Black LGBT Health: In Conversation with Dr. Lourdes Dolores Follins and Dr. Jonathan M Lassiter
Author: Theodore Kerr
June 28, 2018
A few years ago, Dr. Lourdes Dolores Follins was invited to submit a book proposal about Black LGBT health. She began by researching what was already out there and what she found was motivating: there was nothing. As far as she and others can tell, prior to Black LGBT Health in the United States: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, published last December from Lexington Books, there existed no professional book focused solely on the health of Black LGBT people in the US.
Seeing the void that needed to be filled, she began working with Dr. Jonathan M. Lassiter, whom she had met through professional psychotherapy circles, to create a book that would not only be a first of its kind, it would also buck conventional wisdom when it came to who was in the pages, and what was expected from the text. There would be no usual suspects writing from a desk within detached ivory towers. Instead, each chapter would be written by Black professionals working in the community, offering up their perspectives of the health challenges facing Black LGBT people in the US, and their recommendations on what could be done.
In the process, Follins and Lassiter created an award winning book that is not only a must read for psychotherapists, social workers, but an enjoyable collection of chapters from the front lines of health in the USA. Contributors such as Siobhan Brooks, H.Sharif “Herukhuti” Williams, LaShaune P. Johnson, Jane A McElroy and many others provide insightful, engaging texts that go beyond professional standards of care and venture into the world of literature. The book is rich with stories of Black people living at LGBT intersections of health, survival, and resilience, moving beyond the equation of problem, diagnosis and cure. Instead readers are brought into complex realities such as sex parties for healing, barriers to care when you are both black and a lesbian, and the possibilities that arise when you prioritize the health of people least remembered by the mainstream.
Early in the book, Lassiter writes, “Refusing silence is essential to maintaining our health.” This becomes a theme of the book, a mantra a reader may find themselves humming along with as they read. In the interview below Dr. Follins and Dr. Lassiter speak with writer and organizer Theodore (Ted) Kerr about refusing silence, about spirituality, and the role money and melanin play when it comes to the life chances of Black LGBT people in the US.
Who do you hope is reads this book?
Dr. Jonathan M. Lassiter: A few years ago, Toni Morrison spoke about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man at the NYPL, remembering when the book came out asking, invisible to whom? That resonated with me. I study Black psychology, and within the discipline there is the radical school of thought rooted in the idea that Black people need to center themselves rather than outsiders (i.e., white people). With our book, we are centering Black people. I want us to read our stories, hear our experiences, see ourselves.
Dr. Lourdes Dolores Follins: At the New York launch of our book, I met the person who would become my barber, and eventually she ended up buying more than one copy of the book, with the intention to give copies away. She believes the book contains information that needs to be shared. Fast forward a few months, I am sitting in her chair and she tells me how she gave a book to a customer, and upon starting to read it, he teared up: “This is me, this is us!” We created this book for the man in the chair and my barber. My fantasy is that service providers and people who help Black people grow, heal, and develop will have access to this book and share it.
In the book, gender and sexuality are both specific and fluid. Early on there is a chapter about the mental health of same-gender-loving (SGL) women, but that text is not the only place where SGL women come up. Their health, like everybody’s, is included throughout. Do you want to talk about your approach to selecting contributors?
Lassiter: We said that contributors have to be people that are part of the communities that will be written about, not just because they are cultural insiders, but to highlight voices that we have not heard. We included people who may not have had access to academic pages, but who have very important things to say.
Follins: And we knew we wanted to be mindful about the flow of contributors in the book. We wanted young people in the beginning, elders with prominent places throughout, nobody from no community feeling like an afterthought, and to end with an attention to voices working in community together. And as we were working with the writers, we worked hard to ensure the texts were accessible. I would remind people, “you are writing this for your grandmother, and she might not have graduated from high school.”
These considerations with the contributors come through. There is a practical vibe to the book. Each chapter has recommendations that address professional considerations, as well as everyday life.
Lassiter: That was intentional on our part. Folks talk and talk in pursuit of an answer, and then tuck their emotions away and continue to replicate systems of oppression. The book helps people figure out what to do after the talking, it provided concrete steps to dismantle oppression and empower Black people.
Follins: People need to know what can be done. Not just intellectually, but in tangible ways. We saw this as part of our job as editors. We would get a beautiful draft in and we would be like: “this is great, now we need you to add recommendations.”
Lassiter: Contributors were often shocked when they got this feedback. I see this as a result of our training. We are schooled to be “scientific.”
Follins: And detached.
Lassiter: And it is not like our way is any less scientific. The work in the book is scholarly, with a human element.
Which is important if you are inviting people into academic pages for the first time—as both readers and writers. I get the sense that you want people to leave the book feeling hopeful.
Lassiter: I will say this, as Black LGBTQ people we are thriving and creating ourselves everyday. But too often risk is the only thing that gets funded or discussed.
Follins: That was why we were crystal-clear in our proposal what we were looking for. I think that when people know what you are asking for they either step up or step back. And if you look at the contributors, that is what happened. In each chapter there is a clear thread: as Black LGBTQ people we don’t just bounce, we resist.
Lassiter: Exactly. Resistance is a decentering of systems.
Blackness, Spirituality and Health
In one of your chapters in your book, Jonathan, you look at how Black bisexual women deal with assumptions and ignorance in the doctor’s office, and the choices they need to make to get the care they need. A reader sees how by being herself, the women you are writing about experience ontological resistance: care providers giving pushback based on who they think the person before them is. This is an example that comes up often in the book, care, or the lack there of, is not just a physical or emotional issue, it is also about the spirit.
Follins: Even if I wasn’t a Santera, spirit informs what I do. When I am paying attention to spirit, my health is good; when I am not, it is not so good. I think this is similar to others.
Lassiter: I am a spirit-being, a physical manifestation of spirit being on this earth. I think we are all interconnected, so spirituality influences every aspect of our lives, including health.
Was it a challenge to include your beliefs in the book?
Lassiter: We have to name what you are calling a challenge for what it is: health care providers indoctrinated into Western ways of thinking, separating the body from the spirit. In traditions like mine and Lourdes’, there is no separation. We could not produce a book without spirit. And if, at the end of the day, some white tenured professor of social work feels our book is hokey because he thinks you can’t prove spirituality, okay then. I know he is using limited tools and we are not.
Beyond the professional push back you may receive, there is also within mainstream, white-centric, LGBTQ communities, a pushback against faith.
Lassiter: Many sexual minorities and LGBTQ folks have had negative experiences with religion, church and spirituality. That is one thing. Another thing is that many of those people are White gay men who come from cultural traditions where spirituality is not central, and because of power and race, they are often the ones shaping knowledge for the culture, and they create this narrative around spirituality that is negative. For people that are culturally Black, we understand that part of what it is to be us is a physical manifestation of spirit. So when you let people who understand that into healing spaces you get a nuanced conversation about the role of spirituality and health. When you don’t, you often get White gay men who are salty because someone told them that they were going to hell and they believed it. That is not to say that feeling a disavowing is not hurtful. I am saying that the way things work, their bad experiences end up trying to make invisible something vital for others, for us, for me.
Follins: For many White gay men the church, the temple, the mosque has not meant something powerful, because they still had whiteness on their side.
We can afford to walk away from the church.
Follins: Ashe! And that is not true for us. For us we think, leave? Who is going to have my back?
Right, and so it makes sense that the book has the reader’s back.
Lassiter: Because that is part of our work. The spirit is always there, including when I write. I do the work: reading, research, etc. Then I sit down to write with it there. I am obedient to spirit. Same with my work as an editor. I try to cultivate a sense of vessel-hood for writers without freaking them out. This often requires drawing people out, reminding them that they have access to the knowledge that lies within, they don’t have to listen to white structures of knowledge production. For example, a writer sent me a chapter. It was great! In my comments I asked them to reconfigure a statistical analysis because they centered Whiteness, as is the way in public health. The writer came back to me saying that if they made Black people the reference group then they will have nothing to say about Black people. I was like, “Trust me, you will.” The writer was so indoctrinated to center whiteness I had to walk them through making Black people the reference group in the statistical analyses. I had to say, you are safe here putting Blackness first. Several emails and a phone call later, they got it: when you center Blackness, you can get a more profound sense of who we are.
Money, Melanin, and Power
In your book you have a single chapter on HIV, which was both surprising and refreshing. Black gay men are often centered (in some way) when it comes to HIV. But, I must admit, this often makes me uncomfortable. As many other people have said, what does it do to someone when all they hear about who they are is that they have a 50% chance of getting a highly stigmatized virus? The burden of attention does not seem helpful. it seems pathologizing.
Follins: I go back to our call for proposals. We said you need to look beyond HIV.
Lassiter: We were clear that this will not be your run-of-the-mill text where the only health concern associated with black LGBTQ health is HIV. You will not get your old paper on HIV published here. I know that game, I did my dissertation on HIV outcomes. We wanted to broaden the conversation.
Is it worth asking why there is so much focus on Black young men and HIV?
Follins: Seriously? You know the answer: Money and melanin, and—here we go—anti-Black oppression and capitalism.
Isn’t it more specific than that? Isn’t it that when public health does work within Black communities it is not for the people there, but to protect White people. Isn’t that what history teaches us? Isn’t this a way to understand why there is a dearth of data on Black LGBT people except when it comes to HIV?
Follins: You and I are on the same page. White people are not worried about us, Brown people, Asian people or Native people. They are focused on protecting themselves. But also—and this is what I am saying—HIV is an industry. People make careers looking at black men—and now trans women—under the microscope.
Lassiter: The melanin thing is real to me. Black bodies have always been demonized, pathologized. That is nothing new. What is new, is that studying that pathology is lucrative.
Which connects to an important takeaway in the book: a leading cause of premature death for Black LGBT people is White supremacy.
Follins: I would say white supremacy and capitalism. We can’t negate the economics. We have to name it.
Lassiter: I would also say the book highlights homonegativity and white patriarchy. I go to bell hooks language: imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, (and I would add: hetero-ableist) patriarchy. All of that intersectional oppression is the major health risk for black LGBTQ people, and so for me that is why spirituality is the cure. Both are all-encompassing.
Follins: I know this to be true. Working and walking with spirit in a conscious way helps me with aspects of intersectional oppression during the day.
Lassiter: And that impacts others. If I believe we are interconnected, I will not harm you because it is harming me. Or to see it another way, to change things, people need to see me living my spirituality, and I need to see it in them. When this thinking is activated, we move away from individual responsibility, and understand that any healing is a collective pursuit. This is why instead of talking about role models, I talk about possibility models. Just by being you, you give permission for someone to be who they are.
Follins: Instead of thinking about having power over someone, I like to think of myself as being power-filled, and I can share that. And so, when people read the book I want them to feel their power, to be inspired, to stir the pot, kick the pot, get a new pot! I am proud of what we have done. I know that this is what I am supposed to be doing: point to the status quo and help people see what is wrong with it.
Click here to read a chapter from the book: “Rainbows or Ribbons? Queer Black Women Searching for a Place in the Cancer Sisterhood.”
Watch Talks at the Schomburg: Black LGBT Health in the United States, a conversation between Dr. Follins and Dr. Lassiter with special guests.
Black LGBT Health in the United States: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation” was edited by Lourdes Dolores Follins and Jonathan Mathias Lassiter with contributions by: Amorie Robinson, H.Sharif “Herukhuti” Williams, Della V. Mosley, Roberto L. Abreu, Candice Crowell, Tonia C. Poteat, Siobhan Brooks, LaShaune P. Johnson, Jane A. McElroy, Dante’ D. Bryant, Rahwas Haile, Mark B. Padilla, Edith A. Parker, Tfawa T. Haynes, Sannisha K. Dale, Lawrence O. Bryant, Kasim Ortiz, Angelique Harris, Kenneth Maurice Pass, Devon and Tyrone Wade.