Axelle Nasah: Full Interview
Interviewed by Alys Duggan
13 March 2019
AN: Hi Alice, my name’s Axelle, my pronouns are she / her. My birthday is 7th September 1996, I live in Leeds and I identify as a queer woman.
AD: Shall we start there, do you want to tell me about your experience as a queer woman in Leeds?
AN: Yeah. I think It’s important to start off with why I choose, I decided to identify as queer and it’s because for a while I thought I was bisexual but I then grew up to realise that actually I am attracted to people regardless of genitals and regardless of their gender identity or their sexuality. I don’t think that genitals determine the gender you are and for me personally I just see the human being. Queer is an umbrella term and it’s anything, it's defined as anything that not heteronormative. So I prefer queer because it doesn't put people into boxes and it's a label that allows me to retain that fluidity and retain being a human being. So yeah.
AD: What does that mean for you in relation to being a black queer woman?
AN: So being a black queer woman in Leeds, I think it's important to note that I am at University so that gives me a lot more opportunities because this generation do, not all of them, we can’t get lazy and say that the whole generation is accepting. Because we do still have problems with homophobia, but like our generation does tend to be more open minded. So because I'm at an institute of higher education it's given me opportunities to join groups such as QTIPOC and QTIPOC is an acronym that stands for Queer and/or Trans and/or Intersex Person of Colour and there’s a QTIPOC group at my university that I've joined.
It's allowed me to just find other queer people of colour, and I think it's also important to realise that as a black queer woman my experience is going to be very different to the experience of perhaps a white queer woman and that’s why these spaces are necessary. Because I don’t just experience homophobia, I will experience homophobia tied in with racism so when these intersections aren’t discussed and aren’t focussed on it’s very easy to ignore the problems. Because we are all part of the LGBTQ+ community, I’m so proud to be part of it but it’s important to highlight the nuances that there are levels. I am not going to experience homophobia like a disabled person is. I am never, ever going to experience transphobia because I identify as a cis person. So, yeah.
AD: What’s your experience of navigating whiter queer spaces in Leeds?
AN: In Leeds, so I remember the first time that I was finally able to express my queer identity and that’s was when I came to University. So in first year I tried to join the LGBT Society, it was a very disappointing experience, I felt like I didn’t belong there. I was probably the only – there was only one other person of colour there on the – so they did this thing, this Give It A Go. Give A Go stands for, it’s when you can try out a new society and see if you like it.
It was just very white, and it’s not, the issue isn’t that, you know, the people on the Give It A Go were white. The issue is that it would have made me feel a lot more comfortable if the society had made an effort to look to themselves and said, ‘Okay why have we only got one demographic? Because there are queer people of colour, they do exist, so where are they and what can we do to make them feel more welcome?’ Because we are the LGBTQ+ Society and that means that we need to cater to all LGBTQ+ people. So I just didn’t feel that it was my space.
AD: So that’s led to a potential start for the QTIPOC Society?
AN: Yes, me, Monisha and Liv, these are other queer people of colour, are in the process of starting a QTIPOC society. And this will be a society for queer people of colour, sorry queer and trans people of colour to come together and finally have a safe space to discuss the oppression that they face.
Because my experience when I’m trying to discuss homophobia with white gay people is that my race tends to be ignored, so they believe that there is only one way to experience homophobia. And in fact Stonewall released a statistic quite recently and it was they interviewed queer and trans people of colour and 51% of them had experienced racism from within the community. And I think that just shows that there is a huge problem here. We can’t claim to be for everyone if there are members of our community who feel that the space is not for them.
So I think, I hope, I really do hope that in 50 years there’s no need for these spaces. And in 50 years the queer and trans people of colour who are being born can think ah, the LGBTQ+ community is for us, it’s for everyone. But for now we need to organise these spaces, cos we need to have these discussions. We need to do the healing and we need to go towards the bigger institutions and say, ‘listen this is what you need to do to be inclusive.’ So yeah.
AD: Has that been reflected? Have you had experiences of both types within the club scene in Leeds as well, of places which are more or less inclusive?
AN: Yeah. So the only event for queer and trans people of colour that I’ve ever gone to is called Pussy Palace. In fact so Pussy Palace are a collective in London and their primary focus are trans and queer women of colour and non-binary people of colour as well. And they did an event in Leeds called Queer Migrant Takeover. This was the first of its kind that I’ve ever been to and it was just life changing. To step into a room and to have, you know, both of those two core identities validated because everyone in the room was queer, and everyone in the room, most people in the room were of colour and for once I was in the majority. I can’t even put into words how humanising that is, for you to see yourself in someone else, that’s so validating. Especially after years of LGBTQ+ representation just being white people and primarily just white gay males. And that’s why for the longest time I didn’t think I could be gay, I was like, well, I’m black, black people can’t be gay.
Also religion plays a huge part into it as well. I think that’s why these spaces are important because a queer or trans person of colour is going to experience oppression very differently because they’ve got the cultural and religious side tied into it as well. So I’m Cameroonian and in the West African community Christianity is very pervasive you know, most people are going to be Christian so that’s where the homophobia stems from, so when you’re asking them to accept you, you’re asking them to challenge their cultural and religious beliefs, their traditions. Whereas I guess in the white community it’s not the same because there isn’t really that tie of culture and religion, so it’s coming out to your parents when you’re white, I’m not saying for all experiences, but it could be different when compared to coming out to your parents when you’ve got this like religious and traditional and cultural mess to navigate, so yeah.
AD: So what has it meant for you to be at uni and to be able to explore that in a different way like separated from home-life?
AN: So my dad is religious and I don’t talk to him anymore, and I would never come out to him I don’t think it’s any of his business. But my mum isn’t religious so she was always accepting of me. But coming to uni just allowed me to blossom because I didn’t have these, because I used to be religious. I used to be this like orthodox Christian, I was awful. I was all the things I had internalised: homophobia, internalised racism, I was transphobic, so pulling myself away from that environment and coming to Leeds and realising that actually you don’t have to think this way, you don’t have to – you can be yourself, you can be human. Leeds allowed me to do that in a university environment and I’m really excited to see what it brings for the next few years, so yeah.
AD: Can you just briefly talk about Love Muscle, what’s your experience there?
AN: Yeah, sure. So Love Muscle is a night for LGBTQ+ people in Leeds and it’s described as a big gay pumping dance party and I had quite a negative experience of it because I guess, like I said when you hear LGBTQ+ you think oh community. It’s going to be all of us but I walked in and it was just another event for gay white males, which tends to be the issue here, especially in London as well. A lot of the gay clubs that you’ll go to just cater to gay white males. So if you’re a male of colour, a gay male of colour like my best friend, you know, you’re kind of not really at the top of the hierarchy. If you’re woman, you’re just invisible you know. Then add woman of colour and you know I just thought I’m not welcome here which was sad, but it’s motivated me to start my own club night in Leeds for queer and trans people of colour.
AD: Is that at the early stages?
AN: Very early stages! Let me just establish this society first.
AD: So what about your doing the Stonewall Young Leaders Programme?
AN: Oh yes, so three weeks ago Stonewall did their first ever campaigning programme for BME, and BME stands for black and minority ethnic, BME people, LGBTQ+ people and it was the first of its kind. So they’ve done one, they’ve done disabled LGBTQ+ people, they’ve done one for trans people as well but this the first one for LGBTQ+ people of colour and it was 3 days. It was a residential, you slept over and it was myself and 24 other people. And the people from Stonewall were all queer people of colour, queer and trans people of colour as well. So it was just a safe environment and do you know what, it was therapy, it was very therapeutic. It was healing because you could just share your stories with these people and realise oh we’re the same, we do exist. And we just learnt how to be an effective campaigner and I think the best thing I can take away from it is just by existing you are an activist. You know, you don’t have to go marching down the street, you don’t have to knock on people’s doors. Just by getting up and looking after yourself you are doing activism. So it was the most life changing experience of my life because it’s made me realise that, that’s my career I am an activist. That’s what I’m going to do with my life. So yeah, you’ll hear more from me don’t worry! [laughs]
AD: Are you also going to the race event this Friday at Wharf Chambers?
AN: Yea, yeah, I am, so there’s an event this Friday at Wharf Chambers organised by my friend Kocha and he’s a student at Leeds Arts University and he’s also gay and I’m so excited because it’s like the first event for people of colour, I’m like what that’s crazy! So the first half is going to be spoken word, a panel with people of colour and the second half is going to be a club night. The most important thing I’ve taken away from it is that activism is not, you know, it’s not something separate. It’s not oh look at them doing all the work over there. Leeds has allowed me to realise that this city is perfect for activism. This city, because of the people that are just coming into my life at the moment. I’ve met this non-binary person and they’re great. They’re doing work at the moment for queer people of colour in Leeds and we’re looking to collaborate. I guess the atmosphere as well is really good, Leeds is very liberal city as well. So it’s made me realise that hey I can do what they’re doing as well. So if my friend Kocha can put on this incredible night, you know then I can do it too, so yeah.
AD: Thanks so much for your time.
AN: That’s fine.