Widely known as Lady Phyll, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah is the director of UK Black Pride and a renowned activist. She gained headlines for making the decision to reject an MBE in the New Year’s Honours’ list to protest Britain’s role in formulating anti-LGBT penal codes across its empire. She is also a senior official at the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) trade union as the Head of Equality & Learning, as well as a community builder and organiser; a Stonewall Trustee; Diva Magazine columnist, and public speaker focusing on ‘race, gender sexuality and class’ intersectionality. Phyll has been nominated for and won numerous accolades including the European Diversity Awards Campaigner of the Year in 2017, she is also in the top 10 on World Pride Power list.
Read our interview with her.
TRT: You are one of the leading black LGBT+ activists in the UK and a recent nominee at the British LGBT+ Awards. How would you describe your journey as an activist in the UK?
PHYLL: My journey as an activist has been long and winding, though, in a sense, I’ve always understood that I am here to be an agitator for change and justice. I come from a long line of women who stood up to be counted, who pushed against the structures that tried to contain them, and whose voices and actions created real and lasting change for themselves and the women around them.
TRT: Talk to us about UK Black Pride.
PHYLL: UK Black Pride is Europe’s largest celebration of LGBT+ people from the African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Caribbean diasporas. I helped found the annual festival to celebrate our cultures; to protest for equality, justice and freedom; and to help make manifest my desire to create safe and celebratory spaces for the Black LGBT+ community. You know, the genesis of UK Black Pride was actually a trip to Southend here in the UK. Imagine it: a bus full of queer Black women alighting bang in the middle of Southend. I was really struck, in that moment, at how powerful I felt as part of that group of queer Black women. So as we celebrated who we are and embraced each other, I thought, “We’ve got something here…” UK Black Pride was born out of that trip. I’ve also recently written an open letter to Black LGBT+ in Britain and beyond to talk more about UK Black Pride and to invite them to this year’s UK Black Pride festival.
TRT: How would you describe the conditions for Queer POC in the UK? Is progress being made?
PHYLL: We are in a time of great tumult globally and I think it’s easy to forget the progress we have made. I’ve been doing this a long time and so I can see firsthand that ideologies and beliefs are changing. It does feel like they change so slowly. I’m also electrified by the queer Black people in the UK Black Pride team. They are doing the most incredible work across international human rights, education and youth work, to name just a few areas the team works across. And we must remember that just getting from point A to B as a queer Black person, whether you work for the government or run your own shop, is progress. Individuals every single day are living their lives and surviving and thriving, and that in and of itself is progress.
We also must remember that progress is not linear. History has shown us that our journey towards freedom and liberation will zig-zag. So I like to remind the community to take care of themselves. Take breaks when you need to. Say no when you need to. Prioritise yourself.
TRT: You are very connected to your African roots. How would you describe the struggle for the equality on the continent?
PHYLL: In terms of Ghana, our motto is “equality, freedom and justice” and I’m still so deeply inspired by the work of Kwame Nkrumah. I think we can continue to learn a lot from Nkrumah to challenge the whole Western narrative of what it means to be African. As a whole, I think it’s hard for us, as a continent, to settle on a coherent and consistent idea of what equality, freedom and justice looks like. Religion and culture varies across countries and it’s hard for us to all agree on the best way forward. I think our disparateness makes it hard for us to convene.
I’m saddened to always still hear that FGM is going on in parts of Africa and the Western world picks it up like we’re cannibals and barbarians. It’s about education in order to eliminate that and not telling people that their culture is bad, but explaining the impact it has on young girls and women. These issues around misogyny transcend global borders and cultures, and we can see the global impact that has on women and girls. The suggestion that Africans are somehow more inherently savage or barbaric is a residual mindset of the colonisers.
It’s that residual mindset that also make terms like “Third World” so problematic. I don’t just detest the term; I hate it. We’re one world, we just happen to have very different challenges. Many of those challenges are a product of the theft of our people, our resources and our cultures. Economically we are struggling and yes, we have corrupt governments, but no more, no less than European countries. Economically, we have been absolutely battered and hammered through colonialism, and many of our countries have had so much stripped from them. The effort to decolonise our minds and lands will takes years and years.
And progress has been made, and is being made, across the continent, but we should always provide some very real context about that progress. For example, South Africa has laws protecting LGBT+ people, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in grave danger when LGBT+ people go to certain parts of that country. Just because something is written into law, doesn’t mean it’s any safer on the streets. We see that in America and in the UK, too. The struggle for acceptance is global.
TRT: What can be done to help advocate for a continent that provides opportunities for people in the LGBT+ community?
PHYLL: We have to eradicate laws that prevent our siblings from living their best lives. We have to actively work against these damaging and life-threatening beliefs that see LGBT+ persecuted and prosecuted. We have to make it safe for our siblings to fight for the countries they love. I think we have to remind ourselves in places outside of the African continent that not everyone wants to run away from their countries and never return. The solution isn’t a mass exodus of queer people from the continent; the solution is working together to help change our countries for the better. We need our allies to speak up, we need our religious organisations to treat us like human beings, we need the press to stop shaming us. I’d also say, these are challenges we face globally, as well; these issues are not specific to the African continent.
TRT: What can we expect from UK Black Pride in 2018?
PHYLL: Oh, I’m so excited about UK Black Pride’s 2018 festival, Shades of the Diaspora. I’ve assembled a powerhouse team of people from across the diasporas we represent to deliver our most ambitious festival yet. This year, we’re taking over the whole of Vauxhall Park on Sunday 8 July, and our community can expect everything from performances to politics, messages of solidarity from our allies and organisations who support our cause, but mostly it’s about connecting with each other. It’s about hugging and laughing and crying and understanding that we’re all fighting everyday for the world we deserve to live in. I hope that this year, like every year, queer Black people come to UK Black Pride and feel safe and welcome and at home. I’m really so excited.
TRT: What or who are some of your inspirations?
PHYLL: I’m inspired by my daughter. Everything I do is for her. I want her to be able to live her best life and so I’m very inspired when I see her, hug her, think about her. She’s my everything. I’m inspired by the queer Black community. We have shown such resilience, humour in the face of terrible tragedies, and optimism. We know that we can create the future we deserve for ourselves and for others. I’m inspired by a long line of women who refused to be silent. I’m inspired by my family. I’m inspired by the UK Black Pride team and I’m inspired by people like you — people who decide to speak up and use their platforms for the advancement of our community 🙂
Current songs on your playlist
I have Janelle Monae’s album, Dirty Computer, on repeat. And any and everything by Prince.
Favourite movie of all time
I couldn’t choose a favourite film of all time! The Colour Purple comes to mind, but my most recent favourites are Girls Trip and Black Panther. I love Girls Trip because it was all about black girl magic and the bonding of four sisters through all their difficulties. Black Panther was on a different level because we all prayed and hoped that Africa, as a continent, would get back to that place. I believe we can.
Favourite drink at the club
I’m not a big drinker, but when I do, a Disaronno Sour.
A Ghanian Jollof rice (the best Jollof, by the way) with chicken stew and homemade coleslaw.
Daydreaming about marrying Lena Waithe or Queen Latifah.