Q&A: Pride Toronto director Olivia Nuamah on the politics of parades

Q&A: Pride Toronto director Olivia Nuamah on the politics of parades

She'll have to manage the desires and demands of BLMTO, councillors, police and countless revellers. Things could get complicated

Director of Pride Toronto has to be one of the trickiest jobs in the city right now. Why say yes?
My life’s work has been in advocacy, building trust and trying to create change for people. And I’m unafraid to have conversations about race. I understand how to be comfortable in the vulnerability those discussions evoke.

What did your partner, Becky, and two young sons think of the job opportunity when you floated it?
I’ve always had jobs that demand a lot of time away from home, so it didn’t come as a surprise. That I’d be running Pride Toronto and have to be open about my personal life made them a bit nervous.

It sounds like you said, “I’m considering this job” and they said, “Hell no.”
Ha ha, well, that’s one version. Lately, the boys, who are 13 and 11, are hearing a lot of “Hey, I saw your mom on TV!” and I think they kind of like it. Becky, a director at the 519 community centre, has been in the queer movement for a long time and understands its complexity, so that was a long conversation.

Last year, with thousands watching, BLMTO held up the Pride parade until your predecessor signed a list of demands, which included banning police from the parade. What would you have done in the same situation?
Possibly the same thing. I really don’t know. I mean, the demands certainly weren’t ridiculous.

You mentioned the importance of trust. What kind of trust can there be when the punishment for disagreeing with BLMTO is having your parade hijacked?
Why is it a hijacking, though? BLMTO’s members have been a part of Pride for a long time. They have every right to use that space to voice their concerns. You could just as well ask, “Are you disappointed that Pride wasn’t able to act on those members’ requests for so long?”

I’m asking you what you make of their tactics.
And I’m saying those are the tactics they chose. I don’t want to judge their relative okayness, because I don’t know how frustrated they were.

Do you worry that tacit acceptance of their tactics could invite copycats?
I’m not losing sleep over it. Pride has dealt with so many protests over the years. Instead of seeing them as controversies, perhaps we should see them as opportunities to create a more just society.

As a kid growing up in Moss Park, did you ever have negative interactions with the police?
Never. It’s so funny. I drive right by my old apartment, 285 Shuter, every day. It was just my mom and me.

How do you instruct your sons to interact with the police?
I teach them to be respectful, obedient and how to leave unharmed and without making the situation worse.

While studying international development at U of T, you met Nicholas, who is now your ex-husband. Who made the first move?
He asked me out. We went to Brass Taps at Dovercourt and College. At the time, I was working at Loblaws and DJing on the side, trying to pay my tuition.

What was your DJ name?
Oh my god. “Olive.” So bad. Nick and I eventually married and moved to England, which is where he’s from, so he could become a teacher. I had to support us, so I stopped DJing and started advocacy work. I quickly fell in love with it.

At age 40, your life took a dramatic turn.
It did. I realized that my marriage wasn’t working and a part of that was related 
to my sexuality. I came out to my husband.

What was that conversation like?
The hardest I’ve ever had. I loved Nick very much. Lately, our relationship has gotten much better. He comes here from England every six weeks, and he and the boys spend every summer together.

If BLMTO had been around when you were growing up, do you think you would have been a member?
I don’t know. I identified most with music. Jay Z, Snoop and Wu-Tang gave me a strong sense of self-belief and made 
me proud of myself.

What are the chances we see you on the turntables at Pride?
Ha ha. Very small. Though I’m not ruling it out completely.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.