Wand we launched the digital file Black and gay, in the past on Instagram at the start of LGBTQ History Month on February 1. We wanted to document the lives of queer black people in Britain, not just those seen as icons or famous figures, but ordinary people who contributed to the construction of black culture and frequented black spaces. The response was overwhelming and our collection of images, based on public presentations, grows every week.
Our priority is the history that has been buried – the old clothes, wrinkled photographs, brochures and posters – hidden in people’s houses. This gives our archive the feel of a family photo album, with images that evoke memories, connect old lovers, and educate younger black queers about spaces that have existed in the past.
We are two black gay men: Jason is 24 and Marc 51, so there is a generational age gap between us. We met when Jason was writing his undergraduate dissertation on HIV rates among black men who have sex with men; Marc is the director of the community health action group the Love tank. We searched for photographs taken before 2000, to capture the generation of black queers that belonged to the days before digital visibility and social media. The project has been a way of showing how the past has enabled and structured the present: the Precious Brown club night of 1997 is the Pxssy Palace of 2018. The Vox nightclub of 1993 is the Queer Bruk of 2020.
It is a file of fun, pleasure, dance, music and friendship. But it also reflects sadness and pain when we upload pictures of those who have died, many of them prematurely due to AIDS, poor mental health or other illnesses. Those who knew them leave comments in tribute. It is this that gives us a sense of urgency: we must preserve these lives within our archive because this particular generation of queer British blacks is getting old. And over time, as people withdraw from the black queer scene, they become difficult to track. Therefore, we must keep these stories and history alive, vivid and visible for all to see.
Marc and Brad at home, 1992
Bagasse: This was the first photo we posted, and it is my personal favorite and one of the most powerful. It’s me with my first love, Brad. He was from the United States and I was from London. We met in 1990 at Nwangi, a black gay club night at the Market Tavern pub in Vauxhall in South London, which has since been demolished to make way for the new US embassy building. I love this image because it is a rare image of black gay love and intimacy; it is radical simply because it puts the love of black homosexuals front and center.
Colin and Caz, late 80s
Bagasse: This photograph is of the brothers Colin and Caz at the Lesbian and Gay Center in Cowcross Street, London, in the late 1980s. It challenges the narrative that black families do not accept queer children. It also acts as a reminder of a very important place in LGBTQ history and emphasizes the need for spaces that are separate from the commercial gay scene. The Lesbian and Gay Center opened in 1986 and prided itself on meeting the diverse needs of the community, creating specific spaces for women and black people.
Ajamu and Winston in Brixton, 1992
Bagasse: In the early 90s, there were very few bars and pubs that catered to the needs of the black LGBTQ community. But we’ve always managed to forge our own. Brixton is home to a large Afro-Caribbean community and black LGBTQ spaces. So when the Brixtonian opened in 1990, it quickly became the South London queer black spot. Directed by the occasionally outrageous bon vivant and storyteller Vincent Osborne (Lady O), it was well known for its lock-ins and after-hours cocktails. The bar also housed the Shugs nightclub, run by “Big Pat.”
DJ Biggy C with the vocal house music trio Jomanda at the Vox, 1993
Bagasse: For many years, LGBTQ black clubs were run predominantly by white gay men. The community had very little ownership of the spaces in which we socialized. When the Vox opened in 1993, it was a game changer. It was a club run by queer blacks located on two floors at one address on Brighton Terrace in Brixton. On Friday nights, he catered to the diverse tastes of black gays. From the club boys to the dancehall queens to the homothugs, everyone was welcome. Downstairs, you would listen to house, disco, and R&B. Upstairs, R&B, hip-hop, soca, Jamaican dancehall and bashment. No night would be complete without the appearance of the Glamor Crew, a tight-knit group of fabulously dressed young black gay men who were inspired by the Harlem dance scene. I particularly love this photograph as it shows my best friend, DJ Biggy C, who has played a central role in the black LGBTQ community for over 30 years. The Vox lit the fuse for the rich black LGBTQ party scene we have today.
Yvonne Taylor, 1975
Bagasse: Here’s a gem of an image: Taylor has been a dean of the black LGBTQ community for years. She was one of the founding members of a collective of black promotoras with Sistermatic, a sound system run by lesbians. They hosted a monthly party at the South London Women’s Center in Acre Lane, Brixton, from 1986 to 1992. She then ran several other club nights and for the past 15 years has been the promoter of Sunday Happy Days, a club night. held at the Century Club on Shaftesbury Avenue in London. It’s one of the oldest, taken in 1975, and illustrates the long history of queer black women.
Ted Brown on a bike, early 70s
Jason: I love this photo of Uncle Ted. In this photograph, he would have been in his early 20s, about the age I am now, and shows his early career as a journalist for gay media. We’ve had a lot of discussions about being London-based black gay journalists at different times, and the kind of internal battles you’ve won to ensure coverage of certain stories ensures that gay media is inclusive and addresses workplace discrimination. There aren’t many black gay journalists even now, although my friends Otamere Guobadia, Josh Lee, and Ben Hunte are great examples, so it’s inspiring to see him on the front lines all those years ago.
David McAlmont before Pride, 1992
Jason: David looks amazing here and the image reminds me of how my friends and I planned our outfits, took photos, and praised each other’s attacks before going to Black Pride. David’s fashion here is glorious. Some people have wondered if the character of Roscoe Babatunde in It’s a Sin was inspired by his fashion, although Omari Douglas, the actor who played Roscoe, has told us that it is pure coincidence.
Ain and Marilyn, 1997
Jason: When we posted this photo of Ain Bailey and DJ Marilyn, two of my friends (a queer black couple) commented on how much the photograph resembled a photo of them in the 1990s. It is a lovely, fun and intimate photo, showing the launch of the queer black women’s night, Precious Brown, held at the Candy Bar in Soho. Soho has now become synonymous with the “whitewashed” frontier of gay nightlife and is often misperceived as a playground for a predominantly white LGBTQ crowd, so it’s wonderful to know that there was a ladies night out. queer niggas held at the heart of it.
Patrick Liverpool sitting on a wall in Brixton
Jason: This is probably my favorite of all the photos we have uploaded so far. I’ve heard warm stories about Patrick Liverpool, who died in 2001 – about his great outfits and decadent parties, his Brixton home is filled with black gay men from all corners of London. But what has stuck with me is her duty to care for the black gay men she met, often strangers she took in to provide shelter, food and safety. His memory, as expressed through those who knew him, is a real testimony to the enduring and revolutionary love we practice for each other.
Ajamu at pool table, 1983
Jason: When I asked Ajamu about this photograph, he told me that this is how he used to walk around Huddersfield when he was 20 years old. It’s erotic and unapologetic about fun, pleasure, and kinks. I find how he shaped himself as an isolated black gay man in a small northern town inspiring because, in his words, he became the very image he needed to see. It’s a punk aesthetic that I think also provides some diversity to the archive in terms of the youth subcultures that black gay men have belonged to.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism