UK Black Pride is a Necessary Celebration of Black Queerness
We speak with Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the founder of UK Black Pride, about the need for queer Black spaces.
Fourteen years ago, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, now affectionately known as Lady Phyll, rode on a bus with other queer Black women to a seaside town in the UK called Southend. Though she says the group received some dirty looks and mutterings, she also felt an immense and intense sense of community. “I thought, ‘We’ve got something here,’” she says.
Carrying that sense of togetherness back to London, Lady Phyll then established UK Black Pride (UKBP), a celebration of Black LGBTQ+ people that has steadily grown in size and influence since its inception. Ahead of the 13th annual UK Black Pride celebration this Sunday, Lady Phyll took time to talk to them. about UKBP, the need for queer Black spaces, and what she hopes to accomplish moving into the future.
Why is it important to create a Pride celebration that centers Black people?
For so long, Black LGBT+ people have languished in the margins, despite being crucial to the movement’s narrative. I think the complexity of our experience makes it hard for others outside our experience to bring us along with them. As white LGBT+ people drive forward initiatives that directly affect their lives — marriage, adoption — they do so while fighting within systems and structures that have been designed to prioritize their whiteness. This laser-like focus on pushing an equality agenda benefits from the disparities inherent in the system, and so it becomes increasingly important for us to create spaces, moments, and movements that center our experience and that prioritize our lives.
Some critiques of mainstream Pride celebrations are that they are too white, male, and cis. What have your experiences in big Pride celebrations been like?
When I went back to London with the idea of UK Black Pride fresh in my mind and heart, and suggested to the organizers of what was then London Pride that I wanted to create this space for Black LGBT+ people, they literally told me to “fuck off.” Others told me there was “no point.” Still more said, “Aren’t you just segregating yourselves?”
The fact of the matter is, we have never been represented at mainstream Pride celebrations in any substantive way. We have never had our names mentioned, our issues brought to the table — indeed, the table has for so long been crammed full of middle class, cis, white men that we really had no choice but to build our own.
Some hold the stereotype that African nations are homophobic, and that the Black community is more homophobic than the white community. What would your response be to that?
It’s much like white people shouting about Black-on-Black violence, isn’t it? It’s a distracting and erroneous idea that we are savages who don’t respect the sanctity of our own lives. There are a few things to unpick here. First, queerness is long-documented in the oral histories of African nations. Second, it was only from brutal reigns of religious and imperial terror that African nations adopted homophobic views that were interpreted as enshrined in the books they beat us about the head with. Third, queer Black women lead important Black lives movements around the world. Queer bodies on the frontlines of this battle for justice, equality and life show that, like everybody else, we rise up against oppression from within and outside of our community; and that, like everybody else, we have to navigate our coming out, our transitions and our fluidity with our friends, families and churches.
Have you had an interaction with someone in your community that proved to you that the work you're doing is important? Perhaps someone who has thanked you?
I’ve been doing this for 14 years, so countless interactions come to mind, but what stands out for me this year is the team we’ve assembled. We have a team of dedicated volunteers who work all hours God sends to make sure Black LGBT+ people know they are seen, loved, and valued. UK Black Pride belongs to the community: it’s theirs, and so when all these people stand up to be counted and to bring to this movement the vast and varied experiences, passions and skills in service of Black LGBT+ people, I can’t help but appreciate that I, and UK Black Pride, have had an impact far beyond what I could have imagined.
What message does UKBP send to the LGBTQ+ community at large?
We each have a responsibility. Whether you’re a white person in a position of power who needs to create space and dismantle oppressive systems from the inside, or a young queer Black person who needs to understand they are loved and valued, we each have a responsibility to continue to push for the rights and equality for everyone else. None of us is free until we are all free. Now, that freedom takes on different meaning for different people. It’s the freedom to dance free from the white gaze. It’s the freedom to kiss your partner or hold their hand in public. It’s the freedom to achieve your dreams. It’s the freedom the build the live you deserve to live. But freedom has to be agitated for (it’s not right, but that’s where we are), and so we each have within us the potential to fight because we know what freedom looks like for us.
What's next for UKBP?
Our dreams for UK Black Pride are big — as big as the dreams we have for every single person in our community. We’re going to continue to focus on how we create a bigger and better festival each year, and how we continue to engage with our community and our siblings who still might not see themselves represented here. This powerhouse team and I are looking at how we continue a year-round conversation with the community, how we create more regular spaces around the country in partnership with community organisations that demonstrate our love and commitment to Black LGBT+ people.
On a more existential note, the next chapter of UK Black Pride will be the next generation. There’s this wonderful Ghanaian saying, “We don’t inherit this land from our parents; we borrow it from our children.” That is so representative of UK Black Pride. This movement is theirs. UK Black Pride is both legacy and future. It is a gift, an inheritance and how the community continues to contribute to the movement, how they help nurture it and grow it and pass it on is what I will personally continue to focus on.
The UK Black Pride celebration is on Sunday, July 8th. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.