Illustration: Chloé Stephenson / @chloartee

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Telling stories of wellbeing and safety in light of a spur of homophobic attacks in Liverpool, poet Olive speaks to multi-disciplinary artist Kolade Ladipo about queer expression, creating queer roles within the acting world and the intersectionality of queer and Black identity.

Liverpool is my home, but it keeps stepping on the necks of my queer family and it’s splitting my heart down the middle. Although we remain resilient in standing up against these hate crimes, we need our allies now more than ever to make this city a space to be queer without fear.

The energy spiralling around me is wrapped up in artist Kolade Ladipo, who sits before me with a warm smile and tender self-confidence. We order two herbal teas and watch the people splashing past us down Bold Street.

A shape-shifter, Kolade channels all the aspects of himself through various art forms. Whether capturing intimacy through his photography, slipping into new characters as an actor, or dancing on stage in heeled boots and flames beneath his feet, Kolade is woven with intention whatever discipline he steps into.

Having survived a homophobic attack in Liverpool this summer, Kolade shifts around conversations of safety and self-expression. My heart is heavy with these stories. I wonder when we will allow artists to just create art and let them remove this crown of activism they’re often forced to wear for their own survival.

“I’m comfortable here. It’s my home, too, and I need to make sure this city is safe for other queer Black people. Not that it’s my job to, but it’s what I feel I need to do,” Kolade tells me, sipping on a sweet chamomile tea, his gold chain bouncing the light back to me.

“Me and my friend (Felix Mufti-Wright) started a collective called Here And Queer which was created after my attack this summer,” Kolade explains. “It’s an ongoing project where we take photos of queer people in either safe spaces, or the spaces they were attacked in. Taking photos is such a powerful thing, but it’s not the only thing we do. We are reaching out to more venues and spaces and bridging that gap between them and other companies who can train them on specifically queer and racial safety. To help people understand what their venue needs to be doing, especially to ensure the safety of queer and Black people.”

This discussion of safe spaces comes up a lot, especially within the LGBTQ+ community. A main issue which continues to arise is that the majority of queer folk will automatically wrap themselves in defensiveness (even subconsciously) when in a space which is not visibly queer.

“As queer people we feel the need to ‘come out’,” Kolade adds. “We’ve had to spend such a long time hiding ourselves, so when we try to find our safe space where we feel like we can be our authentic selves, it tends to be in only queer spaces. I’m in a place on my journey where I can express myself anywhere, but there are still times when I feel on edge. [We need to work on] making sure we take the right steps so venues are as safe as they can be. Letting people be safe no matter where they are.”

This intersects with Kolade’s Black identity, too. “I want to see more Black people within industries, working in shops. Same for queer people.” Kolade paints the air with his hands as he releases his frustration: “I want to see more visibly queer people in industries. Where is visibly queer [in Liverpool] where I can go to, besides ‘gay town’? Which isn’t a Black space either.”

“I need to make sure this city is safe for other queer Black people. Not that it’s my job to, but it’s what I feel I need to do”

At this point, visibility and inclusivity should be a given within any industry, but it is sadly not always the case. “Growing up, every time I watched a rom-com it was always with a straight couple, but when I saw one with two men, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I get it’.” Still, it seems that cis, white, heterosexual characters are the default. There is hope, however, with TV shows such as Pose bursting onto Netflix’s most popular watch list.

This issue gets stickier, however, when straight people are casting to play queer roles within the acting world. “When it comes to queer people playing straight roles that’s a different thing,” Kolade explains. “Often, queer people have gone through life being assumed they’re heterosexual. But when people act trans or queer and they’re heterosexual, it’s false. You can’t understand or bring your own truth to their struggle,” Kolade explains. “It’s frustrating because there are always queer people who are qualified to play the role instead.”

The issue stems from who controls access to these creative industries. It can feel impossible when the gatekeepers to opportunity are locking doors to new talent who exist outside of the white, cis, hetero world. Kolade shares with me how this has impacted his experience as a third year acting student at LIPA. “In the whole of third year across all of the courses there is maybe maximum 15 Black people,” he tells me. “On my course I am the only Black person. It’s frustrating because there are areas literally on the doorsteps of these drama schools that they hardly tap into, like Toxteth, for example.”

Kolade’s art and voice are a light of hope in places that feel shrouded in darkness. It occurs to me that his work as an artist has taken the path of activism when this may not be his only creative goal. “It’s the unintentional prejudice of people,” Kolade sighs, “which I then have to explain to them and then they feel bad about it. But it’s like, ‘I don’t want to deal with your white guilt’. I go to university to learn acting. But because I am so active with social rights people expect me to always talk about it. And I want to, but I also don’t want to burn out. I shouldn’t have to be the one to step up all the time.”

And I agree. It would be much easier if people just did their own work and artists didn’t have to become activists or teachers all of the time. If only our art could exist for ourselves and not always have to be a political statement. If only our music, dance, photography – and yes, even our columns printed at the back of pink magazines – didn’t have to be filled with stories of conflict. But here we are.

This work to make our city safer and better is of course so important, but it hurts that it is needed. “We all have to be more aware of each other,” Kolade concludes. “As animals, we are selfish and primal, but as human beings we can be compassionate and caring. At the moment I feel we can be lacking that for each other. Especially in the arts world.”

This compassion for each other is where everything ends and begins. Removing the labels we place on one another and allowing ourselves to stand bare and human before each other is the only way. We need to see each other with love and openness; to allow expression to blossom and hold space for all people. Otherwise, we stay stagnant. Otherwise, we are still not safe. Otherwise, our creative city becomes a cesspit.

There’s so much good blooming in this city. I have felt the love here with authenticity and a fullness that can only be conjured from genuine connection and acceptance. Water these spaces. Step up for the people whose voices are sore from shouting for their freedom.

Stand with us. Be the light. Be the love.

And maybe one day, we can proudly say that our waterfront city is a loving home of a flourishing LGBTQ+ family. Until then, we have our hope and our voices. I think it’s time to use them.

Olive is a queer poet, spoken word artist and music journalist currently based in Liverpool. Her work is inspired by nature, mysticism and human connection.

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