The mission of UK Black Pride is to create a space of not only celebration, but awareness and visibility for Britons who are both BAME and LGBT+.
Given the recent Windrush scandal, this mission is even more crucial this year. The media’s coverage of the Windrush generation being denied their citizenship rights, health benefits, detained and deported has been overwhelmingly heteronormative. Since the facts and figures regarding those affected were, and continue to be, shrouded in bureaucratic uncertainty, coverage has in turn been somewhat speculative about who, how many, when and where. As a result, the media constructed an archetype of the Windrush citizen that is unwaveringly heterosexual and embedded in a traditional nuclear family unit. The possibility of a LGBT+ Windrush person, and how the hostile environment policy might have affected them, has not been considered.
In its 2016 Sexual Identity Survey, the Office for National Statistics found that 2% of the UK population identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. This population was ‘most likely to be single, never married or never civil partnered (70.7%)’. If we adapt these numbers to the Windrush generation, we can safely conclude that there’s a variety of sexual orientations within it, too. And if you want to know what that percentage looks like in real life, compare it to the Polish community in the UK. They represent roughly 1% of the total population, and look how visible they are.
However, there has been a silence about the implications of the scandal for not only LGBT+ Windrushers, but deportees in general. Foremost, what are the dangers of banishment to a country where same-sex relationships are illegal, which they are in most of the Commonwealth Caribbean?
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness appeared on Good Morning Britain on 18 April to discuss the Windrush scandal. Halfway through the interview, he himself raised the topic of homosexuality.
‘My job as a prime minister is to ensure that the human rights of every single person within the country is [sic] protected and that the [sic] constitutional rights are guaranteed’ he said. Yet, when asked when his government would decriminalise homosexuality, he prevaricated, stating, ‘My view is that the generations are changing’. So, the Windrush generation and LGBT+ realities got discussed in the same breath, however, neither interviewee nor interviewers thought to connect the two.
The heteronormativity of the Windrush narrative is not confined to the scandal. The multitude of celebratory accounts generated in the media and exhibitions has done little to diversify our knowledge of the Windrush era from the perspective of sexual orientation, or even gender. The Windrush story we receive looks and sounds a lot like Noah’s Ark. Passengers went forth and multiplied, seeding Britain’s black community.
Conspicuously absent from this story is an important figure named Ivor Cummings (1913–1992). Cummings was the only black official in the London headquarters of the Colonial Office when the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948. He was also openly gay at a time in the UK when homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment or worse. Cummings refused to conceal or downplay his gayness. One source described him as ‘a fastidious, elegant man, with a manner reminiscent of Noel Coward – he chain smoked with a long cigarette holder and addressed visitors as “dear boy”’. Cummings is sure to have addressed the Windrush passengers in this way, since it was he who took charge of welcoming them at the Tilbury docks, and launching them into life in Britain.
Cummings was born in England to a white English mother and Sierra Leonean father. He firmly identified himself as black, having experienced institutional and interpersonal racism. He first aspired to a career in the military, however the King’s Regulations barred non-whites. Instead, he joined the welfare department of the Colonial Office, and vowed to use his position to ‘assist any black person in trouble’.
‘I am afraid you will have many difficulties’, he is said to have told the Windrush migrants before they disembarked. ‘But I feel that with the right spirit and by cooperating as I have suggested, you will overcome them’.
Cummings arranged lodgings for the men in a former air raid shelter beneath Clapham Common. Owing to his choice of a location, nearby Brixton became a destination for other African-Caribbean newcomers, and arose as a nucleus of black life in London.
‘He was a very sardonic person’, his obituarist Val Wilmer told me. She remembers her last visit with Cummings, on his deathbed. They discussed his rich life interacting with heads of state and community leaders alike. When she was leaving, he looked over his glasses at her and said, ‘We do appear to have been able to roll back the years with a little effort, don’t we?’
On this and future UK Black Pride Days, let’s remember Ivor Cummings, the black gay Briton who literally held the keys that unlocked the door for the Windrush generation.