Meet the LGBT Campaigner Who Turned Down an MBE Because They're Hypocritical Nonsense
"In an ideal world, we wouldn't need a pride – we wouldn't need a black pride. But we don't live in an ideal world."
Each year, Britain relives the decaying glory of its former empire by giving out Orders of the British Empire. It's the reason we're supposed to call Elton John "Sir Elton John" or slap "KBE" onto the end of Bob Geldof's name (he's not actually a sir, by the way). But it's also meant to pay tribute to the "little people" doing commendable community work around the country.
In January, LGBT campaigner Phyll Opoku-Gyimah became briefly best-known for turning down the MBE she'd been offered on 2016's New Year's Honours list. She was flattered, she said to Diva magazine, but wasn't hugely keen on accepting an award linked to "colonialism and its toxic and enduring legacy in the Commonwealth, where – among many other injustices – LGBTQI people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed because of sodomy laws." The numbers behind her opinions don't look great, in fairness. Consensual same-gender sex is only explicitly legal in 13 of the Commonwealth's 53 member states, according to the Commonwealth Equality Network, with much of the bigotry rooted in colonial-era anti-sodomy laws that haven't changed for centuries.
Fast-forward to February, bang in the middle of LGBT History Month in the UK, and Opoku-Gyimah sounds as though she's moved right on. She's laughing about how hectic her days are – "all I ever want to do is get back home and take my bra off" – and it feels like somewhat of a feat for her to have set aside time to talk at all. Granted, it is 9:30PM on a Wednesday and she's in a cab, apologising for speaking later than planned.
She's busy. On top of her day job as head of campaigns at the Public and Commercial Services union, she sits on both the Trades Union Congress LGBT and race relations committees, as well as the Board for Justice for Gay Africans, and works voluntarily as executive director of UK Black Pride.
Opoku-Gyimah, who is in her forties ("nobody really knows my real age"), co-founded UK Black Pride in 2005, off the back of organisation Black Lesbians in the UK (BLUK), which she'd been running. After taking a coach-load of black lesbian and bisexual women to Southend-on-Sea in 2004, for a face-to-face BLUK event, it proved so popular that they returned the following year to celebrate LGBT pride in a space that felt open to people of all ethnicities.
"It was amazing," she says of UK Black Pride's founding get-together. "It was a moment I will never forget. Just to be in a space where you've got so many people with a shared commonality. We understood each other's struggle, and felt empowered." Opoku-Gyimah stresses that by "black pride" she means what she considers black in its political context: the "African and Asian diaspora".
UK Black Pride mostly deals with the ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender – the classic defining characteristics that can bring out the absolute worst in people. In the UK in 2014 out of 52,528 hate crimes reported, 82 per cent were based on race, 11 percent on sexual orientation and 1 percent labelled "transgender hate crimes". Opoku-Gyimah's organisation has its work cut out, given its remit in looking out for people who could be affected by one or all of those qualifiers.
But, she says, while UK Black Pride was founded to talk about the intersectional difficulties faced by black LGBT people, it was also to celebrate their achievements. "When we start talking about black LGBT people, everyone always wants see just how difficult it is," she says, referencing the harsh transphobia and homophobia highlighted in Reggie Yates' recent BBC documentary, Gay and Under Attack. "You've got some black LGBT people whose parents are totally accepting. We need to hear those stories too." There's no one way to summarise a community made up of this many types of people, which in a way is what makes the tag of "black pride" feel slightly clumsy or jarring.
A video from last summer's UK Black Pride event in the summer, complete with sporadic zoom-ins
The founding of UK Black Pride distinguished itself from mainstream pride organisations. "In an ideal world, we wouldn't need a pride – we wouldn't need a black pride. But we don't live in an ideal world," she says. "I'm under no illusion that there is racism in our LGBT community. Some white LGBT people have found it difficult to grapple with the idea that there is a black pride. It's a shame because you constantly feel that you're having to justify your existence." She describes wanting to provide a platform to talk about this "double-edged bigotry" – "sometimes we feel like we're selling our souls to the devil just to make sure we have a space where people can celebrate and party."
Opoku-Gyimah adds that black pride exists because they felt "marginalised, very much erased" in LGBT history and wider pride activities. She praises the work of certain fringe organisations such as black LGBT archive Rukus and Manchester queer support group Rainbow Noir, but says that this representation has not stretched to "the wider mainstream LGBT magazines and media".
"Black LGBT – or even just black – we don't get the same airtime," she says. When I press her for examples, she is reels off a long list noting that I "might not even know them". On the whole, she's right. She highlights film writer Campbell X, who directed Stud Life, Rukus co-founders Topher Campbell and Ajamu, human rights activist Femi Otitoju, producer Veronica McKenzie and community activist Dennis Carney of the Black Gay Men's Advisory Group. She describes OG intersectional feminist Linda Bellos as "freaking amazing," despite adding that when the media in the 1980s covered Bellos as part of the so-called loony left, "it was about something deemed as negative. It was bad press. She wasn't praised for the work she does on diversity and equality." All the time, however, Opoku-Gyimah is upbeat and optimistic about change. "We have to just amplify that voice, make sure we write to those mainstream media outlets."
In an ideal world, we wouldn't need a pride – we wouldn't need a black pride. But we don't live in an ideal world
Really, she says, part of that responsibility for giving black LGBT people central roles in events like LGBT History Month is down to those individuals themselves. "If I say, 'I'm just not seeing anything about black LGBT people', then I have to take some responsibility in wanting to see that." Opoku-Gyimah places some blame on government cuts to these groups, too. "We're living in a climate where funding is being slashed and seeing organisations like Mosaic LGBT Youth Centre and Broken Rainbow crowdfunding. It makes it even more challenging when we want to put on events or find a space."
Opoku-Gyimah's featured on The Independent's Rainbow List every year since 2011 and was announced as a new judge on its panel in 2015. "Some mainstream media are trying to ensure there's diversity, but there's a long way to go... I don't do tokenistic gestures. I don't do ticking the box for the sake of ticking the box." Still, she explains, last year's list was "brilliant" and commends the inclusion of the first transgender man at number one, actor Riley Carter Millington. "It shows that when you have people making decisions who are diverse, inclusive and intersectional it means more voices and the visibility of difference will be shown," she says.
Now in its 11th year, Opoku-Gyimah has helped UK Black Pride nab several awards, including the Black LGBT Community Awards in 2006 and 2007, the Pink Paper Readers' Award and the Stonewall Community Award in 2011. Personally, she has featured consistently on the on the World Pride Power list and is a Stonewall trustee. But it's not all about accolades, surely. What does she ultimately want to achieve with UK Black Pride? She pauses. "Equal rights for all, and human rights respected. Ensuring the safety of young LGBT people and them not being homeless. Making sure that we can eradicate domestic violence and other forms of violence in the LGBT BME community. It's a massive goal." Maybe then she'll take an MBE, if one's thrust in her direction.
This article has been corrected to reflect that Riley Carter Millington was the first transgender man to top The Independent's Rainbow List, and not the first transgender person to do so.
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