Humber Street Gallery’s newest exhibition provides thought-provoking photographs shining a light on the lives of Sierra Leone’s LGBT+ community.
This week Hull celebrates LGBT 50 – a week long programme with the first ever UK Pride at Pride in Hull, Pride in Hull Film Festival, A Duckie Summer Tea Party, BBC Radio 2 concert I Feel Love and much more…
On the day that marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 that decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men in England and Wales, a powerful exhibition opens at Humber Street Gallery, The House of Kings and Queens. International documentary photographer Lee Price reminds us that not only do LGBT+ communities in the UK still have a long way to go in terms of acceptance, but other communities across the world haven’t come this far yet.
It is still illegal to engage in homosexual acts in 77 countries, including in Hull’s sister city Freetown, Sierra Leone where a maximum sentence of life imprisonment can be imposed. The vast majority of LGBT+ people choose to keep their sexuality a guarded secret from the people around them. However, within the heart of Freetown, lives a young transgender woman who offers a warm welcome to members of the LGBT+ community in need, they call it The House of Kings and Queens.
Creating a unique collection of photographs, Lee Price explored the house’s members and uncovered what it means to be gay in Freetown.
How did you find out about the house in Freetown?
I had a fixer during my time in Freetown, a local whose job it was to help me find subjects, show me where things are, how things are done, and to act as an interpreter for conversations with people who didn’t speak English. He happened to know of a transgender woman, and on my first night in Freetown he took me to watch her compete in a transgender beauty pageant. These competitions are very much a part of the gay culture in Freetown, and some attract a fairly large crowd from the gay community despite them being held in secret.
The following day we went to see her at her home, and it was then that I discovered she uses her home as a sanctuary for members of the LGBT+ community who need a safe place to go. I knew almost instantly that I wanted to base the work around this house, and so I started spending every day there, learning about its importance and what it means to the people that live there.
What was the reaction from members of the house to the project?
A few members of the house were a little wary at first, and I could understand why. Most of them were used to living quite secretive lives and not being open with strangers about their sexuality, so I think the idea of someone they didn’t know coming to their home with a camera was a little unsettling initially.
They’re often refused health care, turned away from shops in fear of their money bringing bad luck, they’re under threat of physical and verbal abuse.
After I explained that no faces would be shown within any of the imagery, and that I was there to shed light on their situation, as well as that of the Sierra Leone gay community as a whole, they quickly became comfortable with the camera and welcomed the project as a way to show the world what work needs to be done with regards to gay rights in Africa.
What can you tell us about the lives of the members of the house?
Life is difficult for the LGBT+ community of Freetown, and Sierra Leone as a whole. They’re often refused health care, turned away from shops in fear of their money bringing bad luck, they’re under threat of physical and verbal abuse, and much more. They’re made to feel like outcasts on a daily basis and for some, it can be difficult to remain positive about their situation.
The House of Kings and Queens has allowed the people that live there a sense of safety and freedom. There, they’re free to dress, look and act how they want to – how they feel they were born to, and that’s something they don’t take for granted. Outside of the house they face all sorts of difficulties, and while this home doesn’t solve all of their problems, it allows them to be themselves surrounded by people who understand and accept them.
I wanted to focus on the courage I witnessed of the people of the gay community and the solidarity the house provides.
Did anything shock or surprise you about the house or the community it acts as a sanctuary for?
Having spent time in Uganda exploring what life is like for the LGBT+ community out there, I wasn’t really surprised by the difficulties people of sexual minorities face in Sierra Leone. Most African nations hold the opinion that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ and prejudice towards the LGBT+ community is common throughout the continent.
But what did surprise me was the resilience I experienced from members of the house and the community as a whole. Whilst they’re very aware of the threat they’re under from people who disagree with their way of life, they stay true to their identity, and don’t let their daily struggles get them down, or at least not too much. They’re grateful for the freedom and security the house provides, and for the love and support they have from the people around them.
Your work predominantly focuses on the topic of sexuality, did you find this project was different to your previous work?
Unlike my previous work, this project was more of a celebration of defiance and togetherness. Of course I wanted to highlight the difficulties these people face in everyday life – you can’t really talk about being gay in Sierra Leone without discussing the hostility they’re up against – but I didn’t want that to be the main message. Instead, I wanted to focus on the courage I witnessed of the people of the gay community and the solidarity the house provides.
What questions do you hope to spark from this project?
This year we’re celebrating 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, and the progress we’ve made since then with regards to British gay rights. That’s not to say there’s no more work to be done, because even here, prejudice is still very much alive and we shouldn’t feel too much gratitude until it no longer exists.
We can, however, appreciate that our situation in the UK is a far reach from that of the LGBT+ communities of places like Sierra Leone. Here and in many other parts of the world there’s a lot of progress still to be made, and I hope this project helps to shed more light on this international human rights issue, as well as raising debates around the ill treatment of people because of their sexuality – not just overseas, but at home too.
The exhibition will also be the subject of a Moved by Art session on Thu 17 Aug from 5pm-8pm. These sessions for young people aged 18-24 to connect with arts and culture and become involved with the exhibitions.