Rainbows Across Borders LGBT Asylum Seekers Choir leads the way at Croydon’s first PrideFest

By - Friday 26th August, 2016

Katie Rose talks to members of Croydon’s Rainbows Across Borders choir as it prepares to celebrate LGBT identity on Sunday 28th August

Photo author’s own.

Croydon is preparing to celebrate its first PrideFest, to be held in Surrey Street on Sunday 28th August. I visited Rainbows Across Borders, Croydon’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) asylum seekers chorus, whose members will be leading the parade along with Wayne Trakas-Lawlor, Croydon’s first openly gay mayor, to talk about the part its singers will play. PrideFest will be the only gay and trans festival held within the M25 apart from central London’s well-established Pride parade, which was held this year on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th June. 

Rainbows Across Borders (RAB) is a voluntary self-help group for LGBT asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution by oppressive homophobic/transphobic regimes. It was set up in 2013 to support members to make friends, build confidence and share their stories in a safe space during the asylum process. Members felt that singing together would be therapeutic and cohesive and started the Rainbows Across Borders chorus.

Chorus members come from countries including Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Pakistan, the US, Nigeria and Afghanistan. As member Herbert Bulindi explains in our interview on Inside Story on Croydon Radio, “Each member of the group has an individual story to tell and we do take time to share these stories in the group and in our meetings. They’ve gone through horrific regimes of homophobia in their countries of origin and some have been traumatised for a large part of their lives before finally coming out and coming into an environment like the UK where they are free and able to live their lives as they should be”.

A psychologist from Croydon was the first in the country to identify homosexual experience as normal sex

RAB is supported by members who have already been granted leave to stay and from the wider LGBT community including Out and Proud Diamond GroupCHE (the Campaign for Homosexual Equality) and the Pink Triangle Trust. Catherine Pestano, a director of Creative Croydon, helped launch the choir and her co-director Anne Crump leads relaxation sessions at the group’s monthly meetings.

A leading supporter is Ray Harvey-Amer, human rights activist and LGBT campaigner with CAGS (Croydon Area Gay Society) and OutRage!. Ray served as a nurse in the Royal Navy from 1957 to ’62 on HMS Blake and HMS Maidstone, and at the Royal Naval Hospitals in Portsmouth, Plymouth and Hong Kong. He led a queer remembrance service in 1999 for gay veterans and with his partner Mike Harvey set up some of the first organisations to support HIV sufferers in the 1980s. His photos from his navy service form part of the Croydon Museum’s LGBT Trail which includes the works of Henry Havelock Ellis (1897-1928), the radical Croydon psychologist who was the first in Britain to write about homosexuality as a normal sex life.

As Ray emphasizes, Croydon PrideFest is the result of the work of many LGBT campaigners over the years: “If those foundations hadn’t been laid, we wouldn’t be celebrating this month”. Additionally, in the light of continuing persecution of LGBT people, including a recent police attack on the pre-Pride party in Uganda in which over forty people were arrested and humiliated whilst in detention, Ray says that “what we are doing on 28th August is not just for Croydon, it’s to let the rest of the world know that elsewhere things are different”. Herbert adds that RAB “has dedicated the performance to all people still being persecuted and in hope that the message gets around”.

We sing in memory of those who lived through struggle

RAB gave a powerful performance at Croydon’s Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 Civic Ceremony singing the civil rights anthem ‘If I Had A Hammer and wearing the pink triangle worn by gay men and symbols of other groups persecuted during the Holocaust. Close to the anniversary of Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato’s murder, Herbert explains that the RAB sang “to remember that this sort of dehumanisation should not actually take place and while we celebrate and sing and chant, we put in our memories those who that were before us and lived through the struggle and have gone through numerous episodes of persecution including the genocides in Rwanda and other places in Europe as well”.

Herbert explains how the pink triangle, used by the Nazis to mark out and stigmatise homosexual people, was reclaimed by LGBT campaigners. “We took it up as a symbol of our own struggles, trying to use something that is used against you and talk about it positively so that you don’t hold that stigma”. Ray recounts how LGBT campaigners marched under the pink triangle at the first Pride events. “We had buses from Scotland, from Wales, from Ireland and they all came to London, originally 500, then 1000, then it grew and grew to 100,000 over the years”. Today, Pride events take place globally and here in Croydon the pink triangle is displayed alongside the rainbow flag on the PrideFest poster.

RAB has sung at Pride events across the country and at Croydon minster, at Big Girls Blouse at Stanley Halls, at a screening of a documentary about trafficking, at Finding Home at London Southbank University and at events at their Croydon base, the Unitarian Church. The group recently joined Europe’s longest standing LGBT choir, The Pink Singers, to raise awareness of homophobic hate crime. Herbert says that the group receives many invitations which “we have to turn down because of limited resources […] most of our members do not have the right to work so they will have issues footing their fares to places”.

We invite Croydon to line up with us and parade with us

Ray explains that many members have had to conceal their sexual orientation in their countries of origin. This means that when facing questions from Home Office officials such as ‘how do I know that you’re a lesbian, how do I know that you’re gay – you got married, right?’, they find it difficult to explain that they have had to conform. Being part of the chorus gives them the confidence “to feel strong to present their case”. Herbert describes the chorus as “very therapeutic, because having gone through torture or homophobia and mistrust, all of a sudden you can come together as a collective and strut your stuff. It’s very amazing”.

RAB will be singing the song ‘Amazing Pride’ at the first Croydon PrideFest on Sunday 28th August and invites Croydon “to line up with us and parade with us all the way to Surrey Street, where there’ll be stalls and music and dance and you can hear the voices of the chorus of Rainbows Across Borders“.

Katie Rose

Katie Rose

Katie Rose - Singer, Composer, Conductor, Writer - Katie loves singing and helping people sing. Described by the Guardian as a 'fine singer' and by fRoots magazine as an 'eye (and ear) opener,' she has released three albums. Committed to creating uplifting, inclusive experiences of singing, Katie has led singing sessions in hospitals, hospices, festivals and community choirs across London. Convinced of the power of music to make waves in the world she has conducted mass choral events for Sing for Water and is directing Croydon's first Festival of Peace 2018. For more information visit www.therosewindow.org

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