Lady Phyll: Build Community & Become A Force To Be Reckoned With
Fourteen years ago Phyll Opoku-Gyimah and a bus load of queer Black women descended on Southend-on-Sea. It was the first iteration of what is now known as UK Black Pride. In 2018, UK Black Pride witnessed its most successful year to date. But this year’s event, on Sunday 7 July, is set to be bigger and better still.
Ahead of this year’s UK Black Pride, our Char Binns caught up with Co-Founder Lady Phyll.
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, affectionately known as Lady Phyll, puts the active in activist. Not only is she co-Founder of UK Black Pride, she’s also a Stonewall trustee, Patron of the Albert Kennedy Trust and a former Head of Equality and Learning at PCS Trade Union. Last month it was announced that Phyll is to join Kaleidoscope Trust as Executive Director. Oh, and she’ll be Grand Marshal at this year’s World Pride in New York. Phew!
Yet with all these grand titles to choose from, Lady Phyll prefers to describe herself simply as a “Community Builder.” Perhaps that’s because the slew of titles and powerful positions have been a long time coming. Phyll has spent 20+ years championing equality, fighting racism and standing up for LGBTQ+ rights.
As British society (slowly) demonstrates signs of progress, Lady Phyll has more of a platform than ever before. Does this change her approach? Phyll contends that her work is, “talking about things that will make other people feel uncomfortable,” because it is “challenging privilege” and “challenging power”. As such, “those who have power will want to suppress [my] voice.” And while opportunities increase, “It's no different now. But when you’ve got a platform and when you’ve got a community, they can’t turn down that volume.”
I begin to ask: “Do you think we talk about racism enough in the LGBTQ+ community?” But before I get to the end of the sentence Lady Phyll interjects, “No!” emphatically. She continues, “I think some people say the right thing, ‘Oh yeah it’s bad, it’s terrible’. But if it’s terrible, what are you doing about it? Tokenism doesn't cut it. [To beat] racism it means breaking down those structures that cause that oppression. To really challenge racism, organisations need to break down all their policies and procedures and make sure they equality-proof everything. If they’re not doing that, they don’t really want to see people rise to the top.”
But what about changing a culture? With Liverpool’s history and with the decades of racism that has existed on the ‘scene’ here, how can we begin to unpick this issue and create truly inclusive spaces? “You can’t do that alone, but who are the other organisations in Liverpool who are doing things on an intersectional level? Tap into those groups to get real life experiences of being Black in Liverpool.” Phyll explains, “Often as Black POC queer people we have to talk about our Blackness before we talk about our queerness, because there is such an underlying racism across so many institutions. That’s why UK Black Pride was created. We can talk about homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and of course we want to challenge those things, but if campaigns for say equal marriage or access to goods and services don’t contribute to breaking down racism, then it's not good for me.”
“I’m not discrediting the gains we’ve made but let’s get deeper than that. Young people who are queer, born into poverty, when they come out, they can be pushed out of the home. BAME young queer people are 48% more likely to be homeless.” Phyll goes on to say, “Equal marriage is great, but when you are a person of colour who is a migrant, an asylum seeker or a refugee; equal marriage? They don’t give a shit. All they care about is how they can stay protected, because they are criminalised in the countries they’ve come from.” Phyll notes the discrepancy between the thousands who marched for marriage equality and the relative silence when refugees are scapegoated and asylum seekers are deported, many of whom are part of our global LGBTQ+ family. “When people are campaigning, if that intersection [of race and sexuality] doesn’t meet then it is irrelevant.”
So what’s next for UK Black Pride? Phyll smiles, her voice giving away the excitement she no doubt feels about how quickly their organisation is now developing: “Growth, sustainability, more building of our community, our community feeling safe, respected and those that want to be, visible.”
It was announced recently that the main event on Sunday 7 July is moving to a new, bigger home at Haggerston Park, East London. Phyll says, “It’s going to be absolutely amazing. There’s something for everybody - a family fun area, wellbeing workshops, trade unions, LGBT+ History Month… The main stage has acts and performers who are from our communities, who will not ordinarily get the opportunity to be seen through the lens of other Prides.” And she’s keen to note, “It is open to everyone. Some people ask the question, ‘Oh but I’m not Black, can I go’? Absolutely. As long as your values align with our values and you’re an ally and supporter. I say to you, come along.”
UK Black Pride takes place on Sunday 7 July at Haggerston Park. Find out more here.
Cover image: Kofi Paintsil for Gay Times