What UK Black Pride’s Lady Phyll Is Most Proud Of
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What UK Black Pride’s Lady Phyll Is Most Proud Of

By Ella Braidwood, Freelance News Editor 14 Jul 2020
LGBTQ+, Race
Credit: UK Black Pride

“I would say that you are loved, you are worthy, you’re brilliant, you’re beautiful, you’re amazing,” says Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, when I ask what advice she would give to her ten-year-old self. “There will be times where it feels like people don’t like you because of the colour of your skin – because you’re Black. But just know that you are great, and will go on to do great things.”

Phyll, widely known as Lady Phyll, is best known for her work as executive director of UK Black Pride, which celebrates and campaigns for the rights of LGBTQ+ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent. In the 15 years since she co-founded UK Black Pride in 2005, on the back of a trip with a bus load of queer Black women to Southend-on-Sea, Lady Phyll and her festival have become hugely successful. In 2018, Lady Phyll was invited to walk the red carpet with actor Andrea Riseborough at the Baftas, and UK Black Pride’s festival was headlined last year by Grammy-nominated singer MNEK. The organisation has won the backing of major pop group Little Mix, too.

In normal times, Lady Phyll and her team would have recently wrapped up UK Black Pride’s annual festival in London. But the Covid-19 pandemic meant that this wasn’t possible. Instead, UK Black Pride has just finished co-hosting a two-week festival called Pride Inside with Amnesty International, StonewallGendered Intelligence, and ParaPride. On top of all this, Lady Phyll is also the executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust, a charity that works to uphold the rights of LGBTQ+ people living in the Commonwealth.

We speak over a video call in early June, against a backdrop of mass anti-racism protests held across the world following the horrific killing of George Floyd in the US. Over the course of our wide-ranging 30-minute interview, we gain an insight into some of the many facets of Lady Phyll. There is the proud mother, who praises her daughter’s wisdom. “I’m proud of my daughter because she gets it, she understands it and she’s the next generation,” she says.

Then, there are her bright ambitions for the future – Lady Phyll wants to visit all of the Seven Wonders of the World and, one day, to own the “largest and biggest queer nightclub for all of us just to enjoy”. There is also the principled activist, who in 2016 turned down an MBE because of the on-going persecution of LGBTQ+ people across the world under laws put in place under the British empire. “I actively resist all notions of empire, because of what it has done to many people, like myself and others,” she explains. She speaks of how there needs to be greater “understanding [of] what colonialism has done” in constructing systemic racism.

UK Black Pride has got you – and I certainly see you

Lady Phyll

She is honest but forgiving, too. When I ask a badly-phrased question, which I wish I had worded more sensitively, about how the anti-racist protests sparked by the death of Floyd have made her feel, she responds graciously. Visibly emotional, she explains that she wants change instead of talking about how she feels. “The horrendous, brutal murder, which was recorded of George Floyd, makes me feel angry for every Black person that constantly has to go through our hurts, our trauma, our pain. And sometimes we don’t want to talk about how we feel – we want action,” says Lady Phyll.

She calls on white people to “educate themselves” on the history of racism, and also to confront others. “That’s what I’d like you to do – challenge where my voice can’t be heard because I’m crying or because I’ve been shut out of the room or because I’m not seated at the table,” she tells me. And, she’s got some comforting words of advice for Black LGBTQ+ people right now: “UK Black Pride has got you – and I certainly see you.”

Watch our video interview and read the Q&A below. 

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Please could you describe what you do in 15 words or less?

I’m the executive director of UK Black Pride and the co-founder, which is really primarily a movement which supports LGBT, POC, Black, BAME, BME, however one wishes to describe it, people of colour in the UK context, through Pride but also through activities of challenging racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and all forms of discrimination that touch our lives. And I’m the executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust.

What advice would you give to a ten-year-old you?

A ten-year-old me, a little young Black girl … I would say that you are loved, you are worthy, you’re brilliant, you’re beautiful, you’re amazing. And there will be times where it feels like people don’t like you because of the colour of your skin, because you’re Black. But just know that you are great, and will go on to do great things.

What would you say was the most important lesson you’ve learned in the last few years?

How important family is, and I don’t just mean blood relatives, I also mean chosen family. UK Black Pride brings people together who are not related but it’s often our chosen family, because as queer people of colour, some of us have been ostracised, or marginalised from our own families and felt somewhat abandoned. So chosen family. I think this is what I’ve learned that is important. Connection, solidarity, unity, support, and more importantly love, which can come from chosen family or your own blood relatives.

Who would play you in a movie of your life?

Well, I probably have to say my daughter first, because she might watch this and think: “you didn’t say me?”. But I would love somebody like Viola Davis. Oh, yeah. Gosh, it’s a hard one, I think someone like Viola Davis. I would just love her to play me. And I’d be honoured by that.

Viola Davis

Viola Davis. Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

What would you say you’re most proud of?

You know Ella, this is a hard question, because I’m proud of so many things. I’m proud of the community and the communities that I serve. I’m proud of the work that I do with amazing human rights defenders and activists. I’m proud of the teams that I lead – that I work with in UK Black Pride and Kaleidoscope Trust. And, I’m proud of my daughter because she gets it, she understands it and she’s the next generation.

Is there anything you’d like to achieve which you haven’t yet?

Loads of things, I think. I’d love to achieve, you know, getting to all of the Seven Wonders of the World. I’d love to achieve managing a relationship that lasts for the long haul. I’d love to see my daughter get married, and enjoy her life. Nothing is guaranteed, especially whilst we’re living in this era of Covid. Yeah, I’d love to own the largest and biggest queer nightclub for all of us just to enjoy. Yeah, I’d love to be rich in love and in health and in wealth. So all of those things, I’m sure I will achieve, it just might take a bit of time.

Lady Phyll speaking at a Bloom UK event

Credit: Bloom UK/YouTube

If you could immediately put right one injustice in the UK right now, what would it be and why?

I don’t know how I’m gonna answer that question because as a Black queer woman the injustices that I face around racism, sexism, misogyny, misogynoir [misogyny directed towards Black women, rooted in both racism and sexism] are … the homophobia and, I may not be trans, but the transphobia towards our trans siblings. It’s hard to say there would be one injustice I want to put right so I’m gonna pass on that and say all of them.

Which is the most important human right to you?

The right to be a human, without fear of persecution, torture, being criminalised, being imprisoned, being left behind, being excluded … The most important human right is the right to be a human without fear of being tortured, persecuted, vilified, victimised, stigmatised, and being able to live as any other person, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, gender diversity, any different form of social categorisation that makes up who we are.

 

Do you have any ideas about how to heal the divisions in society right now?

There are lots of ideas about how to heal the division. But I think what it will take is a coming together of people, which we’re really seeing in such a big way, to join forces to understand the historical context of racism, structurally and systemically, to understand the forms of oppression. So when we talk about intersectionality … intersectionality is around those many different forms that intersect our identities, which have often had barriers or do have barriers to participation based on the oppressions that they face.

So, I go back to as a woman, as a Black person, as an African, as a working class person, the way that those facets will intersect, there will be barriers that prevent me from accessing health, education, particular services that I need [such as] housing. So, there’s a multitude of things that would need to be addressed. But we have to first dismantle the structures that prevent us from accessing that. Or revise them or work with politicians or work with community leaders, to bring us the change that we want to see.

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, also known as Lady Phyll. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why did you co-found UK Black Pride?

We co-founded UK Black Pride because at the time when we were seeing wonderful, amazing prides around the UK. But there was also a heightened period where the BNP were very, very vocal about how they see Black people [and] how they see Muslim people. And it was disrespectful. It was hurtful, it was hateful. And it was right wing propaganda that set out to destroy our communities.

And we believe that there wasn’t a time for waiting in responding to that because we’re not just LGBT+ people. We are not just queer people. We’re not just Black or POC people. So we had a battle to not just only challenge homophobia, biphobia [and] transphobia, but also to deal with the racism that was coming at us full throttle. And also in not seeing ourselves in the wider LGBT+ mainstream activities. So there was a need, there was a necessity, there was a frustration. There was an appetite, there was a desire, there were so many different emotions that told us: we needed to find and occupy a space where we had like minded brothers, sisters, siblings, that could come together to celebrate who we are, but also challenge together with the various shared commonalities that we have.

Credit: @Blackinmotion on Instagram/courtesy of UK Black Pride

What are you most proud of when it comes to your work as director of UK Black Pride?

I’m most proud of the amazing team that I work with, who are so dedicated and committed to really holding up UK Black Pride as something that they know is born from them, it’s by them, and it’s for them. We always say that UK Black Pride is by us, and it’s for us.

I’m also most proud of every single person that turns up to UK Black Pride year on year, especially, our most vulnerable, or those who are even more disadvantaged, young queer people of colour, because they show up and they own that space because it is their space. I’m proud of the money that we raise, it goes without saying some of this wouldn’t be done without sponsors and supporters and individual donations.

In 2016, you turned down an MBE. Why did you do this?

The simple answer is when you know what the MB-E, Empire, stands for, this has a toxic legacy on the people that I set out to serve. I actively resist all notions of Empire, because of what it has done to many people, like myself and others.

I think, understanding what colonialism has done, understanding the roots of it, and how the construct of racism has come about and how many people have lost their lives. And the laws we also still have in places like in the Africa region, in Asia, and these places or continents. I like the, you know, like other parts of the Pacific or wherever it may be. There are colonial era laws left behind by those who colonised the country. And we have people who are imprisoned for being LGBTQI. That’s not right. And I couldn’t possibly accept an accolade which elevates itself over the people I set out to serve.

Since you were appointed executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust last year, what have you been getting up to?

Kaleidoscope Trust is an amazing charity, which works in the Commonwealth space. We’ve been doing lots – of course, we are now in this Covid era and most of our work around capacity building, movement building and strengthening civil society and working in country with human rights defenders from a grassroots level in their advocacy, that has been quite difficult. So we’ve had to find new and innovative ways to work with each other over particular platforms, but we have produced what’s a research document on the impact of Covid-19 to LGBTI people in those Commonwealth spaces. And this report has found a number of different key findings that are putting our LGBT people at risk or at further harm around mental health, well-being, around housing around precarious work, which they may or may not have, around the sustainability and survival of their organisations. We’re hoping that this report goes a long way to one unlocking funding and people understanding the need to continue doing this amazing human rights work. When I say “amazing” I don’t mean “glitter and glam” but work which means that we can continue to uphold human rights for LGBTI people across the world.

The brutal killing of George Floyd by a white police officer has sparked anti-racism protests worldwide. How has this made you feel?

It’s made me feel lots of different emotions. And I, you know, how does racism make you feel? How does the continual viewing of Black and Brown bodies being discarded and tossed to one side make you feel? How does hate, and anything that vilifies us, that sets us back, that discriminates [against] us, that stigmatises us – how does it make you feel?

Every day feels different with a different emotion. But this is not a new thing to us. Whilst we’re constantly busy being Black, and getting on with our day to day lives, we often have to put smiles on our faces, even when we know that we’re disrespected on trains, buses, any number of different institutions that we enter. So the horrendous, brutal murder, which was recorded of George Floyd, makes me feel angry for every Black person that constantly has to go through our hurts, our trauma, our pain. And sometimes we don’t want to talk about how we feel. We want action.

Credit: kaleidoscope_t/Instagram

What do you hope the impact of these anti-racist protests will be?

I hope the impact of the protests will be about unity, showing the world what is wrong and what needs to change. I hope legislators, policymakers, decision makers, politicians, anyone with an ounce of power to affect change, or understand that they cannot stay silent or do nothing … I hope that these protests bring about a new wave and generation of young people to take forward the mantle to know that it should never ever be tolerated or accepted that their lives do not matter.

I hope that these protests show white people that this has been an ongoing battle and saga of hate that has been fuelled towards Black people for decades and decades. So I hope it shows them that as the saying goes from Desmond Bishop Tutu: “if you are neutral in the situations of injustice”, it means “you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. So if you are really an anti-racist, then you cannot choose the side of the oppressor and stay silent or be complicit in this. And I think the protests need to show us that change has never come about as an easy win for us. We’ve always had to fight for it. So let there be a time that we don’t have to fight, that it becomes the new normal or usual, that we have the rights that we deserve, as Black people to not be murdered on the streets, to not die in custody, to not be discriminated 24/7. To not be tired of being Black because of everything we go through.

Desmond Bishop Tutu

Desmond Bishop Tutu. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What are your words of advice for LGBTQ+ Black people right now?

I feel a sense of real emotion because we that know it, feel it. I would just say that I see you, and let’s keep on applying kindness, compassion and love towards each other and being there for each other, even when it feels that the world is against us from Covid to poor housing to losing jobs to families not being there for us. And, I don’t want to generalise, but just in general, to seeing ourselves being killed on a video. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the USA, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in the UK. If it’s a Black person, we feel it. So what I would say to LGBT POC people is that: UK Black Pride has got you – and I certainly see you.

Note: answers have been lightly edited for clarity.