Demonstrators arrived outside Viaduct Showbar Leeds on Lower Briggate last Tuesday, 30th of July, with placards reading ‘Queer Trans Against Racism’ and ‘No Blackface in our Scene’ to protest the venue’s decision to host the ‘controversial’ camp and drag act Queens of Pop, despite the fact that the duo had been dropped from Leeds Pride’s official events listings.
Queens of Pop consists of white gay brothers Ged and James Weir from Manchester. The duo’s video ‘parody’ of Will.i.am’s hit song ‘Bang Bang’ performed with blackened faces and rewritten as ‘Wank Wank,’ depicts Will.i.am as a lascivious black gay man who sings of sexual exploits and non-consensual sex, including a desire to ‘give all of the aliens AIDS’. The group’s references to Will.i.am’s sexual organ – ‘it’s so black it is blue’ and the song’s constant reference to his blackness and gayness – ‘I’m a big black homosexual’ – deliberately draws on racist, homophobic, sexist and HIV stigmatising content that is deeply offensive. Through drawing on style of Will.i.am’s original music video, the duo resurrects the iconography of a Black and White Minstrel show that is set within a tradition of white supremacy – a practice of denigration that has been long discredited within mainstream entertainment.
In response to this performance by the Queens of Pop, UK Black Pride and LGBT anti-racist activists have successfully campaigned against their appearance at the Manchester Pride’s Main Arena, Glasgow Pride, Birmingham Pride and Leeds Pride. Consequently the video ‘Wank Wank’ has been removed from the duo’s YouTube channel and they have issued a very shallow apology on their Facebook page. Their apology neither recognises nor takes responsibility for any racism in their performances and only acknowledges the ‘controversy’ their performance has generated. Queens of Pop are at pains to assure those concerned about its content that it was never any malicious ‘intention’. However, the racist imaginings of the two brothers in their video of Beyoncé – in which they blacken their face to impersonate her father Mathew Knowles and also present a browned-up South Asian garment worker – highlights how the duo’s use of parody to peddle their racist content is not a one-off.
Truth be told, Queens of Pop are not the only perpetrators of racism on the Leeds’ LGBT scene. The Viaduct Showbar, up until a few weeks ago, regularly hosted a drag act called ‘African Queens’. At a minimum this performance is predictably stale and culturally appropriative and at its worst it delivered frightening and viciously dehumanising racism. Part of this act saw the former creative director – the ‘showgirl’ Danny Cher Bailey – dressed in a pseudo African-style headdress and clothing. In this costume she imitated a monkey, scratching her armpits, smelling herself, bounding around the stage like an ape and eating a banana. This was a show that ran weekly despite expressions of outrage from sections of the gay and Black community.
These instances are not anomalies. Racism is not only permitted and persistent within the heart of some sections of Leeds’ mainstream gay community and its gay quarter but also features across the UK. From performances like that of Danny Cher Bailley’s to the Thai style font used to communicate the opening times of another Leeds gay bar – (accompanied by the sign off ‘We Love You Long Time’) – the mainstream gay scene can be a hostile and demoralising space for those who are committed to fighting injustice and discrimination that demeans individuals and communities.
While the disappearance of Queens of Pops from Pride line-ups may be a cause for celebration, the truth is that it does not seem to have brought us any closer to addressing racism in the gay scene. Rather than acknowledge the existence of racism and the alienation of LGBTQ people of colour, organisers of Pride festivals appear to be more concerned about steering away from scandal and ‘controversy’ so as not to upset the perceived ‘unity’ of Pride. Unless the real and damaging impact of persistent racism is acknowledged and the gay community is prepared to stand in solidarity with those experiencing racism, we are at risk of colluding with those very systems and structures that reproduce discrimination.
The fact that Viaduct felt it appropriate to invite the Queens of Pop again for yet another performance on the very night of Pride, merely serves to highlight the sheer unwillingness or inability of many to reflect critically upon race relations within Leeds’ LGBTQ communities. Given the antipathy to our demonstration, many of us felt that another demonstration would not do much good. The minimum that is needed within Leeds’ LGBTQ scene is spaces for conversations on the reality and impact of cultural racism in order to move forward. Without these conversations racism in Leeds’ LGBTQ communities will continue to alienate people of colour and dehumanise both white and non-white alike.
JUST West Yorkshire