Black and gay back in the day: a snapshot of queer history
Journalist Jason Okundaye and HIV prevention activist Marc Thompson have launched a new digital photographic archive honouring, remembering and celebrating the Black British LGBTQ+ community over a fifty-year span.
Ever wondered what it was truly like to be Black and gay back in the day? The anguish of the AIDS crisis throughout the 1980s, pride marches, established safe spaces and iconic ’90s raves – these moments, light and dark, all paved the way for LGBTQ+ communities today. And while there’s still a hell of a lot of progress to be made, what better way to commemorate the lives and times of our elders than with a reflective digital archive?
Thanks to the combined efforts of journalist Jason Okundaye and HIV sexual health advocate Marc Thompson (who founded PrEPster and is director at The Love Tank), you can now browse through a growing visual compendium documenting and honouring the social lives of Black LGBTQ+ people in Britain, from the 1950s up to the millennium.
From intimate portraits and joyous moments, to leaflets and eye-opening snapshots of crowds battling against homophobia, Black and Gay Back in the Day is a much-needed portal providing rare insights into Black queer history.
The intergenerational duo behind the platform first started talking via social media when Okundaye, 24, inquired about Thompson’s 30 year career as an HIV prevention activist back in 2018, while working on his dissertation. “It started from questions about what it was like organising as a Black gay men in the days of the crisis,” he says. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”
Launching at the start of LGBTQ+ history month, the pair have set out to raise visibility on the Black queer experience and celebrate untold stories away from the big names who are typically remembered. “This project sits within a long tradition of our community passing on knowledge and experiences and stories generationally,” explains Okundaye. “It’s a continuation of that practice within marginalised groups, to ensure our lives are not erased from history.”
By digitising the past, Black and Gay Back in the Day aims to inform and educate future generations. “It’s about telling our history and how we sit alongside the mainstream gay narrative,” says Thompson. “The HIV epidemic, Section 28, the fight for the equal age of consent – and how these intersect with our own struggles with racism and homophobia.”
Scroll through their newly-established Instagram page to witness an already impressive curation of moments. An uber-ripped Mr Gay Britain circa 1986, gatherings at London’s Lesbian and Gay Centre and even a re-worked playlist of the It’s a Sin soundtrack titled It’s a Sin (The Black Album).
“I loved the It’s a Sin soundtrack but I didn’t think it fully reflected the music my friends and I listened to and partied to during the height of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Thompson. “I mixed the playlist with DJ Biggy C, who has DJ’d at nearly every Black queer club and space since 1987. And we wanted to honour those spaces, like BADS, Sombreros and Queer Nation, where we spent our youth and which no longer exist.”
If you’re reading this and you also have memories or visual assets you want to share, Okundaye and Thompson encourage you to get involved. The team are always on the lookout for more photographs, leaflets, posters and old tapes that represent Black queer people from all marginalised genders and sexualities across all locations in Britain, to keep the vision alive beyond LGBTQ+ history month.
“Who knows where this project will take us?” asks Okundaye. “I for one can definitely envision a small exhibition one day of Black queer life in Britain, hosted at a gallery or museum, with a launch night of discussions and music.
“Black LGBT people are only being given consideration in our designated months of February and October and even then, we don’t get much of a look in at all, because people don’t do the work to learn about the history of our community in Britain,” he continues. “We want to change that. After all, Black LGBTQ+ history is British history.”