“Growing up, our parents don’t sit us down and tell us that this is what lesbianism looks like. We don’t have these conversations – so I couldn’t explain what was happening to me.”
These are the words from British-Ghanaian Phyll Opoku-Gyimah – an activist for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community and co-founder, trustee and executive director of not-for-profit organisation UK Black Pride.
In 2016, Lady Phyll, as she is also known, famously rejected a nomination from the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List to become a Member of the British Empire (MBE). This decision made her a target for critics but also challenged ideas behind the Empire and colonialism.
“I had overwhelming support, encouragement and praise [about my decision] but there was a minority that spoke the loudest,” she said. “It was the institutionalised racism that stood out for me. I was saying no [to the honour] because of something that I believe in.
“I didn’t expect everybody to agree with me. But I didn’t expect the disrespect that came with it. What made it all the more hurtful was some of these people came from the LGBTQI community. It was so hurtful when you realise that people who have faced oppression will not actually support another who has been oppressed. There becomes a hierarchy of inequality and the moment you have a hierarchy of inequality, you have lost the fight already.”
Gyimah explained that, for her, the decision to reject the award was because she did not believe in empire and could not authentically accept an honour that indirectly discriminates against same-sex relationships.
The Queen is the head of the Commonwealth of Nations – the international body that was created out of the now defunct British Empire. Of the 53 Commonwealth states, 39 still have laws that criminalise same-sex relationships. Ghana is one of 13 African countries that still upholds laws dating back to the 1860s.
“…it was about what it means to accept an honour that clearly has never thought about or talked about the impact that colonialisation has on people and countries that are still in the Commonwealth and still carry those sodomy laws,” said Gyimah.
Thinking back to her own experiences growing up in a Ghanaian household during 1970s London, Lady Phyll felt pressure to conform. She married young and had two children.
“It wasn’t that I knew that I was a lesbian then,” said Phyll, who is now a grandmother. “What I knew was that this [her marital situation] was not right and I had feelings towards other women.”
Despite support from some family members, the emotional pressure took its toll on her and she eventually divorced. It was out of those early experiences that the seeds of UK Black Pride were born.
The organisation works with groups supporting the fundamental human rights of LGBTQI people through education, the arts, cultural events and advocacy. UK Black Pride started out in 2006 with regular social outings for Black lesbians and bisexual women. The aim was to create a safe space for these women to celebrate their achievements, talk about their challenges and make inroads to being visible in a society where their stories are often marginalised.
There is often an assumption that multiple prejudices cannot be tackled collectively and that equality has to be achieved in one before moving on to another, she said. But Phyll vehemently disagrees and believes that intersectionality – the idea that prejudices need to be tackled together – is the only way to achieve true equality.
“Some organisations may lose sight that Black lesbians, for example, also have to deal with racism. Our role at UK Black Pride is to highlight these issues and make sure other LGBTQI organisations are aware and act on them,” she said.
As the community and frequency of the meetings grew, UK Black Pride started to admit Black men and people who considered themselves to be politically Black. Today, the organisation represents LGBTQI people of African, Arab, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American heritage, and stages networking and social activities that culminate an annual free Pride event.
Homophobia across Africa
Gyimah wants to do more to challenge homophobia on the African continent – namely in Ghana – where she originates from. “In terms of me as an individual, I have something I want to take home to Ghana. And it is about how we educate our children on issues of sexual orientation, gender studies, treatment of young girls and sexual harassment,” she said.
This article was originally printed on the MisBeee Writes blog.