A Black seat at a white table:
I remember my first week of university pretty clearly for many different reasons, including those cliché (yet accurate) emotions of excitement, nerves and wonder at what will possibly happen. However, I also remember a strong emotion that carried throughout the first week of attending King’s College London University that also aptly sums up a lot of my feelings throughout my time there: disappointment. Alongside the expected dissatisfaction of the whiteness surrounding the curricula, the lack of diversity in teachers and students, I was met with a discontent in my first week that I was not expecting: a disappointment in my LGBT+ society, a place where I had hoped (and eventually did) for sense of belonging and was left with none.
A sea of white faces, mainly cis men, greeted me upon arrival, as did a committee of twelve with not one person of colour amongst them–did not give a sense of acceptance. I remember feeling such disappointment that the society I looked forward to becoming a part of did not have a representative structure or cohort. I recollect that first meeting raising my hand and addressing the issue and the (then) president suggesting we needed a BME committee member. I remember putting myself forward, without even contemplating of what it could mean.
#1 That We do not Exist.
#1 That We do not Exist. If you look at the mainstream LGBT+ scene, media outlets, night clubs, models, magazine covers and charity posters – all you notice is white faces that rarely deviate from the masculine centred gay man, and sometimes, a butch (slim and able-bodied) white women. Within university: this myth sadly continues today. The myth that LGBTQ+ BME students do not exist within the university was not only perpetuated through the lack of committee members in the average university LGBT+ committee, but also through the common belief I found that a lot of white LGBT+ students held: that there were not many of us at university. I remember when I took the role as BME officer in 2014/15 academic year, within the first day current students were telling me to expect “around four or five people” at my events because “there just is not a lot of people of colour in the society”. This is a myth commonly told, often believed, and holds dangerous consequences of furthering the misrepresentation of LGBT+ BME people. This is a myth we must choose to aggressively disprove and ignore. It was hard work from the beginning of the year, that made it possible to host three separate BME focussed open mics with over thirteen performers, a packed crowd, and requests for more as we approached end of year. BME LGBT+ socials had over 20 attendees and the list of BME LGBT+ people coming to our society grew in numbers. The truth was, we had always existed, and we were just not given the space to do so safely. This year our society has two BME officers, one Black and one south Asian, a BME trans officer, and plenty of BME students attending events regularly. I often reflect and think what would have happened if I believed the students telling me in first year that there “were not many of us” and had given up. Now I use this as a reflection to remind others of our existence, despite systematic attempts to silence us, and how if we push past this myth we can build important community.
#3 That we are bossy, intimidating or not friendly.
#3 That we are bossy, intimidating or not friendly. This myth is something that may prevent you from wanting to run for a leadership role, but may also plague your time whilst in the role. This myth is particular and most common to Black women in leadership roles, often being described as “bossy” or “scary” when simply declaring their expectations – however how does this translate in an LGBT+ specific space? I often felt, as a feminine queer person who was Black, that when I was holding meetings, making decisions, and being vocal – it was often described as intimidating and scary – rather than being seen as a leader. Often, I would watch white members of our community make similar decisions and actions with no resistance from others, yet my own actions would constantly be scrutinized. Often, I second-guessed myself and wondered if I was being too “harsh” as an organiser, yet then I realised that under these systems of oppression we are not used to seeing Black folk lead, especially those that are also queer. My advice would be to look and find other Black folks in positions of power to get advice, to always continue to listen, yet to quickly adapt when someone’s criticism is rooted in truth – or instead – in their lack of comfort being managed by someone not white. Remember: when you are asserting your needs as an LGBT+ person of colour, you are not bossy, not intimidating, instead you are brave, and paving the way for more folks to follow.
As I leave my time with my university LGBT+ society, I look at a society that still has far more room for growth, but looks very different from the society I was welcomed into on the first day. We still need to constantly address and scrutinize how the LGBT+ movement and communities surrounding them have to be more inclusive. My time as LGBT+ president taught me that one of the ways to positively do this – is to place us at the front of the conversation. BME LGBT+ people should not just be an afterthought in our conversations on gender and sexuality, but instead we need to be leading these conversations. I would strongly encourage any young LGBT+ BME students to get involved with their LGBT+ society, yet moreover, to find a group of friends committed to challenging, changing, and creating the society they want to see at university: and remembering that they deserve a welcoming warm space as much as anyone else.
Two years on, after 2014/15 being the BME officer on the committee, and 2015/16 being the first Black president of the society – I leave the group with a committee of just under-half BME representatives, a self-autonomous BME group within it, and a society that looks more representative of world outside. However, this reflection will not just look at the growths our society has made, instead it will focus on how being Black in positions of LGBT+ leadership is not only imperatively needed, yet requires a new found strength that I did not know existed within me. Being a Black president of an LGBT+ society opens your eyes to the anti-blackness present within the LGBT+ scene, whilst simultaneously proving how desperately diverse faces are needed within university LGBT+ spaces.
I wanted this reflection to draw on three main myths that surround LGBT+ spaces and BME students. It also tries to shows that putting us in positions of leadership challenges and addresses the issues. It’s all drawing on my own experiences and also referencing to other student’ perspectives that I shared the space with.
#2 – That we are a footnote and not part of the conversation.
#2 – That we are a footnote and not part of the conversation. Whilst running for the election of LGBT+ president and officer for my university, I was met with a lot of suggestions from white students saying “wouldn’t you be better suited for BME officer?” or suggesting that “I do not know if you could cater to OUR needs” – this is a common rhetoric thrown at BME students going for leadership roles in white spaces., The idea that we are only qualified to talk about race specific issues or stick to race specific roles. Often we only encourage BME students to apply for roles on the committee directly related to BME issues – yet the power is in when we push past this. We need to realise that BME students in non-BME specific roles equals a leadership that is attentive to the BME experience, yet not limited to it. Lets give an example: a trans officer on our committee who is not white, when creating a trans-social, will not create a social that is not only appealing to white people, at the same time be more conscious of race related issues and conversations for trans people of colour that might be hesitant to attend. We need to adamantly address and dismantle the myth that we are only suitable for roles specifics to our race, and instead look at the plethora of advantages that come when BME LGBT+ people are encouraged to be in leadership. Despite being Black, and assumed to be only focussing on “black issues” when running for election, I as the a President of society successfully won a five year-long battle with the university to secure gender neutral toilets on all campuses. We also helped manage over 50+ events, secured a designated trans officer on our student council, and helped introduce an LGBT+ specific training for all bar staff. This was all achieved alongside increasing BME membership of our society and committee, supporting our faith officer creating a LGBT+ Muslim support group, and run a Black LGBT+ open mic night. No a single instance –my Blackness limited my abilities, but instead added to what I could contribute. The idea that BME students should stick to BME+ related roles is a myth that continues to categorize and section BME LGBT+ folks to the margins of our community. I hope my experience shows that we not only deserve leadership roles, but can create a huge impact whilst in them.