Blogpost by Max Maycroft, Sexual Health Outreach Worker
Marc Thompson is an activist, and health promotion specialist, who has been involved in HIV activism since the 1980s, working to address the lack of services available with a focus on Black gay men. He is a co-founder of PrEPster, BLKOUT and co-director of The Love Tank CIC, and through his work with PrEPster, pushed for PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis – a drug that reduces the risk of getting HIV in HIV-negative people) to be made available on the NHS.
Marc has been living with HIV since his diagnosis in 1986 – one year after he came out as gay at age 16 – at a time where the future of those diagnosed with HIV was uncertain and the public were just becoming aware of the epidemic. This led to him working and volunteering in sexual health – working with Terence Higgins Trust, Big Up, and Positively UK and eventually leading to the founding of PrEPster; which “aims to educate and agitate for PrEP access in England and beyond”. It was identified that there was a distinct lack of awareness and quality information about PrEP, and particularly to minority and intersecting groups including MSM, BAME communities, migrants, the trans community and sex workers.
I feel it’s important to pay tribute to Black, queer people that have made and continue to make a difference in the UK this Black History Month, and there’s no doubt that Marc Thompson’s work has directly contributed to the UK’s approach to HIV prevention; through access to PrEP and education about U=U (Undetectable = Untransmissable). As it stands, Black gay men are still disproportionately affected with regards to HIV, face barriers – yet still underrepresented.
I was born to West Indian parents in Birmingham 1967, and from the age of five to 15 I was raised by my father and stepmother. My relationship with my stepmother was very turbulent from day one. One of my earliest memories is of her calling me a “girl’s blouse” or a “puff” due to my keen interest in cooking from such a young age.
As the years passed, my brother would call me a “queer” or a “puff” in front of friends if I did not do as he said, which would often result in us fighting: under no circumstances was I going to let my brother think he could bully me like that in front of my friends! He continued with the name calling right up until a few years ago, when I stopped him in his tracks by telling him that he should be more concerned about who he is socialising and working with, because I know for certain at least five of his friends are “in the closet”.
When I was 15, my brother and I went to live with my grandmother and aunt in Highgate. I remember my aunt started going out and taking my younger male cousin with her. Little did I know she too was also keeping a secret: she was also gay. Still, I did not have the guts to confide in her about my sexuality due to her outing my cousin when they had a disagreement.
Two years later, my aunt found a partner, which meant that she wanted us out of her home. We were two 17 year olds, walking the streets with nowhere to go. I recall sleeping on benches and in a transit van.
At 18, I got a council flat in NecheIls, and was beginning to appreciate my independence, but still I could not fully be myself due to my brother’s comings and goings. He thought that because we were brothers he could just automatically come and live with me.
After a few years, I moved to Edgbaston and my eyes really opened. At this time there were no gay apps or internet, therefore meeting other gay people was done thorough placing advertisements in the lonely-hearts column or by word of mouth, or cruising. I was frequently asked by family and friends “when are you finding yourself a woman?” I always suspected that they might realise I was gay.
My mother died when I was 24. Before she died, I made my peace with her and forgave her for leaving my brother and I, and looking back I often thought: how the hell would I have coped with four children at the age of 19? She was only a young child herself and had no life. Before she died, out of the blue, she said that some men prefer men and some women prefer women, but so long as they were treating people with respect this should not be a problem. Sadly, she died about three weeks later. I consider this conversation as her giving me her blessing. From that day until now I have tried to live my best life.
I’d started going to Subway City on Thursday evenings. It was the first time in my life that I felt comfortable in my own skin and could mix with like-minded people. I would always see someone from my straight life who would ask me what I was doing in this club? My reply to them was: “same thing as you, I’ve come out for good night out”. My brother kept coming to my flat on Thursday evenings and I knew he was trying to catch me out. The night I said I was going out, and he could close the door on his way out, was the night he told my god-daughter (who was living with me at the time) that I was gay. I then felt pressured to come out to about 10 other people. This was the worst night of my life. I was on the phone for about 10 hours. Most people guessed what I wanted to say anyway!
Over the years I have known people of colour to have committed suicide because their families have disowned them when they came out. I have met married men of colour that are living double lives and, due to religion or having had children, are unable to be themselves.
When I came out, there were no centres like the Birmingham LGBT Centre, providing support for LGBT people, to take care of their mental, physical and cultural health. The staff that work there are either from the LGBT community or are LGBT-friendly and understand the stigma and prejudices that people from the LGBT community might face. I feel privileged to be working at the Centre with some amazing people that make a massive impact on the Birmingham LGBT community.
I have been raised in a culture where I was constantly reminded of how fair my brown skin was; and how lighter skin was more desirable than darker skin.
I still remember the coarse feeling of my grandmother trying to rub my face with her chunni (a long Indian head scarf). It one of my earliest and in later life fondest memories from my childhood. I asked my mother many years later why my Grandmother would do this; she explained that it was because I was very fair in colour and that my rosy cheeks really stood out. When I talk about these memories with my mother, she chuckles and often grabs my rosy cheeks and says “you are my ‘gora’ (white) golden child”. The Punjabis, I know, love their gold and fair skin.
When I used to talk to my mother about my anxieties about trying to be my authentic ‘gay’ self and the fear of others attacking me (us) verbally or physically because of my sexuality, she would talk about how, when she came to the UK, there was this idea of safety in numbers.
When I first came out, it was suggested that I move to London and that they will tell everyone I am not ready for marriage; and that I would fit in well with the ‘white’ community because I was so ‘westernised’ already. Colour of my skin was once again referred to. But I did not want to be a family secret and for it all be explained away as convenient truth to the local Punjabi community. I was a British born Indian with light brown skin that would go (and still does) a beautiful dark brown colour in the summer.
Due to marriage pressures, avoiding weddings and parties became a thing for me, and the gay scene became a new thing and a place to socialise freely; albeit ‘white’ people would fetish over my fair brown skin a lot, and ask me where I was from – a lot.
One of my first experiences was going to vibrant gay bar on Hurst Street for a drink. I remember seeing another ‘brown-ish’ person on their own (possibly South American) and after a short while I plucked up the courage and asked if they would like a drink. The response was bizarre and rather peculiar. The brown-ish person mumbled two words of English and then said a few more in another language and stormed off, swinging their desirable trendy bag over their shoulder. Charming I thought. I quickly finished my drink and left. I could feel the anxiety and whisky rising in my face – probably depositing on my now red rosy cheeks. I chuckled as I left and thought about my Grandmother.
Over the next few weeks I was trying to overcome my fears and decided to go back on the gay scene and try a few more bars. I headed to another gay bar but it looked less friendly from the outside. As I was walking to the entrance of this foreign new bar, I saw a handsome white guy outside. He came stumbling towards me (I thought my luck was in) but he came up to me angrily, right up to my face and shouted “We don’t want your sort here! You only want our men!” and told me to “f*** off!”.
I didn’t have the immediate courage to ignore him and felt very hurt. In an instant it reminded me of the days Indian men were being beaten up white racist Teddy Boys and Skinheads my mum used to warn me about. I walked away and flagged down a black cab, and once I was safely away, I slowly started to cry. The taxi man asked if I was okay and I said “No! Please can you take me back”. I confidently got out the black cab and the guy was still outside this new gay bar. He decided to hurl verbal abuse at me again. I decide to brush past him, ignore him and went straight into this new gay bar and it was fab! The first thing I noticed were all these white men gawping at me, probably at my fair brown-skinned face and red rosy cheeks.
I told my mother about the experience and she said to stay safe and stick to people you know and “… do you have to go to a gay bar?” I replied and explained “… do you wish me to go to the pubs where all the Indian men go, where I can’t be myself, or rather go to places where there is safety in numbers?” She replied “Go where you feel safe and you can be yourself, my beautiful ‘gora’ (white) golden child”.