UCAN Panel Highlights Difficulties Encountered at Intersectionality of Race in the LGBTQ+ Community

Panels (clockwise from top left): Brownlee, Toppel, Jacobson Lopéz, and Till.

An important webinar sponsored by CHHSM member UCAN took place June 4 and delved into overcoming the obstacles persons of color in the LGBTQ+ community face daily. The event was introduced and closed by members of UCAN’s Pride Alliance Employee Resource Group. Pride Alliance works to educate, support, and advocate so UCAN employees are respected, valued, and affirmed, inclusive of sexual identity, gender identity, and gender expression. Gwendalyn Carver, UCAN’s director of development and co-chair of Pride Alliance, opened “Can We Talk? The Intersectionality of Race in the LGBTQ+ Community,” which took the form of a panel discussion comprised of experts who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.

The discussion was moderated by Roderick Hawkins, associate dean of external affairs and chief of staff at Northwestern University School of Communication in Chicago. Panelists included Dr. Maurice Brownlee, chief wellness officer and medical director, NorthStar Healthcare and founder of Baal Perazim Wellness & Health Services Inc.; Dr. Daniel Jacobson Lopéz, assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work and visiting fellow at Yale University; John Everett Till, senior vice president of strategy and innovation at The Family Partnership in Minneapolis; and Dana Toppel, CEO of Jewish Family Services (JFS) in San Diego and founder of Make Work Work for Moms.

The discussion opened with comments on the work the panelists and/or their organizations were doing during Pride Month. “We are being intentional … in what we’re doing, and making sure our patients understand,” said Brownlee. “And providing them a space where they can live in, and get care in, truth.”

Toppel offered a word of introspection, saying she was reflecting on “how much we assimilate and get by and shut ourselves down when in an environment that isn’t necessarily as open to LGBTQ+.”

“Some of our young people are much more dialed in,” she added.

Standing Up and Speaking Out

The conversation then moved to George Floyd’s murder as Hawkins asked, “How are you standing up and speaking out at the intersection of race, gender identity, and sexuality?” One of the overall themes emerging was the need for organizations to more than just make statements — that action is required — but that it takes internal work first.

Till expressed continued frustration. The Family Practice is only five blocks from the third precinct, which was burned down in the civil uprising that followed Floyd’s murder. Till also drives by the place where Floyd died on his way to work every day. While The Family Practice released a statement against the murder and called for significant changes in policing following the murder, “we haven’t seen much action or change,” he said. “We’re concentrating on our [inhouse] EDI [equity, diversity, inclusion] training.”

Toppel had a similar story. JFS was working on creating belonging and inclusion but between the murder and the pandemic, realized it didn’t have the structure in place to support its own staff. “We convened a Town Hall, but it was healing for some and triggering for others,” she said. “So we’ve taken a step back to say, ‘What do we need to do to support our staff?’ The more diverse we are, the more we need safe spaces for people.”

Jacobson Lopéz, who was at University of Pittsburgh at the time of Floyd’s murder, discussed how Black doctors at the university were treated — attempting to make officials understand that the university needed to be a safe, welcoming space or the Black doctors would go elsewhere.

Brownlee provided a reality check. Over the previous weekend — just days before the webinar —  he had been in a grocery store and as he walked down one of the aisles, a woman ran to her cart to hold her purse near her. “I got scared and I got furious,” he said. “I was jogging to get off the aisle. The root of that is the trauma I experienced growing up when I was labeled. … I grew up in the South so I knew that when I approach, people clutch their purses. … And this just happened to me this weekend. I didn’t get what I went to the store to get.”

In examining his own trauma, Brownlee said, “There are not enough behavioral health groups. If I need to send a patient, there’s at least a six-month wait, and if they’re on Medicaid, they can’t get in at all.” His company is opening a new facility for behavioral health, but is faced with the problem of finding people who want to work in certain areas of the city.

“This feeling of having this target on your back,” Hawkins mused. “All these identities, but people just see the skin we’re in.”

COVID Magnifies Already-Present Disparities in Care

Next, the panelists discussed how the pandemic has magnified the already-present disparity in health care in communities of color, and how that is increased in LGBTQ+ communities of color.

“We opened up a testing center in the area hit the hardest in Chicago … we did over 5,000 tests,” said Brownlee. “We moved to a second neighborhood. We hope we made a dent in the disparity. [But] there is still a population that is uninsured or homeless, so can’t even get the free tests. And if they do test positive [for COVID], they need written proof to go back to work, but without insurance they can’t get it.”

To help the situation, Brownlee’s company still provides free testing as needed. “We do about 13 charity tests a day,” he said.

Jacobson Lopéz noted a re-emergence of the trauma felt by LGBTQ+ persons during the AIDs epidemic. “The pandemic is really similar to the AIDS epidemic — no one wants to be around them, friends are dying,” he said.

LGBTQ+ patients are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence, particularly during tragedies like the pandemic, Jacobson Lopéz added. He told the story of a gay black man who hasn’t been able to go to the gym since the pandemic began. But with the fear of police brutality, the man doesn’t want to run outdoors, either, he said.

As a white woman married for 20 years to a Black woman, Toppel was particularly sensitive to examining individual behaviors and how people participate in discriminatory systems. “How are you participating in systems of white supremacy or homophobia?” she asked.

Ensuring Culturally-Relevant Services for All

It became clear during the conversation that adequate, equitable, culturally relevant services were critical. Hawkins asked, “How do we ensure that LGBTQ+ folks have equitable access to culturally relevant services” like health care, social support, and housing?

Till related an all-too-familiar tale. “In Minnesota, if you want access to mental health care and want someone who looks like you — if you’re white, you’re probably good. If you’re a person of color, an immigrant, LGBT [depending on where in the city you are], you might have a lot of trouble,” he said. To correct that inequity, The Family Partnership has created a program to help immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ+ social workers complete their degrees and get licensure and experience in the field.

Jacobsen Lopéz related a similar story of a program for LGBTQ+ men of color, but the therapists were all cisgender women. A common sentiment among the clients was, “They won’t understand me,” he said. “Often in these programs, they don’t expect Black and Brown folks to show up. They don’t expect LGBT folks to show up. So outreach is important. Training for therapists, etc., is needed.”

Brownlee’s approach was top down. “You have to admit that there is a problem,” he said. “We have to recognize that the current health system isn’t equipped to care for people in these particular populations.” To effect change, “you start from the top — the CEO, the board room, to make sure that providing and insuring equitable access to health care and other social determinants of health are not only something that’s written down but is in their strategy.”

To make sure it happens, consumers must hold these boards accountable, Brownlee said, adding, “We have to hold them accountable to doing those things that will break down the barriers for LGBT persons of color to get the services in a way that will keep them linked to care.”

Both Brownlee and Jacobsen Lopéz addressed how, as persons of color, they have navigated LGBTQ+ affirming organizations that have no or very little Black and Brown representation.  For Brownlee, it’s a matter of entrepreneurship. “If I find we can’t get what we need, then we, as a people, ought to be able to create that,” he said.

Jacobsen Lopéz took a different path. “In many LGBT spaces, I am the only person of color. A lot of it is speaking up and navigating the space as a gay man of color and Jewish,” he said, “being my own human resource manager, and my own publicist, and my own everything.”

He gave an example of the University of Pittsburgh’s nondiscrimination policy not covering him. After many meetings with the administration that led nowhere, he changed strategies and participated in several committees, eventually being able to “call my own shots,” he said. “As a gay man of color, I needed to call my own shots. But there were a lot of barriers to get there.”

A follow-up question to Brownlee and Jacobson Lopéz dealt with self-care. “There is so much emotional labor in self advocacy,” Hawkins said. “How do you manage it?” For Brownlee, who said he works seven days a week, and is always tired, it’s the temporary nature of things. “What I do know — it’s not forever. I know what my desire is for the community [but] no matter what I’m doing, no matter how hard I’m working, it’s not forever,” he said.

Jacobson-Lopéz talked about having a solid group of friends “calming me down, strategizing” that keeps him sane and focused — friends who also are encouraging but also understand and validate the pain he is feeling.

Using Privilege to Be an Ally

Hawkins next turned to Toppel and Till, asking how they used their privilege to create opportunities for persons of color. Till related a story of arguing for LGBTQ+ people of color in a prison and getting kicked out by the superintendent, saying, “Those of us with more privilege have more opportunities to be bold. And we have to be bold.”

For Toppel, the key is authenticity. “Our board is more diversified because it is not performative, it’s authentic,” she said.

Following the panel discussion, the webinar was opened up for questions. The first, from attendee Andrea Taylor, asked, “What is more tiring, trying to protect your race, gender, or sexual identity?”

Jacobson Lopéz responded, saying, “They’re not in competition with each other. It’s intersectional, not additive. It’s always hard. It’s contextual. Sometimes race becomes the center issue. Other times, being gay becomes the center issue. Sometimes, if someone is rude to me, it’s hard to know which one is the cause. They are all equally painful and equally exhausting.”

Jeff Carlson, a pastor, asked how faith communities can help. Brownlee said that being “ready to have a dialogue is the first step — be willing and open to have the discussions. Think about everybody in your church.”

Finally, the panelists weighed in on how to help trans children and youth of color and their parents, thanks to a question from Carmen Arnold-Stratten, the mother of trans male.

“We have a lot of work to do in building knowledge and awareness,” Till said. “In the workplace, if a person has certain pronouns, you have to use them. Intersectionality goes back to W.E.B. DuBois — being Black American and American at the same time. What are your organization’s values on trans identity and how do you help employees?”

The panelists recommended several LGBTQ+ support groups, including PFLAG. Toppel added that connecting parents of trans children and youth with each other was essential, while Brownlee discussed health care. “Trans people lack health care – and particularly trans-affirming care,” he said. “If you have a trans kid, make sure you link them with a trans-affirming health provider early on.”

The session was closed by UCAN’s Lauren Birchlove (they/them), director of corporate and foundation grants and a member of its Pride Alliance group. Birchlove thanked the panelists for bringing their stories and wisdom to the discussion, and later reflected, “My biggest takeaway from the panel was a confirmation of the overwhelming need for — and dearth of — services that are designed and implemented by the communities they aim to support.”

The webinar received rave reviews and comments from participants. Perhaps the comments were best summed up by Arnold-Stratten, who said, “Thank you all for being transparent and giving important information. I have gained a little more knowledge of the LGBTQ+ community.”

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