When it comes to Black History Month and LGBTQ History Month in the UK, Black British queer lives “fall through the cracks of both of those”, according to social justice activist and sexual health campaigner Marc Thompson who recently launched an empowering new archive on Instagram, Black and Gay, Back in the Day which celebrates Black queer Brits pre-2000. With a commitment to “represent the ordinary lives of extraordinary Black queer people”, through these images, not only are some forgotten key community figures memorialised, but so are the clubs, bars, and organisations that formed an integral part of Black LGBTQ+ life back in the day.
With the Instagram page quickly gaining thousands of followers, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with Marc Thompson about his motivation for creating the archive, his intergenerational collaboration with writer Jason Okundaye on the project, what he’s discovered through curating the page, plans to take Black and Gay, Back in the Day beyond social media, and why he thinks Paris is Burning remains such a significant piece of LGBTQ+ culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What was the inspiration and motivation behind creating the archive?
Marc Thompson: “It was Saturday, January 31st and It’s A Sin had just been broadcast on Channel 4. Obviously it told the tale of the AIDS epidemic in the UK in the 1980s. Having lived through it myself I was inspired to create a music playlist called, It’s A Sin – The Black Album (Apple / Spotify), because as much as I loved the show I don’t think that the music in it reflected my lived experience as a Black gay man growing up during that time and going out then. As I was doing that I thought, wouldn’t it be really cool if there was a digital archive of images from that time as well. I was inspired by a similar archive called Black in the Day, which was doing exactly the same thing with Black people in general. I was in the shower, and Black and Gay, Back in the Day came to mind as a title. I set up the Instagram page and put out an email to a few friends saying, ‘Hey, look I’ve got this idea’. Then Jason Okundaye emailed me when he saw the Instagram page. He’s a a young Black gay man whom I’ve known for a few years and we’ve done some work together, and he was like, “Uncle Marc”—because he calls me uncle Marc like a lot of young Black gay men do, which I quite like—”Can I help you with your Instagram page?” And I was like, “Why?” and he’s like, “Well, you know…”. Then this really beautiful intergenerational project developed, because he knows about social media, and he’s a writer, whereas I had the connections with a lot of older folks. So we merged our two creative processes together. He curates a lot of the page and does a lot of the writing around it, I do a lot of the digging and and reaching out to people who I haven’t spoken to for years. So that was the initial idea and then within a week of starting it we went from a few hundred followers to several thousand, which blew my mind because that was not my intention, it was just something I wanted to do which I thought was a bit of fun.”
Although there is some heavy policing of queer accounts on Instagram, it is pretty amazing in terms of Black LGBTQ+ visibility, but obviously that’s contemporary and since we’ve all had cameras on our phones. There’s something empowering and validating about seeing ourselves reflected in images from the past. Why did you decide that you only wanted the images in your archive to go up to the year 2000?
“We were very explicit about it being pre-2000 because we didn’t want any digital images which were captured on phones. We wanted the texture and the richness that comes with photographs that were taken before mobile phones with cameras came along. People are a lot more relaxed in those earlier images, and there’s the dodgy outfits too, all of these different things that come from using old non-digital pictures. People aren’t posing too much and you’re catching people off-guard. The second reason was that with the rise of social media from 2000 onwards there has been a lot more visibility of Black queer life as you mentioned. We can go on Instagram and find loads of contemporary images which show who we are, but there is no repository which shows us as a Black queer community just living life. We were really clear that we wanted to show pictures that were empowering, that showed love, that show community. We’ve only got one picture on there so far of protest, the rest are of people partying, in couples, or at community meetings. We big up places like the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre because that was so important for activism, but also for people engaging socially with each other as well. We want to remember the nightclubs that we went to, the parties we went to. It is about showing us in our richness and our diversity being joyful and engaging. We want young people to realize that this amazing life went before them.”
Seeing that protest image that you mentioned, it struck me that when it comes to archive photographs of Section 28 activism it tends to be the same few images that are shown, partly because famous figures like Sir Ian McKellan and Michael Cashman are featured in them.
“Part of our motivation was that we wanted to show that while these huge shifts and these huge movements were happening in gay life generally—like Clause 28, the HIV epidemic, the fight for equalising the age of consent—we were still getting on with our lives, but we were adjacent to that and those things impacted on us in the same way. So when we first saw that picture of protest I actually thought it was just a protest in Harringay and had no idea what it was. When we dug a little bit deeper, we found out that it was specifically about Clause 28 and having positive images of queer folk and Black folk in libraries. So it was looking intersectionally then as well, which was incredibly eye-opening for me to recognise because in my own life I wasn’t politically active until much later. I didn’t know anybody in my circle who was running off to march against Clause 28 because I felt it wasn’t necessarily my battle.”
Why are there so few images of Black queer life in Britain pre-1980s?
“I think there’s a really good explanation for that, particularly in the UK context. In terms of Black people being in this country in large numbers, we are talking about the 1950s onwards, and if we’re talking about a queer community, white gay men in the UK were not out and about in 1950s and 1960s. You may find one or two pictures of Quentin Crisp or Alan Turing, but they’re not going to be with their boyfriends being lovey. It’s not that we weren’t here, but we weren’t necessarily out, and there wasn’t a big community and we were very private. One of the things that I already knew, but that’s been confirmed by doing this, is that we are a young visible community. Very often I will talk to my friends, who mainly came out in the early to mid-80s, and we describe ourselves as a revolutionary generation, because we were the first group of Black gay men and women to be visibly out and vocal about it. That may have been on the front lines of protest, but it was also socially by creating our own spaces in big numbers, which hadn’t happened prior to the 1980s. Before that there were always small gatherings, and if you knew people you’d know where to go, but it was very underground. We existed, but we just weren’t visible. As a friend who was reflecting on this said to me the other day, ‘If you were a Black man that loved other Black men you would find us.’ It just took one or two connections. I met my first boyfriend when I was 15 and a half, and he was a Black guy and he immediately introduced me to other Black gay men. I’ve met Black men on my journey who for four or five years went to Heaven or went to Brief Encounter, and never met another Black gay men, then one day they did and they were like, ‘Oh shit, amazing!’ In terms of the archive, we will get pictures going back to the 70s maybe, but they will usually be of individuals, and some of these people in the older images just aren’t out, they’re still not out.”
Why did you want to make the archive UK-specific?
“Because we’re Black and we’re British, and when we look at LGBT History Month and Black History Month as Black British queer people we fall through the cracks of both of those. When we do look for people we want to celebrate we either look to the US, because of the numbers and that’s cool, or we look at the big name icons in the UK. We were very clear that we wanted to represent the ordinary lives of extraordinary Black queer people, which these people are.”
In terms of the archive’s title, which is brilliant, clearly you’re using the word gay as it was used “back in the day”, to be inclusive of the entire LGBTQ+ community?
“Yeah, ‘Black and the LGBTQ+ community, Back in the Day’ would not have swung so well. But, yes, it does include everyone. It’s the entire rainbow family.”
In terms of the images you’ve supplied yourself, which is your favourite?
“Oh, that would be the one of me and Brad, my ex-boyfriend. It’s my favorite personally because it reminds me of a time when I was 21 and head-over-heels in love with a really cute American boy, which was everybody’s dream – to meet an American who’s really hot on holiday and have a whirlwind romance! But also because we very rarely see images of Black men loving Black men. I love the intimacy of it, I love the innocence of it. It’s romantic, it’s warm, it reminds me that we are all capable of love and romance, we all deserve it, but we just don’t see it enough, and I wanted to make sure that was one of our first pictures.”
You’ve opened it up for people to send you their own images. What kind of response have you had so far?
“It’s been really interesting. We’ve had a load of stuff sent through to us, mostly from men, but we have had some women reach out to us as well, which has been really welcome and we are trying to get some images from other parts of our community too. The response has been really warm and engaging. I think that people have struggled to dig deep into those photo albums and crates, but when they have done it they’ve found it to be a really lovely experience to go down memory lane. One of the challenges that we have had is around getting permission to post pictures, because we want to be respectful and mindful of people who may be featured in them but didn’t submit the pictures themselves. That’s meant that we’ve had to hold some of our content back, some amazing photographs, until we can get permission from individuals.”
Do you have a favourite among the images that you’ve been sent and that you’ve already posted?
“The one of my friend, Ms Andrew Gold, that would be one of my favorites of the bunch, because it’s a beautiful picture. It’s kind of drag, but it could also be read as trans or non-binary these days as well and Andrew probably would have fallen into one of those categories if he was still alive. It reminds me of one of the first people I met when I came out, who was vibrant, and enormous, and engaging, and all of those things that one would hope from a friend. Looking at it now also leaves me with a little bit of sadness because he is a victim of the AIDS epidemic, and another Black gay man that died as a result of that whom we don’t necessarily remember or celebrate. That happens to a lot of us in our community, they die and they just disappear, Black and white, so it’s a lovely reminder of potential, but yet life lost. It’s poignant.”
Another Instagram account that I think has really harnessed the potential of the platform to do something meaningful and valuable is the AIDS Memorial.
“Yes, I’ve loved that account since its inception. I think it is a beautiful, a beautiful thing.”
The captions on your account are as important as the images in some ways, so we get to learn the stories about these people. You mentioned It’s A Sin, and there was a striking scene in that series where we saw Gloria’s belongings being burnt by his family, and that behaviour wasn’t uncommon. In that case I think it was partly because they ignorantly thought that they might get infected from his stuff, but there was also an element of destroying the items because he was gay. Surviving family members will have thrown away a lot of photographs depicting queer life over the years, not necessarily out of spite, but just because they didn’t see the significance in them, so I think what you’re doing is incredibly important to keep these images in circulation and giving them some context too.
“With that picture of Andrew it’s a little bit of us reclaiming him. I don’t think his family did those terrible things to him, but it’s a little bit of our family reclaiming a member, and letting the younger members of our family know that this great relative existed. Something that we also want to do with the archive is to bring our siblings back into the room, our oldest siblings who may not be around, either because of death or illness, or because they’ve just checked out or they’re living wonderful lives doing other things. That’s why all of it is so important to us.”
Do you envisage the archive potentially having a life beyond social media at some point, perhaps with a book or an exhibition?
“That is certainly my dream, I would love this to become an exhibition with oral history. I’ve already got it visually in my head how it would look and feel and how one would experience it. But for now, because both Jason and I are incredibly busy, we’re just going to let this grow organically. We’ve got some great stuff coming out with Pride and then maybe in the summer we’ll start looking at how we might work in partnership with others to build it up and to take it out into the world. I definitely want to take it beyond Instagram. I think there’s a real need for us to archive this stuff and we’ve had loads of people asking us if there will be an exhibition or a coffee table book, so I think there’s scope for us to do something more than what we’ve done so far, but ultimately it depends on submissions and this is only as successful as the stuff that we get sent, so we’re relying on that.”
If anyone has an image that they’d like to submit to you for the archive how would they get it to you?
“They can send it directly to me at our Black and Gay, Back in the Day email address which is firstname.lastname@example.org, or they can visit the page on Instagram and DM us there.”
“With Prepster we’re continuing to push ahead with all of our PrEP awareness work. We’re fortunate that PrEP is now available on the NHS in the UK, but we’re still advocating to ensure that that PrEP gets to those that need it the most, who may not be aware of it. We know that gay men have taken up PrEP, but younger gay men have fallen behind. Migrant gay men are falling behind as well. Women and the trans community are also falling behind, so we’re doing lot of work to try to ensure that they’re aware that they can get PrEP access, we’re doing advocacy, lobbying, and campaigning around that. There’s still a very heavy focus on our work with Black gay men, and migrant men around all aspects of sexual health so we continue to push that. The Love Tank moves ahead with growing outwards. We recently launched a great project called Black Health Matters to address health inequalities in Black communities and looking at sexual health in straight Black men, and we’ll hopefully do some more work around PrEP and women in the future.”
Finally, what is your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“The piece of culture which I always seem to go back to is Paris Is Burning, because I still think it is the most important, powerful queer documentary that we have had in the past forty years, its influence is unbound. The fact that everything from RuPaul’s Drag Race to young girls in the playground going, “Yes, hunty! What’s the tea?”, all comes from Paris Is Burning. Also, the fact that we are now looking at trans lives and non-binary lives and why they matter, you can follow the thread from that movie to where we are today. So I think I’ll always plump for Paris Is Burning when it comes to that question.”
By James Kleinmann