It is the early 2000s. You are a Black, queer woman in the UK faced with a rise in racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia. What do you do?
If you are Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, you respond by creating Black Pride – a place where the intersections between being Black and LGBTQ+ can be celebrated.
Fast forward to 2020, in a time when conversations about George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and indeed Black Trans Lives Matter are coming to the fore, and the need is as palpable as when the event was created.
Known as Lady Phyll, the co-founder of UK Black Pride is also the executive director of LGBTQ+ human rights organisation Kaleidoscope International Trust and – she proudly tells me – the mother of a beautiful 25-year-old daughter.
This is the second time I’ve interviewed Lady Phyll, the first being on the BAFTA red carpet in 2018. It was in the wake of the Me Too movement and stars had opted to bring activists as their dates. Andrea Riseborough had brought Lady Phyll as her plus one.
“When you are silent in situations of injustice it means you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor,” Phyll told me, and I never forgot it.
Today Phyll talks to me via Zoom, sitting in front of a velvet cushioned wall that contrasts with her leopard print top. Her warm face is framed by large glasses. We both talk about our heightened emotions: there’s a pandemic, Pride as usual is cancelled and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches are heavy on our conscience. We are both Black, queer and politically aware.
This time, she tells me: “It’s OK not to be OK.”
“It means that we’re able to have activities which will be on our digital platforms,” Phyll says. “We’ll be doing this from inside our home, or inside friends’ and family’s homes.”
Coronavirus is a setback for UK Black Pride after a successful 2019, when more than 10,000 guests joined the celebration in Haggerston Park, east London.
But the event had humble beginnings: on its first outing in 2005 there were just 200 people, a gathering Lady Phyll says was born out of a need to counter the growing tide of the far-right.
“In 2004, we were seeing such a rise in the BNP, the NF [National Front] and the rhetoric and the hate that was being spouted out about racism, sexism, and Islamophobia,” she says.
“And I think for our Black communities, we were like: ‘We need to respond to this.’ Just because we are also part of the LGBT community it doesn’t mean we have to stay silent.”
The first glimmer of what UK Black Pride would actually look like came about when Lady Phyll was one of the women running Black Lesbians In The UK and had organised a weekender in Southend-on-Sea for the organisation.
“I said: ‘This feels like the start of something. It feels like Black Pride.’
“My friends started laughing and said: ‘Here you go again, you know – they’re going to kill you in this country. There would never be a Black Pride.’
“I just turned around and said: ‘Watch this space.’”
But it wasn’t easy. The 15-year journey has seen a constant need to justify the existence of a Black Pride as well as other obstacles.
“The challenges that we have seen is also racism within our own LGBT+ community,” says Phyll.
“When UK Black Pride started, we did not get the same level of attention and funding from organisations because they didn’t want to touch us.”
This changed from 2010 to 2019, when people started to get behind the movement, more people wanted to volunteer and corporate organisations started to approach UK Black Pride.
“When you see growth in numbers, you also see strength,” says Phyll.
“And when you look and stand on that stage and you see thousands and thousands of people in all their different colours and complexions you realise that something here has been created that is unstoppable.
“That is unapologetic.
“That is beautiful.
“And that is for us and it’s by us.”
Unlike when we met in 2018, today we are talking in a time that is a “Black people too” moment. Around the world marchers are taking to the streets after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer.
“Right now we are not seeing all lives disproportionately impacted – from Covid to police brutality to murders to poverty to inequalities,” says Phyll.
“We are seeing Black lives which are disproportionately impacted, so it means that we have to take a stand.
“If it takes protesting on the streets up and down, because of the police brutality that we’re seeing on our Black and brown lives, then so be it.
“If it takes calling out whiteness and calling out white fragility, calling out white supremacy where we see it, then that needs to be done.”
In 2020 it’s a different conversation to the cold BAFTA red carpet, but Lady Phyll is still telling me, is still telling us, that staying silent in the face of injustice is not an option.