Religion, sexuality & gender in UK Black community

Higher rates of homelessness & mental ill-health among BME LGBT people


London, UK – 1 March 2016


Guest post by Bisi Alimi:

“It’s one thing to come out to your school at 16, as I did, but it is another thing to come out in a black-led fundamentalist Pentecostal church; especially if you are a lay preacher,” wrote Topher Campbell in the Guardian.

The simple quote from Topher Campbell is the best example of what it means to be black and LGBT in Britain.

Traditionally, religion has been a major source of institutional support and well-being for Black people in the UK. However, when juxtaposed against sexuality, religion’s positive effect upon the lives of non-heterosexual individuals is questionable.

Research suggests that non-heterosexuals often abandon structured religion for spirituality due to the homonegativity perpetuated through religious institutions.

Within the Black and Ethnic minorities (BME), religion plays a very important role in social interaction, cohesion and a sense of belonging. According to the Churches Together in England website, there are over 1,500 black churches in England, with 240 of them in Southwark alone. There are estimated 500,000 committed Black Christians in England.

Over 40% of these churches are from Nigeria. This says a lot about the influence this has on the political debate in the UK, and very importantly on the issues of homophobia and equal marriage.

Although the historical importance of religion for Black persons is undeniable, the full transfer of its benefits to non-heterosexuals is contestable. Homonegativity – contempt for individuals expressing same-sex attractions – is apparent via the vehement condemnation of non-heterosexuals by some Black religious institutions.

While a few churches are openly affirming of non-heterosexual parishioners, intolerance towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is pronounced in most others. From pulpits, some Black ministers hurl condescending insults in their sermons and express disdain toward non-heterosexuals

The Black church has played a prominent role in social justice in UK: from providing shelter, to creating support networks for many black people their particular socio-cultural challenges. These churches have also mobilised increasing numbers of black people to become politically aware and politically involved.

However, when it comes to the issues of HIV, LGBT equality and mental health, the church is lacking in the same leadership vigour.

A report on homelessness by the charity Crisis in 2010, found that 40% of homeless young people between ages 16-25 were LGBT. Stonewall Housing found that 77% of the 40% were from the BME community.

Many of these LGBT young people cited religious homophobia as one of the main fundamental explanations for their homelessness.

Mental health immensely affects young black LGBT people. While this is not yet linked to impact of the stress of anti-LGBT religious beliefs, it cannot be denied that religion demands a lot and that the demand of religion to live a pure and holy heterosexual life is an added burden to the lives of black LGBT people.

In a study conducted by Stonewall, which asked 1,614 LGB young people aged 11 to 19 years to complete a survey about their experiences, it was found that:

• More than 3 in 4 (76%) BME gay and bisexual boys have thought about taking their own life compared to 56% of white gay and bisexual boys.
• Over 8 in 10 (83%) BME lesbian and bisexual girls deliberately harm themselves compared to 71% of white lesbians and bisexual girls.

Analysis of the findings for BME lesbian and bisexual women found that:

• A third currently smoke, which is slightly higher than the total sample rate (28.7%) and higher than the rates among women in general.
• 70% had a drink in the last week and a third drink three or more days a week, compared to a quarter of women as a whole.
• More than 2 in 5 (44%) have taken drugs in the last year, six times more than women in general and more than the total LGB survey rate of 35%.
• Over half (55%) have been screened for sexually transmitted infections, which was higher than the overall Stonewall survey sample (47%).
• 1 in 5 (19%) over the age of 25 have never had a cervical screen, compared to 7% of women in general and to16% of the sampled lesbian and bisexual young people.
• 7% have attempted to take their own life in the last year which was higher than the non-BME sampled population (5%).

This is an epidemic – a time bomb waiting to explode.

I will be honest and say that I cannot prove any relationship between religion and physical and mental ill-health among young LGBT people within the BME community.

However, it would be mistaken and cruel to dismiss the possibility.

We cannot discount the importance and impact of religion on the LGBT black community and cannot ignore the unintended consequences it will have on the LGBTs who are BME.

It is therefore important to offer solutions:

1. Role Models: We need more LGBT religious role models. Today we have the likes of Imaan and House of Rainbow. Such organisations should not only be funded, but should be given a more prominent platform. There are many prominent LGBT BME religious people that need our support. Putting a face to an issue is known to help change public perceptions.

2. Research: We need to study the impact of religion on LGBT people, especially BMEs. Most of what we know now, though great, still does not fully document the links and effects between the two.

3. Outreach: We can talk about the Black churches, but we also have to engage with them. At the peak of HIV epidemic in London, I and others engaged with religious groups. We trained them and supported the few who finished the course. They became public advocates against HIV stigma and for HIV testing, and were also able to offer counselling and support to HIV positive people. We need to adopt this approach for LGBT issues as well.

4. Leadership: There is power in numbers and even greater power in leadership. We need to tap into the structure of the evangelical movement to secure change among the leaders. It will not be easy but it is possible.

• Bisi Alimi is a London-based, Nigerian-born Black LGBT & human rights campaigner: and @bisialimi