Life Stories: Aaron Carty, Founder – Beyoncé Experience and Head of Marketing, UK Black Pride
I saw Aaron perform the Beyoncé Experience at UK Black Pride this year (and googled his time on BGT) and was blown away by his energy, charisma and of course, the dance moves. Having recently returned from Everest Base Camp(!) achieving the record as the first drag queen to perform way up there, I just knew that there’d be a fascinating life story behind the different facets of Aaron’s personality. We met at Depop’s offices and talked all things laser eye surgery, his 3 pugs and of course, his Life Story.
34, he/him/his, male, gay, mixed race (Black Caribbean and English)
Life Right Now
Beyoncé Experience is really big for me right now; it’s something that’s organically grown and came at the right time to help me express who I am. In addition to that, I have a digital media company and that these different facets of my life have come together (where I’ve performed the Beyoncé Experience at my clients’ parties) is surreal. I have a performance coming up at the Clapham Grand on the 22nd November which I’m really excited for; they were one of the first venues that took a punt on me when I stepped in as Beyoncé as part of the Dreamgirls cinema night and I’ve staged an independent show there too in the past. And then we have UK Black Pride – it’s going to be amazing next year.
I knew I was different around the age of 7/8. One memory stands out as I was growing up. We used to play with our neighbour’s kids, and they had two brothers. We played a game where all the boys jumped over to one side of the fence, and I realised I was standing with the girls and felt I couldn’t jump over – I just knew I was different in some way. That kickstarted my exploration.
Growing up in Ipswich, it had a large Caribbean community. So being both Black and gay were things that I was aware of from a young age. I knew instinctively that I’d need to grow up quicker and that it wouldn’t be easy for me. In practice this meant I was ‘switched on’, pushed myself to think differently and sharpened my intellect. At school, even though I’d not come to terms with it myself, I was known as the gay one – when you have other people outing you, I placed my inner self in a shell. I was popular and visible, but I definitely wasn’t giving all of myself – I was a part of different friendship groups rather than a single clique. It’s something I do even now as I enjoy being around different people and perspectives.
Overall, my identity has spurred me on and pushed me to achieve more.
My Family & Culture
I’ve had a unique experience growing up, namely that my Grandad (on my Mum’s side) was gay. He was married and had three kids but when it became legal in 1960s, he left my Gran and was then openly out and gay. It took a long time for my family to heal from this and this definitely shaped my own experiences of coming out.
My Mum used to run a pub and I was outed to her by one of the barmaids. She’d told my Mum that she’d seen me at a gay club, kissing a boy! Having seen my family split apart after my Grandad came out, I was worried my sexuality would have the same effect given that we’d just started mending relationships.
My Dad found out through Facebook. He said he’d been told by a friend who happened to stumble across my profile and see my relationship status at the time. I remember him asking ‘so are you?’ and I told him. And then the next question was ‘so what motorbike are you going to buy?’
Being mixed race meant I got comments from all sides on account of my sexuality as well as my race. After my parents separated, it was actually easier to compartmentalise the two. With my Mum, sexuality was going to be trickier whereas with my Dad, it was race. For a long time, I stayed away from my Caribbean side and was raised by my Mum’s family. I’d also get comments like you’re a coconut from other kids which made me really angry. I started to reconnect with my Caribbean side as I got older and even visited my family there. I got a better sense of their experiences and understood the hidden parts of myself and the racism that was attached to it, in particular being light skinned and the privileges that afforded me.
If I had been the first in my family to come out (and not my Grandad), I would have done it differently. I remember thinking it was going to be so much worse than it was. This combination of factors kept me in the closet longer than I needed to.
Having been outed, my Mum did ask why I hadn’t just told her. She wanted to be supportive, but I was still coming out to myself and accepting my identity at the time so factoring in how she may have felt wasn’t on my mind. With my Dad, we haven’t spoken much about my sexuality – but in a good way. When he found out, he just accepted it. It gave me the confidence to be true to myself and tell the family, and they have been supportive.
My identity as a gay, Black man has influenced my career in every possible way. As I mentioned, when I was younger, I knew I had to think differently which I think has led me to be the entrepreneur I am today. I wanted to work in an environment where I could be free to express myself and not be institutionalised. The less I hide of myself, the more successful I’m becoming. Alongside my agency, the Beyoncé Experience gives me a happy balance. It began as a hobby but it was a release – I didn’t realise how much I needed it. I don’t see myself as a performer or entertainer, just as someone who is very normal who enjoys entertaining people.
I was a Police Officer and remember having experiences where I became much more aware of racism, and in particular the privilege of being light skinned. I was accepted into the force and although I didn’t encounter it directly, the racism was always there when I look back – it just wasn’t viewed as racism at the time. When my sexuality was public, I was worried about how this would play out, and although I was treated differently, it wasn’t in a bad way. I became a poster boy for diversity, I was good at my job and was known in the town where I worked. But I knew this wasn’t something I was comfortable with longer term and stopped.
Working as part of UK Black Pride gives me joy. It’s now my 3rd year and from finding my feet, I’m running with it. I can’t wait for next year, it’s going to be brilliant.
Love, Dating & Relationships
I’m currently in a relationship and recently celebrated our 3 year anniversary. We also have 3 pugs (and nope, not one for each year that we’ve been together). Being Black has been problematic, especially with covert racism such as ‘I don’t go for Black guys’ – it’s so visible yet accepted. Going out on the scene when I was younger, I was aware of how I was looked at in gay spaces. I’d tend to get attention from older gay guys, and my friends would joke it was because they couldn’t get the cute White boys, so they were now after cute Black guys. Or because they might think I’m worldly and/or exotic. Please!
I often get frustrated with people pointing to education as a way of bringing the various parts of our community closer together. The thing is, the information and people’s experiences have always been there – it can feel like we’re going backwards. The real issue is we are not asking the right questions. We need to take accountability for our own learning and not rely on social media to fill in the blanks.
As community, we are not unified – and this is largely to do with race. In addition, we need to support the Trans community. They’ve had our backs so we need to stand up and support them as they are being attacked.
This is why I’m involved in Black Pride, I understand the value of safe spaces and the way it brings our community together. Everyone is welcome, but it needs to be recognised as a space for queer people of colour. It allows me to do the work that may make it easier for someone like me by using this platform in a positive way.
Words of Wisdom
The things that you’re thinking in your head, say them out loud. We’ve all been in situations where we know something is not cool. As an example, call out racism; you don’t need to be an activist or spokesperson but you can deal with it on a personal level as our small actions matter.
If thinking about making changes in your life, get to them quickly. This applies to everything I’ve done. I have thought about things for way too long and procrastinated. The simple answer is just do it!
Help others and get involved in our community. This relates to UK Black Pride – I’m happy to admit that giving my time is selfish. Yes, we have an important mission, but I find that giving my time to such a brilliant cause makes me feel better and was something I didn’t have growing up. It’s healing for me and reinforces our sense of community.
You can catch Aaron this coming week! Firstly, he’ll be speaking and performing at the Uni of Westminster Diversity & Inclusion Festival as part of the Agents of Change programme this Thurs 21 Nov.
Then on Fri 22 Nov, the Beyoncé Experience is coming to The Grand in Clapham. You don’t want to miss this, trust me – you can get your tickets here!