Part of the ‘Queer’ Asia 2020: Rethinking Radical Now Blog Series
By Ibtisam Ahmed
Abstract: A rigid definition of being “radical” erases the precarious reality faced by marginalised communities, whose radicalism is often restricted due to concerns around security and safety. In this post, I provide a detailed reading of my involvement with the queer people of colour group QTIPOC Notts. I highlight moments where we have been able to disrupt white, cisheteronormative society, while also acknowledging the limits of our activities in terms of access and resources. By reflecting on these actions, I provide a more a nuanced exploration of how queer community building is radical in context.
There is a common misconception about what qualifies something as “radical”. In an
age which has seen growth in access to activism, advocacy and social welfare spaces,
there is a level of virtue signalling involved when this arbitrary judgement of
radicalism is applied. In particular, there has been a recurring criticism of movements
and moments being considered inadequate if they are not aimed at completely
upending the system.
This oversimplification erases the very radical power that marginalised communities
wield despite being in increasingly precarious positions. It is a navigation that needs
to strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism. Queer community building is
one such major challenge, as it must be emancipatory and different enough to truly
achieve queer liberation, but it must do so while utilising resources and access
granted by a cisheteronormative society. This is made even more complicated when
taken in conjunction with other identity cross-sections, such as race, class or
My reflections in this blog post are based on my experiences as a member of
QTIPOC Notts (Queer, Trans, Intersex People of Colour Nottinghamshire), a public
group that functions as a space for queer people who also face the intersecting
oppression of racism in the UK. We have socials in safe spaces for the membership,
as well as offering communal and individual support whenever possible. At the same
time, we take an active socio-political role in being the visible face of QTIPOC
activism in the region.
In each of our activities, we have had to find an organic meeting point between two
opposing goals. On the one hand, it involves disrupting structures to truly highlight
the unsettled existence of being both queer and people of colour. On the other hand,
it means having to use existing resources and the material limits of working in a city that has neither a queer community centre nor a formal, dedicated queer
quarter. This has shaped our work in both large- and small-scale ways.
Our biggest action has been leading Nottinghamshire Pride on multiple occasions. In
2016, the focus was on QTIPOC identity and racism in the wider East Midlands,
including how the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre is part of the wider
structure of the UK government’s oppressive policies regarding LGBTQ+ asylum
seekers. In 2017, the focus shifted to the grassroots campaign to decriminalise
homosexuality in the Commonwealth, and the experiences of QTIPOC diasporas in
the UK within that movement. We also spoke during the 2019 anniversary of the
Stonewall Riots, and have offered perspectives at multiple city-wide panels, book
launches, workshops, and conferences during Pride Month, History Month,
IDAHoBiT, and other general events.
On the opposite end of the scale, our social remit involves hosting activities that are
mostly in-group (QTIPOC only) but occasionally include allies and/or non-QTIPOC
loved ones. Alongside a monthly meet-up at an accessible and affordable public
space, we have also held gaming nights, film and TV nights, make-up sessions,
creative writing and arts sessions, meals, and celebrations for Eid and Holi. These
sessions run the range from events that are pre-planned months in advance to
spontaneous group meet-ups that are facilitated using our social media pages.
Regardless of the size of the event or action, each of these instances has
necessarily been affected by the complex nature of being at the centre of a
marginalised intersection in the public sphere. From the more traditional reading of
being “radical”, our very existence has acted as a disruption to the potential
sanitisation of the queer narrative. Our larger activism has called attention to various
specific concerns that we face which are often overlooked in the mainstream
narrative. This has, crucially, included conversations around racism within the wider
LGBTQ+ community. Meanwhile, our socials have deepened an understanding of
what it means to look and be queer by virtue of being held in public spaces – while
also empowering individual members through solidarity and safe spaces.
The locations and logistical aspects of these cases, however, are much more
restricted and conventional. Many of the venues we use (e.g., cinemas, cafes, board
game cafes, bookstores etc.) are exclusive by nature of being businesses. Though we come together as a community to cover expenses for individual members, our
events are in no way challenging their role within capitalism more broadly.
On a more contentious note, our involvement with Nottinghamshire Pride has meant
that we are working with the Pride organisational charity that has often worked with
the City Council and has allowed police presence in the past. Both are entities that
have systemic failures when it comes to working with QTIPOC – indeed, some of our
members are unable to attend protests against these groups due to the precarious
nature of being not only QTIPOC but also immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers.
That precarity has, therefore, created the need for being realistic with how far we can
actively push against – and, ultimately, upend – the wider system. Yet, I think it is a
disservice to frame that pragmatism as being non- or anti-radical. Radical action has
to be understood in context and as moments of disruption, rather than being a value
judgement that is often predicated on being in a privileged position.
Having provided an overview of our actions, I must also turn to the academic
underpinnings of this stance. As a utopian scholar – someone whose work engages
with contemporary issues and works towards imagining emancipatory alternatives – I
am always invested in understanding what makes something transformative. I firmly
believe that QTIPOC is radical and utopian in two key ways.
First, we fit the idea of Sara Ahmed’s interpretation of being a killjoy. As explored
from a feminist perspective in The Promise of Happiness (2010), moments, actions
and movements that create hope by killing the joy of an oppressive status quo are
unambiguously utopian. By challenging the white cisheteronormativity of society, we
fulfil that criteria.
Secondly, we also embody the work of Lynne Segal in Radical Happiness: Moments of
Collective Joy (2017). In her work, Segal acknowledges that wider social structures
can be difficult to overturn but there is still power and value in small moments against
the system. This is vital because our ability to function as a group is contingent on
utilising existing resources (and the limits thereof), but we still use those resources
for moments of communal happiness.
Thus, I argue that small moments of queer disruption carry immense transformative
potential that is greater than the sum of their parts. In doing so, I contend that
queerness is radical not only on a grander scale, but also in more intimate moments
of hope and joy.
Bio: Ibtisam is a Doctoral Research Student at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and IR. His thesis, “The Decolonial Killjoy” critiques the supposed utopian ideology of colonialism in the British Raj, instead shifting the focus to marginalised grassroots decolonial voices. His publications include several pieces on queer utopianism. His academia and his activism are both shaped by his experiences as a queer Bangladeshi living in the UK. He is heavily involved with decriminalising homosexuality in the Commonwealth. His academic profile can be found at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/people/Ibtisam.Ahmed and he tweets using the handle @Ibzor (contact: Ibtisam.Ahmed@nottingham.ac.uk).