'We are all dealing with so much': Lady Phyll on why Black Pride UK is necessary ahead of Haggerston Park festival
PUBLISHED: 17:05 05 June 2019 | UPDATED: 17:05 05 June 2019
UK Black Pride, a celebration of LGBT+ people of colour, is coming to Haggerston Park next month. Emma Bartholomew attends the launch at Hackney Town Hall to find out why the safe space the event creates is so important
"One, we are being black every single day. Two, we are dealing with our queerness - whether we are lesbian, gay, bisexual, non-binary, trans, or gender non-conforming. We are dealing with so much."
Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah, aka Lady Phyll, was explaining why the UK Black Pride festival and "safe space" she co-founded is so necessary, while chatting with mayor Phil Glanville in front of an audience at the town hall on Monday night.
"If we lived in an ideal world we wouldn't need Pride," she said, "but we don't live an ideal world. We have racism, Islamophobia, and so many forms of discrimination thrown upon us - issues around being a refugee or asylum seeker. That's why UK Black Pride exists.
"There will be people in this room who are very proud and can shout loudly who they are, but they will also know people who don't have the confidence to do that."
UK Black Pride will take place in Hackney for the first time this year on July 7. The free event in Haggerston Park will celebrate LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent. The move will enable the festival - which attracted a crowd of 7,000 last year at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens - to welcome up to 9,000 people. Music concerts, interactive performances, panel discussions and poetry readings are lined up for the day.
Amid banter with Phil Glanville in what she dubbed "the Phil and Phyll show", Lady Phyll reminisced about when the idea to create UK Black Pride first came to her in 2004. A group of black lesbian, bi and trans people who had previously just chatted online decided to organise a coach trip to Southend to meet in person.
"We had a marquee that cost us just under £300," she said. "People were playing volleyball, badminton, and dominoes, and we had a DJ with speakers and turntable. People were meditating, watching the sea, in a tranquil state, in a space they hadn't ordinarily been in.
"Then there was this moment where we were walking back from the toilets and I said: 'Oh, my gosh, this feels like the start of a Black Pride.' Someone behind me said: 'You're crazy. If you try to start that up in this country they're going to kill you.'
"The next year we went to our mainstream LGBT organisations and said: 'We want to start a Black Pride in the UK.' I kid you not: we got told to F off and go back to where we came from, by LGBTQ people who are supposed to understand marginalisation to a greater or lesser degree.
"We got told in no uncertain terms there would never be a Black Pride in this country.
"But I don't understand the word 'no'."
A committee was formed the following year and the first event took place in Regent's Park in 2007.
An excited Phil Glanville said he felt Hackney was UK Black Pride's "spiritual home".
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"There's a golden thread that feels like it's destiny," he said.
"We've been building a movement because there are some people in this room who don't know the answer to the word 'no' either. We've been getting behind a history of radical queer activism in Hackney. It's about a coming of age of ourselves." He spoke about turning Black History Month into Black History Season, the year-round Hackney Pride 365 festival to celebrate the LGBTQI+ community, and Faggamuffin Bloc Party - the first black queer-led space at Hackney One Carnival last September.
"That wasn't an easy thing to put on, but seeing that interaction in what is the second largest carnival in London, UK Black Pride feels like we were building up to this moment," he said. "When I took over as mayor I felt conscious that I could fly the rainbow flag and someone would say: 'That's obvious. There's a gay mayor flying a rainbow flag.' But what does that mean for other other oppressed groups who need a voice? I've tried to be a mayor that's out there listening to those voices and stands up for them."
Gazette editor Ramzy Alwakeel kicked off a Q&A section asking Lady Phyll to describe her experience growing up as a queer person in Hackney.
"I didn't come out until later, so I went through this conforming to what my parents saw was right," she told him. "I come from a Christian background. If I'd come out they'd have sent me back to Ghana and shaved off all my hair."
Lady Phyll wants to make sure the event is not just about "parachuting in" for the day, and then leaving people struggling with mental health issues with nowhere to go for the rest of the year.
"When Black History Month is finished we don't stop being black," she said. "When LGBTQ history month is finished, we don't stop being LGBTQ. Some of these people are sofa surfing, and some of them don't know where their next meal is going to come from. We need to create that space that allows them to be comfortable.
"You have to think about who is UK Black Pride, and we have people from so many countries where there isn't a word for lesbian or gay."
There was applause when Lady Phyll said she had turned down an OBE in 2016 in protest that LGBTQ people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed across the world because of sodomy laws introduced by the British Empire.
"You are so amazing, Phyll. I'm very proud of you," said Remy from Rainbow Sisters, a group for lesbian and bisexual asylum seekers. "How did you win the hearts of the British people?"
"I don't know that I've won the hearts of the British people," Phyll laughed. "I know that some of them really don't like me.
"But when people come up to me on a daily basis, and say 'I'm tired,' I do what I do because I have no choice.
"We do this because our conscience doesn't allow us to stay silent and do nothing," she added.
"UK Black Pride belongs to us, so volunteer your time. Tell us if you are a therapist or a drug and alcohol abuse officer and you want to create a space for dialogue to happen.
"We are few but we want to be many - and no I'm not trying to promote Labour," Lady Phyll laughed.
"There's no problem with that here," chipped in Phil.