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Revolutionary Acts by Jason Okundaye: celebrating the struggle of black gay men in Britain

Okundaye never assumes that any of the men he interviews were passive victims, writes Neil Dhanda
Revolutionary Acts by Jason Okundaye

Revolutionary Acts by Jason Okundaye

Jason Okundaye’s Revolutionary Acts is a wonderfully interwoven compilation of the stories of six black British gay men who lived from the late 20th century to the present. 

Okundaye approaches their histories through a series of interviews, which he conducts with love and reverence for the subjects. He stresses how celebratory accounts of black gay men are few and far between because “we’re always framed within the problematics of being black and gay”. 

Okundaye wanted to make sure that these conversations with what he calls our “queer elders” were published. 

He never assumes that any of the men he interviews were ever hopeless or passive victims. The title of his book, Revolutionary Acts, highlights the small and big acts of rebellion and radical love which kept an entire generation going. 

Nor does the book shy away from the reality of the bigotry and oppression which threatened to drive the men, their livelihoods and their cultures underground. 

He shows how homophobia was a daily reality thanks to colonial-era legislation in Africa and the Caribbean, Christian attitudes toward sexual expression and racist Tory government policies. He also looks at Section 28, the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Tories’ rampant funding cuts.

The first section of the book focuses on the activists Ted Brown, Dirg Aaab-Richards and Alex Owolade. The second one narrates the Brixton scene tales of Calvin “Biggy” Dawkins, Dennis Carney, Ajamu X and Marc Thompson. 

The thread running through the first part of the book is how people stood up and fought back. 

The west London Caribbean restaurant, The Mangrove, was a central organising hub for black activism but was also involved in mobilising for Gay Liberation Front marches. It demonstrates the potential for linking different struggles and the unity built between both movements

In 1994, the Tories were forced to reduce the age of consent for gay men from 21 to 18. This was due to campaigning by groups such as the Lesbian and Gay Young People, which comprised largely young black gay people. 

In the same year, the police stopped and boarded one of their buses which was outside Parliament. The police swiftly left because they were outnumbered, which demonstrated the importance of mobilising significant numbers. 

In April 1999, the Nazi terrorist David Copeland set off nail bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and the Admiral Duncan gay pub in Soho, killing three people. 

Alex Owolade recalls beautifully how a subsequent march from Trafalgar Square was led by young black straight youth. When they reached the outside of the pub, all the black youth lifted their hands to salute all those gay people that were murdered. 

Owolade explains how he supported striking workers from a young age and his mum taught him that “the rich and powerful are your enemies and that working class solidarity is crucial”. 

Other interviewees like Dirg Aaab-Richards brought black gay people together in the Friday Group, so that they could look after one another during turbulent times. Mutual support was very important, of course, but Owolade took things a step further and pressed attendees to actively defend the interests of the marginalised and oppressed. 

The black newspaper, The Voice, published an article stating that black footballer Justin Fashanu’s coming out was “an affront to the Black community” in 1990. Owolade organised a boycott of the paper against this article and against the paper’s demeaning of black women and LGBT+ people. 

The second part of the book unashamedly celebrates the love, sex and dance floors of Brixton. The “elders” reveal how now disused toilets were once bustling “cottaging” hangouts for men seeking brief encounters, but also for those wanting companionship and conversation. There are very tender stories of relationships cut short by the HIV/AIDS epidemic along with moving exchanges of poetry and letters between lovers. 

Marc Thompson, a black sexual health campaigner, recalls memories with a deep sense of emotion but also a sense of humour. It makes for an engaging and entertaining read. 

Ajamu X, a daring and radical artist, is celebrated for his photography showing the eroticism of black bodies. Ajamu is eager to stress that black people should not just be seen as oppressed because this is limiting. But his very playful and flirtatious personality provides a freshness that the author successfully communicates to his readers. 

Ultimately, this is an important book that captures an era in Britain’s history which has not been told before in such detail. 

The first-hand accounts shine a light on the fun and enjoyment they had as well as the significant struggles—and links between struggles—against an oppressive state. Revolutionary Acts deserves to be widely read and enjoyed.

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