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Books By
Linda Villarosa

The Diabetes: Vital Health Information for African Americans

Linda Villarosa
Former Executive Editor of Essence Magazine, Executive Channel Producer for NiaOnline, and Freelance Writer

Confused and not sure about her sexual orientation, she did not explore her feelings because she was trying to fit into a white neighborhood and didn't want to do anything others could think of as wrong.

Finally, in college, "I came out because I couldn't stand not being myself any more." But then she went to work at Essence magazine and was again afraid to come out. "I think what happens when you're black is you feel your community is an oasis against some of the white racist people you know, and you become really afraid you're going to lose that."

But, once again, she found she couldn't stand hiding any more, and she took the chance: "My boss and I were in her car coming back from a weekend editorial retreat, and she was saying something about fixing me up with her brother-in-law. And I just blurted out, I'm a lesbian. She was embarrassed about the brother-in-law and very kind. And that Monday, I came out to just about everybody else at work, and everyone was fine."

Villarosa, one of the most visible and outspoken Black lesbians in the U.S., is a highly regarded and successful journalist living in New York City.  She graduated from the University of Colorado, where she was a journalism major and an athlete. In 1989, Villarosa joined Essence, a magazine aimed at African American women, and soon became its health editor. 

On top of her work at Essence, she has edited or co-edited a number of books, including "Body and Soul: The Black Women's Guide to Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being," One of the few books to address the health concerns of black women, and "
Finding Our Way: The Teen Girls' Survival Guide
." A parent herself, Villarosa also edited a book on parenting,
 The Black Parenting Book: Caring for Our Children in the First Five Years.

In May 1991, Essence's Mother's Day issue, she came out to seven million readers in a widely acclaimed Essence article she wrote with her mother and was later promoted to executive editor of the magazine.  Villarosa wrote the article to emphasize the strong relationship she and her mother have after experiencing the coming-out together.  "My mother was the most important person I came out to," Villarosa said. "I was most afraid of her rejecting me.  She wasn't thrilled, and she was initially unhappy, but she never told me to get out of her life. Now she sees my being a lesbian as part of who I am."

In another landmark essay, Villarosa tackled the religious component of Black homophobia directly in "Lesbianism and the Bible," in Essence's September 1995 issue. In speaking on university campuses across the country, Villarosa tries to communicate the significance of African Americans being open about their sexuality.
Villarosa said her experiences have been more of a blessing than an impediment.
"Being black, being a lesbian and being a woman - these are all terms that I use to define myself," Villarosa said. "I can't imagine just breezing through life as anything else. I haven't had it easy, but it has made me a stronger person."

As former executive editor of Essence magazine, Linda Villarosa managed a staff of 35 "creative personalities" and still had energy to volunteer every Monday night at Streetwork, a clinic for homeless teenagers; served on the board of the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum; speak on gay and lesbian issues at colleges around the country; and be an active member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association.

Since coming out publicly as a lesbian in a piece she co-wrote with her mother in the May 1991 issue of Essence, Linda found her co-workers to be more accepting of her sexuality. "And now since I'm their boss, I think that they've become much, much more accepting!" joked Linda in an interview.  In an interview with Hannah Davis of the Park Slope Food Coop where Linda Villarosa was a volunteer, she stated, "But seriously, everybody here is really great. I am pregnant and everyone is very supportive of that. I bring my lover to events here and everybody is fine. It's like a family and that is why I have been here for so long."  

Villarosa remarked on her longevity with Essence, "The longest I've ever had any kind of job, ever." She mostly enjoyed working as part of a collective. Weekly editorial meetings—of 7 senior editors and a rotating group of junior editors—involve an intense decision making process. Linda was also grateful that she did not have to separate her political beliefs from the work she did at Essence. "The articles [in Essence] are all around progressive thinking: forward thinking for women, forward thinking for Black people and for all people of color."

Essence tends to have more progressive and political articles than other women's magazines because there is a dearth of magazines that specialize in Black women's lives. Heart & Soul and Health Quest are geared to Black women's and men's health issues, but there is no Black women's political magazine, for example. "The interesting thing about Essence," explains Linda, "is because there is no other magazine like it, we end up having to do everything. You page through and you've got, let's say, 10 articles on hair and makeup, and then you are reading an article by Derrick Bell about affirmative action. Or then you're reading about prison reform and then you're reading, you know, about male/female relationships, and then you are reading about hair again and then you are reading about food. And every month there is that kind of mix." Essence has a progressive agenda and strives to move Black women forward. "We are specific about some subjects like abortion. We are not going to be anti-choice in Essence, we are not going to do any thing negative to Black women in Essence." 

But what about gay and lesbian coverage? I know that in the February 1996 issue, Alice Walker came out as bisexual, but flipping through the June issue of Essence (with Terry McMillan on the cover), I was sure that Essence, like most mainstream white women's magazines, took a heterosexist slant. Founded by a group of men in 1970, Essence continues to have a disproportionately male audience for a woman's magazine—25%. The Brother's column, which men write with women in mind, is extremely popular among male and female readers alike. Along this line, every November is a men's issue; this November, Nelson George steps in as guest editor.

Essence has won two awards from GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation); one for Linda's 1991 Coming Out piece, and one for Essence's coverage of gay and lesbian issues in 1995. "When lesbian readers complain about Essence, they complain to me, specifically," says Linda. In reader surveys, the vast majority of female Essence readers identify as heterosexual. Nonetheless, Linda informed me, six out of twelve of last year's issues had a story by or about lesbians or gay men. Linda was most proud of the piece they did on single fathers. One of the fathers was gay but, "It wasn't like, this is the gay dad, just this is one of the dads." This is just the effect editors at Essence are striving for: instead of making a big deal of lesbian and gay issues, they should just be a part of the magazine's editorial mix.

The person who has most influenced Linda's life is her energetic mother, a former social worker and bank vice president who now owns the largest Black book store in the country—the Hue-Man Experience in Denver. "She's really a good example of somebody who changed careers late in life and made it work."

The person who has most influenced Linda's thinking is writer/activist Angela Davis. "It was a proud day for me when I got her to write the forward to my book (Body & Soul). I really believe the things she says about a progressive agenda."

Linda's debt to Angela Davis is clear in her own activism. She spent three really intense days in Seattle, trying to keep an anti-gay measure from making it on the ballot. Raised Episcopalian, Linda grew disillusioned when she was repeatedly attacked by anti-gay Christians. "It's a real shock when you see people who could've sat next to you in the church choir telling you you're going to hell," she says. Her job was to bridge the gap between white gay and lesbian activists and Seattle's non-gay black community. She spoke on radio shows, traveled around the city with a progressive minister, and wrote about her work in the September 1995 issue of Essence. Linda describes her experience as "life changing."

Linda Villarosa is also a mom--twice over.  In 1995 she and her partner decided to have a child. They chose a mutual friend, who is also gay, to be the father, and following a technique they'd read about, Linda used artificial insemination to conceive. In July 1996 her daughter, Kali, was born, followed in August 1999 by a son, Nicholas. Grandma Clara's initial concerns about society's accepting her grandchildren now revolve around little things--like whether to put two mommies in the dollhouse she's buying for them.

As for Linda, she's still opening doors. "In my neighborhood everybody knows who we are, they know our house, they let their kids come to our house," she says. "There are no secrets. We've worked on just putting out love for our neighbors and acting like we want to be accepted. And we are."

  • Sources: 
    Hannah Wallace (from

    CU grad returns to speak on racial and sexual intolerance -- By Samara West Wenten
    Campus Press Staff Writer

    BTL Focus Interview -- Essence Magazine editor Linda Villarosa comes to Ann Arbor
    By NTanya Lee



Read Article in Essence Magazine

Linda Villarosa -- From Idol Life to Ideal Life
(Article: Women In The Life)


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