Dr Verity Sullivan hears from Phil about the challenges of being black and gay
“I grew up thinking being gay was a white thing. When I was close to coming out, before I’d started meeting other guys, I didn’t think I would meet anyone that was similar to me in any way.”
Phil is 27, black, 6 ft 5 and gay. Brought up in East London by Sierra Leonean parents, he
attended an all-boys Catholic school alongside friends who all identified as straight. He hid his sexuality until the age of 22, following years of internal struggle and fear of the consequences of coming out.
“I told my Nan and my sister first. My Nan is die-hard Christian but she took it well. She doesn’t care about image. It might also be because she watches a lot of soaps and she’s seen storylines where people come out and their families don’t accept them. That’s a theory.”
Phil’s Mum however, struggled with the news. “She was scared of people knowing and asked me to change my lifestyle. I moved out after 6 months as it was too uncomfortable. It’s a cultural thing – some African parents care so much about what people think.”
Phil’s story is not uncommon and highlights the barriers faced by young black gay men in the UK today. Lack of education for black LGBT people and their families, deeply entrenched hypermasculinity in black culture and the homophobia it creates are contributing to alarming figures.
Black Minority and Ethnic (BME) men who have sex with men (MSM) are three times more likely to test HIV positive. They are six times more likely to have undiagnosed HIV than other MSM and are at higher risk of late HIV diagnosis and death.
“A big part of it is that people think it’s a choice,” says Phil. “If you ‘become gay’ then you are bringing shame on your family. We have to do things according to our family’s reputation, an expectation that stems from when you’re young. A lot of African kids have to deal with that.”
Hyper-masculinity within the black community contributes hugely to the problem. “I’m supposed to be this big, strong, aggressive black man, because this is what is expected of me,” said Phil. “Gay black men are not represented in any realistic way. On TV it’s always a sassy black gay or a bitchy white gay. If we were represented as multifaceted men with diverse personalities then that would change mentalities. We need role models.”
The lack of LGBT-inclusive sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools and beyond is of key concern. The 2017 Stonewall School Report showed nearly half of young LGBT people are bullied because of their sexuality and only one in five learn about safe sex in the context of same-sex relationships. Young LGBT people from BME groups are the least likely to have an adult at home to talk to about their sexuality. And once thrown into the big wide world, many black gay men remain closeted due to fears of abuse and rejection.
“What’s confusing is that everything taught in schools is ‘mum and dad’, ‘boy and girl.’ When you get to your teenage years and you realise “I like boys’ it doesn’t make sense,” says Phil. “And closeted black guys just don’t have the information about what health care is out there. They have sex with guys but don’t socialise or have everyday interactions with them. So they don’t hear about the PrEP trials like IMPACT, or get regular tests and assume HIV won’t happen to them.”
Phil is an activist and a writer and wants his community’s needs better met. He describes a lack of ‘safe spaces’ for black gay men. There are clubs and one-off events, but nowhere for guys to hang out and share experiences. He has also written about racism within the LGBT community, with racial profiling a regular occurrence and the sad acknowledgement that people sometimes see ‘just a big, black cock.’ A survey by FS magazine showed 75% of black guys had personal experience of racism on the gay scene.
Phil currently works with Blackout UK, a not-for-profit social enterprise run and owned by a volunteer collective of black gay men that are addressing this lack of community. “There are a lot of creative gay black men that do a lot for the community but a lot of it is hidden and needs exposure.” He also uses social media to reach out to his peers. He’s met close friends and other advocates via Twitter and is followed by other LGBT people from around the globe – some of whom cannot be open about their sexuality due to horrifying anti-gay legislation. Male same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Sierra Leone, alongside over 70 other countries worldwide.
“I feel privileged to have been born in a place where I can be gay,” says Phil. “People get killed in my country for being gay. People who try to campaign – they get killed too. Being gay needs to be normalised. And HIV – well that’s seen as something that happens if you decide to be gay. Not as an epidemic that affects gay men. I want to do something to help Sierra Leone but I’m terrified of losing my life. I want to start progress towards creating a place where gay men can exist, but currently, we don’t have the backing.”
There’s still a lot of work to do. Mental health issues remain at high rates in the gay black community, leading to riskier sex and higher rates of STIs and HIV. Religious beliefs surrounding HIV and homosexuality also remain problematic, with communities let down by lack of understanding from their faiths. NAZ’s Testing Faith project is helping faith leaders to support their congregation’s sexual health needs and the inclusive religious community House of Rainbow provides support to black gay men alongside other marginalised groups.
Phil also believes change is in the air. “I think attitudes are changing – young black kids are more accepting of homosexuality. Now you see teenage kids walking around Soho Square, holding hands. Ten years ago you’d have never seen that. And there are older black gay men wanting to mentor the young.
“We’ve made a community amongst ourselves – guys who have had similar experiences within their families and cultures – and I’m grateful for that.”
- NAZ – http://naz.org.uk/prevention-programmes/msm/
- House of Rainbow – http://www.houseofrainbow.org/about-us/index.html
- Blackout UK – https://www.facebook.com/BlkoutUKcom/
- Prepster – http://prepster.info/
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Dr Verity Sullivan is a HIV and sexual health doctor working in the NHS. She writes to dispel myths relating to all things sex, with a focus on HIV, contraception and LGBT issues. You can find more of her work at www.veritysullivan.squarespace.com. Her Twitter handle is @DrVesSullivan. Phil’s Twitter handle which is @IdiosyncraticXL
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