier for individuals to legally change their gender by simplifying the process asking for devolved powers, and a long-awaited ban on conversion therapy seems set to be announced imminently. Wellbeing and happiness must be the priority of local initiatives and the primary markers of progress, as has been the case in Newham. Policy cannot be effective if formulated for tokenistic performative reasons. Rather, it must empower our communities to thrive, build resilience and celebrate their diversity.
Image credit: Photo by Anete Lusine via Pexels.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.