In a special column for Pride month, the co-founder of Black Girl Fest talks about the importance of belonging

BY PAULA AKPAN

I first started coming into my queerness while I was studying at university in Nottingham. It began with the classic, “You know, I really think I could be with anyone, like I’m just really in the grey”. A baby queer staple. 

It wasn’t long before I had my first sexual experience with another woman which threw into a spiral of trying to understand who or what I was as the label “heterosexual” no longer fit.

The spiral included grappling with feeling like what I was exploring was taboo and flew in the face of my religious upbringing, my first real heartbreak, and retracing all the times I had admired women and posing the age-old question, “Did I want to be her or did I want to be with her?”

While feeling my way around another facet of my identity that I had just unearthed, I started trying to meet other LGBTQI+ people – specifically black LGBTQI+ people – not just to date, but friends who I could talk to. People who could understand the complexities and fluidity that comes with being both black and queer; with them, I wouldn’t have to explain the fear for safety that accompanies being black and also visibly queer. 

However, if you know anything about the queer scene in Nottingham – at least while I was at university there – you’ll know it’s overwhelming white.

I’d enter bars and clubs such as Propaganda and NG1, packed to the brim with white LGBTQI+ people. I often felt out of place and unattractive, with eyes passing over me as a potential sexual or romantic partner.

On these nights, I was often sexualised and stereotyped, with questions around whether or not I could twerk whilst white gay men snapped their fingers at me and screamed “yaaaaas” at my every move.

Time and time again, I found that I was trying to make myself smaller to avoid such encounters. Through the virtue of being a queer black woman, I was both visible and invisible. 

It was only when I moved back to London that I began connecting with other queer black people at queer events like BBZ and Pxssy Palace.

Attending such nights that are for Black and Brown queer wxmen, trans and non-binary people and prioritise their experience and safety gave me room to explore who I was without having compromise any part of my identity.

It meant feeling like I could enter a room and see myself reflected in so many other people; for once, I was one of many and was privy to seeing the different ways that Black queer people could hold space for one another; the way that we could make one another feel seen and important. 

Feeling like you have finally found a home within a community, as well as yourself, is crucial and forms one of the main pillars of Black Girl Fest, an annual arts and culture festival for Black British womxn and girls that I run with my friend Nicole Crentsil.

Paula, left, and Nicole
Image: Instagram

We started the festival because we were tired of waiting for other institutions and organisations to provide a specific space that could cater to Black womxn and acknowledge the richness and variety of our stories and experiences. We wanted to create a space where a Black womxn could walk in and feel comfortable in their skin, to know that there was no need to perform or reduce any part of their identity. 

Coming into my queerness and building Black Girl Fest has reminded me that finding a community that allows you to embrace all parts of yourself without apology is truly invaluable.

@paulaakpan.

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