Finding a community
Do you feel like you belong in your community, your society? Who do you turn to when you need support? Rainbow Pilgrims share stories of feeling hidden, but also inspired and empowered by our communities.
It’s important for everyone to see positive role models around them. Especially so if you identify as LGBTQI. Rainbow Pilgrims share how role models play a key role in self-validation and confirming our identity.
Pliny grew up in Mauritius, at a time when homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder. He talks about the importance of having visible gay role models. In fact, it was the visibility of his rainbow thunderbolt pin that connected him to Rainbow Pilgrims in the first place, following a chance encounter with the exhibition creators.
On growing up in Mauritius:
Mauritius is quite a small country, very insular, and I think while growing up and knowing a little bit more about my sexuality I felt very much alone, not knowing anyone else who was gay, or LGBT. So on that perspective it was pretty much isolated I would say. While growing up being a student, there was nothing really for us being gay. No place to be safe … no representation in the media at all. Things have changed now, but growing up you were almost completely invisible. I do think it’s important to be visible. Because, from experience, people that have been homophobic, people that have prejudices, are bigoted, once they have been in contact with somebody who is LGBT, they see them around, they see actually, yes, they are gay, so what? There is a journey, people do shift, people do change, it does happen. And I think visibility plays a big role in shifting this attitude. And more importantly, it also gives people some more positive role models. While growing up I had no positive role models for LGBT. The only role models I had is - you will die young, you will die of AIDS, you will die lonely.
On wearing his rainbow thunderbolt pin:
It’s a rainbow thunderbolt. I started wearing that at uni, when I came out as well because I think it’s important again about the issue of visibility. It’s a way of being visible, of being out there. It’s a way also of acting as an ice-breaker with people, saying I’m here, I’m LGBT, so look at me, I’m okay. Actually I was at an event that was celebrating the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. I was meeting with some friends and waiting, I think it was raining a little bit, and Surat and Susanne came walking past me. I was wearing a blue outfit, with my pin. And Surat said ‘Oh I love your pin, how nice’. And we got chatting and he told me about the project and I thought, well that sounds interesting, I would like to get involved with it. So the pin helped to break ice and connect people. That’s why I wear it as well.
Henry grew up in a travelling family, as part of the Gypsy, Roma Traveller (GRT) community. Here he draws parallels between the discrimination people in this community face to that experienced by the LGBTQI community. Still, LGBTQI people are not always recognised by the services fighting for the equality of GRT people.
For English Romany travellers, traditional travellers like myself, there’s nothing. So I started looking through Google pages, and I found this traveller forum, where other gay travellers can speak. I couldn’t believe how many people were on there and just wanted to talk. So I had a swift conversation with my mum and said I really need to push this agenda. I’m just going to try and make services aware. And I never got no acknowledgement. I felt that when you learn about LGBT and what they stand for, about acceptance, love, promote love and equality, you can relate to the inequalities that that community face as very similar to what the GRT community face. And I was fighting those services to be accepted. I was fighting for those services to identify me as a gay man in the GRT community. And the very service, I remember speaking to an officer, and he said, ‘There are no gays or lesbians in the GRT community’. Some people just want to live a quiet life, some people want to be private and so on, and you have to respect that, but no I’m definitely in the people’s eye and media and so forth, because I feel like you have to be a role model for others. I think if I can give people the inspiration to actually come out and be gay and be OK as a traveller and surround them with love and acceptance. I can’t do that at the moment until we can get everyone on board.
Acceptance of gender-diverse people used to be far more common around the world. An examination of precolonial sexualities reveals an amazing variety of ways different cultures made space for diverse identities: from Mahus in the Pacific Islands, to Hijras in South Asia and Mashogas in Kenya. Laws brought by Spanish, Portuguese, and English imperialists buried much of this diversity. Here, Victoria speaks about the importance of preserving the history of Babaylan people in her native Filipino culture.
It’s called Babaylan, a male with the female traits, and they [are] said to be a peacemaker of the society that can help if there’s some sort of an argument, there’s some sort of thing to be done. So the people, the native Filipino people, will have to seek the Babaylan for an answer. They’re sort of one of the hierarchy. It’s really amazing to learn the history, but obviously it’s gone, it’s a long time ago now. But you know, there’s already a group of Filipinos wanting to preserve this identity.
I never got to see that scenario of people living out comfortably within their authentic self.
Scotch explains how he was able to realise his identity as a trans man once he came to the UK and saw people living comfortably as LGBT. Listen to his story.
Empowering each other
A supportive community can have a transformative effect on someone’s life, providing a place of belonging in a hostile world. Rainbow Pilgrims share stories about the communities that have brought us support and comfort, from places of worship to the Internet.
Since arriving in the UK, Cee has joined a women’s support group and volunteers to help homeless people. She explains how meeting people that have had similar experiences to her has made her feel less lonely.
Well I go to this group for women against rape, I go to that women’s programme … And we discuss a lot, to make us grow, to empower each other, which is good and I find them encouraging and I’m not lost when I’m with them. I’m really happy. Because I find that there are so many women who have got so many problems like I had gone through. We are empowering each other and we are happy. So for that reason I don’t find myself lonely. And I also sometimes go out with my partner to a gay pub here and we like it and sometimes we go to local pubs which we also enjoy. I also help people, I volunteer to feed other people who are homeless and people who are like me, immigrant like me, and people who are seek asylum and still waiting for their cases to be had so I helping that.
Monica left Uganda in 2004 after facing abuse from her family and community for being a lesbian. Ten years later, she found a supportive community in the Metropolitan Community Church. She describes how this community has become her family.
Before, because I wasn’t open and I wasn’t really in communities and organisations [in the UK], I didn’t even see that it exists, that there are LGBT people. But as I started going to organisations and seeing people, they know now I’m a lesbian. I feel like being LGBT is comfortable in England and happy because you are free, you’re not scared that if I hold a lady there will be somebody who slap me or will stone me, so I think it’s okay to be a lesbian in UK. I’ve got into the religious community here, because where I go is a gay church now. I’m being welcomed, I’m being happy. When I got to church I know that I’m going to meet my family, it’s like my family now.
Harry is an illustrator from Greece and talks about his experience of being a trans man in that context. For him, finding a community on the Internet was a ‘huge wave of self-discovery’ and is what eventually gave him the support he needed to come out to himself and the people in his life.
Most Greeks think that when you say trans, you mean a trans woman. So when I started suspecting I was trans, it didn’t fit this rule, I thought there weren’t any trans men. I know it sounds silly now, but I didn’t have any evidence of trans men ever existing and I couldn’t access any information on them. But when I got my hands on the internet, I started researching and I realised that there was nothing wrong with me.
We become a visionary not because we chose it, but because that’s the only way to survive.
Eliza talks about the effect that being a queer, femme, working-class immigrant has had on her life in the UK. Listen to her story.
Pride and prejudice
The LGBTQI community in the UK has much to be proud of and can offer a welcoming place for many. However, the fact that some experience prejudice within the gay community shows that there is no room for complacency in the battle for equality.
I don’t want to pretend who I’m not. So my partners, my friends they told me about LGBT. I’m happy I met so many people and they are all gays like I am and helping me out a lot. – Adnan
It was only when I went to Manchester, and I saw openly gay students, I saw posters for the GaySoc and I sort of plucked up the courage to go to a GaySoc meeting made loads of gay friends. Er, gays and lesbians. I thought hey this is me. – Joe
[In the US] for the first time I experienced almost like a positive image of gay people. It could be cool to claim that identity, I felt. - Anom
The main thing I discovered [about the fetish scene] was that not all of them were hot people with amazing bodies. You could see everything, skinny guys, fat dudes with muscle Marys, and it was so exciting and so relieving in a way. It was like, oh my god, there’s a place here for everyone. I discovered that the fetish scene is actually really empowering, because what it all boils down to: we’re all people. – Ido
A lot of the sort of white, middle class LGBT people feel that the fight is over, is done, is accomplished. But the reality [is] that the majority of LGBT people are still struggling. – Anom
Going out, meeting new people, having a dance, having a laugh, it served its purpose. When I was younger, moving to another country, I just wanted to be me, 100% gay and hanging out in gay places made that easier. Whereas I think now, yes I meet people but I meet them through different avenues. I wouldn’t want to go clubbing every week. – Shiraaz
It is nice to know that there are people like us, there is a community there. Even if there is only one other that you meet, that will be a strength that you can take from that. Like any other community, [the LGBTQI community] doesn’t only consist of the good people. There are good and bad and everything. But at least there are possibilities that we can be whatever we want to be in relation to our gender, our sexuality, our personal identities. – Cano
I saw on the TV, there was a Pride. These were people who were marching and were not afraid of themselves. – Cee
I’ve got the support of friends. We go to church together, we go to meetings together, we go to Pride together. I go to Soho Square sometimes, have some pints, I dance. I’m comfortable. – Stephen
Sometimes the gay scene can be quite racist … The only sort of people that would show an interest were like older, white guys. And at that time you know my racial identity was very sort of prominent in my life and I thought you know, you’re hitting on my just because I’m Chinese. And young, and stuff. So I felt that there was an imperialist sort of slant on them. – Joe
I think we shouldn’t be complacent with any rights that we have got [as LGBTQI]. Even though our lifestyles have improved, I think we should still always remain vigilant. – Pliny
[In the London gay scene] you meet people from all around the world. I never would have thought I’d have a Brazilian boyfriend, a boyfriend from Jamaica… You wouldn’t have those opportunities in New Zealand. – Arron
Joe was a member of his teachers union’s LGBT advisory committee. While on the committee, he helped produce the union’s first booklet on sexuality, designed to combat homophobia in schools and show that the union would support its LGBT members. At first the union was cautious of the committee being called ‘LGBT’, so they were initially called the ‘Sexuality Education and Employment Advisory Committee’. Some years later, they were able to change their name to the ‘LGBT advisory committee’.
We had workshops about coming out at school, to come out or not to come out, how to deal with homophobic harassment, by colleagues or parents or students. And when we go on the Pride marches in London we have our own special Union Pride banner as well. I was the President of the Sheffield branch and there’s me with my badge. I’m quite proud about that. I’ve only seen another two or three Chinese union activists in the whole country. So I suppose you could say I was a pioneer in that respect. It was an achievement which I felt quite proud of.
Originally from New York, Eugene first came to the UK in July 1972 while doing a summer course at university. It was his first time outside of North America, so this was ‘really a big adventure for me’. It was also the start of the gay rights movement. He describes his first day in London, when he came across a gay rights event.
Tour bus is going around to Trafalgar Square and the guide says ‘And here’s the famous Trafalgar Square, and we have one of our events going on here, looks like a protest. What is it, oh! Gay rights haha, look at ‘em all!’ And he says, ‘This is really unusual, never seen anything like this before’. Turns out this was the first gay rights event in Trafalgar Square. Ever. And so we’re circling around and the two women with short haircuts sitting together in the front of the bus gave him a dirty look, and he said, ‘Well, I guess I really shouldn’t make fun of those people because it’s an illness, so uh, it’s really sad to see this going on.’ I went, well, that’s my first introduction to London.
Alexander grew up in Los Angeles in a Christian, Korean family and came to the UK to study. Although he found his gay community in high school very supportive, his experiences of gay male culture in New York and the UK have been more negative and alienating.
The standard complaint that a lot of gay Asian men have with these applications is that why is it that when you go on something like Grindr, why are there heaps of people who say ‘No fats, no femmes, no Asians’? And then the standard response to that is ‘well oh it’s my preference’. The people who’ve created these apps, they try to defend the people with these preferences. They say, yes everyone should be equal, but a person’s own preferences are private and they almost put it in sacred, religious terms. But I question if it’s their own preferences, a) why are they so aggressive about advertising it? b) why do they want to impose it on other people? In their friend group, do they see other white people, men who they know are gay, why do they shut down people who are dating black people or Asian people. Why do they try to sabotage the relationships of Asian people, or people of colour who are dating white men? If it’s really just a preference, why do they treat the people who aren’t their preference the way they do, and differently depending on their race?