When Stephen K Amos hit the stage, people roared. Then he ‘came out’ and black audiences fell silent. In a new documentary, he explores the homophobia that still blights the African-Caribbean community.
By Mary O’Hara – @maryohara1
Wednesday 21st Feb 2007
There is a moment in the forthcoming Channel 4 documentary, Batty Man, when the presenter, Stephen K Amos, asks some teenage girls for their views on gay black men. One girl says bluntly: “Black people don’t go on them nasty ways. That’s just bringing shame on our race.” Later, when the same question is put to some young boys, one tells Amos: “If I’m gay, I’m put down for dead.” Another says: “I am a Christian, so I’m against gay people.”
A number of young people quote lyrics from songs by Jamaican “dance hall” musicians, such as Elephant Man, that claim “batty men” should be killed. Amos looks stunned and bewildered by what he is hearing.
Batty Man – a controversial choice of title that the producers say will help to draw public attention to the seriousness of such prejudice – is a slang word used to insult gay men. The programme follows Amos, a stand-up comedian who happens to be black and gay, all the way from the estate he grew up on in London to Jamaica as he attempts to find answers to why some black people harbour such attitudes to gay black people. He interviews children, rappers, gay men afraid to come out, and religious figures – including the Bishop of Jamaica.
At one point, the programme shows Amos doing a stand-up gig to a mostly black audience in Brixton, south London. The audience is roaring with laughter, but when he declares that he is “attracted to men” they fall silent.
It was literally breath-taking, Amos says of the experience. “There was a lot of tension and aggression in the room. There were even people who turned their backs on me.” On reflection, he says he was I. “I just thought: ‘The funny bloke will win the day.'”
Before last year, Amos had never referred explicitly to his sexuality in his act. He is known on the comedy circuit for keeping the gags coming thick and fast, and for the wickedly clever way he plays on people’s prejudices. He has a joke he tells to Edinburgh Festival audiences – usually predominantly white – about how glad he is that the venue is packed because it means his friends can get on with burgling their homes. This is usually met with an awkward silence and people shifting awkwardly in their chairs. Until he says: “All my friends are white.” At which point the audience breaths a collective sigh of relief and laughs again.
A daily struggle
As his comedy career took off, Amos decided he wanted to be known for his work, not labelled as a “black, gay” comic, so he deliberately kept his repertoire as broad as possible. But at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006, he surprised people by writing and performing a more personal show, All Of Me. At almost 40 years old, he very publicly “came out”.
The reason for doing so – and for agreeing to make the documentary – was because the previous year his friend was beaten to death in a brutal homophobic attack in Clapham, south London. “I thought to myself that I could be one of those people hiding in the background not saying very much. But, at the end of the day, that is not a positive thing.”
Amos knew he was gay from an early age. He realised it was not a subject people talked about and there were no role models he could look up to. “In my household, I didn’t tell anyone,” he recalls. “They kind of guessed. I thought: ‘Something is a bit wrong here. Why am I wearing these red shoes and skipping?'”
He found it hard to come to terms with and didn’t completely accept it until “10 or 15 years ago”. He found life “a daily struggle” for a long time afterwards. As a black man, Amos says he felt apart from the mainstream gay movement. It helps, he says, that there are many black gay clubs now, which didn’t exist when he was younger, but he thinks both the black and gay press could do more to reflect positive images of gay, black life.
There is a sense from the documentary that, when he started out on it, Amos hoped to be pleasantly surprised, only to be disappointed. But while there are many incidents that appear to have left him feeling dejected, such as his encounters with the teenagers, he was given quite a few reasons to be hopeful. For example, he interviews a young black gay couple in their home, and one says he is ready to come out to his mother after years of being afraid. He does so the next day and, to his surprise, his mother is immediately accepting. “It just proves that there is scope and hope for people not to be as negative as we think they are going to be,” Amos says.
He also found meeting the Bishop of Jamaica “inspiring”. Having listened to numerous people, both in the UK and in Jamaica, quote the Bible to “prove” that being gay was learned behaviour and to be rejected, listening to a bishop say that this was nonsense left him feeling “over the moon”.
Amos acknowledges that the programme may face criticism from within the black community because it highlights problems, rather than a more upbeat aspect of the modern black experience in Britain. He says he understands why some people might be concerned. “It’s that thing of hanging out your dirty washing,” he says. “We are still a very small minority in this country and still not being equally or fairly represented on TV – and if the only way we can go on TV is by having a go at ourselves, that’s what I’m a bit concerned about.”
He also realises that there are black people who will disagree with the programme’s basic premise and there will be campaigners who will object to homophobia being classified in terms of race at all. Some may regard the programme as reducing a complex issue to a simplified and perhaps misguided argument about whether homophobia is more prevalent in one community than another. He insists he is not trying to claim that the UK is like Jamaica, a notoriously homophobic country. What he wanted to explore, he says, is why some young black people in Britain are quoting dance hall musicians” lyrics as gospel.
Amos says he would not have done the documentary even a year ago, but that he has “thought hard and fast” about possible reactions, and ultimately concluded that “someone had to stand up sometime and say something” about what he believes is a problem.
He is anxious that his first major television work is not going to be seen as “black, gay duh-duh-duh with an axe to grind”. It has, however, wetted his appetite for exploring other issues, “positive and negative”, relevant to the black community. “I want to find out why there aren’t many black performers on TV,” he says. And he wants to know why there are lots of black professional footballers, but not black managers. “I want to explore these things that are important to us.”
Having done the documentary, Amos is making no claims about having all the answers, or even fully understanding the issue. What he does say is that a number of recurring themes came up while talking to people for the programme.
The issue of whether masculinity and being gay were mutually exclusive frequently arose, as did the influence of religion and tradition. “It seems so deep-rooted,” he says. “I’m not sure whether doing the documentary is going to fuel the fire or a debate.”
As a documentary, Batty Man has its limitations. It is by no means a comprehensive overview of the issue of being gay and black and it will have its detractors. It is more about the personal journey of a man still coming to terms with coming out and who longs to understand why parts of his community cannot accept who he is.
It steers away from addressing some of the broader issues around gay equality, but in conversation Amos is keen to do so. He believes that black gay men and women have been let down by mainstream gay campaigners. “It’s about looking after the white, gay male,” he says. With the possible exception of controversial campaigner Peter Tatchell, who Amos applauds for highlighting “a very broad spectrum” of gay equality issues, including the plight of gay people in Jamaica, he believes larger gay equality groups “have their own agenda”.
If there is one group of people that Amos wants to watch the documentary, and learn from it next Tuesday morning, it is young black teenagers such as those he spoke to in London. If attitudes to gay people in the black community are to change in the long term, he believes, it must take root with them.
As for his contribution to that, he says: “If I can be a positive role model for young black gay teenagers or white gay teenagers and tell them that I don’t fall into any particular stereotype, bring it on.”