Claiming a BME LGBT Identity

October 23, 2014

Dr. Maria Antoniou, the Interim Director of Brighton & Hove LGBT Switchboard wants to open a community wide discussion about identity.

Dr. Maria Antoniou
Dr. Maria Antoniou

BME, LIKE LGBT, is a social label under which lies a myriad of personal experiences and identities. It’s easy to get lost in acronyms, to see them as boxes we need to tick, to debate who’s in or out, or whether we are doing the right thing: being inclusive or exclusive.

I want us to go beyond labels and to speak about experiences, to share who we are and where we have come from, to listen to each other with mutual openness and respect – as BME and/or LGBT people. To find ways of creating community based on our sameness and our difference.

For me, being both BME and LGBT has been confusing, painful, inspiring and joyous. At some points in my life, I have marginalised my Cypriotness to claim a lesbian identity. At other times, my ethinicity has been far more important to me than my sexuality. I now try to claim an identity that is both Cypriot and lesbian.

This is not easy. Lesbians don’t fit into mainstream ideas of Cypriotness. Whilst growing up I felt forced to make a choice – Cypriot or lesbian, as if it was impossible to be both. In many ways, coming out as a lesbian at age 21 meant losing my family, forfeiting my cultural identification, giving up my claim to Cypriotness. I’m not alone in this experience – BME LGBT people frequently feel pressured into choosing, in being either/or, prioritising or marginalising parts of ourselves.

This isn’t helped by the racism we encounter both inside and outside of the LGBT community. In the face of racism I am undeniably Cypriot, undeniably BME. I have white skin, which I am aware gives me some social privilege, but I am visibly different (from white British people). I have a ‘foreign’ name. I have another language. My parents were migrants.

Within the LGBT community, I would like us to open up the discussion about identity. To welcome, express and explore the diverse experiences within the label ‘BME’, as we are doing with ‘LGBT’. To share and to listen to how BME LGBT identities are differently lived. I would also like to invite critical reflection on what it means to be ‘white’ / non-BME. In our society, whiteness doesn’t have to be conscious of itself, in the same way that heterosexuality and cisgender don’t have to be. Whiteness just is.

But I am not naïve. First we need to create a safe space in which to do this, where we can speak freely about ourselves without fear, and without attack. Anyone want to join me in this mission?