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On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Culture Trip talks to five London-based activists about gender, identity and the meaning of Pride – and, of course, about their favourite places in the city they all call home.
This story appears in the third edition of Culture Trip magazine: the Gender and Identity issue.
Let’s not pull any punches: London can be tough. If you’re part of the LGBTQ community – or any minority group – you’re even more likely to have felt the harsher side of life in the city. If you’re at the intersection of minority identities, sadly, it’s almost guaranteed.
But London is also a city of love. In pockets across the capital – in quiet, dusty bookshops and in raucous, sweaty nightclubs – people of all backgrounds, colours, religions, identities, acronyms find a place to belong. And, on one day each year, a great glittering river of hope, equality, acceptance and Pride flows through its streets. If you don’t believe us, listen to these five clear, queer voices.
Listen to what the Iraqi, non-binary, Muslim, queer drag queen has to say about the Q in LGBTQ – and don’t be surprised when they explain it with quantum physics. Take heed of the non-binary writer-activist who says it’s not always about the questions but about knowing when to ask. When the black trans poet tells you “there are no rules” when it comes to gender, believe him. If you’re still not sure what we talk about when we talk about Pride, reflect on what it means to the trans couple who have marched in parades for Queen and Country and every queen in the country.
Through their stories of hardship and friendship, introspection and intersection, see a different side of London, the real City of Love.
If you’re a little confused about the Q in LGBTQ, Amrou Al-Kadhi has an analogy to help you better understand the queer experience – and it involves quantum physics, which they say is basically the ‘queer theory of physics’.
“Newtonian physics is like heteronormativity,” they explain. As an activist, drag queen and writer who identifies as non-binary as well as queer, eschewing traditional gender norms, Al-Kadhi uses ‘they/them’ pronouns. “But quantum physics – like queerness – is about de-centring what you think you know and challenging the illusion of feeling in control of how the world works.”
Queerness, identity and intersectionality are threads woven throughout Al-Kadhi’s work, whether it’s their recent TED Talk, their work as a filmmaker and screenwriter – including for Channel 4’s Hollyoaks – or in their forthcoming book Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen.
But Al-Kadhi’s journey to better understand their identity has been far from a straight line. “It’s taken me a long time to understand that identity is far from fixed,” they explain. “You always want to find your tribe when you’re younger, but now I’m about embodying contradiction.”
Al-Kadhi was 13 and living in the Middle East when they first thought they were gay. “And being gay became my main identity,” they say. “I became distant from Islam and my heritage because, in that binary way that you are when you’re younger, I was told Islam was against being gay, and I’m gay, therefore I must be against my heritage.
“But being a gay person in the West made me realise how much gay culture is predicated on whiteness. I started to experience dysphoria within the gay community, in terms of feeling different forms of racism and the obsessive need to be ‘straight acting’ among gay men. It made me realise that I was definitely not a man.”
If they were braver, Al-Kadhi says, they would present as gender non-conforming on a daily basis: “As a student I was in dresses every day, but that was a safe bubble where the university was confined to the same four roads.” Now, in London, they have to be more careful expressing their gender identity, after being subjected to violence and threats in public for being non-conforming. “It’s kind of crazy how gender non-conformism can inspire murderous thoughts,” Al-Kadhi says. “It just shows how people are scared to let go of what they think they know.”
But there are still spaces in the city where Al-Kadhi gets to live the most authentic version of themselves. “Soho Square is the only outdoor public space I’ve felt comfortable making out with boys in,” they say, “and Soho Theatre is such an amazing home and training ground for emerging queer performers – I owe a lot of the success in my drag career to that place.
“As for nightlife, The Chateau – a new queer venue in Camberwell – is by far the most inclusive queer nightclub I’ve been to. It’s so inclusive [of] people of colour, trans and non-binary bodies, and it’s the first queer club where I’ve not felt drowned out by cisgender white men, where I can just dance like a fool and not feel invisible.”
Writing for Hollyoaks, Al-Kadhi has an audience of more than 1.5 million and is working on storylines that involve drag culture and far-right extremism, with identity very much at the heart of both. “There are things you can do to try and smuggle in politics,” they say. “I can write dialogue for characters that’s going to represent queer people of colour with nuance. It’s a Trojan horse writing for a populist audience in a way that might disrupt what people think. I’m most fulfilled when writing for a queer audience, but to really allow culture to change you need to attack it from all sides, like a pincer, and populist TV is one side of that.”
Another side of that pincer attack for Al-Kadhi is Layla, a feature film in development with Film Four: “If you imagine Romeo and Juliet, but the warring houses are corporate pride verses political pride. It’s a tortured love story between this conformist cisgender white gay and a non-binary Sikh Punjab performer, and the poison in this particular Romeo and Juliet is structures of racism and transphobia that mean they can never be together in public.”
All this is to say that the next frontier, as Al-Kadhi sees it, in that continuing fight for LGBTQ equality – which is far, far from over – is achieving intersectionality; it’s achieving spaces where warring sides of an individual’s identity can come together.
“It’s this idea of being too gay for Arabs and too Arab for gays,” they explain, “that’s the whole thing I’m interested in articulating in my work. Rather than being able to exist in all spaces, it’s about actually finding a way to create spaces [in which] your identities that are sometimes at war with each other actually intersect.
“There’s a lot of culture wars going on at the moment, and it’s a battle. It’s a tiring battle. If you’re a white gay man in the community, there’s enough of a sense of belonging; whenever I talk to white gay men, they feel really safe among other white gay men and feel like they have a space. I think now it’s time for white gay men to do a lot more work and incorporate intersectional and queer people into their domains.
“Because at the minute, it’s exhausting, and sometimes you can only really embody it all when you’re lying in your bed alone and you close your eyes.”
“It was a bit of a light-bulb moment where I was like, ‘Yeah, this really fits,’” says Jamie Windust, when explaining their discovery of non-binary identities. It was around four years ago and, like many non-binary people, Windust discovered them while researching online, feeling disillusioned by the binary male and female gender identities.
“I just didn’t know there was an identity that existed that was essentially neither male nor female,” they continue. “I’d never felt like I was fully male, but I also never felt like I needed to transition in a binary sense. I looked into it and realised the technical definition was very accurate for me, and then just kind of went about my day. It obviously then took time for me to implement changes, like pronouns and allowing other people around me to know what [was] happening, but it was fairly simplistic. It just fit.”
For Windust, a non-binary identity is one that’s self-definitive and in a constant state of fluctuation. They first began to explore their identity at university, which they describe as “a pretty queer environment”. While their friends and family are supportive, living as non-binary in a sprawling metropolis such as London can come with its challenges.
“When I’m out and about and I’m meeting new people all the time, I essentially have to come out every day,” they explain. “The way I present and the way I look is something that a lot of people engage with and, in public spaces, it can be negative because people have a lot of questions.
“Questions can be fine, but it’s about knowing that it’s not always necessary to ask those questions. I’m constantly seen as something that’s for other people’s resource or entertainment, so, whether that be people staring at me or taking pictures without my consent, it can be an issue. But it doesn’t prevent me from doing what I want to do.”
Windust’s non-binary gender identity is central to their work. At university, they started the magazine FRUITCAKE, which celebrates transgender and non-binary gender identities and amplifies voices within this community; it is now sold in countries all over the world, including the UK, US, Spain, Germany and France. As well as acting as the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Windust is a writer on gender and identity in mainstream publications such as the Metro and The Independent, and in 2020 they will release a book that is “part memoir, part advice”, aimed at helping young non-binary people navigate the world, from university and relationships to fashion and friends. Earlier this year, they also launched a petition to encourage the government to allow non-binary gender identities to be recognised on official documents, such as passports, which has more than 17,000 signatures at the time of writing.
Despite the questions and the glances from the public (even during this interview, Windust is photographed without consent), they refuse to present any way other than non-binary.
“I make a staunch point of not changing, because that would be inauthentic,” they say. “Often people don’t realise that the visual representation of how I look is directly correlated to my gender identity, so to change how I look would essentially be me not being my fullest self. Luckily, I’m very tough skinned.”
Thankfully, there are plenty of spaces in which non-binary and queer people like Windust can feel a sense of belonging. “I don’t necessarily engage with queer nightlife, which is a massive way in which the community in London interacts, but it’s incredible to have a daytime space like Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury,” Windust says. “As soon as you walk in it’s incredibly inclusive; the environment is warm, and there’s just a ridiculous amount of resources and literature.
“I also love the Southbank. It’s one of the first places I tried to explore when I first moved to London. Even now, whenever I’m stressed or need to zone out, I can just walk from Waterloo to St Paul’s and have a bit of a moment. It’s very classic London – and I like that about it.
“And I know it’s a bit obvious, but, for me, in the daytime, I like Soho. I like the irony of how it’s very tourist-heavy and it’s very busy and there’s a lot of people who aren’t queer, but you do still see pockets of queer people and it just reminds you of why you’re there. It’s steeped in history; it’s edgy, a bit dirty; and when I’m there I just feel like I’m in the right space.”
South London is full of queer history, especially for people of colour, according to Kai-Isaiah Jamal, a young, black trans poet, but only if you know how to go looking for it.
“I didn’t have that,” explains Jamal, who grew up there in a working-class interracial family. “It took me a while to know who I was as my access and exposure to the queer community had been limited.
I came out as bi, then gay and finally trans all in maybe two weeks. It was almost a way to test the waters – to gauge people’s levels of acceptance.
“When I finally could articulate myself and my identity, I found a way to bloom. It was gradual and slow, but now I have such a unique and important relationship to my gender, in a way that most people will never experience.
“When you are taught or have to pick apart your gender – simplify it, complicate it, change it depending on your environment, critique it, fight for it and find a way to reimagine and still love it – you learn so much about the fluidity of gender. There are no rules; even the ones we are conditioned to think are rules suddenly fly off into the abyss of nothing. It’s liberating and was vital in me understanding myself.”
Representation, Jamal says, plays a big part in getting people to a point of understanding who they are, but growing up he knew only a handful of older black people who were gay, none of whom mirrored him; he knew nobody who was trans and black.
Instead, he had poetry. Jamal has loved creative writing for as long as he can remember, and it was through poetry that he was able to talk freely about his own experiences and his gender. Today, his work centres on his identity. “Not because I’m narcissistic… although my selfie count may say otherwise,” he says. “But because it’s the only experience I can fully speak on, so it will be laced with my sexuality, gender and experiences.”
With two books on the way and working as a model, Jamal is providing the representation he never had; he’s showing that black trans men exist.
When it comes to queer history across London, Jamal no longer has to go looking for it: he’s making it for himself. The Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall, for example, is somewhere that’ll always be important to him as it’s where he currently sits as poet in residence. “And, even prior to that, it was somewhere that was always a safe haven,” he says. “In a time when I was suffering with my mental health, feeling alone and confused, I’d spend my days at the cinema or exhibitions – it’s funny how things come full circle.”
And while King’s Cross station may simply be a place for arrivals and departures for some, for Jamal it’s a place intrinsically linked with love: “My girl and I used to do long distance and it holds so many fond and sad memories. So many goodbyes and hellos. So many kisses and last-minute jumps on trains. It’s my most soppy place.”
But it’s back in South London where Jamal gets to live as his most authentic self, at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the former home of UK Black Pride, which takes place every year for the BAME community and its allies.
“The home of Black Pride has always been a huge part of my identity, my access to my chosen family and my community,” he says. “My dad came to the last Black Pride with me, and just having a space that my dad could see me in my truest self, happy and unapologetically myself, was beautiful.”
It’s been 25 years since award-winning transgender filmmaker Jake Graf attended his first Pride, at the age of 15 in London. And while Pride might not quite look the same as it did back then, the principle of what Pride means to Jake has remained the same.
“I remember the first time I went, looking out at thousands of queer people and, for the first time in my life, feeling like I belonged,” he explains. “For me, Pride means feeling proud, feeling visible, being able to walk down the street and feel safe. Pride is about being able to hold your lover’s hand in the street and know nobody is going to attack you. It’s about being able to kiss your lover and know that you’re in a space [where] you belong.”
His wife, Hannah Graf, née Winterbourne, formerly the highest-ranking transgender officer in the British Army, had never attended Pride before coming out as trans in 2013, but for Hannah it’s about knowing she’s not alone. “It’s a concentration of all these wonderfully queer, open and proud individuals,” she says. “I felt completely alone growing up and therefore thought how I felt was completely invalid, so to have Pride where you can see someone who potentially looks like you, it makes life that little [bit] more liveable and happy.”
When we’re looking at the role Pride plays in 2019 and looking at what Pride means to the LGBTQ community, it’s important to look at it through the lens of the transgender experience. The way transgender people are treated in 2019 – with vile, bigoted headlines in the mainstream media and their very existence being challenged on national television – is how gay and lesbian people were treated in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. You only have to look at last year’s Pride in London, when transphobic protesters hijacked the parade, lying down at the front of the march and refusing to move in a bid to spread their transphobic message, to see an example of the attacks the transgender community faces.
“There’ll always be a small group of people from whatever community you come from who want to devalue equality for all,” says Hannah, who will march alongside her husband at this year’s Pride in London. “But one of the beautiful things about Pride is it’s so diverse, and people should just respect other identities and allow them to experience Pride in the way they need to.”
Jake continues: “When someone says to us as trans people, ‘I don’t understand you,’ that’s fine. You don’t need to understand us. We’re not all going to understand what drives us as people; we’re just asking you to accept. That’s all anyone needs – acceptance, not judgement.”
It’s this need for acceptance and visibility that Jake and Hannah think is reflected in the modern-day Pride, which has undoubtedly moved away from activism into a celebration – albeit one with commercialisation that’s loud and impossible to ignore.
“There’s this weird way people look at corporatisation and protest as if the two are anti each other, but I think the two go hand in glove,” says Hannah. “There’s still a space to be protesting, and it’s really important to understand there are huge amounts of inequality around the world, but these big corporates backing Pride are some of the people who are best placed to tackle those things. When you have corporations that are standing alongside the LGBTQ+ community, it’s a powerful thing.”
“It’s important we don’t forget our history, but surely the point was to strive for a generation where there’s no problem being queer and coming out isn’t the be-all and end-all,” says Jake. “Surely the whole point of Pride, as with any activism, is to move to a point where it’s no longer needed.
“I don’t think Pride has suffered through progress, acceptance and privatisation. I’ve seen my wife march with the British Army, I’ve seen drag queens walk by and sprinkle glitter on a 10-year-old’s head. If progress has gotten us to a point where kids can march next to leather masters and their puppies, surely that is what we’ve been fighting for this whole time?”
But Hannah and Jake are testament to the fact that there’s more than Pride that makes London a city of love; their own story is intertwined with the city, starting at the BFI Southbank. “It’s where my wife and I had our first date – and our first kiss,” explains Jake. “It’s an institution of British cinema which doubles up as a riverside hotspot and fine-dining restaurant in the evening, with views overlooking the London Eye, Big Ben and the River Thames.
“And right in the heart of Soho is Soho Square, a little patch of green space shaded by plane trees frequented by the queer kids of Soho, office workers and partygoers alike. Hannah and I often stop off to watch the world go by.
“And as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in London, Dalston is an area Hannah and I often visit on a Saturday night. [It has] some super-hipster coffee shops, great little restaurants and the legendary Dalston Superstore – a dive bar with a different queer night on every night of the week.”
Special thanks to the Dulwich Picture Gallery for providing access to The Colour Palace for this shoot.
This story appears in the third edition of Culture Trip magazine: the Gender and Identity issue. It will launch on 4 July with distribution at Tube and train stations in London; it will also be made available in airports, hotels, cafés and cultural hubs in London and other major UK cities.