Olivia Nuamah: Pride Toronto chief opens up on gender, racism and coming out

Image: Samuel Engelking

Olivia Nuamah: Pride Toronto chief opens up on gender, racism and coming out

India Blooms News Service | @indiablooms | 21 Sep 2017

The director of one of Toronto's top calendar events, Pride Toronto, Olivia Nuamah wants to be treated like a white male heading a company. In an exclusive interview with IBNS Canada's Suman Das and Asha Bajaj, she shares how her organisation has managed to get people to care about the LGBTQ community. Nuamah also talks about how it all started, while tracing back her roots. Excerpts:

Tell us a bit about your past. How did a DJ playing in clubs in Canada and England end up as the director of Pride Toronto?

I started...I guess it was in the mid nineties when I went to university. I decided that I needed to have money and started working part time and was a DJ. When I graduated from university, that job was very helpful. Then I left for the U.K. and continued in my DJ career and eventually decided I wanted to work in public policy or social policy. So I quickly found a job working for homeless people in Manchester for a couple of years and then moved to London, where I started working in public policy.


Do you think your role there helped you understand the role you've presently undertaken. If yes, how?

When I moved from Manchester to London I moved to east end of London where I worked as a community development worker with different communities, mostly with people from India and Pakistan. I learnt a lot from there. That was probably my most valued learning experience. I learnt a lot about identity and racism. Different communities taught me different things because they had history and politics and brought back this history with them to the U.K. and it was an honour to learn from them. At the same time, I was also into advocacy works and one of the two things that I worked on was in an organisation for Asian Women Society, which dealt with domestic violence and shelter of the said community. This community lived in part of east London where there was a lot of racial harassment. These were newly immigrant communities mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh who suffered a lot of racial harassment because they lived near poor white communities. So, I started working on racial harassment and violence against those communities.Then we started to campaign about a black man who was murdered in his neighbourhood and the police did not do a good job about it. It was mostly the Asian communities and we got together and decided no more. After about six or seven years we managed to get the police to re-investigate the case and when they re-investigated they found through DNA testing the people who did it but because they had handled the evidence so badly and because they did not care about the person who was murdered, they got away.

So we decided we were going to fight. In the inquiry that followed, it was found that the police had problems with racism. That was a big win for us, because the police had to do a lot of work and change the way they worked. And so when this job came along eventually, I decided that the experience that I had in London...How to negotiate with police, could have a better outcome.


As we all know that the Pride speaks about 'inclusivity' and yet the Uniformed Toronto Police did not take part in this year's Pride. Why did that fall out take place and what are you, as the boss, doing in order to get them to join the parade in 2018?

There are lots going on. We are hoping to solve it. Both the police and we are willing to come to a solution for next year and hope that this does not exist next year. The people who said ‘No’ to this, we will hear their demands and find a way through. We will spend one year to solve this problem talking to police and people.


In one of the past interviews with Pride, you have stated that your focus is on community development. Tell us how do you plan to accomplish that?

I have not been here that long but I have certainly managed to get people to care about the organisation by making sure we are representing what they think and feel. Maybe in the past, people felt Pride Toronto did not represent what they think. Police are a good example. Number of people outside the organisation think that the police should not be involved. May be this organisation in the past would not have listened to this. Because police being involved is important in organisation functions and important in festival functions. People over time have been saying they do not think police should be involved. There are a number of people in the communities who feel we have grown closer to them in doing what they want us to do. People both inside and outside the community are not comfortable with police being involved in the Toronto Pride Parade.


Can you tell us a little about your personal life?

My story is one that I think a lot of women feel but do not say it loud and only express internally. I was very happily married for 20 years had a loving husband and had two beautiful children in London. When I came out of the marriage five years ago, it was difficult for my family and difficult for me and my children, but I felt that it was being unfair to my children, myself and to him by trying to live a life that I knew other people wanted me to live. I had to listen to my heart...That was my life.

 

A lot of people face difficulties while coming out. How was your experience?

The difficulty is not in coming out, the difficulty is getting people to believe that you are not straight. It is because they have an idea in mind what somebody ‘gay’ looks like and sounds like. Even if I tell them I am gay they do not treat me or associate me being gay. That is not hard for me. But for people who think they are gay, they have a problem.


Coming back to Pride, you share a healthy relationship with Chief Saunders (  current Chief of Police of the Toronto Police Service), while the same cannot be said about the respective organisations you two work for. Is this a case of a conflict between personal and professional interests? If yes, what's the way forward?

With Chief Saunders, the relationship is not bad. We seem to be moving forward. But inside our community some are supportive and some are less supportive and everybody in between. This year what we are trying to do is get people to talk to each other more and try to agree together what we should do next. It would be hard for sure but we are determined that what ever we agree we will agree together and those who do not agree will live with it and that is what democracy is. So we will do it using democratic principles.


As a boss of Pride Toronto what's your goal for Pride in upcoming years?

The most important thing is to put on good festivals.That is the priority for us.

Second thing is to bring the communities together more harmoniously. This has been a difficult year and a half. There have been very difficult conversations. Instead of being angry we have to listen to their complaints and give consensus and compromise. That is what we are trying to do.

 

In the past 2 years the Prime Minister of Canada has been participating along with other politicians more in the Pride Toronto events. Do you think there’s a motive behind it?

Participation never hurts any body. The Pride Toronto has a big following. People see him (Justin Trudeau) marching. They feel happy when a politician says that we embrace you and he does that. He seems a genuine fellow. He is always embracing and very kind. We also appreciate the element that members of community are not asking why he did not come to the parade.


You have worked with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his eradication of child poverty programme. Do you think that experience is helping you now in doing what you are doing or planning to do?

Absolutely. I learnt everything I know from that labour government which was in place for seven years. Working with poor communities is something I learnt under Tony Blair and I bring that into every job I have and all of the skills it takes to talk to people who are poor and disabled and to understand what they want.


We have done a story on Toronto based Michael Garron Hospital in which the hospital had put an end to referring to patients as ‘him’ or ‘her’ on the basis of their sexual orientation. Instead of referring to the signs in the washrooms as "male" or "female", the picture of "toilet" or "sink" are put outside the washroom. How big a step do you think this is?


It is a huge step. The language around gender is as almost as toxic as language about racism. Sometimes we have to learn to speak differently. Now it turns out language around gender was accepted yesterday but not acceptable today. It is a huge step when you see society deciding what it wants. The people should feel safe and acceptable. More people are feeling confident in saying they were born a certain gender but they do not feel that gender. The gender  they feel is what ever it is and even if it is a non-gender, they will like to be addressed in a different way. It is same way we address disabled people.

 

Do you think that the liberal government that is in power at the federal and provincial level is more helpful for the community to grow compared to the Conservative government?

This community owes a gratitude to liberal govt who has introduced Bill C-16 (protection of gender identity and expression) amongst many others. They have been openly embracing of us as a community. They have been very open and I am grateful. On the other hand, we have the Conservative government, who finds it hard to go to pride events and regularly advocates for the policies that continues to see same sex couple differently and constituted families as a threat. This party we want to be in partnership with, but we find it hard to engage, because we want cross-party support not only for the festivals but also for the community.


You have been quoted as saying by The Globe and Mail "I want to be taken as seriously as a white man in a leadership role". Why do you think in a developed country such as Canada do you need to fight such prejudice in this day and age?

I have been in a number of leadership roles. And for sure it feels harder to be taken seriously for a lot of reasons. When I said that...What I was trying to say was that sometimes people do not think that I am supposed to be a leader in a big organisation, because they look at me and think and I do not fit what a leader looks like in an organisation and they treat me that way. While saying that I was hoping to live my life in a world at some point where I am treated the same as a white man leading in an organisation. At the moment that is not the case.

 

(Questions compiled by Sudipto Maity)

 

Image: Samuel Engelking

 

Connect with Suman: @surasum and Sudipto: @maightyman

Olivia Nuamah: Pride Toronto chief opens up on gender, racism and coming out

India Blooms News Service
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