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Isaac Blake — Romani Cultural & Arts Company, Wales

Isaac Blake is the founder and executive director of the Romani Cultural & Arts Company based in Cardiff, Wales. A proud gay Romani Gypsy, he organized the United Kingdom’s first international LGBTQ+ Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller conference in 2019, followed by the first ever Gypsy, Roma and Traveller LGBTQ+ Spoken History Archive, which launched early this year. In this profile, he discusses what it means to be an LGBTQ+ Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller; the impact the Archive has had within the community; and what to expect from future LGBTQ+ symposiums.

By Alexandra Kuenning

How did you become involved in activism?

When you think of yourself as Roma, you automatically become an activist within your community because you see, you feel, and you experience inequality, and you want to make the world a better place. I’ve experienced inequality myself, and I want to ensure that for the next generation who stands on my shoulders, the world is a lot better. I want to make a real difference, not only for myself, but also for my Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller brothers and sisters. 

Just to give the readers a bit of background, I identify as a proud gay Romani Gypsy. I have worked as a professional choreographer and am now the executive director for the Romani Cultural & Arts Company in Cardiff, Wales. My leadership and management has seen the organization grow from a small voluntary group to a major third sector NGO that leads the Romani and Traveller field in Wales and is one of the major players of Romani and Traveller advocacy and empowerment in the UK. I’ve also been a dance curator, leading a team of academics and researchers curating artifacts for the Rom Archive, which was developed as an international digital archive of art of the Roma, and remains a continually growing collection of art of all types accompanied by historical documents and scholarly texts. I’ve also been instrumental in supporting LGBTQ+ rights in the UK, Europe, and beyond, particularly with respect to the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. I have also supported LGBTQ+ Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers attend events internationally and I’ve also attended events myself to advance and represent my community in a positive light. 

Can you tell me more about the sort of events you, or other LGBTQ+ Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers, have attended?

My colleague Christine Virginia Lee represented the charity in 2015 at the International Roma LGBT Conference in Prague. It was a way to get Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers together to have a space to share ideas and look at opportunities and possibilities. I made sure to put a woman in the driving seat, because otherwise it’s all men, and I don’t agree with that at all. 

Personally, I’ve attended the ILGA conferences across Europe. For the second ILGA conference, they asked us to co-produce an exhibition, so I teamed up with my colleagues from Queer Roma TV and we produced a Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller exhibition. Coming from a Gypsy Traveller site myself, never having seen a gay Gypsy exhibition, it was emotional. It was such a personal project for me because it captured not only my ethnicity, but also my sexuality. I was also invited to a round table discussion at the Home Office in London looking at the gap in polity related to Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers, and I had an opportunity there to talk about intersectionality within the community. That was a platform and an opportunity to acknowledge my gayness as well as my Gypsyness and encourage policymakers to look at the data gaps in relation to my community. I was also privileged enough to go to the United Nations in New York with my fellow brothers and sisters and again speak about intersectionality and the experience of queer Roma on a global stage. 

How would you describe what life is like for an LGBTI person within the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities? 

The intersection of anti-Gypsyism and the discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ Gypsy, Roma, or Traveller people profoundly compounds their experience of marginalization and exclusion to a degree that can only be understood by other Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic LGBTQ+ communities. Romani and Traveller communities are the most disadvantaged and least engaged with minority ethnic groups in the complex ethnic and cultural mosaic of modern European identities, as they occupy a space at the intersection of racial bias, class conflict, ethnic discrimination, cultural appropriation, economic marginalization, and social exclusion that is unique amongst minority ethnic groups. Only the Romani, Traveller, and Jewish communities share the historical experience of murderous racial hatred leading to genocide in European early modern history — I’m referring, of course, to the Holocaust.

In the UK context, because I grew up on the Gypsy and Traveller sites in England and Wales, it was pretty much a man and woman would get married, that was the expectation. LGBTQ+ communities weren’t visible and out within the community. As a young gay person — and I’ve always been gay, I knew that at a very young age — I never saw any gayness within my community. And nobody really came to the Gypsy and Traveller camps —some people call them mahalas — to do any community development work. There were no LGBTQ+ workshops or talks. I am absolutely proud of my Romani Gypsy identity, and I feel privileged that later on in my life I got a chance to work with my own community on an international stage. And growing up in a Gypsy community, it was a very close-knit community. For me, even though we were quite poor growing up, I always felt rich because I had family and friends that loved me, cared for me, and protected me within the community, and I would learn stories from the elders within the community. I had a wonderful childhood growing up. 

Have you seen any changes over the last few years?

I do think things are changing. We are seeing more visibility within the community, thanks to social media. We’re seeing people coming out on Facebook and Instagram — those are platforms where people have an opportunity to celebrate their Gypsyness and their gayness, so that’s a wonderful moment in history right now. That being said, it’s not always easy for people to come out. People are fearful of being ostracized from their own community. I have worked with some Travellers who, even today, are gay, but they don’t want anyone from the community to know they are gay because they are fearful they will lose that community link. People are still quite nervous to come out. 

In terms of change, I’ve seen polar opposites. I’ve seen people who have had to flee from the community because of being physically attacked, but on the opposite spectrum, I’ve seen people who have been celebrated. I know an Irish Traveller man and a Gypsy man who recently got married within the community, and it was wonderful. For them, it was all about their celebration and their family’s acceptance of them, and people treat them as a couple. When I was growing up, I never saw two people the same sex living together, ever really. Now we are seeing gay men living together and gay women living together on Gypsy sites. It’s wonderful.

What led you to found the Romani Cultural & Arts Company?

So, my background is in dance theater, and I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to train at Trinity Laban in London and then I enhanced my skills at the Martha Graham School in New York. My background is performing arts, and when I came back [to the United Kingdom] in 2008, colleagues asked if I would be interested in choreographing for the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller History Month. So I started choreographing for community events and we set up doing small programs with children. I had an inkling they would be popular, but they just took a life of their own. The community wanted more regular activities for the children — and for the adults! 

The charity was founded in September 2009 as a nonprofit company. We are a Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller community development organization at heart. We are led by Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers, we are about Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers, and we are for Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers. We believe that the community can be developed to become fully accepted participants in mainstream society while still retaining their distinct culture and heritage. 

The Romani Cultural & Arts Company is also supporting individuals to become “Community Champions,” as actors and agents of change in their own communities, making a difference for themselves and the wider society. Within Wales, and increasingly across the UK, our advice and expertise are sought by local governments, policymakers, decision-takers, and local or national institutions. We are asked to evaluate the effectiveness of their policies and strategies or to support them in consultation to ensure the voice of the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities they serve, is heard. We lead on advocacy for these vulnerable communities, influencing the policy and strategy agendas in the context of a devolved Welsh Government and increasingly internationally across the UK.

What led you to create a Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller LGBTQ+ Spoken History Archive?

In 2012, we began holding annual, international conferences as a way of informing and supporting people to know more about history, culture, and the language of Gypsy, Traveller, and Roma communities. Academics from around the world, and also leaders in the Romani and Traveller movement, came to Wales, with the government able to participate as well. These symposiums were led by Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers — for example we had Professor Ian Hancock from Texas University, Dr. Ethel Brooks from Rutgers University, and Professor Colin Clark from the University of the West of Scotland. And each year, we seem to get more people to the campaign and attract new speakers, which is wonderful. So, we did three international symposiums: they looked at social policy — health, education, employment, civil society, and human rights. Then we had some funding from the Arts Council of Wales, and we did arts and culture symposiums — performing arts, visual arts, and so on. 

We tend to do chunks of three. Christine Virginia Lee and I said we would host an LGBTQ+ symposium. We had our first international LGBTQI symposium for the UK in 2019, and we were due to do a second symposium, but then obviously Covid hit. But we managed to get some funding for an LGBTQ+ archive. I wanted there to be something, I didn’t want there to be a huge vacuum between the symposiums. If we are cultural makers, we want to encourage a conversation. 

This new online resource was the result of research carried out by the Romani Cultural & Arts Company, with the support of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, and gives insight into the experience of LGBTQ+ individuals from a variety of international Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. This timely project gave a long overdue voice to the often-hidden Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller LGBTQ+ stories that our community members carry with them and at the same time offers greater insight into the wider Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller experience — insight which feels particularly relevant during this current period of social isolation during global pandemic. In addition to the audio archive, we also produced a text version, which was created with support from the Welsh Government.

We only had a small bit of funding from the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture. I recruited Dr. Daniel Baker and Christine Virginia Lee — they were the field officers doing the interviews. We had three months to complete the work, and I knew we would get some stories, but we got 20 stories in those three months, which is wonderful. We had stories from Wales, England, Ireland, Europe, and the Americas, so it was a global project. And it was great because the people collecting stories were a lesbian Gypsy and a gay Gypsy, so it was 100% led by the LGBT Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller community. It gave a platform and a space to have these conversations and share these stories, because there is no other international collection like this anywhere currently.

As a charity, we had already done heritage programs — we had done spoken history before, we had collected photographs and audio files and created exhibitions, books, and timelines — but this was the first time we were able to develop our own work and actually look at intersectionality within the community. This allowed us to dig a little deeper and look at some of those hidden voices within our own community, which was a great opportunity for us. 

How were the stories collected? 

We already had connections across the globe because we are from the community, and we had attended many events, so we already knew certain people for the archive, but I wanted to make sure we invited new voices. We used social media, and people that I hadn’t met said they would love to participate. The interviews were then conducted via Zoom. In a way, the Covid pandemic gave everyone a chance to think outside the box. If it wasn’t for Covid, we would probably have done the interviews in the UK and had them face-to-face. Covid gave us a chance to realize, hang on a second, there are LGBT people across the world, and it gave us a chance to use different mediums to capture those precious stories. 

Did you face any specific problems in creating this project?

To give some context, if you do a heritage project, it’s usually a two-year program. You do a lot of fieldwork, there’s editing, and you need to design the exhibition. We had limited resources and we only had three months to complete the project. So, time was an issue and so was funding, but we managed to capture 20 stories and we were pleased with that. 

What has been the response to the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller LGBTQ+ Spoken History Archive?

To start, here’s some feedback from our field workers:  “We’ve been very fortunate that all 20 contributors spoke so openly and freely about their very personal and sometimes difficult journeys as Romani Gypsies who are LGBTQ+. I’ve learned through these interviews how important the Romani LGBTQ+ community is to many people. I’ve also realized more and more through these interviews, the wealth of talent, kindness and goodwill that exists within the community.” That’s a quote from Christine Virginia Lee.

Daniel Baker’s quote was: “To embark on such an intimately personal collaborative project as the GRT LGBTQ+ Spoken History Archive felt particularly poignant during these current times of isolation. The archive will be a valuable resource for many who are beginning their journey as LGBTQ+ people across the variety of GRT communities.”

We are now seeing young people, thanks to the archive giving them a platform, coming out and saying “Yes, I belong not only to the Roma community, but also the LGBTQ+ community.” For myself, I got to officially come out. People already knew I was gay — I’m in my 40s now, and people from my community have always known. Obviously, they see my Gypsyness first, but they also know I’m gay and they have met people over the years that I’ve dated. But I’ve never needed to come out on Facebook. But if Christine and Daniel were coming out to officially say they were gay on social media, I felt a moral responsibility to do the same. And as the executive director, it was such a powerful thing to come out, and it felt like a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I was for once able to acknowledge my own gayness and my Gypsyness, and I found a lot of young people came out after that. They came out because I came out, and they came out because the archive was produced. We also did a lot of Zoom events for community members, and people were coming out on Zoom to family and friends. That was very powerful and moving — we must remember that this moment in time is living history, people are coming out now

We did a project with Richard O’Neill, who is an international children’s author from the Traveller community, and he came to our gay conference and he realized there were no LGBTQ+ characters in his children’s books. I encouraged Richard to apply for funding at the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, in which he was successful, and I supported Richard in organizing focus groups around the world, because Richard identifies as a heterosexual, straight man in the community, but he wanted to make sure there was LGBTQ+ representation within his children’s books. That was very positive, because he wouldn’t have thought of that without having seen the archive and attended the conference. 

We also found that a lot of charities and NGOs across the UK were very pleased they had something they could refer people to. The archive is available on our website free of charge, people could listen to the stories anytime they wanted to, there was a publication they could read, so other organizations felt they had something they could take back to gay Travellers and say you’re not on your own. The feedback was overwhelming; people were over the moon that there were resources available about LGBT Travellers because there really hadn’t been any visibility for the community. 

As a charity, what a gem of a project. We are putting LGBT stories front and center, and we are proud of LGBT Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller brothers and sisters, and we make that visible on a professional platform. We are not hiding who we are. We have had a lot of people in our inbox saying that they are proud of the archive and telling us to keep up the good work. Not just from the community, but also outside the community. The next step is to make sure that the work is in all the schools, and that everyone in the UK knows the work exists. I made sure that I emailed every LGBTQ+ organization in the UK to let them know the archive exists, that there are LGBTQ+ Traveller stories available here. It’s been quite overwhelming with the love and appreciation for the work.

Going back to the first LGBTQ+ symposium held in 2019, can you tell me more about what it was like organizing and attending such a conference?

We were proud to hold the first Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller LGBTQI international conference in the UK on July 4, 2019 at the Senedd, the National Assembly of Wales. The event featured an international selection of speakers, including activists, academics, artists, and community champions to focus on the current and historical experiences of LGBTQ+ Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers and further possibilities of improving equality and opportunity across our communities. It was a one-day conference that featured visible lesbian Roma experiences, people talking about faith, police crimes, academia, arts — it was a real mixture of presentations followed by an open-mic Q+A at the end. 

When we did our first symposium in 2012, it was really more of people presenting to the audience. By the third symposium, I asked the academics “please don’t prepare anything, I just want us to have a conversation with the audience,” and that was a huge success. We were all in the same room and everyone felt as if they got something from the day. Then we switched [the focus of the symposiums] to arts and culture, and that gave an insight into this rich treasure trove of information out there that people just didn’t know was out there. Those arts and culture symposiums developed over three years, and we’re hoping now that our LGBTQI symposiums will develop as well. 

I think people were nervous of the LGBTQI symposium in the sense that people had gotten used to the other symposiums, and this was quite new. You could sense people coming to the LGBTQI symposium were on edge — they were a little nervous, not quite knowing what to expect, because as far as they were concerned, there were no gay Gypsies. I was really pleased that the chair for the event was my colleague Christine Virginia Lee, again, a woman from the community. She knows a lot about LGBTQ+ history, and she was able to bring the audiences with her and make progress throughout the symposium. Christine has such a warm manner about her, and she made people feel at ease straight away, and that was really good because I could see people were tense. 

It’s wonderful because each time we have these symposiums, different people come and present their work. I learn all the time! I just sat in the audience listening to my brothers and sisters, and it’s really emotional. I am here in a government building, giving a platform to my own kind, and not just a platform, but a professional space at the highest level you can get, where decisions are being made every single day about us. But we are making sure nothing is being made about us without us. We are saying we are the experts; we are inviting you to our table, and we are sharing our knowledge with you. It was absolutely a privilege to be there. I mean there were moments in the symposium where there were some really heartbreaking stories where, literally, you wanted to cry. You were physically shaking inside because someone was telling you about the trauma they had experienced in their life, but it was an honor to be present to bear witness and give space to these stories. Likewise, we had people there to show the celebration within the community. I’m just intrigued to see how the LGBTQI symposiums develop over the next couple of years — it’s really exciting times. 

How can readers support you?

They can support the Romani Cultural & Arts Company by donating. We’re always looking to raise funds to take community development and educational projects onto Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller sites and into Gorger or ‘gadjó’ and ‘country-folk’ communities across Wales. If people would like to help, they can donate via our PayPal, and the funds go straight into the community and education programs. They can also follow us on social media. We have a very active Twitter — and also I’ve got my own personal Twitter account — in addition to Instagram and Facebook. They can support their time or contribute financially; however they feel able to support us. Or they can just turn up at the free international symposiums and enjoy the discussions and maybe come up with a few questions, suggestions, or comments. We want people to feel that the charity belongs to everybody. I’m just privileged to sit in the director’s chair, but the charity belongs to all of us. 

* An explanation from Isaac Blake regarding the use of the word ‘Gypsy’: “Use a capital ‘G’ when referring to the Gypsy people (though not the Roma from eastern Europe). All too frequently we see, in the popular media and elsewhere, the use of lower-case ‘g’ when describing Gypsy people, whether as individuals or groups. Gypsies are a minority ethnic community recognized in English and Welsh law and protected under equalities and human rights’ legislation. The names of other minority ethnic communities in Wales use capital letters (Jews; Pakistanis; African-Caribbeans; Somalis; etc.) Just as no-one would spell ‘Welsh’ with a lower-case ‘w’, or ‘English’ with a lower-case ‘e’, no-one should spell ‘Gypsy’ with a lower-case ‘g’ if they are describing the community of Gypsy people; it undermines equalities and encourages biased thinking, affirming stereotypes and negative imagery around the notion of ‘Gypsies’. In policy, strategy, ‘action plans’, media reporting, reviews, and all other instances where Gypsy people are referred to as a community (whether as Romani Gypsies, English, or Welsh Gypsies), use capital ‘G’ not lower-case ‘g.’”

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