Black and Gay in the UK – ed. John R. Gordon & Rikki Beadle-Blair

BAGITUK.jpg(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This anthology of poems and short stories provides a snapshot of the rich variety of black gay men’s experiences in the UK today, primarily as seen by black gay men themselves, but not excluding narratives and perceptions from non-gay family members and non-black partners and allies; something in part in dialogue with the ground-breaking 80s African-American gay anthology Brother to Brother

 Some of the stories are erotic, others evocative and many show the oppression of religion.

Diriye Osman explains why he wrote Fairytales for Lost Children.

Quotations:

Even though I had known for sure that I was attracted to people of my own gender since I was twelve, it was not until I was twenty-seven that I did anything about it. The long wait was due to a number of reasons. For one, spending my adolescence in Nigeria had meant that I did not know any other boys like me and, deep down, I had felt I was damaged and that there was something deeply wrong with me. I also remember coming across a passage in the Bible late one evening about ‘a man lying with another man’ deserving to be put to death, and reaching the conclusion that the sort of carnal desires I had were an ‘abomination’ and that doing anything about them meant an eternity in Hell….. I had decided when I left Nigeria that I was going to commit suicide when I hit thirty because my life was doomed to be one of rejection and loneliness.

In my head, I draw a type of Venn diagram. In the middle of an Afro-centric halo the word ‘black’ sits proudly; two circles overlapping on either side are ‘Christian’ and ‘gay’ — they cannot touch each other. I redraw the circle — they can touch each other but not if they overlap with ‘black’. White people get to call themselves Christian and gay — but real Christians, black Christians, Christians who have grown up with Pentecostal fire, with tambourine wrists, with rolling down the aisle prophecies and tarrying nights — they would never dare to call themselves by this abomination of a word and live to tell the tale.

Like a broken clock, I look all right if you catch me at the right time

Most of the time I feel helpless and writing feels pointless

But sometimes I’ll write something I think might be worth

sharing

And I’ll share it

So I wrote this and I’m sharing it So you can have it, if you want it And if you don’t, that’s alright too

Either way, this poem is for you.

I remember the first time I heard the expression ‘batty man.’ My mother was gossiping about one of the church brothers. I always felt nakedly visible at the mere mention of the ‘perver­sion’, as if another’s invocation of the word made me shimmer with hidden sin. I remember a group of preachers performing the laying on of hands at a remote church retreat in the white sandy region of Demerara, Guyana. I approached and asked for relief from my depression. I remember the preacher putting his hand on me and praying for ‘this demon of homosexuality’ to be exorcised; I remember accepting the prayer, but wondering why he thought my depression was related to homosexuality, an explanation I had not offered for it.

There were a few incidents like that. There was Sister Phyllis at my Pentecostal church in Georgetown, Guyana: a sweet, well-meaning woman. I had confided my sexuality to her and she had taken me on ferries to exotic-sounding places to be prayed over by powerful men of god who expected me to vomit my demons up — literally. I remember her being horrified when I announced that I was returning to England. Her stance: `There is plenty of gay there!’ Instinctively, I had kept my intended departure from Guyana secret until the very last minute. She made it plain that she would have done everything in her power to keep me there. Remarkably, sisters in the congregation who had never looked at me twice flirted coarsely with me that Sunday morning. Back then in the late nineteen-eighties people were getting out of Guyana by any means possible, if at all possible.

I had to get out of Guyana. I was there for nine years and every day — yes, every single day — I was called ‘anti-man’ by strangers, even before I felt the questionable desires that would mark me out as such. It was always expressed so gleefully; I became a nine-year joke. It wasn’t only my youthful effeminacy that was mercilessly lampooned on the streets of Wismar and Georgetown, but also the size of my lips (Lipticus, Liptibatus, Blubber Mouth), and the size of my feet. Every day I steeled my nerve to leave the house. It was most painful when I was walking with my mother or my sister, mortifying for them and embarrassing for me. It instilled a lasting fear that in the Caribbean they can smell the gay on me, and it reeks as high as rotten tilapia. The members of the concrete churches I at­tended in the capital tended to be kinder, yet they always bore my salvation or exorcism in mind.

I have subsequently pondered whether it was those slings and arrows — from schoolchildren, men on corners and lawless women, which upset my sister and distressed my mother — that `turned me’. I no longer think that. Frankly, I do not know why I am ‘anti-man’ as they loved to spout, and, just as frankly, I am not possessed of an aching need to have the proclivity ex­plained, even though the explanations are frequently entertaining. I have an explanation of my own: that gay men are a naturally selected support-structure for the breeding species… Upon my return to England I had given Christianity seven years, from thirteen to twenty — the perfect number apparently — to cure me of this hideous queer malady. But then one afternoon in a Streatham Hill bedsit I realised that I had made persistent use of my direct line to the good lord above, through fasting, vows and prayer, and he had persistently declined to change me. Obviously he wasn’t going to, and the intensity of my feelings couldn’t accept this bizarre notion that homosexu­ality meant that god had ‘called me’ to be celibate. I had absolutely no patience with such a god; I just couldn’t take him seriously. Clearly I was bound for hell, but it became my express intention to have a bloody good time on earth until my inevitable encounter with the devil and his angels.

I left southwest London for northwest, to become gay. I didn’t do a Lot’s Wife and look back. In the event I flourished: I dressed more adventurously, more androgynously; I gravitated toward the militantly irreligious; I went to gay bars and clubs; songs like ‘Back to Life’ by Soul II Soul and ‘Musical Freedom’ by Adeva seemed indicative of a new life opening its arms to me. I made gay friends and lovers. It was amazing. It took a few years for my fear of the Lake of Fire to subside, but it did. I was meeting good people, and once again my impatience with the draconian Pentecostal Jehovah deepened because I couldn’t believe that these decent, likeable human beings were going to burn eternally for taking pleasure and finding love in each other…. Ultimately, I can only be thankful: thankful that I am a son of life’s longing for itself — as Kahlil Gibran would put it; thankful that my South American mother and my African father met in the United Kingdom; thankful that my father’s motile sperm fertilised my mother’s inviting egg; thankful to my mother for naming me; thankful that I have had nearly five decades of life on earth; thankful that I have a voice that works and a brain that is inquisitive; thankful that I have been the youngest in my class; thankful that I have been the oldest in my class; thankful that I was the only black boy in a Norfolk school; thankful that I was the only English boy in a Guyanese school; thankful that I was a poor boy from England in a school of wealthy Guyanese children; thankful for the love that enabled me to survive all the insults; thankful for the oasis from verbal abuse that the Pentecostal church provided; thankful for the sensitivity that allowed me to care about myself when others attempted unwittingly to destroy me.

I am thankful to the airline that would not pay me but would get me out of Guyana; thankful for the aunt in Croydon who took me in under duress and then unceremoniously threw me out; thankful for the Surrey recruitment agency that sent me to the care-homes of Carshalton where I discovered what I didn’t want to be; thankful to the Streatham church that arranged a nice bedsit for me in Montrell Road after the horror of the bedsit in Burlington Road, Thornton Heath; thankful for the insurance company that had the same effect; thankful for the Time Out magazine column that showed me where the gay men were; thankful for the militant, socialist, atheist, gay father figure who nurtured me in the north of London and enabled me to become fabulous; thankful to the public schoolboy alongside whom I worked at London Underground who told me about university grants; and thankful to the other public schoolboy whose tale of drunken flunking of an art history degree switched a light-bulb on in my head.

The gratitude lists are endless. Suffice to say, like Kim Bas­inger, I am thankful to everyone I have ever met. And of course I am thankful to my mother for giving me the names of the singing Hebrew king and the enchanting songbird who became the fundamental icons of my blessed existence.

As I was experiencing unpleasant moments in my Quranic School, top of which were the constant beatings by the imam for not reciting the Quran very well, my aunt was at the same time taking us to church every Sunday. Sunday School offered everything that Quranic School took away from me. I found peace and love, my Sunday School teachers were welcoming, and every time I answered a question correctly I got a gift.

While dreading Quranic School in the evening so much that, though I would fake being ill, I would actually really get sick, I looked forward to Sundays and Sunday School classes, and it didn’t take long before my bible stories replaced Mill & Boon in my life. I was studying the bible with such passion because I know that the more I studied, the more chances there were of me winning gifts. Sunday School also offered me something special about Sunday that my every-evening Quranic school could not. As I got increasingly excited about going to Sunday School, and more and more hated the idea of going to Quranic School, this also took its toll on my religious study in school.

Due to my father’s religious preference, I had to attend Is­lamic Religious Studies. So that meant: more beating. I am not trying to say that Islam is an aggressive religion, but the process of impacting the religion on young people should be reconsidered. It is brutal, abusive and does not encourage a friendly atmosphere of learning. All through the time I spent going to Quranic School I felt seriously violated and abused, and my Islamic class in primary school became a continuation of this process of abuse and torture.

Any religion that is designed in such a way that it tortures children and abuses them should be placed under serious scrutiny. Islam became the extension of the pains and agony I was going through at home. It was very painful that as I was trying to look for a way to escape the torrent of hate I was facing at home as a kid, Islam was adding to this pain.

After enduring years of abuse in my Quranic School and from my Islamic religious class, I decided to stop going. I became the first person in my family to disobey my father. Not that it mattered, or that I would face any serious punishment: I could get away with murder as long as it was my father. It was easier than trying to get away with anything with my mother. So, I stopped attending Quranic School and kept on with Sunday school. I was just ten years old.

My leaving Islam was one of the bitterest experiences my father had to endure in his life, as he had hoped I would be a well-known Islamic scholar. He told me that when I was a little boy he had a sense of what I would become, and he wanted that to be rooted in Islam. The problem I had was that he saw nothing wrong in the constant abuse I had to endure in learning Islam. He believed it was part of the process. Today, my father still thinks that.

It wasn’t only my father who was mad: stopping Quranic School also meant stopping my Islamic Religious class and, god help me, that did not go down well either. I want you to note that this was happening to me at age ten — the level of will I had at that time was so strong that many times when I look back I get really scared of that ten-year-old boy — and this singular act brought upon me one of the most dreadful abuses I have ever experienced.

When my Islamic teacher heard about my decision to leave his class he was not going to stand for any of that. I will remind you again; at this time I was ten. A ten-year-old in Nigeria has no voice: he should be seen, if he is lucky, but never heard. And here I was at ten, not only demanding to be seen and heard, but also making decisions.

My teacher, Mr Balogun, was furious. During morning as­sembly he asked me to come to the front. He wanted to know why I had stopped coming to his class, and if what he has been hearing about me attending Christian religious studies is true.

I answered yes. That was all he needed. He asked that I be lifted up and stretched out by four boys. Two hold each of talc hands and two hold each of my legs.

I was turned face down. He looked for what I would consider as the fattest cane in the school. There I was, at doe morning assembly, about to be tortured and dehumanised leaving one religion for the other.

The beating I endured lasted for almost five minutes. By time he was done I was bleeding through my blue khaki. I hardly walk or sit down. I hated school but I didn’t want to go home: I knew my mum wouldn’t mind what had happened to me; and the thought of seeing the happy face of my father was just dreadful.

I wanted my parents to go and complain to the school, to demand why I had been treated this way for just changing religion, but they did absolutely nothing.

This particular incident ranks as one of the worst among the many horrible experiences I have been through in life. This was the first time as a child I was seriously violated and abused with no-one standing up for me.

I got used to the pain, the rejection and the bullying, but as I grow older I realise that, though I pretended to be strong, I actually did not have the surviving skills. All I have done in my life is sweep everything under the rug whilst the reality still stares at me…. attending Foursquare Gospel Church meant I belonged to a crop of cool Christians. The church was one of the most respected emerging evangelical churches in Nigeria, and I also had the privilege of having my aunt as a pastor in the establishment. However, as I went deeper, I realised that my sexuality was gradually becom­ing a core part of my life.

At that age, I was very vulnerable. I was facing rejection at home and looking for love and acceptance. Though I found that with Seyi, I was still not happy. So I got deeper into religion.

Two weeks before my first suicide attempt I was walking home with Seyi when we were approached by student from the Scripture Union offering leaflets for an end-of-term Christmas event. He told me they would be having many exciting events, including a showing of the film Burning Hell. As a moderate evangelical attending Foursquare, my lot believed that Scrip­ture Union people had taken Christianity to the extreme — this was in the early ‘9os. I wasn’t sure, but thought I wanted to go; Seyi, however, was sure it was not a good idea. Without telling Seyi, I went. The film was gory and scary. It showed the reward for evil was eternal damnation. It was so terrifying that I wept all through the screening.

For the very first time in my life I got really scared of what would become of me if and when I die like this. I remember going up to the altar, my eyes red with tears, asking God to forgive me. I was so scared of dying and going to hell. I went to the pastor, fell to my knees and begged God to forgive me. I called on Seyi next day and told him I had given my life to Christ and that I couldn’t date him anymore.

His eyes still haunt me today.

He held my hand and asked me why. I told him I had found Christ. That homosexuality is evil, and that he too had to give his life to Christ.

I spent most my holiday period hunting him and trying to convince him to give his life to Christ. I also got on buses to preach. I was going mad. I hated the one who had shown me my true self. In my quest for the love that was denied me at home I turned away real, honest love.

I need to say that this fear of love has led me to develop a protective system where I tend to scare people who love me… As this was going on, I was at the same time having the graphic image of ‘the burning hell’ at the back of my head.

One day I came back from Seyi’s house all teary and scared because I had met someone from the SU on my way home, and he had told me there was news making the rounds that I am homosexual. He prayed with me and told me to fast and ask God for His healing hands. After that I went home, went into my room, picked up a towel and headed for the bathroom with a plastic bucket with one aim: I was going to kill myself before I allowed homosexuality to consume me. My argument was, if I die now I will at least go to heaven instead of dying as a homosexual and going to hell. I stood on the plastic bucket and, with the door closed against the sun shining outside, tied the towel to the iron hook in the ceiling of the bathroom.

I could hear the laughter of my siblings outside. I heard my mother calling for my brother. There was someone in the other bathroom. It was a few weeks before Christmas. The house was alive and fulfilled.

I tied the towel firmly, creating a noose to twist around my neck. I then tried putting my head through the noose before kicking the bucket away with my feet so I could dangle and die. However, just as I was trying to put my head through, the bucket gave way under my feet. I came crumbling down with a thump, leaving the towel hanging but without my neck in it. The sound drew the attention of the person in the other bathroom. I quickly jumped up and removed the towel.

I was accused of trying to spy on the person in the next bathroom with the help of the bucket. If any member of my family is reading this, it will be the first time they will know of my first attempt at suicide.

the bouncer had thought it best to check with me that I was ‘really gay’ because, ‘You know, we get a lot guys dealing in here, so we have to be careful’, or that the only other conversation I’d had in the club that night began with, ‘Is it true what they say?

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