Life Stories: Josh Rivers - Founder, Busy Being Black
📸: Peter Fingleton
On the day of fuckery that was supposed to be Brexit, I have the pleasure of spending time with the articulate and charming Josh Rivers. I’ve been a fan of his podcast ‘Busy Being Black’ and the variety of topics it covers with warmth, incisiveness and humanity. The headline only gave me so much space, but he is also the Director of Comms at The Naz Project and Head of Comms for UK Black Pride. Much of what he does today chimes with colourfull – enabling the queer Black community to live their fullest lives. Josh’s journey to be of service to others is well-documented and this is a profile of someone whose purpose connects with our mission here; someone who has taken accountability, overcome adversity and continues to use his platform and his voice to shine a light on the beauty, resilience and courage of our community. I am here for that!
32, cis-man, gay/queer, black (African American-White British). I deliberately define (and see) myself as Black.
Life Right Now
I am, to coin a phrase, busy being Black. My podcast, Busy Being Black, has reached 16k listeners which is a momentous achievement. I'm really happy with the feedback I get – people have been so emphatic and enthusiastic about it. It seems to have connected with others and found a place in their lives. Alongside the podcast, there is my work at The Naz Project working alongside incredible, impassioned activists who work tirelessly to ensure BAME communities enjoy better sexual health outcomes. And I’m excited to continue my work alongside Lady Phyll at UK Black Pride. We’ve just announced this year’s festival: Sunday 7 July at Haggerston Park!
I became aware of my sexuality at the age of 8 or 9, but had no language for it then. At that time, I had feelings for someone who was close to me – it was different to the types of feelings I’d had for others, almost like complete adoration. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I had my first boyfriend. We had secret rendezvous in the bathroom at school, we slipped notes into each other’s lockers. Looking back it was magical and still makes me smile. I remember the first time we tried to have sex and we tried to do it without lube! Sex education is so bloody important! In any case, I think it’s safe to say I’ve always felt fluent in my gayness, if that makes sense? It’s very natural to me and once I had the language to describe how I felt about myself and others, it was so affirming. Being gay is my most favourite thing. I’m obsessed with being gay. It feels like such an immense privilege to be part of this community, this history.
My Family & Culture
My father’s family is African-American and so, I grew up steeped in the Black church. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher and I remember the smells and sounds of Sundays in his church in a backwater town in Texas. After my first boyfriend and I broke up (he said he’d found God), I decided to throw myself into the church and tried so hard to be straight. I spent so many nights praying to God to make me ‘normal’ and for about six months I carried my Bible to school with me everyday. It was like a complete immersion in the scripture and I was determined that I could change myself. When I came out at 16, I made the decision to leave the church. I just couldn’t reconcile my sexuality with the scripture.
My mum’s family is White British and just the other day, I was having a conversation with my mum about what it means to be 'proud to be British'. In effect, we were exploring what it actually means to be British. Beyond food and places, I think Britishness is hard to pin down. So much of what we know about Britain or Britishness or Englishness is colonial. Sure, there are great authors and poets and architects and the idyllic countryside, but is that enough to be proud to be from this island?
I feel a strong, visceral connection to the African-American tradition, to Black activists and the Black church. I actively chose to begin identifying as Black in the fall of 2015. I’d used mixed race before and I think it was a way of separating myself from the Black community. Growing up, I didn’t feel welcome or wanted and so for the longest time, I wanted nothing to do with Black culture. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement was the moment of change. I realised that it was by the grace of God that I was living here in the UK and that I wasn’t being gunned down by police in the US. I think my life could have gone in a very different direction had I stayed in the US.
I think what’s helped me marry my queerness and Blackness is coming to understand that they are not separate. Queer Black people only expand what it means to be Black, and I think Blackness is queerness in some respects.
I came out when I was 16. My Mum said she had known since I was 4. Apparently, I had dressed up in one of my dad’s military t-shirts, wrapped her turquoise belt around my waist and put on matching turquoise heels and then came down the stairs. She said she just watched me clip-clopping back and forth across the linoleum, happy as Larry and knew then that I might be gay. She was the first person I told and she really empowered me. Once I had her blessing and felt her love, I felt confident enough to come out at school. So, I shot out of the closet like a crazy pink unicorn. I felt so liberated. My classmates (this was in Atlanta) were so accepting. I think people knew before and they were just happy that I was being myself. I do wonder what happens to all the angst we carry before coming out – where does it all go? It’s essentially a source of trauma and we assume coming out heals all of it.
At the time, I didn’t understand my Dad’s reaction, but I now realise it was the best it was ever going to be. I’d expected him to be enthusiastic, but it was more of a subtle acceptance as he didn’t have much to say. Overall, I had a really good coming out, I’ve been luckier than others who may have been in the same situation.
As I grew older, I wasn’t prepared for what else was to come and descended into a world where I was ravaged; the sex, drugs and expectations (of older/predatory men). I’ve definitely learnt some lessons along the way.
My sexuality and ethnicity didn’t shape my career at all until early 2016. I was involved with an event called ‘Coming Out as an Entrepreneur’ and it involved a panel discussion where I heard different people describe their experiences of coming out at work. I had never questioned my sexuality in a public space, let alone a workplace. As I listened, I realised I’d had immense privilege. In turn, I wanted to utilise my comfort and fluency in my gayness by making the world better for other queer people.
Today, my entire career is at that intersection of Black and queer. And my question that underlies everything I do is: How can I make life better for a younger me? Busy Being Black gives me a lot of energy and excitement. I want to see more PoC to have something that is absolutely theirs and beyond other people’s influence. It’s important we have control over our own stories, what we say, and how and when we say it. Both UK Black Pride and Busy Being Black have helped me heal and enabled me to have conversations with people like me who are not perfect, but who are determined to be of service.
Love, Dating & Relationships
I’ve not been in a relationship since Nov 2014. At the time I was dating a guy with whom I was completely obsessed and it was all-consuming. I actually couldn’t bear feeling that way. When we broke up, I felt something switch in me; I remember thinking ‘never again’. The four years since have been joyous and kind of traumatic. There’s been an immense amount of growth, which I’m not sure I could have done tethered to someone else. I think I’m finally ready to get back into the dating pool, but I’m not in any rush. For all my faults, I like who I’ve become and it’s important to me that whoever I decide to share that time and space with is also on their own journey of discovery.
It’s also important for me to cultivate more intimacy (fraternal and otherwise) with Black men. I think there’s an unrivalled intimacy among Black people, among people we don’t have to explain ourselves to.
I feel quite torn about the LGBTQ community at the moment. I believe in what we can achieve collectively, but I’m not convinced that the interests of queer Black people are served by the community. As queer people of colour, we’ve been overshadowed and erased by the agenda of cis-white gay men. There is not wholesale acceptance of queer people of colour in the community for it to feel like a community. We have issues like sexual racism, transphobia and limited conversations about our non-binary siblings and so much of this comes from within the community. We either need to figure out what we stand for as a whole, as work cohesively, or those in power need to step aside. I’m pretty certain white gay men and women are not the answer.
Words of Wisdom
The world will not always make you feel you feel loved and accepted, but you deserve to be loved and are worthy.
Find better uses for your anger; you won’t heal yourself by hurting others.
Discover your rage and what upsets what you most. Use that to propel yourself and create change. This is what fuels me today – to prevent avoidable situations queer people find themselves in, and ultimately to create platforms and spaces for young people that tell them they are loved, valued and that they matter.
And with that, our time was up. Meeting Josh was brilliant – his commitment and passion for lifting up the queer community of colour was evident throughout, as was his deep sense of accountability for the past and bettering himself for the world we’re trying to create.
I’ll simply sign off with some inspirational words Travis Alabanza shared in discussion with Josh on Busy Being Black ‘We have always been the answer and the gift’.