Off the back of LGBTQ+ History Month (February) and to kick off International Women’s Month (March), Kadie Kposowa reflects on her journey to acceptance of her multiple identities. Too often as black women we are expected to ‘choose’ between race, gender, and our sexuality, despite these intersections being inextricably linked to one another.
But I who am bound by my mirroras well as my bedsee causes in colouras well as sex
and sit here wonderingwhich me will surviveall these liberations.
Black. Gay. Woman.
Standing in this seemingly very small grey area of a three-way Venn diagram has been a journey that has taken me to places both physically and mentally I never thought I would go to. I’ve noticed it’s been a constant ‘toning down’ of one element within different situations, just to avoid unwanted friction. I have learned that, to be safe, I have to continually negotiate different parts of myself, and it feels rather like deciding what to wear.
Being black is difficult enough, being a black woman is even more stigmatised, but to be a black, gay woman is a minefield in British society. My parents came to Britain before I was born, hoping I would grow up in an environment where more opportunities than they could have dreamed of would be within my grasp. As soon as I started primary school, my mother began making me aware that stigma existed, that stereotypes existed, that I could not expect society to acknowledge me for all I had to contribute, just because of parts of me I could never hope to change. The one phrase I heard time and time again just encapsulates this experience ‘you have to work twice as hard as them to achieve the same thing’. There will be people who read this and hear an echo from their own childhoods. I was aware, but not completely, that there were barriers, that struggle would always be on my plate, be it because I was a girl or because I am black. I had to be the best at everything, my mother insisted, or I would be dismissed as a child of immigrants, expected to fall into a stereotypical abyss of worthlessness. For a time I hated being black. Those words sound like blasphemy to me now but back then all I saw was restraint. I couldn’t do the things my white friends did because I would always be looked at with a different eye. I felt more British than African but my mother was quick to remind me that ‘you may have been born here, but your name makes you different. Your face makes you different. You speak like them but you look different to them and they will never like you for it’. I felt like I was being held over a fire. Either you defy them and succeed, or you burn just as they think you will. It took me a long time to experience this kind of prejudice first hand, and to be perfectly honest with you, nothing could have prepared me for the bitter realisation that everything was just as my mother told me, if not worse. Funnily enough though, I never seemed to be affected by the media’s whitewashing of beauty standards. Looking back now, I’m able to attribute this to the attitude of my parents.
Naomi Campbell was god to me, I absolutely idolised her. I wanted to be her, I wanted to be Scary Spice, and I wanted to be Oprah Winfrey. Womanhood was definitely something I was taught to draw strength from. I was brought up by a woman who worked on raising me and simultaneously studied for a Masters degree. My mother was adept at showing me that life wasn’t going to be as easy for me as it would for a white woman, but she always insisted that I could reach any level if I worked myself to the bone. The same went for my father. If there was anything I wanted to try, he was up for it. I could always count on him encouraging me, egging me on to do what I wanted and to enjoy it at the same time. Being a young black woman in 21st century Britain would be undoubtedly so much harder without the support system I was raised with. It’s like having a skin of bulletproof confidence. I don’t apologise for my blackness. I am black. Anyone who underestimates me because of this is stupid. Today I realise that simply by existing, I am defying an entire system. A system that wants to grind me into the ground, a system that thrives on denying me my humanity, and a system that praises almost everything I am not. This means that every day I live is a fight. Thanks to the power of the Internet, I have accepted that my blackness is political. Every hashtag, every article and every campaign concerning black people is now relevant to me.
Most recently, I was pointed in the direction of a campaign initiated by Chardine Taylor-Stone, in which she calls out what one website coined as ‘Racism in the Rainbow’. This phrase is incredibly apt. A lot of white LGBT+ people seem to think that because they are also marginalized by society, they can somehow understand what it’s like to be black as well. Let me tell you now, if I had a penny for every single time a white gay man told me they get how I feel being black and gay, you can figure out the rest. Chardine’s campaign highlights a drag queen who performs under the alias ‘Laquisha Jonez’ (I honestly wish I was joking). Just imagine every stereotype surrounding black women and that is pretty much the act. This kind of thing makes it difficult to feel comfortable to assume a secure state of mind sometimes. Reading the comments about it on various sites continually proves what I feel as a black gay woman: spaces are not just afforded to me, I have to fight to carve them and I have to fight to keep them safe.
My teenage years were a period of restlessness. I was lost in the folds of puberty, for one thing, and I realised I might well be gay. The time lapse between me coming out to myself and coming out to everyone else is about eight years. I struggled to find a space within my mind where I could just be at peace with being gay. Attending a Church of England all-girls school didn’t help either. We were all growing up and finding our feet but we all knew what the ‘norm’ was and trying to break off from it was often just not worth the risk. Looking back now, I can accept I had a minor identity crisis. I hadn’t even heard the word ‘lesbian’ before I turned thirteen. Harbouring attractions to girls in my year was such a source of shame for me that I tried immensely hard to keep out of my mind. I thought my romantic interest in women meant I was supposed to be a boy. Soon it was dreams and fantasies of magically removing my breasts and declaring my name was Calvin (Kevin and Keith were definitely out). Further along the line I decided this wasn’t plausible. I then embarked on a “I totally love boys, I’m so straight” venture. I found myself a couple of suitable male celebrities to crush on and fangirl over in order to try to fit in with the other girls. It was a glaring alarm that I selected Lewis Hamilton over flavour-of-the-day Chris Brown and the fact that I was devoted to Cesc Fabregas was a shambles considering hardly any girls could recognise football players, let alone consider them dream-husband material. But I kept with it. I met a boy who asked me for my number (still not over it) and we dated for approximately two weeks before I realised that my ultimate goal of getting married to a guy, bearing his children and just never coming out was on the verge of impossible. From then it was all about building up the courage to say to myself “I am gay, and I am okay with that”.
To deal with the mental strain I threw myself into being a Christian. I went to church and became more and more active within it, eventually becoming an altar girl and doing Scripture readings on a regular basis. As luck would have it, the first adult I came out to was my priest, when I was 17. He had revealed himself to be gay during a sermon only a week before. This was the culmination of a C4 documentary being made about this whole process for him. Watching him stand before his congregation and challenge their religious attitudes convinced me that I didn’t have to hide for the rest of my life. Father Ray came out to himself aged 23. This was followed by the demon of alcoholism, and his struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his identity drove him to attempt suicide at least three times. Priesthood was his salvation. Christ provided to him a safety he hadn’t found anywhere else. Even now, remembering that sermon brings me to tears. Ray spoke of the ignorance he had witnessed within the Church and he felt he could not call himself a disciple of Christ if he chose to stand in silence while people just like him were persecuted. That Sunday, I bawled my eyes out about how hard it was, how my parents were going to hate me, and he was absolutely compassionate in his response. He offered to speak to my mother, and I felt obligated to refuse. I was conscious that he, a middle aged white man, just wouldn’t be able to connect properly with a single black mother. It was interesting to see how the congregation reacted to his story. Sure, many people agreed that the Christian thing to do was to accept Ray and to love him as Christ would. But in confidence, the whispers went round. There appeared to be a thick tension in the Church. Within three years, Ray left and he now works as a chaplain.
At the age of sixteen I began dating my first girlfriend – she was an integral part of me coming out. She gave me the courage to believe that there really was nothing wrong with me, and that I wasn’t hard to love, I just had to let it through. I loved her but I couldn’t show it on many levels. Out on the street together, I wouldn’t hold her hand for fear someone I knew would see us and betray me to my mother. The most upsetting thing was to know that colour and culture would forever be an obstacle for us. Her family were kind and generous towards me, and accepting of our relationship. There was no hope that it would be the same for my family. None. To my parents, it was a double blow. “Mum, Dad, I’m gay…and my girlfriend’s white”. Being with a white girl felt like I was betraying my heritage, almost denying myself. I even encountered a black man in public who kept staring at an ex-girlfriend and I, and when I confronted him, he revealed he didn’t care about a same-sex relationship, it was the fact that we were mixing blood that was despicable. Our relationship was like a horrendously warped version of puppy love. We also had to deal with hiding our relationship at school. We spent all our time together but acted as if we were just good friends. It was hard imagining I would ever be in a relationship where everyone around me knew and was accepting of it. To cut a very long short, I think the pressures I felt surrounding me being black and her being white on top of the fact it was a same-sex relationship put a strain on things. It was a bitter pill to swallow. We had been together for two years before my mother found out.
Her initial reaction surprised me. Where I expected anger, I received logical reasoning behind my attraction to girls. “It’s because your father wasn’t really around. You’ve grown up around women and that’s what you know” as well as “We’ve all been there, it’s just a phase, you’ll see”. When I insisted that it was something I had been dealing with for a long time, the rage arrived. It seems the support system I’d grown up with concerning my blackness was being pulled from beneath my feet because I was gay.
I mentioned religion before. Nine times out of ten, being African usually means religion surrounds you in many avenues of life. It was stifling a lot of the time. This time it was venom. Religion drove my mother to send me home to Sierra Leone for an exorcism, intended to ‘cleanse’ me and straighten me out (pun wholly intended).
The main thing my mother kept insisting on was that being gay was a ‘Western thing’, something the white man brought to Africa to destroy our traditions and societal structures. The irony of the colonisers using religion to make us submissive contrasted with the fact that Africans now use it to oppress one another is not lost on me, but that’s another story for another day. It was this rhetoric that had me believing there was no hope for my validation. So engrossed in believing she was correct, my mother told me that “gay people don’t exist in Africa”. To some extent, she’s right. To keep themselves safe, they have had to make themselves invisible.
In my mother tongue, Mende, there doesn’t even seem to be a word that equates to being gay. It doesn’t appear to be anything that someone might consider. Even now, I struggle with being African and being a lesbian. I would love to go and live in Sierra Leone when I am older, but how can I do that? I can’t take my wife back home and live with her openly. There is no space for me as I am in Sierra Leone. When I was sent back there, regardless of the bad things that happened to me, I felt like I belonged. In two weeks, I felt more accepted than I have done in eighteen years as a Londoner. In this aspect, I feel completely isolated. My current girlfriend can’t understand how that feels, because it just doesn’t apply to her.
A couple of months ago, I read about someone called Fannyann Eddy. In her work, she directly addressed the issues I worry about when I think about living back home. Fannyann was born in 1974 in Sierra Leone. In 2002 she set up the Sierra Leone Gay and Lesbian Association, advocating for the rights of LGBT+ people not just in Sierra Leone, but across Africa. She addressed the UN, arguing that the biggest danger to LGBT+ Africans was the consistent refusal by their governments to acknowledge them. She rightly contested that without recognising the existence of the LGBT population, leaders could conveniently avoid the question of their rights and their place in society. Fannyann was eventually killed by the hatred she sought to undo. In 2004, she was attacked by a group of men who beat her, raped her and broke her neck. Yes, I could have emitted all those terms and just stated that she was killed, but there’s a blind comfort in feeling disconnected from the violence inflicted on her. I do not feel disconnected from that. I feel that if I am to die because of my identity, it is likely to be in a similar fashion. Such is the power that men exert in a patriarchal society, and what happened to Fannyann is a very real and very clear threat. Unsurprisingly, no one has ever been arrested for her murder, with Sierra Leonean police doing their best to assert that they cannot label the crime as homophobic. It is this that underlines Fannyann’s point in her UN address, ‘silence creates vulnerability’. The unwavering message I feel I receive from society is that I am invisible.
Most of the time it’s hard to be optimistic, but there are points to be proud of and to take hope from. For the first time I heard about Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, otherwise known as Lady Phyll, a black gay woman who refused an MBE this year. She did so because of the persecution of LGBT+ individuals across the Commonwealth, suffering as a direct result of laws implemented by the British Empire. She described herself as a working-class girl and an out black African lesbian. I read those words and felt my inner self say “that’s you”. This resonates with me entirely and I felt like my voice was heard through Lady Phyll. I felt represented. I can only imagine how much more empowered I would have felt had I known someone like her was out there to look up to. Someone who faces the same adversities I do on almost every level. When I was growing up there were a few black women I could call role models, but none of them were gay. I only found out Tracy Chapman was queer when I was 17, and her album was forever being played around the house when I was little. I only ever saw queer white people, and even then, it wasn’t something they normalized. It is somewhat a sting to have to feel that even in LGBT+ spaces, I have to work to feel accepted.
I will say though, that smaller networks and communities have created a chink of light and shown me that I am not isolated. There is so much more to do though, because the Internet isn’t the whole world. It has allowed for more discussion and opportunities for people to re-evaluate previous ignorance and prejudice. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I do doubt I’d feel so empowered without these alliances. I’ve come to see that spaces were I can safely and entirely be myself won’t just be afforded to me courteously by society or by people I think should be on my side. The goal is to be that role model I needed when I was growing up. It would all be worth it to know that just one person out there might read this and find the resilience to keep being who they are, especially someone who shares my experiences. It’s all about getting all the tools available to me and helping to create platforms where black people, women, and LGBT+ people are visible and are vocal.