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The optimistic activism of Toronto Pride’s unapologetic director

Olivia Nuamah has fought to defend the ban on uniformed police officers at Toronto Pride. Now, she’s working to bring social issues to the forefront of queer activism

by Tamara Khandaker
Jun 23 2017, 3:16pm

By the time Pride Toronto’s newest executive director was called on to make her case for why the city shouldn’t strip the annual festival of its municipal funding, precious little must have surprised her.

Addressing a group of councillors at city hall, Olivia Nuamah was once again defending the decision to ban uniformed police from marching in the signature parade. For months, she had heard complaints of exclusion, seen the issue chewed over by political pundits, and stood firm on a decision made in response to a dramatic sit in by Black Lives Matter Toronto at last year’s parade. They, and many others, argued that police uniforms, cars, and weaponry made the most vulnerable parts of the LGBTQ community, who had been targeted by cops, feel unsafe.

“We are a queer movement,” Nuamah told Toronto’s economic development committee in May. “That means our priority are the LGBTQ+ community and in that, we think it’s important to listen to what every aspect of our community has to say.” When veteran city councillor Frances Nunziata asked whether taxpayers who opposed the funding should be listened to, Nuamah said cooly, “everybody pays taxes, from what I understand.”

“We are a queer movement.”

It was one slice of how Nuamah, Pride’s first black female leader, has carefully — and unapologetically — navigated the biggest controversy to hit the storied festival in recent years. It is also emblematic of Nuamah’s mission to inject politics back into Pride’s role in the community, the city, and social issues.

For years, Pride has walked back from front-line politics, as parades and parties have become increasingly the target of corporate sponsors, and as political fights for marriage equality have passed.

At a memorial earlier this month to honour the 49 LGBTQ victims of a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, the opposition over the police stance came right up to Nuamah’s face.

“No cops, no pride,” one heckler who had been yelling during the service said to her. “Thank you,” she replied curtly, before he awkwardly walked back to his seat.

Another time, Nuamah herself chuckled as she recounted an instance in which a man told an organizer at the 519 community centre he didn’t want to be in the same space as her, since “Black Lives Matter was paying her salary.”

This year’s parade will proceed without uniformed cops or police floats, even as the discontent over a ban — which doesn’t prevent cops from marching in regular clothes — simmers. A man who organized a petition demanding the funding be pulled is now promising to stage a parallel pride parade. And Black Lives Matter Toronto, last year’s honoured group, has no plans to attend this time around.

But Nuamah said the critics, although loud, are far outnumbered by those who have reached out with words of support and gratitude for the difficult decisions she’s had to make and who have been made to feel visible by her leadership. That’s who she’s focusing on.

“That’s somebody else’s job.”

“The amount of positive support — from people on the street to social media — has been overwhelming,” she told VICE News in an interview. “People have spoken to me about how they see themselves reflected, how they think it’s a positive step. I know that for some, the conversation is more difficult, but for most, it’s been totally positive.”

The 45-year-old, who took on the job in February as the organization publicly went through an existential crisis, is impressively collected under pressure. In the high-stress month leading up to the festival — the largest in North America — Nuamah is measured in her responses, while also maintaining an air of genuine warmth and approachability.

Controversy aside, the greatest challenge for Pride is figuring out what its next iteration should look and feel like, she said.

“The queer community are asking for something, a kind of organization that this organization isn’t. Our biggest challenge is to figure out how we find a balance between an organization that puts on a festival and one that tries to envision what a queer future looks like, with everybody reflected in it in a way that’s positive.”

Up to now, she said, Pride hasn’t done that. She said the attitude, thus far, has been: “That’s somebody else’s job.”

Nuamah’s career thus far shows a clear trajectory to her current role: Three years ago, she began volunteering with the Green Space festival, became part of Pride and joined the 519’s periphery. She’s been the executive director of the Atkinson Foundation and Innercity Family Health Team, which provides health services to homeless men and women. While living in the UK, she worked for the British health department and did community work, fighting against institutional discrimination for minorities. When BLM demanded change, Nuamah was paying close attention. And then when Pride’s former executive director left, she decided to apply to fill his spot.

“Here, the discourse has been around the means and not the end.”

For Nuamah, who didn’t attend last year’s parade, BLM’s actions didn’t come as a great shock, and she continues to be perplexed by how difficult it has been for some members of the public to move on from them.

“It felt like what was happening with Black Lives Matter globally,” she said, adding that she was surprised by how the focus became the group’s tactics and not the message they were trying to get across. “I wasn’t prepared for how the conversation would go here. It felt like the natural progression of things.”

“That’s probably been the difference everywhere else. There has been an element of a discourse around the content,” she said. “Here, the discourse has been around the means and not the end.”

The tension between the LGBTQ community and police isn’t exclusive to Toronto, she pointed out.

“No, it’s a request for a culture shift that’s actually global,” she said. “Policing is looking and feeling like a different institution as a result of these conversations.”

Nuamah grew up in Toronto’s Moss Park with her mother, a cleaner at the Intercontinental Hotel who came to Canada from Ghana in the 1970s, but had ambitions outside of the low-income neighbourhood populated by mostly immigrants. After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1994, she moved to the UK, and quickly immersed herself in community work as director of the race equality council in the Newham borough of London.

But while she’s dedicated much of her life to community work and advocacy, it was only five years ago that she began to come to terms with her own queerness.

After being happily married for over 20 years to a man and having two children, she realized she wanted something different.

“For all intents and purposes, I wasn’t unhappy,” she explained.

While she’d always felt she wasn’t exclusively hetereosexual, it never felt like she was betraying any part of herself or her marriage, she said. A confluence of factors — a sense that something was missing, meeting her current partner and embarking on new professional opportunities — led Nuamah into a period of deep self-reflection.

“I knew I was going to take on greater leadership position than the ones I’d been in, and I didn’t want to struggle in my personal life any longer,” she said. “I thought it was affecting me professionally, I thought it was affecting me spiritually.”

She has given Saunders, Toronto’s chief of police, credit for his decision to pull out of the parade.

At 40, she decided it was time to have an “incredibly difficult” conversation with her husband, who up until that point, had no idea about what Nuamah was struggling with internally.

“And it wasn’t just one [conversation.] It took three years, and it took a lot of trying to be honouring of my marriage, while trying to be true to myself.”

As a part of that process, Nuamah moved back to Toronto with her two sons. She also got together with Becky McFarlane, a senior director at the 519. They met while Nuamah was the executive director of the Atkinson Foundation. The two stayed in touch via email after Nuamah moved back to London, and it was in those emails that it became clear they had a deeper connection.

But Nuamah processed her acceptance of her own sexual orientation privately, McFarlane said.

McFarlane recalls how they first met — when Nuamah was still with her husband, at the beginning of that three year process.

“She asked me if I was married — or maybe she asked me if I had a husband,” McFarlane said. She calls it “the strangest thing.” After all, McFarlane said, “I have only ever been queer. I present as queer. She did not project onto me or made any assumptions about my queerness.” She remembers thinking: “Are you kidding me?”

Working with Nuamah, after being in the nonprofit sector for 25 years, was the first time McFarlane said she didn’t feel cynical. She reached out to tell her she missed her presence.

“The transformation [for Nuamah] was very private. It was almost like when we were writing, she had already come to terms with the fact that there was more there, and my reaching out and admitting that there was something that was missing was enough for her to be like, yes, there’s something missing.”

Nuamah’s lack of cynicism and judgment about people she disagrees with are what have allowed her to navigate the heated conversations around the police’s involvement in Pride successfully, said McFarlane.

She has given Saunders, Toronto’s chief of police, credit for his decision to pull out of the parade, for example, and said his intentions to build a relationship between police and the LGBTQ community have been overshadowed by “by this notion that he was forced into a corner and that that was his only way out.”

Nuamah’s blackness is “probably the most fundamental aspect of how she lives in the world and she doesn’t shy away from it.”

Saunders was not available for a comment by deadline, but spokesperson Mark Pugash said the two had had a lengthy meeting and called Nuamah’s arrival “extremely helpful for improving the relationship and moving it forward.”

“[Saunders] has said publicly that he’s impressed with her, and we see the job ahead as, first of all, making sure this year’s event is safe and successful, and the hard work then starts of trying to figure out how to approach next year and the year after,” said Pugash.

The way she handles it is by having incredible grace and by extending people the benefit of the doubt and recognizing that people have different experiences in the world and ideas and tries to create the space for them to be open about them,” added McFarlane. “And so I think that’s what allowed her to stave against the real negativity and abusiveness, explicit racism, a real anti-woman position that people have taken.”

But Nuamah is also, by nature, not a confrontational person, and even when she’s angry, most people wouldn’t know it because she tends to process feelings quietly.

“She’s not a person who fights,” said McFarlane.

It’s a quality that stems partially Nuamah’s ideas about how women should treat each other and work together, but also from the fact that as a queer black woman, she’s never had the privilege of being able to “blow things up,” McFarlane said, adding that Nuamah’s blackness is “probably the most fundamental aspect of how she lives in the world and she doesn’t shy away from it,” and the current context of Pride has made race an omnipresent aspect of the couple’s lives.

With Nuamah, what you see is what you get, said McFarlane.

“She’s an incredibly genuine, approachable, honest, lovely person,” she said.

“It has been the people who have stopped to say positive things and the people who’ve reached out to her in writing just to say they’re so happy that she’s here that has been what have made the darker, grosser, uglier parts bearable for her.”

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