‘I thanked the ancestors it is not something you can box up neatly’: uncovering stories of Black and Brown LGBTQ+ activism in post-war Britain

Image from the first OWAAD conference (1979)

By Sue Lemos


Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people have a vibrant history of activism and community spaces in Britain, but it was only until I delved into the ruckus! Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans cultural archive and Black and Brown lesbian herstories that I uncovered the trailblazing lives of my elders. LGBTQ+ history seemed like a White thing with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), Ian McKellen, and Peter Tatchell ever-present in popular renditions of Britain’s gay past. I would later learn about American-born Black gay activist Ted Brown, who the old guard of the Black LGBTQ+ community reverently refers to as the ‘father of the movement’. Ted was an early member of the London GLF formed at the London School of Economics in 1970, joining soon after he ‘cart-wheeled’ across his living room at the news of a new gay group.[1] The London GLF was inspired by its American counterpart which blossomed after the iconic Stonewall uprising in New York, 1969. The Stonewall mythology dictates that gay men, drag queens, trans women and lesbians, many of whom were Black and Brown, resisted a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar and subsequently sparked a gay liberation movement across the western world. Historians have long troubled this popular narrative, however, inviting us to look at specific national, regional, local and personal stories that constitute LGBTQ+ history here in Britain.


In recent years we have seen efforts to challenge the Whiteness of LGBTQ+ history in Britain, but often these attempts parade Black and Brown figures from American history as symbolic representations of the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community. Self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde, canonical writer James Baldwin and the legendary Stonewall revolutionaries Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera are among the American pioneers that frequent the lists of LGBTQ+ historical figures in the media. Though the likes of Lady Phyll, activist and founder of Black Pride UK and the late Justin Fashanu, who was the first openly gay footballer in Britain, are among the trailblazers from British history that are receiving attention, there is still so much more to be learnt about Black and Brown LGBTQ+ history in this country.

Lady Phyll, activist and founder of Black Pride UK [3]

Our preoccupation with the US, coupled with the marginalisation of Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people in representations of British history reinforces the powerful erasure of non-Whiteness from national memory. Yes, it’s empowering to celebrate and remember the triumphs of our forebearers across the Atlantic, but as a historian and queer Black person living in contemporary Britain, I yearn for the untold stories of those who resisted, survived and thrived upon these shores. A history of the great and (fabulous) is also not the solution. Fixating on individual pioneers tells us very little about the fascinating history of creating spaces, community and kinship for Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people who lived in Britain. History is not just a thing of the past, it has the potential to create a stronger feeling of community, belonging and pride for Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people today. The stories we tell about Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people are one of the ways we can challenge the White-centric portrayals of the LGBTQ+ community, and more broadly a rather racist image of British history.

History is not just a thing of the past, it has the potential to create a stronger feeling of community, belonging and pride for Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people today. The stories we tell about Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people are one of the ways we can challenge the White-centric portrayals of the LGBTQ+ community, and more broadly a rather racist image of British history.

The words of my elders (lesbian herstories, oral histories and archival documents) recall the 1980s as a whirlwind of parties, conferences, art and activism for queer Black and Brown people. You’d be hard-pressed to narrow it down to a singular ‘Stonewall’ like moment. Valerie Mason-Johnson and Ann Khambatta in Lesbians Talk: Making Black Waves, the first Black and Brown lesbian herstory published in Britain, salaciously narrated that Black and Brown lesbians were ‘Out with a Vengeance’.

Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people during the 1980s were increasingly more visible in political circles, often organising under ‘political blackness’, a rendering of ‘blackness’ that recalled the revolutionary language of Black Power in 1960s and 1970s Britain. ‘Political blackness’, often termed ‘Afro-Asian’ solidarity in post-war Britain was not derived from African heritage or associated phenotypes, rather it spoke to a unifying second-class status for Commonwealth citizens of African, African-Caribbean and South Asian descent shaped by non-Whiteness and Empire.  

Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people had to fight for space and visibility amid the overwhelming Whiteness of the lesbian and gay movement and the heteronormativity and pernicious homophobia within Black and Brown ‘grassroots’ organising. In 1981, the first recorded Black Lesbian Group was formed in London after debates over sexuality within the Black and Asian women’s movement crescendoed. The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), an umbrella organisation that formed a national network of Black and Asian women’s groups, held its third conference at Starcross School in Islington, London where hostility towards Black and Asian lesbians ensued after they demanded a lesbian-only workshop. Perhaps 1981 could be characterised as our ‘Stonewall’ year; the Gay Asian Group was also established in London, which, after a couple of name changes – first to the Black Gay Group and later to Black Lesbian and Gay Group (BLGG) – birthed the self-declared ‘first Black Lesbian and Gay Centre [BLGC] in Europe’.

Image shows a panel of four OWAAD leaders on stage at the first OWAAD conference in 1979.
Image from the first OWAAD conference (1979) from the Black Cultural Archives, London UK [4]

The newsletters of the BLGC provide a window into the national and international significance of Black and Brown LGBTQ+ activism in late twentieth-century Britain. Initially funded by the Greater London Council in 1985, the BLGC project began as an idea proposed during lively discussions within the BLGG, who often convened at Gay’s The Word bookshop on a Friday. Though based in London the BLGC project was focused on creating a community centre for Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people that extended its links far beyond the boundaries of the city. It advertised and communicated with Black lesbian and gay groups in Leicester, Birmingham, Manchester and abroad. Delegates attended International Lesbian and Gay People of Colour conferences in the US and the BLGC hosted a London conference in 1990. I hope researching organisations like the BLGC can reframe a predominantly White and parochial view of LGBTQ+ history in this country.

Researching Black History in Britain, I am aware of the tendency to reimagine a multicultural Britain by historicising landmark moments that occurred in the capital. The BLGC’s prescient warning: ‘NO TO LONDONCENTRISM !!!’ in 1986 underscored my hopes for the flourishing of Black and Brown LGBTQ+ histories and memory in our present. As an undergraduate student at the University of Warwick, I was amazed to learn that the cataclysmic OWAAD was formed at a meeting at the Students’ Union in 1978 solidifying Coventry’s place in the history of the Black and Asian women’s movement. Black lesbian activist and academic Gail Lewis was a founding member, which begs the questions of how many more Black and Brown LGBTQ+ figures should be remembered as part of Coventry’s past? And perhaps more importantly, what is the significance of Coventry in the history of Black and Brown LGBTQ+ activism in post-war Britain?  

There are a multitude of stories to be told and retold about Black and Brown LGBTQ+ life and activism in Britain, but many will remain untold if prevailing historical narratives are not questioned and rewritten by their authors and readers. The national and international BLGC community and the hidden histories of Coventry are among a mosaic of stories that are yet to be uncovered. Inserting a few stories of Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people who lived in Britain will not simply remedy the Whiteness of LGBTQ+ and British history. The complexity of Black and Brown LGBTQ+ life and activism should be mirrored in the way we remember the past. Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people cannot be neatly defined and neither can their histories.


[1] Talking Black: Lesbians of African and Asian Descent Speak Out

[2] Sourced from: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/equityDiversityInclusion/2011/05/exclusive-interview-with-ted-brown-gay-liberation-front-veteran/

[3] Lady Phyll, activist and founder of Black Pride UK – photographed by Kofi Paintsil for The Guardian (2021)

[4] Image from the first OWAAD conference (1979) from the Black Cultural Archives, London UK [3]


‘This series is part of the Queer Immigrants of Colour project, co-funded generously by the Coventry City of Culture and Slanguages programmes.’

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