Let’s imagine a post-pandemic probability: your fine vaccinated self is rolling a suitcase through the airport. You’re looking up at the destination board with child-like awe. Before long, you’re off, sailing through the clouds, listening to MONTERO (or another of your lockdown psalms), day dreaming about being “jet lag from f*ckin’ and flyin’,” and they haven’t even turned off the seatbelt sign yet.
You arrive in a new city, filled with new faces, tastes, sounds, and eventually, if you play your cards right, you’ll end up in a room of queers, sweaty and synchronized, the same baseline surging through your spines.
Moving from plane-seat to the pulse of a queer scene is no small feat; it takes a lot of googling, luck, and often, the divine hand of god delivering you to your people. And even then, the places Google tends to lead you are the highly SEO’ed and scarcely queer; think venues owned by gay male property moguls, or drag brunches in straight bars. If we’re honest, the underground queer scene – in all its diversity and gender-f*ckery – is difficult enough to find in your hometown, let alone in a far away land.
This is why Moonlight Experiences, founded by Aisha Shaibu in London back in 2018, has a particular lick of genius to it. The LGBTQ+ tour company arranges nights out – think secret bar-hopping in London or popping into Vogue Balls in New York – for groups of queer tourists and allies. The Black-owned social enterprise delivers people straight to the beating heart of the queer scene, while always ensuring a light is shone on QTIPOC and women’s spaces.
With the help of local guides, travelers from around the world uncover and invest in our dwindling queer venues, while directly funding the promoters, artists and performers who electrify them. They get a safe, wild and educational night out, they make friends from around the world and take home an experience they’ll never forget. “We’re using the economic power of LGBTQ+ tourism to tackle the lack of Black and POC representation in travel,” Shaibu tells GO over Zoom.
Moonlight Experiences enables people to taste the reality of queer life in London, New York, Lisbon, Paris Amsterdam, Barcelona… and this is only the beginning. It takes ten minutes with Shaibu to realize that you’re speaking with a true visionary; someone who dreams of a fairer, queerer, more equitable world, and works tirelessly, methodically and joyfully to bring it about. Shaibu is a research scientist by day, a Moonlight host by night; and between the two, she manages to head-up Community Engagement at UK Black Pride and wander the world with her fiancée.
Though nightlife and tourism have been out-of-bounds for the last year, Shaibu has still been doing the most to bolster and cultivate queer communities globally. “I was fortunate,” she says, “working in academia, I kept my job, but I realized all the people I loved – all the artists, all the performers – were not in the same position.” Joining forces with AirBnB, Moonlight hosted online Experiences throughout lockdown. This soon drew the attention of Twitter, Zendesk, and Spotify, “all these major companies asking how they can be better educated, asking how they can support the LGBTQ+ community,” says Shaibu. “It’s been so nice having sometimes 10, sometimes 100 people online, watching and directly funding the performers we love” (think drag king heart-throbs Chiyo, Romeo De La Cruz, Beau Jangles, Mr Wesley Dykes and Christian Adore).
On top of this, Shaibu’s been hosting Sunday Chats with activists around the world on Instagram,discussing queer life in Nigeria with Matthew Blaise; talking to Alexi Minto about Alibi, the last Black and gay-owned bar in Harlem, New York; getting to grips with diverse space-creating with Chicago’s Kristen Kaza; and talking to DC’s only lesbian bar A League of Her Own. “I wanted us – especially queer women or anyone who feels marginalized – to start having conversations together because we all have the same issues,” says Shaibu. “All of us want to create a change but we’re all doing it in our little groups. So the idea is to bring everybody together so that we can start working towards a common goal, like needing a new venue or financial support — whatever it may be, I wanted us to start talking. Whether we’re in London or in New York, the issues are the same.”
During our interview, Shaibu wonders aloud, Are there re things working really well in New York that London hasn’t considered? Can people in capital cities support those in smaller cities or towns? When we travel, do we know where to go in Chicago that isn’t commercial, or in Lagos that is safe? Through these Instagram Lives, Aisha forges connections, exchanges ideas and enables queer people sitting in their bedrooms (isolated or locked-down around the world) to feel part of something. The conversations are platforms for visibility and an invaluable source of information and inspiration for future travels.
Of course these are particularly challenging times we’re living through. “So much has been happening with BLM, with women’s safety, with Pride in London; there is so much negativity at the moment,” says Shaibu. “And of course, the issues are not new, they’ve always been there, only now they’re being brought to the surface.”
Just as these insidious racisms, sexisms and brutal binaries arise all around, there’s such hope in witnessing LGBTQ+ activists like Shaibu rise up online and IRL as an antidote. Shaibu is someone who has found her purpose, who inspires with her conviction and optimism, who calls for unity above all else and who skillfully coalesces with big corporations in order to bring resources to the most marginalized among us.
The queer gods seem to have kept a keen eye on all of this lockdown activism and, as a post-lockdown treat, have mustered up a physical rendition of Moonlight Experiences. The tour company has just partnered with a brand new LGBTQ+ venue, a sober bookshop cafe and community event space in prime-location Shoreditch, east London. Shaibu is currently calling for organizers, community groups and individuals in need of a safe space in London. She’ll also be able to run some of her Moonlight Experiences from there. “I can’t wait to get out there,” she says, “it’s going to be so nice to have a base.”
“It feels like now I’m in a position where I can truly make a change,” says Shaibu. “So I just want to start bringing us together again, uniting us, providing a space that takes us away from everything. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most: creating more event nights and different things to nourish our soul. We’ve been in lockdown for a year now; we have to heal, we need to recover, we need to start rebuilding who we are again,” she says. “And I just want to be there when people need it.”