A celebration of Black and queer identity with Aisha Shaibu-Lenoir
I sat down with Aisha Shaibu-Lenoir recently to talk about her experience as a Black and queer woman living in the UK. Aisha wears her identity proudly and boldly, and she uses her platform to raise up others, and create inclusive and safe spaces for all members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Ahead of this year’s UK Black Pride celebration in London (19th of August, be there!), we talked about the joy that comes with Black and queer people coming together and celebrating their identities, and how important it is to do so to create a strong network of support within the LGBTQIA+ community.
Aisha and I discussed identity, role models, privilege, and all things on navigating the world as a queer and black person; and Aisha shed some light on the issues still at hand, and how allies of all walks of life can show their support and help fight the fights that are still going in.
Could you tell me a little bit about your personal experience as a queer Black woman in London?
“To begin with I’d like to say that being Black and queer in the UK is so much better than anywhere else in the world. There are still quite a few countries in the world where LGBTQIA+ rights are restricted or just non-existent. I think my personal experience over the years has been getting better and better.”
“But there are struggles. The race element plays a big part. Racism generally isn’t as explicit or obvious as it once was, but if you look at the world around us there are systemic racist barriers that exist everywhere. So, you grow up trying to navigate that, and then you add that extra layer, being Black and queer, and it becomes quite complex. It can often take a long time to figure out who you are because you don’t necessarily have the room to experiment, or safe places to go to to explore.”
“This is especially true for those Black and queer people living outside of London. I used to live in Norwich, and because you’re not in the big cities you don’t often get many positive role models surrounding you.”
“But being queer in London is great. I remember when I left London to go study in Norwich I was really excited to get back. I thought ‘there’ll be so many queer people everywhere, I’ll be able to make lots of friends’. As a new person coming to a city this size it can be quite overwhelming though. But as soon as you start to embrace it and look around, you start to find your own space and your own tribe; you’re embraced back. It can take a while, getting to London or finding your people, but that all just gives you room to grow into yourself.”
You spoke about role models and the importance of them. Are there are role models that you either looked up to growing up and/or look up to today?
“For me, growing up, it was difficult. You have classic strong and impactful women role models, like for example Audre Lord – a woman who is so inspiring and has contributed so much to our community. But being black and queer and a woman, it’s almost like those are 3 separate criterias that no one person or character in the mainstream seemed to fit at the time. I ended up having to find different people that could speak to a little bit of who I was.”
“Another thing is that a lot of people who are role models, in all different fields, were doing incredible things, but a lot of them were US based. While that’s beautiful that they’re out there doing their thing and being role models, it can be culturally very different to you. So, whilst I was able to embrace them and see them, they didn’t quite speak to me in the same way from the UK.”
“So, growing up, I don’t know if there was one singular person I looked up to and loved because there was something, or everything, that I resonated with.”
“But, it wasn’t until I was a little older that I was finding more and more activists to look up to and grow from. Like Lady Phyll, a queer Black African woman, she’s closer to who I am and everything I’ve experienced, so she’s someone that I’m able to 100% connect with and look up to.”
You’ve touched on this briefly before, but can you expand on some of the additional challenges that you may face as a queer Black woman, compared to other people in the LGBTQIA+ community?
“Absolutely. I think when you look at history and society, Black women often get sidelined and often are kind of at the bottom of many things; we’re not often thought of at the forefront. We tend to have to work twice as hard, we have to speak louder to be heard, but then of course not be too loud, because then you’re branded as the angry Black woman. It’s these different levels of having to fight for who you are.”
“There’s also the visibility and the beauty standards. You know, I was fortunate to have grown up in Nigeria for part of my life. I grew up in a society where the majority of people there looked like me – when I walked out the door we were all the same. I notice the difference, now, in London, I used to embrace myself differently because I was different. It makes a big difference in terms of your confidence, and how you grow up to see yourself.”
“It’s the same when sometimes families move over to the UK and they want their children to behave like the children here, or become ‘European’, but they aren’t. You end up thinking that there’s something wrong with you because of your skin tone, and in my case because of my sexuality.”
What about the divide of privilege within the LGBTQIA+ community?
“When we look into our own community, there’s also a divide here. Historically, it’s been the cis white men within the LGBTQIA+ community who have been able to benefit most from the changes we are all making. Not the black and queer people.”
“Equal rights are for all of us, but the people who are able to get the most funding, for example, or access venues with a little more ease, it isn’t all of us. A lot of the time it’s the men in the community.”
“It’s just another challenge to be stacked on top of the rest of them, you know? It feels like: ‘You’re queer, you have rights, but actually there is a limit to what you can have with your specific brand of queerness, whereas others can have more.’”
“Of course, when you take a step back and look at all the progress being made it’s still overwhelmingly positive. When the Pride movement kicked off around the world everybody wanted to make a difference. And that difference is being made every day. But it’s not always equal within, so there’s still work to be done.”
What do you think is one of the biggest struggles that Black and queer people still face today?
“For all queer people I think mental health is a really big thing. Talking about and treating our mental health should be paramount because when you’re queer and/or Black you’re so susceptible to having mental health related issues: the things you see happening to people like you, the things that can happen to you, that might have already happened, just because of your sexuality and the colour of your skin.”
“I grew up in a family where it was believed you shouldn’t talk about your feelings, mental health was a myth almost, it was something that happened to white people but not Black people. I believe that mental health is crucial, it demands to be talked about. But when you grow up thinking ‘Oh, I don’t need that, it’s not real’, then often your feelings and trauma and everything reveal themselves in different aspects of your life.”
Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you do at Moonlight Experiences? How does it help young queer Black people find themselves?
“I started Moonlight Experiences because I just didn’t see myself in travel – I didn’t see many services for LGBTQIA+ communities, and services specifically for women within that. But I wanted that for myself, and for others, and I also wanted a way for people to be able to immerse themselves in the community as soon as possible and not feel like they didn’t belong.”
“London is a really great place to be if you’re queer; but it can easily get overwhelming, and you can find yourself in situations where you’re not comfortable, or you didn’t go to the right place. I think it’s important to have that global connection and support – which is what we do.”
“We contribute to the community by bringing LGBTQIA+ people together to connect, and then we go to queer venues or go to shows or LGBTQIA+ owned businesses, etc. just so we can give back to the community as well, and we know where our money is going.”
“Of course you can do all of this on your own, but when you do it with Moonlight Experiences you become part of that community as you travel, and you end up having a lot more fun and forming connections and making friends.”
So, can you tell me about UK Black Pride? Why is it necessary to have a celebration separate from the Pride celebrations in June?
“UK Black Pride turns 18 this year, which is very exciting! And what a lot of people don’t know is that really it touches on everything we’ve been talking about: it’s having a place where you can feel at home, where you can be with your chosen family; and it’s a place that’s been created specifically for you. It’s for us, by us.”
“But it’s also a space where allies can come and support people and they can come and find out what it feels like to be part of our community, and it’s also an opportunity to learn. I think that’s very important. We have a community stage filled with discussions going on for the whole day, we have over 80 community stalls for different organisations and companies that cater to the LGBTQIA+ community.”
“I think it’s a place to also understand what Pride should always be about: it is a protest to be seen and for our rights, and it’s a way of coming together as a community and standing together.”
It’s a celebration of being queer, but is it also a celebration of being Black?
“Absolutely. 18 years ago when it first started, UK Black Pride was a place for anybody that wasn’t white, who didn’t see themselves in the mainstream. It was for anybody of any descent, African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Latin American, etc. and it was about giving them a space that they feel is specifically for them, and they can feel safe.”
“It still is that place. All the struggles exist in the outside world still, but when you come to UK Black Pride, all of that gets lifted away because you don’t have to explain anything – everyone knows and understands – you can just be yourself. You can experience joy, you can be with your friends, with your families; it’s a really beautiful thing to be able to do.”
“So many people from around the world come to experience it as well. There’s just nothing like it. Last year (2022) we broke the world record and became the world’s largest Black pride – everyone just came and celebrated! But that just shows you how important it is as well.”
What is some of the work that still needs to be done?
“Whilst there’s been progress, there’s still work to be done. When we look at where we are now in society and what’s happening and issues surrounding trans people, issues still regarding racism, lack of opportunity for women, young people as well, these are things that as a community and as UK Black Pride, we want to address and be at the forefront of.”
“UK Black Pride is about recognizing the things that give us joy, but also the things that need to be worked on. And you can only do that together and that’s that place to come and to unite.”
Can straight Black people attend UK Black Pride? Or white allies?
“Yes, of course. It’s just important to remember who this place is for: it’s for the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s for queer Black people, and Black people. But we’re not going to police who can come and why, as long as you’re here to support us in different ways!”
“You know, we have loads of volunteers from all walks of life. We have loads of people that partner up and support and sponsor who truly are authentic and they want to be part of that movement to play their part. So, I think it’s about knowing what we stand for and respecting the values as well. And once you understand that, and if you have those values and those ethos, then you know, we are aligned essentially and you’re always welcome.”
What makes you most proud of what you’ve achieved, Aisha?
“What makes me proud is being able to contribute to the future and being able to find ways of uplifting others. Whether it’s through my work at Common Press or at Moonlight Experiences, or even doing these interviews with you and spreading the word. I’m happy that I can create inclusive spaces in London, because there’s not that many, and being able to make sure that people do connect and network.”
“I’m also proud that I can showcase the different ways to do things. You can be more sustainable in your support, you can give money back to the community and boost that economy. You can create a business that’s profitable that also has good values and ethos, that puts the community first.”
“So I think for me, that’s mainly what I’m proud of, proud to be, you know, putting in those steps and showcasing that you can do more and you don’t have to only prioritise one group of people, that it’s okay that multiple people share those benefits to share find equal footing in the long run.”
And what are you most proud of for yourself?
“Just finding my confidence and being unapologetic about who I am, and being able to pass that on to people as well.”
“Every so often when I’m around London I bump into someone that I mentored in the past when I was in Norwich. They recognise me and I recognise them, and we talk about how they’re doing etc. But it’s a reminder that these small things, like volunteering or speaking up, really do leave a lasting impression on young people. It’s so beautiful to see them and to know that one small action on my part was able to support them in some way, shape or form.”
“That makes me proud because by being visible, by being proud of who I am, I’m essentially supporting somebody else or paving that way. And I think it is important because that way has been paved by other people for me, by other pioneers, by people who have lost their lives, by our ancestors who have done so much so that we can have rights. So, I think it’s only an honourable thing to do the same and to be mindful of that.”
Do you have any words of advice for any young Black queer people out there?
“Be kind to yourself and be patient. It can often feel like you’re alone but you’re not and know that things get better and things will happen for you. You deserve all the joy and all the opportunities that come your way.”
“And as time goes by, it does get easier and you can be whatever you want to be. It may sound a little bit like a dream or like a far fetched reality, but I really am very, very serious in saying that you can make it and you can become everything that you deserve to be.”