Sexuality, Spirituality, Health, and Race

Dr. Jonathan Lassiter
Dr. Jonathan Lassiter

Dr. Jonathan Lassiter, assistant professor of psychology at Muhlenberg College, is the author of the new book Black LGBT Health in the United States: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. With his co-editor, Dr. Lassiter edited the compilation of nearly two-dozen contributions from LGBT researchers and health-care professionals. He has provided the opportunity to amplify the voices of Black LGBT people working in the health field.

“Most research on Black LGBT folks has been done by people who are neither Black nor LGBT. We wanted to center the voices of Black LGBT folks and have the researchers and the people doing the work on the ground in health care contribute to that,” said Dr. Lassiter.

Dr. Lassiter shared his findings with Chicago Defender on the way sexual orientation, class, spirituality, and race intersect, and how spirituality influences how people treat others and affects health.

One of your main goals is to show people who have intersecting marginalized identities, specifically Black, same-gender loving people, LGBT people, as whole human beings. Why?

So often, as Black LGBT people we get diced up into whether you’re Black, or you’re gay, or you’re poor, or you’re sick, or you’re this or you’re that. But no one ever really looks at the intersections. People have things in areas in which they thrive and they have areas in which they have some challenges. No one person is no one thing. That’s why my research looks at particularly the role of spirituality in that because I’m a clinical psychologist by training and a lot of my research has been formed by the discipline of Black psychology.

We know that spirituality in general, whether the person is LGBT or not, has tons of positive benefits for people. People who are more spiritual have lower levels of risk behaviors like drinking or smoking cigarettes or engaging in behaviors that put them at risk for STIs or HIV. People who may have higher levels of spirituality have lower levels of depression and other mental health issues. I just really wanted to bring that to the forefront and look at how spirituality was operating in the lives of Black LGBT people and ways in which it acts as a risk factor for health issues. I think it also allows people to remain resilient in the face of not only health issues, but also forms of social oppression that Black LGBT people are unfortunately disproportionately targeted with.

What you’re saying is that people who are more spiritual tend to draw on that higher power to deal with some of the difficulties in life. But if you feel rejected, that could negatively affect your health? It’s almost really like any other person in a way who is not religious – LGBTQ or not, right?

There’s a lot of patriarchy or homophobia tied up in what we think about as Western religion. That Western religion is going to typically say homo-negative or homophobic things about Black LGBT people, like, “God hates fags,” things like that or, “You’re going to go to hell because you’re like that … you know, pray the gay away.”

I found that many people who currently identify as spiritual as adults originally identified as religious as children. That means they grew up in religious households. This is something that they’re socialized into from a young age. They grow up hearing these messages that the very higher power that created them hates them. What does that do to a person’s self-esteem? What does this do to a person’s sense of self, self-concept? You’re right, this can happen to anyone. If they hear negative messages about a central part of themselves. But for Black LGBT people, we see this related to sexual orientation and it’s a little bit more extreme because spirituality and religion are such big cultural components of the Black community, unlike other communities where spirituality and religion are more ritualistic.

If you think about people who practice Catholicism, they’re going to go to mass, but religion is going to stay there. They can go and they can repent. Not all Catholics practice that way but that’s typically the way religion is outside of communities of color. But for Black people, religion typically tends to be something that’s embodied. Religion and spirituality are going to be with that person in their religious institutions but also as they’re walking down the street, as they’re on the job, as they’re in their schools, and things like that. It plays such a central part and it not only structures the person’s individual behavior but it also structures their interpersonal relationships with their family members, with their peers, and whatnot. If you’re a Black person, it’s going to be a little bit harder for Black people to get away from those messages because religion is so ingrained in the culture.

Just from my own circles, younger Black Christians don’t seem to have the same hang-ups with same-sex relationships as previous generations. Have you found that in your research?

Yeah, you’re right. There is a generational shift there. What I’ve seen in my research is that while there’s still definitely homo-negative messages or homophobic messages going on in churches, they tend to become few. Let’s just say they’re not an everyday occurrence. It’s more like the fourth Sunday message if you get what I’m saying.

It becomes the instance where, ‘Okay now we’re going to have our, you know, bi-monthly, or our every other month, gay bashing service.’ People really get up in arms. I don’t know if you saw that Kim Burrell video that was out a little bit ago, but the people in that church when Kim Burrell was up saying all of these negative things about gay people, LGBT folks, the audience around her were cheering. It was like a sporting event. They were so into it.

I think as long as that is the reaction, religious leaders will continue to give those messages. Because it’s more sporadic, you have Black LGBT people who still continue to go to churches that have homo-negative messages in them because they say, ‘Well you know, it’s just that fourth Sunday.’ Every other Sunday it’s fine. In my research, I’ve actually found that most Black same-gender loving men continue to go to traditional churches.

That must be hard. Why not go somewhere else?

To use the language of the church, Black people are taking something that was meant for the bad and turning it into good. Black same-gender loving people, just like Black heterosexual people, often get a lot of benefit from attending churches. It’s community.

It’s networking for jobs, for education. Some churches have scholarships for children. It’s support with food. Some churches have food pantries. These people don’t want to give up these things and they don’t want to give up the cultural experience.

But then how do homosexual people who do continue to attend homo-negative churches maintain peace with their religion, spirituality and sexual identity?

One strategy is having this personal interpretation of religious text. While the religious leader may be emphasizing a verse against homosexuality, the same-gender loving person may then pay more attention to verses like — “God is love,” and “Whosoever let him come.”

We also know that Black LGBT people and same-gender loving people use their personal experience with their higher power in order to guide their life. Other people may be saying, “God doesn’t love you,” but a Black same-gender loving person may be like, “Well God helped me pay my light bill,” or, “God helped me overcome addiction so I know God loves me regardless of what you say.” In this way, they’re able to take their health for themselves. They’re able to not let others define their relationship with their higher power. We also have to remember that religion and spirituality, while they are similar things, they are distinct as well. We know that religion typically tends to be more organized around ritual and doctrine and particular procedures. Whereas spirituality is more individual. It tends to have less to do with the middle man, whereas religion has more to do with the middle man.


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