BAME Identities Part 2: “It takes a lot more energy to come out as queer when you’re a person of colour”

BAME Identities Part 2: “It takes a lot more energy to come out as queer when you’re a person of colour”

[Written by Siam Hatzaw (she/her)]

[Image Credits: Indigo Korres (she/her)]

Content Warning: Contains discussion of racial discrimination, colonisation, and transphobia including violence against trans people.

In this two-part feature, Siam Hatzaw and Juneyna Kabir interview Lucy McKenna and Indigo Korres, sharing their reflections on the experiences of being BAME at university. Part 2 with Indigo explores the intersections of identity between race, gender and sexuality.

After our last interview exploring how BAME students encounter notions of identity and “home”, Juneyna and I sat down with Indigo, the SRC’s LGBTQ+ Officer and the BAME society’s LGBTQ+ rep, to develop these thoughts in relation to gender and sexuality.

“In terms of identities it’s a long process,” Indigo began. “Brazil is the country that kills the most trans women in the world, from the 331 trans women that were killed last year, 130 were from Brazil, so it was hard to identify as a trans woman there. That’s why I only came out in terms of sexual orientation and not gender identity; when I came to the UK I felt safer, but now I have problems in terms of racial issues I have to face.”

Juneyna asked how religion plays a role in influencing anti-trans sentiment. “I think all LGBTQ+ individuals in Brazil are threatened by religion especially with the new government, but I’m not sure why our society attacks so many trans women,” Indigo reflected. “I can’t give an answer to that, it’s hard. The trans community is so marginalised, there are loads of trans people of colour [POC] and they’re usually sex workers or hairdressers—those two roles so they’re excluded from society. I was reading a book on intersex people and in Latin American cultures, before they were colonised, they accepted a third gender. It was this Western idea that there’s only male and female, but most indigenous communities believed in a third gender. This western ideal just broke that.”

Juneyna related this to her own culture’s history: “In the Indian subcontinent, there wasn’t an idea of gender as such, it was more fluid. Then when the British came, they brought this idea of men and women and their Victorian prudishness. You know the sari we wear? We just used to wear the cloth. They came and were like ‘what the fuck is this cloth business, where is your blouse?’, so what we wear inside, we call ‘blouse’ in English and the skirt, we didn’t used to wear that, we call it a ‘petticoat’ in English, there’s no Hindi/Bangla word for it.”

We discussed this orientalist notion, referencing another interview which dissected a western view of colonised societies as “backwards” and homophobic; this lens dismisses the fact that if you dig a little deeper, you realise it harks back to colonial missionary work. As Indigo summarised: “They look at countries that were colonised and criticise the people there who are marginalised for not being liberal enough.”

These complexities sometimes make it difficult to navigate intersections of identity: “If I’m in a queer white space it’s hard to talk about my identity without mentioning race, especially because people can see I’m not from here.” However, Indigo’s role within the SRC allows her to voice thoughts on a wider platform and address these intersections. So what spaces do the university provide for LGBTQ+ and BAME students?

“The university is working on LGBTQ+ issues, and decolonising the curriculum. I wanted to open an LGBTQ+ POC coffee which we do every two weeks. There are so many different identities but they didn’t have anyone on that committee that was a person of colour so they couldn’t open that space without having someone to connect everyone together. The College of Arts pushed the university to create a LGBTQ+ workshop—Amanda Sykes hosts workshops on how to be more inclusive in terms of queer and POC identities. It gets a lot easier to study if you don’t have to think about how other people perceive you. It’s easier just to focus on your studies if you know you’re being respected. You’re not gonna try your best to look a certain way just so people perceive you a certain way. I think it’s incredible, it’s really good that the university’s doing that.”

The impact of your identity on your studies may seem inconsequential, but the latest statistics show a 13% attainment gap in achieving a First Class degree between BAME students and their white counterparts. According to research, BAME students face “challenges in terms of representation, pedagogy, curriculum reform and student experience” which all have an effect on your studies. However, Indigo explained other methods the university is proposing to support their students, such as the use of preferred names on student cards in the future. “The uni is there to help. There are some lecturers I’ve had to report for being transphobic, but at the same time it’s just a small number compared to how many want to help out.”

When it comes to BAME representation within staff, however, we acknowledged the limitations. Indigo recalled a lecture on postcolonialism and third cinema, “The lecture was taught by a white woman which was ok but some of the stuff felt tokenistic, the university could be more careful on that.” As a positive, she noted how in Philosophy lectures, they’ve used slides which include POC as examples, “whenever you feel represented in a class you feel a bit better. I don’t feel like an outsider trying to understand philosophy.”

Juneyna moved the conversation on to the student body and the fight for inclusivity, as she feels “the onus is always on the people who are most affected”. Although Indigo feels respected by her peers and hasn’t personally experienced transphobia on campus, she pointed to cases of transphobic graffiti which led to an anti-transphobia poster campaign, “You’ll always find transphobia in places, especially now in the media, there’s reports of lecturers being TERFs [Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists].”

On the topic of media reports, we went on to discuss trans rights within the UK’s political climate, and how this compares to Brazil. “I think it’s interesting, I don’t feel represented by many of the MPs in power. There are two trans black women in Brazil as MPs so that is changing for the better which is good. We also have trans POC who are famous musicians and they have their own shows on national TV. That’s something I don’t see here. It’s a weird mix of feelings. I feel safer in the UK but at the same time I don’t feel as represented as I would be in Brazil, because there’s a bigger trans community and they’re all POC. In the UK, if there’s a trans person that has a bit of visibility they’re usually white.”

Indigo clarifies being LGBTQ+ is not illegal in Brazil, but resistance stems from a cultural perspective. Reflecting on this, Juneyna proposed “the safety bar comes from the UK being closer to the rule of law” to which Indigo agreed, with sombre honesty: “In Brazil if you’re trans I don’t think the police would care if someone killed you.”

In recent years, Scotland has been ranked as the safest place in Europe to be LGBTQ+ however Indigo emphasises there is always more that can be done. “There’s still problems. I’ve had some hate crimes before, coming back from a night out. I do feel we could improve, always. But at least when I talk to police, they’ve been helpful to me and listened, asked for pronouns, which was quite interesting because I would never call the police in Brazil. It was reassuring.”

In terms of how we can go about improving safety for LGBTQ+ communities, Indigo stated that “education is always the first thing. Campaigning. I find it hard because sometimes the hate crimes come from another marginalised community that doesn’t actually understand trans people so I’m on the fence on how, because I don’t wanna come with that idea that I’m the better person that can teach people. I think educating people is the best thing, but I don’t know how to go about it exactly.”

We agreed that the university is a good place to start. During her time with the SRC, Indigo put forward several initiatives to promote inclusivity. For LGBTQ+ history month, they ran 11 events, including a queer BAME panel to further education on LGBTQ+ POC. She noted other ways the university acknowledges LGBTQ+ rights: “That’s an important thing actually, the university has hired its first LGBTQ+ chaplain [Reverend Linda Haggerstone].  She just started in January, and is someone that people can go to and talk about being religious and LGBTQ+. And for transgender day of remembrance, we had an art exhibition set up in the chapel which ran through 2 days. The event in the evening had around 70 people coming, it was really nice. It shows that there’s a group of people at the uni.”

Despite this, Indigo admits it’s been difficult to connect with other LGBTQ+ POC in Glasgow. “I only know 4 trans POC in the whole city that I know of so it’s not a big community. That’s one of the main reasons I created LGBTQ+ POC coffee, to meet other queer POC. On the other side, I think it’s also hard for LGBTQ+ individuals that come from a different background, sometimes it’s hard to open up to your own community about it. I know loads of POC that are queer but dont wanna come to queer events because they dont want their friends or family to know. This intersectionality is very difficult as well. I think it takes a lot more energy to come out as queer when you’re a person of colour. When I started travelling, that’s when I realised my race has a lot of factor in terms of how people perceive me. Also, I understand that my skin is very fair so people don’t actually come to me with the same strength that they would probably attack a person that has darker skin tones. It’s very interesting to try to analyse those two identities together.”

Coming out as a POC can be a challenging process, with added elements which play into your reception. Indigo describes this as “two sides. White people, if you’re out as a queer POC, usually assume that your family’s gonna hate you. But my family is really okay with it. I know lots of POC that do come from a background where they can’t actually be open about their queer identity but at the same time, I dont know, I feel like white people just generalise everything.”

We return to the “backwards society” generalisations discussed earlier, as though BAME communities are a monolith with the same blanket ideologies. “It is this idea that Brazil is such a backwards country, but we have black trans women as MPs, we have black trans actors and actresses [Juneyna added, “Yeah, where are the trans MPs in the UK?”]. Brazil has some laws that actually help the trans community more than the UK does. In the UK if you wanna change your name and gender on your birth certificate, you have to get the Gender Recognition Certificate, which goes through a whole panel. You have to have two doctors saying that you’re trans and you pay so much money to get it, it’s not accessible for POC usually because of how expensive it is. But in Brazil you just pay a fee, I think it’s like £30, because in Brazil the law is self-identification.”

Indigo talked us through the process, “I’m going private which is a privileged thing to do, I work full time as well as uni so I saved up the money in the past year. You have to have your first appointment and then a psychiatric appointment, so you have a second opinion on you having gender dysphoria, then you go back. If both of them say it’s ok and your blood tests are ok, you go back to the first doctor and they’ll tell you if you can start hormones or not. But the waiting list is another thing. Basically my waiting time just to see one person for a consultation with the NHS, it would be 3 years—it’s just crazy. When we go private, it’s a lot shorter, maybe 3 or 4 months. And then people that usually go private are white, queer white trans individuals.”

“And the people you’re seeing as well, the doctors…?”

“Oh, they’re all white. All of these systems in place don’t actually help marginalised communities. It’s very hard to find trans friendly GPs in Glasgow, especially because, well I’m going private but you can get shared care which basically means you can get your blood tests done and your hormones through the NHS. But that depends on your GP, so it’s a bit all over the place. There’s no set system. It’s a very complicated process. That’s why I find it hard when you don’t have other people from your community around to support you. That’s why I’ve been trying to find trans POC in Glasgow, they can give advice on where to go that you’re gonna be more respected.”

So where can queer POC look to find this support? “We do have an advice center at the SRC, people can contact me if they need any help as well with the process. I can push them in the right direction, the SRC do know loads of organisations that can help in terms of mental health. At the Sandyford clinic, you can self refer which is one of the only ones in the UK I think.”

In closing, Indigo reflected on the positive aspects of her intersecting identities: “It can be hard sometimes for trans individuals of colour but at the same time I feel like we’re moving forward, especially if we have ourselves as a community. And that’s what I’ve been finding, like when people come to our LGBTQ+ POC coffee they feel represented. They open up a bit more. Sometimes it can be quite draining if you don’t have anyone to open up to about something that’s happened to you, in regards to your gender and race at the same time. But having a group is really good, because of that.”

This series is the result of GUM’s planned collaboration with the BAME society, aiming to platform the experiences of BAME students. Unfortunately due to the current circumstances, we have had to cancel the project however we’d like to share some of the other responses we received in the process.

Special thanks to Juneyna, Lucy and Indigo, Kofi Nana Oduro Iddrisu for his photo series from around Scotland, and the respondents of our survey.

David Njoku, 19, 3rd year Business student. Host of KingkuRadio at Subcity Radio, Music Producer and Artist:

I am from Lagos, Nigeria. My identity has always been very complex. I am African, grew up in Lagos, lived there all my life but grew up surrounded with what can be seen as western culture and ideas. My grandparents lived in Britain and so did my mother, so I had a lot of an English background. Most of my family is spread across the planet so when it was family reunions it was like the UN. The German , Dutch, American, Canadian, British side of the family all coming together and speaking English or our tribal language. This was coupled with spending most of my summers and winters in the Middle East and/or the UK, shuttling between 3 continents.

I began not to really see myself as just from one culture (my home Nigeria) but a blend of everything. A global citizen. Moving to the west and in general becoming a black African man, not a child, I began to see there are stereotypes, boxes, prejudices that come with that identity,  different to each place. Coming to understand this is something I am still unraveling and discovering.

Staff and students have been very respectful and supportive, the environment is hospitable and doesn’t discriminate against my identity. However, I do not feel represented. Last year I was in a class with about 100-200 students and there were, after I counted, 6 POC that were black. It definitely can be very Intimidating being the only black person or African in the room, especially when a conversation involves history, like colonisation or generally anything about the African continent. And in 3 years I’ve only had one lecturer that was from African descent. I would hope the university employs more POC but I don’t believe it is an obligation.

I’ve named this particular experience ‘The Textbook’. In a 1st year lecture, one of the books mentioned: “The further away from the equator, the more prosperous economically a nation would be.” The book had a diagram of a line that signified this prosperity, a line that only added the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand. I raised a debate that this was either grossly outdated or completely misinformed because I found this level of unexplained bias to be ridiculous. I come from the economic capital of my continent and coming from an entrepreneurial background took great offence. Though growing up very western based, I found the level of western bias in this case was ridiculous and the fact that I was the only one to raise this argument was truly saddening . Needless to say it lasted more than 10 minutes and in the end the teacher who was from an African background but was not the course writer could not justify this claim.

I think [the university] are currently are doing a lot with bringing out forgotten history of POC that studied at the uni or it’s history of slavery. I think it is very hospitable, and can only naturally become more comfortable. It will be weird being the only person in the room that looks like you or discussing slavery, colonialism, all those issues and you’re the only one that has reference in real life. It will never be completely comfortable. It has been something I have and still do sometimes struggle with but you get used to it, because it’s a conducive environment.

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