On 31st October 1987, the UK saw its first ever national conference of Black gay men. Under the title In This Our Lives, participants considered a range of issues. These included Black Lesbian and Gay history, fears and prejudice within the Black community, spirituality, bisexuality and a range of health issues.
Organised by the London Black Lesbian and Gay Centre, it was held at Hampden Community Centre in North London. Black men from cities like Manchester, Leeds, Leicester and Bristol attended.
But despite the obvious importance of such a conference it seems that there were few, if any, tangible records of the event. The poster appears to be the only remaining evidence that the conference took place. Nor was there a second such conference.
Thankfully, efforts were made to address this on the 20th anniversary of the conference. On 18th October 2007, In This Our Lives: The Reunion sought to bring together the original participants to draw upon and preserve their memories of the event. It was organised jointly by South Bank University and “the rukus Federation” a “Black LGBT cultural archive”.
Participants at the original conference were asked to sit on a panel where they were asked a series of questions about the 1987 event. It’s from their responses (documented in the book, Out of the Ordinary: Representations of LGBT Lives, edited by Ian Rivers and Richard Ward) that we can get some insight into the conference dynamics.
For example, we learn that the event was advertised in the Black press. It was a radical move for that time, but for organisers it was about being visible in the general community as well as to each other.
“Putting adverts in the Black press was a first. We were determined to get publicised.”
But visibility as gay men within the Black community was only part of the problem. Many felt that visibility as Black men within the gay community was also a problem. Some talked about being excluded from community organisations and, when they were admitted, they experienced a reluctance from those organisations to address the discrimination they were experiencing. On the social scene various mechanisms were in place to exclude them or at least make them feel like they shouldn’t be there.
Disappointingly (but perhaps unsurprisingly), there were young Black men attending the 2007 ‘Reunion’ conference who talked of similar experiences.
But, the 1987 conference was about more than articulating negative experiences. Panellists in 2007 also explained how the first conference helped them shape their sexual, racial and political identities.
“Coming along was a real eye opener for me. It was a real step forward and it was very assuring that not only could we actually lead the way as far as general civil rights were concerned but we could actually take an initiative ourselves as Black gay men…that was a real step forward.”
- All quotes taken from the book Out of the Ordinary:Representations of LGBT Lives, edited by Ian Rivers and Richard Ward. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.