UK: Black Pride founder sees hope in 2020

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the founder and executive director of UK Black Pride – Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Credit: Corinne Coumming

With George Floyd’s death and the COVID-19 pandemic, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah questioned if she should mark 15 years of UK Black Pride on Sunday, but decided it was vital to celebrate how far the LGBT+ event had come since it was born in a seaside resort.

Despite initial opposition from others in the community, UK Black Pride is now Europe’s largest LGBT+ celebration for people of colour, attracting about 15,000 people last year.

“It’s so important at times like this that we do make space and find space to celebrate achievements,” said the 45-year-old Black lesbian activist, also known as Lady Phyll.

“Otherwise we could constantly be in a very dark, soul-destroying place,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sunday’s virtual celebration to mark the 15th anniversary of the first UK Black Pride will feature Dominique Jackson, star of Netflix series ‘Pose’, and transgender model and activist, Munroe Bergdorf.

While headlines have moved on from the Black Lives Matter protests that gripped the world after George Floyd was killed in US police custody on May 25, Opoku-Gyimah was optimistic.

“Change is happening,” she said, pointing to a surge in donations to Black-led organisations, which means UK Black Pride will no longer have to scramble for funds to put on its physical event next year. She declined to disclose figures.

UK Black Pride was inspired by a 2004 trip by about 200 members of the online social group Black Lesbians in the UK to Southend-on-Sea, some 40 miles (64 km) east of London.

“At the end of that event I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this feels so empowering, so liberating, so beautiful to connect with people. It feels like a Black Pride’,” she said.

But founding the official event was not easy.

“There had been so much resistance for just the name UK Black Pride alone. Being told things like, ‘Why don’t you join the ‘normal’ Pride?” she recalled.

Opoku-Gyimah was determined to create a space for Black people whose experiences of racism were not being acknowledged, and the following year held the first official UK Black Pride in Southend, with about 350 people of colour.

“It wasn’t about sitting down and waiting for somebody to do it for us, we needed to do it for ourselves,” said Opoku-Gyimah, who also leads The Kaleidoscope Trust, which advocates for LGBT+ rights globally.

Six out of 10 Black LGBT+ people have dealt with racism within the gay, bisexual and trans community, a 2018 survey by Stonewall, Britain’s biggest LGBT+ advocacy group, found.

Opoku-Gyimah went on to become one of Britain’s most prominent lesbian activists, regularly appearing at the top of Britain’s annual Pride Power List of influential LGBT+ people compiled by DIVA, a magazine for lesbian and bisexual women.

In 2016, she rejected the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) award, an annual honours list that marks Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.

The decision was “based on the toxic legacy of empire”, which Britain has still yet to fully reckon with, said Opoku-Gyimah, citing the criminalisation of same-sex relations in former colonies like Ghana, where her parents are from.

“Racism is so deep-rooted,” she said.

“We’ve never really unlearned or addressed or unpacked why this continually happens to Black people.”

Having initially faced criticism from the wider LGBT+ community, UK Black Pride now works with Stonewall to support people of colour, as well as large companies including fashion giants Burberry and Kurt Geiger to raise awareness and funds.

Opoku-Gyimah also appeared in British Vogue’s September issue alongside some of her personal heroes, including Angela Davis, the Black, American lesbian anti-racism campaigner.

“It was beautiful to see people like myself represented on one of, if not the largest platform for fashion and arts,” she said. “It was uplifting and empowering.”

-Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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