‘We kept getting people saying: excuse me, you don’t look gay’ – how Black people fought for a space at Pride

In the early 1990s, Pride marches in London looked dramatically different from the Pride we know now. Rather than spilling into every crevice of the city, with corporate floats and sponsored stages, the event was a protest march through the capital, ending in a festival-like party in a park, its location moving each year from Kennington to Brockwell to Victoria Park to Clapham Common. The events were also significantly more politicised, with notable demonstrations against Section 28, government negligence in addressing the HIV/Aids crisis, and discrimination against LGBT+ parents.

But what is often overlooked in the history of Pride in the UK is the significant Black presence, and the spaces Black LGBT+ people sought to carve out for themselves among the “mainstream” gay and lesbian community.

A curated space for Black LGBT+ people at Pride came about in 1991, led by an insurgency of Black gay men resisting the persistent hostility and marginalisation felt by their community at Pride. Organising under the name the Black Experience, this north London-based group transformed their social cruising and party network into what became known as the People of Colour tent. During its five-year lifespan, it attracted thousands of attendees. It transformed Pride from a party space catering mostly to white and European cultural interests, to one that would play Black music and make room for the advocacy of specific Black LGBT+ issues. This is the story of how Black self-organisation in the early 90s paved the way for today’s UK Black Pride.

Lloyd Young In the late 80s, early 90s, there was an emerging network of Black gay men. The network I formed in north London used to meet around cruising spots in Finsbury Park, because there weren’t many other spaces for us to congregate. We soon realised there was a need for our own spaces, and our private meetings extended into hosting parties, and [as a network] we became known as the Black Experience. We started to have parties in abandoned buildings we had broken into, or in houses where a friend who worked in housing would give us keys to have secret parties. One day in 1991, in Time Out magazine, there was a little article, like “Celebrate gayness at Kennington Park” [a Pride event]. And we thought: let’s all go to Kennington Park; there were seven or eight of us, including Eddie, Tony and myself. Pride then was very much like a country fair; they had Ferris wheels, men on stilts, drag, and it was open, with no charge for entry.

Marc Thompson I went to Pride in 1991 in Kennington Park. It was probably my first Pride event. It was really small, a few tents in the park, me and my boys just kind of hanging out in different spaces in the park – but there was no physical space for us [Black LGBTQ+ people]. I recall a couple of guys, Eddie and Tony, rocking up with some speakers and a ghetto blaster and playing Black music; you know, the tunes that we were listening to that weren’t anywhere else.

Dennis Carney The music would have been Janet Jackson, SWV and 112. It was Black music, rather than the hi-NRG music that you’d hear from the rest of Gay Pride, which felt very alienating. For me, that music was very Eurocentric, it didn’t really speak to me. I think it put a lot of Black LGBT people off attending Pride actually, because why would you want to attend a festival with music you don’t like? And so to finally attend a Pride where there was music culturally relevant to me, music from the Black gay clubs I used to go to, it was a little piece of paradise. Up until that point there were no safe spaces at Pride for Black LGBT people to celebrate.

LY When we turned our music on, we were confronted by white individuals. They said “excuse me”, and we immediately knew what they were going to come out with because we always experienced that: you ask any Black gay person, they’d all had this experience, of people saying: ‘You don’t look gay.’ So this white man came up to us and said: “Do you know what’s happening here?” We said: “Yes.” “You sure? It’s Gay Pride, you know?” We just stood our ground. Next thing you know, the bobbies come walking over. “Excuse me, mate. You can’t play that kind of music here, this is not the place for that.” And that was the start of a protest.

We were very militant then. We said: “We’re not standing for this.” Tony decided he was going to go to Lambeth council to talk about the lack of Black space at Pride. So he found out about their next committee meeting, and was instrumental in infiltrating it. They refused to hear who we were, at first. We had to go into the chambers, or upstairs to a balcony and protest. Eventually we were heard, and the council said: ‘OK, at next year’s Pride, we’ll give you a space’, and that space was a tent, which we used to bring the Black Experience to Pride every year.

MT That was the beginning of the People of Colour tent. It would have been 1992 in Brockwell Park. It wasn’t like the other tents, which are usually circus tents, big productions. This was like a big marquee. I remember being really excited to go to Pride, because we never went on the marches. I didn’t feel that political: the marches were overwhelmingly white, they weren’t speaking for us [Black LGBTQ+ people], so it wasn’t a space I wanted to be in. It was all about the party in the park. I went along to Brockwell Park with my friends; I remember walking from my house in Oval to Brockwell Park, and taking the back streets, because we didn’t want to go through Brixton, because we knew all the gays going through Brixton probably would be subjected to some homophobia.

Rocking up at the park, I remember just being so hyped, like when you go to Carnival. Walking in, it was filled with people who you would see in the clubs, but it was daytime. That was really significant: you’re out in the sunshine, you’re public, and that’s really rare because often we operated under cover of darkness, hidden away. Just that physical act of being out in the daytime in this amazing space, with men and women, overwhelmingly Black African and Caribbean, it was magic.

DC I remember feeling really excited about it because it was finally going to be a space where I could hear what I liked and that I was into. At previous Gay Prides I used to hang out very close to the women’s tent because that was the tent that played the best music. So that was a lasting memory: just feeling really excited about the prospect of having a safe space for Black lesbians and gay men, especially after several unsuccessful attempts to create that at previous Prides.

Ain Bailey I remember the women’s tent, which I think was always the more interesting of the tents. Men would often gather around the outside because they weren’t allowed in, and the music was better.

LY It was clear we were lacking DJs, so I said: I’ll do a warm-up DJ set. I was living in Finsbury Park and got on the train from Seven Sisters, carrying these records all the way to the park, feeling so confident. And when I arrived, the tent we’d got was at the very back of the park, and it was flooded with water. We were not very happy. Tony was so angry: like, how dare they not only give us just a tent, but right at the back, over mud that was waterlogged? But when I performed my set – my first tune was Diana Ross, I’m Coming Out – everybody came into the tent anyway. That was my first “wow” moment with DJing.

AB I think the People of Colour tent had music promoted and organised by the Bootylicious promoters and the Queer Nation promoters [two LGBTQ+ club nights]. I know I DJed one year. I would have been playing rare groove, a bit of house, 90s R&B. They used to have Black women DJs so we would have tunes that catered to us.

LY In 1995, Pride moved to Victoria Park, so we moved from lobbying Lambeth council to Tower Hamlets council for the People of Colour tent to continue. Tony was at the stage where he’d become one of the most visible and vocal activists for Black gay men. He was instrumental in getting us club spaces, like Low Down [a club night], under the banner of the Black Experience. When the event at Victoria Park finished, Tony was assaulted. And that’s the last we saw of him. He spent weeks in hospital. We don’t know who was responsible, but Tony spoke about his attackers being white. And after this the Black Experience, and the People of Colour tent, disbanded. I felt personally guilty, we all did, about not being able to support Tony. He spoke about giving a lot and not getting anything back. I have since revived the Black Experience – I’ve taken the name to create a space outside to bring queer men out of London, and give them experiences of camping and adventure. I’d like the Black Experience name to somehow reach Tony, so he knows it’s still carrying on.

DC The People of Colour tent became a vital and important space to attend, without question. I think if I’m being honest, if they didn’t have that space, I would’ve stopped attending Gay Pride. Having said that, what I found frustrating about Black or people of colour spaces at Pride is that they’re seen as hip and cool and so they get inundated with white gay men and lesbians. It would feel like an invasion, because the space was created for people of colour. I can see the attraction, of course; if I was white I’d probably go there, too, because that’s where all the cool kids are.

I was the chair of the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project (BLGC) and we’d have a stall, and we’d put up flyers and leaflets, and there was a newsletter we used to produce every month. BLGC also shared HIV-prevention information and safer-sex leaflets to try and educate Black gay men who were not getting access to that information at that time; the resources were received well. If it wasn’t for the BLGC, I don’t think that these Pride spaces would exist in the way that they did, and they do today with UK Black Pride. The People of Colour tent always had long-term funding and sustainability issues because it wasn’t really supported by the mainstream LGBT community. I don’t think it was fully supported in the way that UK Black Pride [established in 1997] is supported by Stonewall now.

MT The People of Colour tent ended as Pride itself grew. I know that we didn’t do it after 1997. We continued to participate in other events, so it’s really important to remember that there were other events, like Summer Rites and Purple in the Park, which were run by club promoters, not Pride, and we participated in those and there were People of Colour tents. But as Pride evolved into Pride in London and moved to Hyde Park and had their bigger events, they stopped doing these People of Colour tents, and assimilated everybody into one thing.

AB I went to the last UK Black Pride at Haggerston Park, and it was beautiful, full of young people living their best lives. It’s such a massive change because I don’t remember us ever being at that scale. I have a lot of younger Black queer friends who I’ve met through the arts and it’s been wonderful being able to see them freely in that space.

DC I still remember the first Pride I ever went to, in 1983 or 84, it was held in Jubilee Gardens by County Hall. And there were very, very, very few Black LGBT people; it didn’t feel for us. When I think back to the first People of Colour tent at Gay Pride, and when I think of the last UK Black Pride I went to, the People of Colour tent was definitely a precursor to UK Black Pride. The People of Colour tent offered a community an opportunity to see what was possible, and what we could achieve at Pride in terms of creating our own spaces. So when I go to UK Black Pride now, it just blows my mind how much the Black gay scene has grown in 40 years.

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