Despite being the co-founder and executive director of UK Black Pride, established in 2005, that is not where my activism began. I began my professional journey in equalities and by studying employment law. I also worked in the civil service for a number of years and then moved over the trade union before making the move to Kaleidoscope Trust. I’m also one of the co-founders of Black Lesbians in the UK (BLUK), which turned into UK Black Pride.
On a spiritual level, I’ve always felt compelled to follow in the footsteps of the Black African lesbian warrior-women who came before me. My family is full of defiant, strong-willed and tender women who have always worked in community to help ensure equal access to education, employment rights and quality of life. I think working – and really living – in this space is part of my DNA.
In the Western context of coming out and identity, I ‘came out’ quite ‘late’. It was immediately obvious to me that there were very few places where other black lesbians and I could convene and connect. It’s what led us to set up BLUK, which was foundational to UK Black Pride. There was such an appetite for opportunities for us all to connect and just ‘be’ with each other.
We all had experienced – and were experiencing, and still are experiencing – society-wide inequalities, discrimination, racism, misogynoir, classism — you name it. But there was a particular experience that we had as black lesbians that I couldn’t help but address head on. Not only were we being ignored, bullied, erased and silenced as black women, we were being rejected or fetishised by white lesbians. Our feminism was different; it was more inclusive and looked at society as a whole.
Of course, when one is fighting for the rights of black lesbians, you naturally begin to see the connection to the violence visited upon black trans women. You notice that black men who have sex with men are made vulnerable to HIV and how that’s connected to healthcare inequalities you experience as a black woman. It’s all connected. And so, if you’re doing it well, you just start fighting for everyone. None of us is free. There is always something we have to fight against.
In terms of health and ethnic inequities, those who experience racism, discrimination, misogynoir, sexism, Islamophobia, among others – we know the cost. We feel that pain, that anger, that frustration. Now, getting other people to recognise that cost to our emotional and mental health is another matter. I’m concerned with the violence and vitriol black trans women experience. I’m concerned that trans men who need it, might not have access to abortions. I’m concerned that in the United States, one in two black men who have sex with men will be diagnosed HIV positive in their lifetime.
I’m concerned about the school to prison pipeline here in the UK and the outrageous expulsion rates of young black boys. I’m concerned about LGBTQ homelessness, about our LGBTQ elders. I’m concerned about a lot. We are living through a tremendously precarious time for so many.
When it comes to how we transform this picture, that is a really big question, one I don’t have a definitive answer to. These are decades-old problems that we’ve been trying to address and redress. I think education is a large part of it, and I don’t just mean in schools; I mean in society. People really need to understand the apprehension some black people have about healthcare services, the lack of meaningful outreach to our communities and the disparities in the delivery of services that could extend our lives.
And we, those affected, have to come together to protest, to demand more. There are a great number of activists working specifically in this space. Anabel Sowewimo at Decolonising Contraception, Rianna Raymond-Williams of Shine Aloud UK and the team over at NAZ Project London are just a couple of examples.
Hearing our mental health narratives and shaping policy and research is also important. Much more research needs to be done, not just by organisations concerned with black lives and led by black people. We need a system-wide approach to tackling mental health inequalities that accounts for the specific ways we, as LGBTQ people of colour, are impacted by racism, discrimination and misogynoir.
We have a growing body of evidence that our communities are more vulnerable to suicidal ideation and our communities make up 44 per cent of all homeless youth in the UK. It’s all outrageous. We need people in government who care for everyone in society; not just Beth in Bath. Professor Rusi Jaspal at Nottingham Trent University is doing great work in this space.
There is also a lot to be learned from work happening overseas. As a Black African lesbian woman, my approach to my thinking, feminism and activism has always been global. I am always impressed and inspired by the grassroots activists working in countries that uphold colonial-era laws and attitudes. They don’t have anywhere near the same resources as us and are doing the most incredible work.
They are the reason I joined Kaleidoscope Trust. If I can use my connections, my hard-earned professional learnings and my profile to assist them, as and when they ask and on their own terms, sign me up.
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, widely known as Lady Phyll, is Executive Director at Kaleidoscope International Trust. You can read her full bio here.