A shocking video emerged on Twitter recently of a young black man from London Fields being stripped naked and beaten up for having a sexual relationship with another guy.
Over the years, Hackney has become a more inclusive community – the election of openly gay mayor Philip Glanville is a testament to that – and most residents have no issues with the sexuality of other human beings. Unfortunately, this openness is not the reality for everyone.
Growing up in the borough as a gay, black man, I quickly learned my sexuality is still taboo for many people who share my skin colour.
To this day, large parts of the African and Caribbean communities believe being gay or LGBTQ is a sign of weakness. They consider someone like me to be a vulgar, sexual deviant, cursed with a “white man’s illness” – a sickness they see as a direct product of ungodly, indulgent tendencies.
I read an article recently about the murder of Nonki Smous, a lady who was burned beyond recognition in South Africa. Smous was believed to be gay, and her body was found just metres from a church. The killing epitomises the struggle of LGBTQ people within black communities.
Lesbians in South Africa still live in fear of so-called “corrective rape”, one case of which resulted in eight men killing a woman named Noxolo Nogwaza in KwaThema township near Johannesburg in 2011.
Although these are extreme examples, the likes of which we thankfully haven’t seen in Hackney, the beliefs that inspired them are still shared by some residents with ties to Africa.
A study by charity Love Not Hate found 41 per cent of LGBTQ people in South Africa know someone who’s been murdered due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Hatred travels across borders, and after reading those shocking figures, I was less surprised that it still bubbles under the surface of Hackney’s huge black population.
I feel incredibly lucky that my experience growing up gay was actually very pleasant. I was never a victim of homophobia, but I think part of the reason for that is how open I was about my sexuality from a young age.
For the guys I hung around with during secondary school, many of whom are involved in gangs, I think my honesty about being gay took away the shock factor. They didn’t feel like I’d betrayed them by lying about it.
Given that I’ve always been treated with respect, I think it must be a sensitivity to betrayal that leads to incidents like the one in London Fields, rather than homophobia. Gangs, after all, hinge upon the absolute loyalty of their members and a rigid code of honour. It still doesn’t excuse any violence, but it oversimplifies the issue if we just say ‘Gangsters hate gays’.
What’s important is to help young people, from all walks of life, come out without fear of intimidation.
A spokesperson for Project Indigo, a group that supports young LGBTQ people in Hackney, told me: “Bullying, rejection and stigma can lead to fears about coming out for anyone, regardless of community. These feelings often have negative effects on a person’s mental health.
“It is important to state that these problems are not specific to BME communities. However, the lack of visibility for black LGBTQ people can make it harder for other young black LGBTQ people to come out.”
As a black man, I feel a duty to try and change the stigma surrounding sexuality within my own community. If black people see me on stage, on TV, or just on the streets – a gay man who walks, talks and looks like them – I hope they might, in some small way, be inspired to express themselves the way I do.
I see myself as a role model for black youngsters and it’s a privilege I take very seriously, as I do my platform as an ambassador for the charity Stonewall.
If I could sum up my message, I would quote Stonewall’s slogan: “Some people are gay – get over it.”
For more information about Project Indigo, email email@example.com
I’m Empire is on Twitter at @callme_Empire