How Beach Towns Became Sanctuaries For Black and Queer Communities

Hove Beach Huts in Brighton & Hove, England
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We're dedicating our July features to the world’s most beautiful and unique beaches and islands. With many travelers finally able to take the coveted beach vacation they’ve had to put off for over a year, there’s never been a better time to celebrate the sensational coastlines and calm waters that nab a starring role in our dreams. Dive into our features to learn more about off-the-radar beaches you should consider for your next trip, how one Spanish community came together to save its coastlinean ultra-exclusive Hawaiian island you might not have heard of, and game-changing beach hacks recommended to us by the experts.

Golden sandy grains nestled between one’s toes, blue waters lazily rolling in and back out, the distant squawks of seagulls letting you know that you have truly arrived at your destination—the call of the beach entices many. Along with offering us a break from our everyday lived reality, it remains the very picture of tranquility and relaxation. However, over the years, the towns boasting these idyllic spots have become havens for specific communities: Black and queer people.

Oaks Bluff in Massachusetts has long been billed as the "summer haven for the African-American elite" as it was historically one of the few places where Black people of means could summer on the beach. Meanwhile, the likes of Spain’s Ibiza, Greece’s Mykonos, and New York’s Fire Island have long been lauded as queer-friendly beachside destinations—namely for muscly cisgender gay men. While these glamorous and glitzy hubs are undoubtedly some sort of sanctuary for its attendees—perhaps even a place of worship—they don’t entirely capture the plethora of ways that Black, queer, and Black queer people experience beach towns as shelters, retreats, and even refuges.

What is key to understanding the relationships these communities have with their local sandy havens is that feeling safe to be yourself is not down to the space itself. “I’d say the sanctuary element is more about what it offers us to utilize and experience, what it offers us as a place for luxury and indulgence, as opposed to whether it welcomes and affirms us,” said Lauren, a queer Londoner who considers beaches in the United Kingdom such as Brighton and Hove, Margate, and Broadstairs amongst her favorite spots to retreat to. “It’s not like I feel like they’re sanctuaries because they’re safe,” she added. “They’re sanctuaries because my queer friends and I go to escape London, feel joy and replenish.”

Her girlfriend, Hannah, is a Hove local, having grown up just outside of Brighton, the city widely regarded as the country’s gay capital. As a teen, she didn’t see Brighton as a queer-friendly place and has only begun recognizing it as such over the last few years. “I feel like it was still majorly heteronormative-centred and homophobic at times,” she shared, something that would’ve most likely been further compounded by the fact that she’s mixed-race.

As Lauren noted, however, many seaside towns in the U.K. tend to be conservative, politically and culturally. They would still prove more difficult to navigate if you were a Black queer trans person, for example. “If you were [deemed] ostentatious in any of these places, including Brighton, to be honest, you can run into trouble,” said Lauren. It’s little wonder that this couple, like many other queer people, choose to invest in the sanctuary they’re making within Brighton and Hove, or simply any other beach town, rather than the location itself.

For others, however, perhaps part of the allure of these spots is the attempt to reclaim a space that has not been welcoming historically. The U.K.'s 2011 Census found that 98 percent of all Black Britons in England live in urban areas, suggesting that many Black communities are raised in sprawling cities; exploring beach towns, then, becomes more of an exclusive luxury than an accessible adventure.

Sunbathers relaxing on Southend Beach as seen from directly above, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, United Kingdom
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This is something that Audrey, a 24-year-old Black woman living in the east England coastal town of Southend, has changed for herself. “There’s just something peaceful and calming about water and the beach. You can’t get this tranquility in a busy city like London where there is barely enough time to collect your thoughts,” she said. “I think there is a huge pull for Black women my age as there’s the opportunity to ‘try again,’ so to speak.” Black young people like Audrey are looking to understand themselves better away from the hustle and bustle of the capital and their families, a decision that can almost feel indulgent.

The peace and relief found on pebbled shores and sandy expanses resonates with Lee, a Black psychologist and wellbeing consultant who considers the northwest English beach town of Lytham St. Annes his personal hideaway.

“As a place, it feels very free and open, a world away from the enclosed inner towns and cities many of us live in,” he explained. “There is a genuine sense of community that is welcoming, and as a place, it has always been very progressive, having an almost magnetic pull for communities that have faced prejudice and inequality.” He also notes the benefits of visiting seaside towns moving at a more leisurely speed: “It exists at a slower pace that creates space to reflect and a feeling of acceptance, allowing people to just soak up the environment and be at peace.”

This more easy-going way of life rings true for Noémie, a mixed-race Black woman living in Barcelona. “I chose to live here because I feel like seaside towns and cities have a more relaxed and chilled lifestyle—it’s not all about the rat race but, rather, enjoying the place where you live,” she said. She also notes that, because Barcelona feels like a transit city for the international community, the logic for most would point to there potentially being less racists, or at least, less overt racist behavior towards Black and brown inhabitants. In fact, she remembers how many people gathered for Black Lives Matter protests in the Spanish city last year. But Noémie still feels the country has a long way to go in confronting issues of race. “Spain is at least 20 years behind the U.K. when it comes to race relations," she said. "For the most part, many are in denial of how racist they can be.”

Palm and parasols on the beach of Barcelona, Spain 2
Romeo Reidl / Getty Images

Jess, a Barcelona resident who lives near the popular and well-known Barceloneta Beach, finds that there’s an element of community within these well-known queer hubs found around the city. Despite only moving to Barcelona last year, the mixed-race Black and queer creative has since started a Black Skate Crew—which they describe as "very queer”—with two friends. The group meets at the beach, deriving pleasure from spending time together outside in the sunshine.

“When we just want to hang out on the beach, lie on the sand and go swimming, we go further up the coast from Barceloneta to Mar Bella, which is known as the gay beach," Jess explained. "The bar there is literally called 'BeGay.'" Safety also becomes a prominent factor as to the pull of these spots. Added Jess, “It’s also largely a nudist beach, so we can tan topless or naked without fear of judgment—especially the women and femmes in the group. It’s just really nice to be surrounded by mostly gay and queer people.”

Ultimately, many elements contribute to why Black and queer people opt to abandon the metropolis, searching for reprieve and a chance to breathe—something that is often desperately sought by individuals for whom malignment and oppression are often experienced. But, as Lauren highlighted, we can rely on these seafront sanctuaries only so much; the freedom, safety and relaxation experienced by many remains predicated on the communities built and forged within those spaces. The sand, the waves and, of course, the seagulls provide a foundation for a different way of living—but it’s the community that cements it.

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