Life Stories: Lady Phyll, Founder UK Black Pride and Executive Director Kaleidoscope Trust
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
📸: Kofi Paintsil (all pictures in this article)
To say I was excited for this would be an understatement. Meeting Phyll, who is an icon in the movement for queer people of colour, was like coming face to face with a hero. I was told never to get too close to your heroes, as you will often be disappointed. That was not the case; I felt uplifted and absorbed every word like a sponge. What struck me most was how Phyll lives by example – demonstrating love, learning and compassion regardless of what life has thrown her way. It feels extra special as we kick off LGBT History Month, which is about celebrating icons past and present - for me, Phyll has already earnt her place. Enjoy!
Black African, woman/womxn, she/her, lesbian/queer, 45+
Life Right Now
I’m excited by the work I get to do every day – I have a job I absolutely adore and is my calling. UK Black Pride is growing from strength to strength; it’s now a movement that will survive long after I’m gone. And the world is changing, which means there are more opportunities for people like me, my daughter and the youth of today. I’ve seen a shift in the way corporations are talking about issues such as diversity and inclusion, and it’s much less tokenistic. There are more grassroots movements, and all of these add up to societal change – who can’t be excited by that?
It goes without saying that seeing my daughter healthy and succeeding excites me and makes me so proud. I love her to bits!
My sexuality goes hand in hand with my race – you can’t isolate the two. In fact, it was my race I became aware of first – being a Black girl superseded everything. I dealt with the factors of gender, race and class way before I acknowledged who I was attracted to.
I come from a strict Christian family – I say my Mum is the Hyacinth Bucket of Ghana; which means keeping up appearances is important to her. In that sense, I also conformed to societal expectations and married a man and have a beautiful daughter. It was only when I was around 19 that I felt I wasn’t being my authentic self, that I was being disingenuous in some way. It was compounded by talking about justice and equality – yet I wasn’t being true to who I was.
There was a girl called Marjorie Henry who I fell in love with at school. I just wanted to be around her, not because she was top dog. But because there was something really nice about her. As a child, you don’t know what those feelings mean – and in our communities, we’re not often taught about feelings, intimacy and love. It meant I didn’t have the language to describe what these feelings meant.
My Family & Culture
I’m of a particular generation (and as I mentioned, a Christian family). My parents came from Ghana to this country and had to adapt to different ways of living, working and navigating racism in this country. For all of us, racism was the first hurdle we all had to deal with. In Ghana, there were no words or language that weren’t derogatory about LGBTQ people. The region I come from still has entrenched laws that persecute people like me, so it makes it difficult to unlearn behaviours and attitudes.
I’ve always been a Daddy’s girl, so knew he would accept me. I idolise him, he is an open and embracing person. My Mum is a proud woman and about the ‘show’. Initially, she was angry and embarrassed and stopped talking to me. I’m not angry at her as I understand her experience and why she reacted the way she did. Today she is what I would describe as tolerant. She would refer to my previous partners as special friends. I say all this as she is of a particular generation, and I would never force her to be a certain way. Our turning point was a conversation we had about the racism she experienced when she first came here, and I connected that experience to how I felt as someone who was made to feel different because of who they loved. She was silent for a good 30 seconds, and I knew then that she got it. Even if she doesn’t say it outwardly, she understands. She is proud of me.
My siblings are nearly 55 and they’ve come a long way since I first came out. They are active in the church and so found this difficult to compute. I wrote a 7 page letter to my family explaining who I was and how I was choosing to live my life. At that time, I deliberately used the word ‘choosing’ as it would land easier.
I’m 100% connected to being a Ghanian woman, I fully understand where I have come from and where I am going. I remember being young, at an all White school and feeling embarrassed of my Mum when she came to parents evening, all dressed up in traditional attire, speaking with a strong accent. If I could turn back the clock, I would show how proud I am of my language, the old nursery rhymes, hidden stories, my national cloth. I am grounded and sure of myself.
I was in my early 20s when I came out. After coming out to my family, I had to come out to my husband and explained this marriage wasn’t working for me. I suffered physical abuse at that time and would never want anyone to have that type of pain inflicted on them – all because he believed his manhood had been bought into question.
Aside from coming out, I also had my daughter to think about and went to a safe house. I had to restart again, living in a single room with a young child, re-learning how to manage money, etc. It was a really difficult time; I had a choice to make to be either a victim or a survivor. I knew I had to enrich my own life and get out of this situation so I began reading books from bell hooks to Audre Lorde and finding out about other Black lesbian women. This was over 20 years ago and I’ve done a lot of work since that time. Reading helped, as did therapy and healing workshops. It helped me find a confidence in how to live and survive, how to navigate the world and be unapologetically me.
My daughter also had to come out. I was feeling liberated and empowered and remember taking my then partner to parents evening (I’d become my Mum!). She was upset as everyone would know she lived in a house with two women and we know how children can be brutal. Of course, now she is my biggest cheerleader and supporter. She is my heartbeat – there is a saying that ‘you don’t inherit this land from your parents, you borrow it from the next generation’ so everything I do is for her and young people like her no matter who they are.
I question whether my race and sexuality have hindered or shaped my career?
As I’ve mentioned, race has always been a dominating factor and shapes how others have perceived me and whether I’ve been accepted or not. Add to that gender and patriarchy, and it’s that intersectionality that I’ve had to navigate. I make no apologies for who I am now, and my role at the Kaleidoscope Trust as well as UK Black Pride allow me to channel that lived experience for the good of others. These roles allow me to interact with our siblings on a daily basis, be that diaspora or otherwise. The international humanitarian space can be White, where people speak on our behalf. I want to focus on how we support capacity and movement building locally, that’s how we show solidarity.
Social justice and instilling these values into our generations is important to me. Working as part of the trade unions meant I received some of the greatest lessons on socialism and how this movement has contributed to workers’ rights, equality and ultimately human rights. This sits at the core of who I am and how I further the work that I’m involved in.
Love, Dating & Relationships
I have a situationship. This person is very special to me – she lives abroad and is amazing! I don’t date in the UK - I’ve done it in the past, but given the way my life is currently configured, it just couldn’t support a relationship here. With work and my other commitments, I often don’t get home until past 10pm, so cooking dinner together, going to see a movie isn’t realistic and I prefer to be honest about what I bring to the table. I don’t like the throwaway culture around relationships, we have to work at them, not chuck them out when things become difficult. Of course, if it’s fundamentally broken, you don’t sticky plaster it either.
As a queer womxn of colour, no-one has really taught us what good relationships look like. My parents were too busy raising children, getting us through the education system in a climate that was going to be hostile to us. The lessons we learnt were about survival, not about intimacy and communication. I’ve had to unlearn this and learn to love myself; I’m so in love with me and have created space for someone else to love me too.
We need to heal. We talk about self-care, but in the same way that if we have a toothache and speak to a dentist to locate the pain, we need to do the same for ourselves. It’s the only way to continue progress. We must continue bringing people together in spaces, self-organised or not, and share stories. This contributes to healing. I’m not an Asian queer man, but there is much for me to listen to and learn from. This is not about segregation, but about active and equal participation. It’s beautiful to see and shows up as solidarity, which in turns creates change.
Progress looks like White people addressing whiteness and fragility, acknowledging the history and past for people of colour. It’s not having to carry the burden of educating our comrades on our collective histories and whiteness. Progress looks like allyship around black lives mattering, eliminating homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. We have work to do within the queer community from simple things such as respecting pronouns to a better understanding of cultural differences and how they shape the queer experience.
We must also acknowledge our privilege; we all have this at different times and use this to elevate others. Some of us are fortunate to be in the right rooms, so we need to hold the door open for others to come through who haven’t had that opportunity.
I admire Campbell X, (trans man and film director), PJ Samuels (Jamaican activist and person of faith), Moud Goba (Director of Community Engagement, UK Black Pride) and Quinn Roache (TUC Policy Officer).
Words of Wisdom
You are not alone. If you feel pained, lonely or isolated always remember this. There are so many resources out there that can help support, facilitate and enrich your life. There is always someone for you to speak to - do not stay locked away, in silence or in pain. We must invest in our healing.
Educate yourself. There is so much happening in the world, seismic shifts both politically and socially. And it’s challenging. So I encourage you to read, read and read some more. Find something that feels like a part of you and speaks to your experience – it will nourish you.
Find your purpose and belonging. The world can tell us in many ways that we are not worthy. But we are, so remember your worth and value, even when it gets tough. And never forget that you are loved by your older self that you can’t see right now.
I didn’t want it to end – there was so much more that we covered that was just as inspiring and reminded me that as queer people of colour, we have much in common. Tears were shed, hearts were opened (no I’m not crying, you’re crying 😭) and I felt seen (Phyll has said she wants to turn the tables and interview me for colourfull – so of course I said yes!).
I simply finish off by saying Lady Phyll, we STAN 💕