History has so often written out the Black queer community from LGBTQ+ movements. Yet queer protest was heavily influenced and indeed made possible by the civil rights movement. Black people, especially Black trans people, were on the frontline at The Stonewall Inn Riots and other queer riots that led to the creation of the Gay Liberation movement and, ultimately, Pride. But today, mainstream narratives about LGBTQ+ rights often privilege whiteness and the movement for queer rights is not always inclusive (and sometimes outright exclusionary) of queer, trans and intersex people of colour (QTIPOC).
Because the queer community itself has not felt like a safe or welcoming space for many Black and other queer people of colour, it is imperative that spaces are created by and for QTIPOC. We caught up with UK based queer activist, Aisha Shaibu, about her experiences as a Black queer woman leading the way for a more inclusive community.
Brooklyn Brewery: Aisha, great to have you here. Can you start by telling us a bit about your work and your activism?
Aisha: I tend to say I have my day job and my gay job! My gay job is based around work with LGBTQ+ communities. Because I am a Black queer woman, in a sense I have to be an activist. Being a Black person and also navigating the world as a queer person has been very difficult. That’s why I do what I do today – I try to give a platform to marginalised voices, but also work within the community to help change that narrative and kind of… level the playing field.
I’m the Head of Community Engagement at UK Black Pride. Alongside that I started my own company called Moonlight Experiences, an organisation that celebrates queer culture and nightlife, travel and community. I created it so that queer people can feel safer when travelling and moving around the world. I’m also a board member of GiveOut, a LGBTQ+ charity that gives towards human rights activism across the world. Anything that is queer I’m just there for it!
BB: So just a few things then! What are the barriers for queer people who love to travel?
Aisha: One of the challenges is visibility. Media and travel promotions don’t showcase much diversity. It’s almost like people think Black women or just Black people in general don’t travel! The second thing is showcasing actual queer people travelling, which is often difficult when you are in cities where perhaps it’s not as diverse as London, you know? How do you navigate that, how do you move around? That has always been a challenge for me and it’s why I wanted to create Moonlight Experiences, to help people integrate better, feel safer, particularly at night. For people who are non-binary or trans being in a new city can be very scary and it can be physically unsafe just based on just how you look.
I wanted to provide an alternative to what was already out there, a place where people can come and see the best of our community. You don’t get to see a range of diverse QTIPOC creatives in the queer community. I want people to enjoy everything the community has to offer but also be mindful, financially supporting different spaces that are not as commercial. A lot of our hosts are activists too, and they are there to share their story, to offer a different narrative and at the same time take you to spaces where they know you will feel safer.
BB: You’ve been integral to UK Black Pride, as has your partner, Alexia. Can you tell us about the history of UK Black Pride – how did it start?
UK Black Pride was started over 15 years ago by Black lesbian women. This group of women took a trip to Southend-on-Sea, outside London, to go to the beach and just enjoy themselves. They wondered, ‘Why is it we can’t have a space where we are surrounded by queer people of colour?’ So, the basic idea was to create open space where you feel like you belong. When it started, we used ‘Black’ in its political sense; it was for anyone who felt they didn’t belong in white spaces.
We’ve grown over the years, and I must say it is lovely now because we are able to get the support that we need to put on certain resources to support the community. It’s now Europe’s largest Pride celebration for anybody who is African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Latin American – anybody who is from the diaspora, anybody who feels like they don’t quite see themselves in the [mainstream] Pride in London.
BB: What is the atmosphere like at UK Black Pride? What is it like to attend?
It’s so beautiful you know, it’s a place of Black queer joy! And for anybody wondering ‘Oh this sounds awesome, but I’m not Black… Can I come?’ Of course! This is a space for the community to celebrate who we are. If you’re an ally we’re more than happy for you to be there, to celebrate this day.
But especially if you are QTIPOC and you’ve never been in an environment of over 10,000 diverse people, it’s just absolutely beautiful. Because you no longer have to manage yourself. It’s a place of acceptance. You see people who look like you, people who are living their life and being visible and being proud. I think for queer people of colour that is often the difficulty. Religion plays a big part too; I grew up partly Muslim and coming from a conservative kind of religious background, you feel that being gay is something as a Black person you are not allowed to be. So, when you are in an environment or in a place where you’re surrounded Black queer joy, you’re allowed to be yourself without any questions. You walk in there and it’s like you are coming home.
We don’t just centre the big parties – yes, we have massive stage that has amazing acts from the community, but we also have a wellbeing area, a stage where you can listen to discussions and panels, a quiet zone for families and young children and over 70-80 stall holders. It’s a really good way to not just educate yourself but also really take in what a diverse community should look like. In an ideal world we shouldn’t need a UK Black Pride; this is where we need to be going in future.
BB: Corporate allyship can often feel incredibly performative to LGBTQ+ communities, not led by community need. What’s your experience of working with corporations?
We actually vet all of our sponsors and partners – just because you’ve come in here with money doesn’t mean we want it! We talk about getting your own house in order: what are you doing to support your employees right now? We feel it’s important to partner with organisations that are aligned with our values. We are very particular!
You should ask the community ‘What do you need from us? How can we better support you?’ If it’s not something the community wants right now, don’t just stop right there! Reassure them that you are here and that if they need you, they can reach out. I think it’s about building trust and that takes time. Perhaps donate to them, support artists and queer spaces, so that they recognise you’re here to stay and not just for a moment.
We’re quite excited to be launching a new sober space in Shoreditch, which has been given to us by an ally. She doesn’t want her name mentioned, she doesn’t want to be part of this space because the space is for the community. She wants to provide her resources and her experience as a business owner, her time of course but also, she wants to learn about the community and how she can better support us in the future.
BB: It feels like you and your partner are very visible as a couple, in a way that feels purposeful. Did you make a conscious choice to be so visible and do you see yourselves as role models?
Aisha: I think it just happened! In terms of my queerness, I think it took me a long time to want to be visible, so when I met Alexia it just kind of happened organically. We both love travelling and we realised the lack of visibility of Black queer women, so we thought it was important to start changing that narrative. Because if we’re not visible it’s almost like we don’t exist. That is very important in terms of being a role model and inspiring other young people, but also other queer women who still don’t feel comfortable yet. We want to show that they are allowed to be visible if they want to be, to feel free and feel proud of who they are.
BB: Are there things you have to think about when it comes to creating safe spaces for QTIPOC in particular?
Aisha: It’s about creating a safe space where people don’t feel that they will be attacked in any way, physically but also emotionally, and having a space where they know that their views, their opinions will be respected. You can’t be performative. A lot of venues across London are not that diverse or inclusive. I’ve tried putting on events at certain venues and because they can see that my name isn’t English, they go “No, you can’t come into this space” or “When you put on music it can’t be too urban” – they try to control what you do in that space. We’ve had so many challenges over the years just having a space for gathering. People almost assume that it’s gonna be a troubled event, without speaking to me, or knowing me, or understanding the audience or the community. That has been a major challenge.
BB: Do you think the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is also moving people to want to understand more about Black queer lives, especially Black trans lives?
Aisha: I’ve been lucky to be exposed to a lot of people who want to understand the community – I’m talking about married couples in their 80s, young people who are straight, those who are exploring their sexuality. Sexuality and gender are so fluid and I think a lot of people are starting to realise that. It’s beautiful to see that so many people are interested in learning more about our community and looking inwards to change and be supportive. That has been positive.
But some people feel that we have achieved equality, they might think ‘What’s the problem, why are people making such a fuss?’ It’s for them to recognise that the fight is not over yet. We’re not all equal till everybody else is equal. We can’t be free till our trans siblings stop dying, till queer women are not discriminated against, or till trans people or disabled people are not marginalised from our community. The fight is still not over.