When does your preference become racist?

Photography: Chris Jepson www.ChrisJepson.com

Scott Roberts (
@scottjsroberts), former news presenter on Gaydar Radio and editor of Pink News, looks at how sexual racism affects the gay community today.

“No Blacks and no Asians please”. Let me ask you, where have we gone to read such an offensive statement? Are we standing in front of a door sign outside a bed and breakfast or pub in a market town in 1950s Britain? Nope, it’s just a typical comment you can see after a quick trawl through the profiles of guys on several of our most popular gay dating platforms. Yes, welcome to sexual racism in the social -networking era. Racism and homophobia are two forms of prejudice that have been around since the start of modern civilisation, but these days they show up online with far greater prominence than you would expect to find in your average street.

The large number of celebrity cases in the news in the past year (Olympic diver Tom Daley received homophobic tweets during the London 2012 Games and the former footballer Stan Collymore successfully took a law student to court after he was bombarded with racial messages) illustrate the sharp end of malicious, online bigotry. Many people still have not grasped the fact that what you publish online is the same as saying it out loud in a street. This year’s high-profile Twitter ‘troll’ prosecutions may have been a wake-up call for some of the ignorant and also to parts of the establishment.

However, sexual racism, encapsulated by the comments you read at the very beginning, where the author is not seeking to hurt a particular individual, is a more subtle form of stupidity. What does it tells us about our online gay culture if most of us instantly recognise the familiarity of the “no Blacks, no Asians” comment? Of course, everyone is entitled to their own sexual preferences. It would make for a pretty strange world if someone told me who I could and could not fancy – althought that does happen, all too often.

The main reason why I believe sexual racism is wrong is because it promotes the idea that ‘casual’ racism is acceptable. By writing “no Blacks, no Asians” on a profile, a person is basically announcing that they believe these two racial groups of people should be avoided sexually. It is their personal opinion, but when displayed in a public setting it constitutes prejudice, regardless of the context. Society has taken the view that displaying prejudice is wrong. However, the minute we start to compromise with ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ discrimination, the journey to a fully equal society travels in a skewed direction. Rejection is always a difficult thing to deal with, regardless of whether it is racially based or because you are 5ft 7.

As a 17-year-old, seeing the “no Blacks, no Asians” statement displayed on a profile would sadden me, but that was nothing compared with getting those remarks back as a response after I had broken the ice in a direct message. Rejection is always worse when you are not expecting it, and people can react to sexual racism in various different ways. Ten years ago it would have made me angry and I would have instantly questioned how the rest of the world was viewing me, but these days, I really don’t give a damn about the thoughts of people who are clearly incapable of at displaying common decency. My school days, when I would attempt to ‘fit in’ with the majority, are long gone, and I am not going to spend my time worrying about the sexual preferences of a bunch of morons!

Sexual racism is something that I can look at in my rear view mirror, but what about other guys? Godwyns, a gay Nigerian living in London, has blogged about the subject and says it’s important to remember that sexual racism isn’t just about white guys discriminating against Blacks – it can work the other way too. “The opposition I face amongst fellow gay Blacks for going out with a white man... would be termed racism if my [white] partner's friends and family did the same”. Daniel, a young white gay man, who prefers to date Black and mixed race men says: “Having dated, fallen in love, made friends and had sex with a healthy number of Black and mixed race guys, I feel I have reached certain conclusions about the position many of them find themselves in. I don’t think Black gay guys get a ‘raw deal’ as such, but I definitely think that the gay scene encourages racial segregation, perhaps even a little more than society at large.” Daniel raises an interesting point about segregation on the gay scene.

In February 2011 the gay men’s health charity, GMFA, launched a campaign called Be Switched On, with the aim of promoting increased racial integration in the LGBT community. A survey by the LGBT hate crime charity Galop showed that more than half of all Black and minority ethnic respondents said they had encountered racism from white LGBT people. Daniel continues: “In reality there is a discomfort among the white gay community about accepting Black or mixed-race gays who don’t conform to a set image and a white gay man can be just as racist as a white straight man. Let’s not be fooled by the idea that when you’re in a minority you have sympathy and solidarity with all other minorities”. In the same way as Godwyns, Daniel has also received negative reactions from his friends for dating someone of a different race, and says: “I’ve got a very diverse group of acquaintances and friends, and they all collectively poke fun at my sexual preferences. However, only among my white friends has it ever taken a slightly vitriolic and borderline racist tone, with them saying things like ‘Oh I could never get with a Black. I don’t know how you do it’”.

Daniel concludes by saying: “I think we have a long way to go as a community in terms of integrating and embracing diversity… If we really want to be diverse we need to stop pigeonholing ourselves and clinging to an overarching identity, instead should look at diversifying ourselves.” Junior, a Black gay fitness model says: “I don't feel gay guys are more or less prone to avoid dating certain racial groups, because I know this ‘preference’ exists quite prominently amongst heterosexual men and women too”.

When asked about the upfront nature of sexual racism on gay dating platforms and whether it’s something that makes him feel upset, Junior says: “To be fair, I think ‘each to their own’, but I do find it a bit off-putting personally when I see people saying that they only date a certain race, and that you shouldn't even bother to contact them if you are not of that race. I find this too direct”. He continues by saying: “If you only date a certain race because that is what you are attracted to, fair enough, I respect that - but it can come across a bit abrasive and rude, when you write it in CAPITAL LETTERS on your dating profile page, complete with exclamation marks”.

Junior says he had been on the receiving end of sexual racism, but it is not something that stops him from being confident as a gay man: “Sometimes it can be a little bit soul-destroying, when you think you are being judged purely for the colour of your skin, because essentially that is what it is. But I don't let it get me down, because at the end of the day, I think it’s their loss. I feel like they should envy me, because I have a wider variety to choose from.” He adds that there always will be ‘plenty more fish in the sea.’ Ramesh, a 28-year-old trainee clinical psychologist from Surrey, who is half Sri Lankan, has previously spoken about sexual racism to the LGBT website So So Gay, and says: “It’s upsetting. It’s not just that they find you unattractive, it’s that you’re so unattractive that they couldn’t even bear to receive a message from you. It gives me the feeling that I’m intrinsically unattractive; that, somehow, ethnic minorities are less attractive than Caucasians”.

Racism in the LGBT community is not just confined to online dating platforms. I have been in gay clubs and heard casual racist comments directed at the decision of a DJ to play an R&B track. Let me be clear, I do not think in any way that racism in the LGBT community is somehow substantially different to the racism expressed among heterosexuals. That said, the “no Blacks, no Asians” tag is something that resonates with most of us who use gay dating platforms because it seems quite prolific. These days I can dismiss sexual racism, but not everyone can. Even today, growing up gay can still be difficult. Identity is an interesting issue. If you had to ask me which was more important, my race or sexuality, I would say my sexuality, but for others it’s different. I can certainly see how a lack of role models can make it harder to identify with your sexuality at a young age. 

The rise of gay Black and minority ethnic (BME) stars has been a relatively recent development. Before the arrival of Marcus Collins, I would not have been able to name a single UK BME gay male pop star. I am still not aware of any out gay Black actors or TV presenters or MPs. It seems that trying to fight the dual stigma of racism and homophobia really is a herculean task. I did not come out to my family until my early twenties. Up until that point the greatest concern for my parents when it came to my upbringing was the potential to experience racism from other students – and occasionally from teachers. For me, and for countless other LGBT people, life starts to become a lot more enjoyable when you pluck up enough courage to go to your first gay bar and agree to start going on dates with some of the friendly people you have been chatting to online. Others may disagree, but I believe the process of doing this helps you become part of a community – the LGBT community.

I know that ‘community’ is a politically charged word with different meanings to different people but, at its simplest level, it represents inclusion and shows that you are not alone in this world when it comes to traversing the challenges of a homophobic society. This is why I find the idea of racism from within parts of the LGBT community depressing, because it means that some Black and Asian LGBT people, may not get to experience the same feeling of inclusion gained from a communal identity that others are able to receive. However, it is important to take comfort in the reality of modern Britain. We have one of the highest rates of inter-racial relationships in the western world.

Racism and sexual racism will always be ugly scars in our society, but you cannot ignore the continued trend towards embracing racial diversity. Is the average gay man really any different from the rest of society? Is the LGBT community really going to buck the trend towards greater racial integration? I personally cannot see why that would be the case. So what would be my advice to the 17-year-old version of me, who is feeling glum after seeing vile remarks on his chosen gay dating website? Well, I believe the comments expressed by Junior nicely sum-up how we should confront sexual racism – we shouldn’t give those who feel it is acceptable to be downright crass the time of day.

They may not be on the same level as the Twitter trolls, but they encapsulate everything which I personally find an instant turn-off in a person: rudeness, shallowness and narrow-mindedness. Life is too short to be worrying about people who you have identified as having a major flaw in their personality. Gay dating platforms are not always the best way of meeting the right person – sometimes you just need to take a good look in the mirror and tell yourself, “Screw the morons, I have things going for me; intelligent, open-minded guys who are also attractive are out there - and I’m going to find them”.

Black gay men and HIV

Black gay men have higher rates of HIV infection than any other ethnic group, almost twice as much as white British men. In 2009 GMFA published The Big Update, a report on the sexual health needs of Black men who have sex with men. The report found that Black gay men are more likely to have lower self-esteem, which can lead to increased risk-taking activities: “The twin challenges of racism and homophobia can lead to many Black gay men feeling isolated and less able to access support, services or information from family, community or statutory sources.” The high levels of HIV within the Black gay community also has an impact on levels of HIV-related stigma: “…Stigma is experienced just as much, arguably more so, within those communities that have particularly high prevalence of HIV, such as the gay community and Black communities within the UK. This means that Black gay men with HIV are doubly affected by HIV-related stigma, from within both their sexual and ethnic communities.”

Support for Black and minority ethnic gay men.

Naz Project London creates an open space where men can come to for help, information and advice or simply to meet other men from their backgrounds. Services provided include: - Condom distribution. - Peer support group. - Social activities. - 1 on 1 advice and information. - Referrals to GUM clinics for Sexual Health screenings. - HIV/AIDS and sexual health information. For more information, call Daniel on 020 8834 0234 or visit www.naz.org.uk.