OPINION: Being an LGBT+ person of colour is a gift

by Alexander Leon | The Kaleidoscope Trust
Friday, 29 November 2019 17:09 GMT

A gay couple holds hands during a mass wedding in Mexico City March 21, 2014. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Whoever you are – brown and gay, black and trans, Asian and bisexual – you are valid

Alexander Leon is an LGBT+, anti-racism and mental health awareness activist who works for The Kaleidoscope Trust, an international LGBT+ charity

As a gay, mixed-race man I, like many other LGBT+ people of colour, have often had to delicately navigate a world in which both racism and homophobia rear their ugly heads, sometimes even concurrently. Many LGBT+ people of colour come from ethnic communities that espouse “traditional values” that expressly do not tolerate queer people, often propped up by long-held cultural or religious beliefs.

What makes matters worse is that when many of us seek solace in our new community – or among fellow lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people or gay men – we find ourselves not entirely accepted there either. Indeed, over half of us face racial discrimination from within the LGBT+ community itself, with everything from dating profiles explicitly positing "no blacks, no Asians", to complex and pernicious forms of racism like racial fetishisation.

To be an LGBT+ person of colour can mean flitting between these two communities, never quite feeling like you belong, trying to hold yourself together while weathering a type of “compound” or “double” discrimination.

When the communities you turn to for support replicate aspects of the prejudices you face in the wider society, it can be a challenge to be kind to yourself and make space for your own wellbeing and care.

Tragically, as a result of this, it’s often the case that LGBT+ people of colour are more at risk of poor mental health. This is reflected in the stats, for example a Stonewall report revealed that LGBT+ people of colour were more at risk of poorer mental health than their white peers, with 22% having experienced an eating disorder in the past year and 8% having made an attempt at taking their own life

Recently, I spoke to Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England for the new mental health podcast “Just About Coping” about some of these issues.

We contemplated the toll of “double discrimination” on mental wellbeing, and I dispensed my most useful self-care tips. It's fair to say that there have been significant positive shifts in the way society views LGBT+ people, people of colour and poor mental health, but I know myself that explaining to someone that you have depression or anxiety is still an act of vulnerability that requires enormous courage.

Despite trying to will away and deny my poor mental health for many years, I’ve learnt that there is power in owning your struggle. I have strived to be defiant in my acceptance of it in the same way that I learnt to accept my sexuality. The more I have spoken about my mental health struggles, the more I have seen others in my communities empowered to share theirs, and the more I see the stranglehold of stigma begin to loosen.

When it comes to self-care, it's always been important for me to build a strong network of supportive friends. By building and maintaining meaningful relationships with people who are willing to accept us and all aspects of who we are – skin colour, accent, sexuality, gender identity – we can learn to be upfront with our wants and needs and create a new “family”.

Over the past few years, I’ve also recognised the power of kindness – both being kind to myself and others.

When I look back on my adolescence, I recognise that by internalising many of the negative messages around me surrounding my ethnicity and sexuality, I developed an overly critical inner voice. Through therapy and actively practicing self-compassion, I've become kinder both to myself, and others.

Being an LGBT+ person of colour is a gift.

Experiencing life from our perspective is a rare and wonderful thing, and slowly but surely the rest of the world is beginning to catch up on our brilliance. But until then, we need to try and shine bright for those of us in our community still struggling to understand that whoever you are – brown and gay, black and trans, Asian and bisexual – you are valid.