As a member of the LGBTQ community, I remember feeling limited in the places I could study abroad. New York University (NYU) has a lavish second campus in Abu Dhabi, located on a trendy island and filled to the brim with oil-financed amenities. Yet, the campus feels absolutely off limits to me. United Arab Emirates has tough discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community. London was a safe pick. I wonder sometimes though, if places like Abu Dhabi and Accra, Ghana were less discriminatory and actually wanted people like me there, would I have still chose London?
Britain (not including Ireland) legalized same-sex marriage in 2014. As a gay male, I feel the same in London as I do in New York City: safe. London also has a visible gay pride scene. The most popular area is SoHo, which is packed with LGBTQ-themed clubs and shops. Before coming here, every gay guy I talked to would look at me with quarter-sized eyes and squeal, “YOU HAVE TO GO TO HEAVEN!” Heaven is a gay club in SoHo that’s been around since the eighties- back when there wasn’t social media to link LGBT members up with each other, just clubs. It was nice to visit a place with so much proud cultural history to it.
It’s been interesting to explore the Black experience in Britain. A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture at The School of Oriental and Africana Studies on Black Feminism. The student lounge was packed with around one hundred students (mostly Black) coming together to talk about Black issues like culture appropriation, visibility, and how Black feminism differs from mainstream feminism.
During the question and answer session, a Black American woman stood up and expressed her amazement at learning how much Black Americans and Black Britons share in common. She pointed out the amazing and guilt-inducing fact that everyone in the room was expertly well-versed in American Black issues. Yet, most Black Americans know little to nothing about Black Britons and their struggles.
Because they are fewer in number, Black Brits don’t receive as much visibility as Black Americans. Blacks compose only 3% of Great Britain, whereas Blacks compose 13% of America. It’s almost as if they’re living in the Black American shadow, their experiences and struggles not given the proper international stage they deserve. The same is true with the Black French experience.
Being inside that student lounge was like meeting an extended part of my family for the first time.
Here’s another interesting thing: the term “Black” can be used to refer to any non-white British person. This practice was more frequent in the past, especially in the seventies. Asians, Indians, Afro-Caribbeans, and even the Irish joined together in solidarity and adopted a “politically Black” identity. At the time, they were fine self-identifying as this, as they were all working together to eliminate discrimination. Over time however, agendas and needs changed and the use of “Black” as an umbrella term decreased. One person at the lecture stood up and asked the speakers if they thought the “politically Black” identity could be resurrected. One of them quickly responded, “Well, first, some groups would have to be okay with being called Black again. Because to some that’s seen as going backwards, not forwards.”
I have experienced some subtle forms of racism since coming to London to study abroad. My flatmate and I were on the bus when a group of white kids sat behind us. They were singing along to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” I braced myself and sure enough, they all rapped the n-word. I didn’t take offense to it. But it was when one of our tour guides joked to me and my fellow classmates, “Always stand on the right side of the escalator when you’re in the tube station! Otherwise, you’ll piss everyone off and get lynched!” Such an interesting word choice.