A Web Portal For Lesbians Of Color
The Minority AIDS Project (MAP) of Los
Angeles, California, saved Freda Lanoix’s life. And that isn’t
unusual, as it turns out. The full service, nonprofit agency, an
extension of Unity Fellowship Church in L.A., saves lives every
day in the megalopolis’ under-served and ignored populations –
black, brown, gay, and transgendered – stricken with HIV, AIDS,
drug addictions, and general malaise. What makes Lanoix’s story
remarkable is that while she came to MAP in 1993 as a volunteer,
today she’s the Reverend Elder Alfreda Lanoix, MAP’s Chief
Operations Officer, as well as the UF Church’s pastor.
This woman’s a spiritual leader and then some. Lanoix admits that at the time she felt that she wasn’t in a high-risk category, although that fact changed quickly. "AIDS was foreign to me. But not only did MAP save my life, but by me being informed about the disease, and dealing with it, I saved my own children’s lives." A little more than a decade ago, Lanoix was determined she would "save" her son and daughter’s lives by committing suicide rather than tell them she was a lesbian. Trying to maintain a life with a husband and a family for appearances had become too much to bear for this large joyous woman. "Then, I had everything – the American Dream and whatever it is you’re supposed to have – but I was tormented on the inside because I had this secret and I wanted to protect my children. Somehow I thought suicide was better. When I didn’t die, it was a sign I couldn’t go back to that old life."
Elder Freda (which is what they call her around MAP’s sprawling one-story office) credits her church – as well as MAP – giving her a new life. But first she had to be okay with herself. "I was who I was supposed to be," she says. "I was created as a lesbian and I accepted my truth." She began working for MAP as a receptionist after quitting her safe, very secure, job as a line instructor for Rapid Transit District, a position she had held for fifteen years. "Once I began to heal myself, then it was important to give back," says the Reverend Elder, now forty-four. As she often does, Lanoix quotes Miss Patti LaBelle: "When you’ve been blessed – you must what? Pass it on."
In 1985, Minority AIDS Project was founded with much the same spirit in mind. The brainchild of Archbishop Carl Bean, who had launched the Unity Fellowship Church earlier that same year, to reach out to all oppressed populations, it became the first agency in the country to be run by and for people of color. "We were the first ones to step up to the plate," says Lanoix. "This disease was devastating to our community; we needed to do something for ourselves."
At first, the church simply served as a haven for outsiders – men and women who were black, gay, bisexual, lesbian, or suffering with HIV/AIDS – people who needed the support of a church when so many other ministries had closed their doors to them, believing that being gay is an illness and contracting HIV/AIDS is a curse from a wrathful God. It was quite a betrayal considering that within African-American culture, churches have been the life support for the community – a source for news, gossip, entertainment and, often, charity. Lanoix has nothing but contempt for those churches who turned away her people during that dark hour. "The churches refuse to deal with it because they have never dealt with sexuality; that past has kept them from dealing honestly with HIV/AIDS. They’re actually willing to allow people to die." She believes, for example, that HIV’s current hold on women of color (who lead the nation with recent HIV infections) could have been avoided if churches had gotten the message out to their congregations. Women are now the main focus of MAP’s outreach to its 1,500-plus clients. "We really forgot about the women," Reverend Freda says quietly. "Women are caregivers; we stepped up to take care of everyone else and – guess what? – we forgot to take care of ourselves."
The good reverend tells one heart-wrenching story after another: about a woman, married twenty years, who went to her doctor again and again with repeated yeast infections but, because she wasn’t part of any "high risk" group, was never tested for HIV. When the doctor finally got around to testing her, she had already developed full-blown AIDS. Entire generations are thus affected. "I have women where the mother’s HIV-positive, the daughter’s positive and the granddaughter’s positive," Lanoix says. "Our lifelines are being threatened."
Women have long been tough to get to with information about prevention of HIV/AIDS: Some are afraid to approach their boyfriends or husbands about condoms because of the implied message of faithlessness; some simply didn’t pay attention to the epidemic until it hit home. When Eazy-E died from AIDS in 1995, MAP’s twenty-four hour phone lines were flooded, almost all from young women who, if they had not had sex with the rapper directly, had had sex with him indirectly by only a few degrees of separation. Their questions were elementary: "If I had sex with somebody only one time, could I still get it?" Says Lanoix, "You were left thinking, girl, what planet have you been on!" Other women are simply too tired. "I believe in my heart, as a black woman myself dealing with the struggle, that some of us can’t take another [setback]," Elder Freda haltingly begins. "We’ve dealt with slavery, we’ve dealt with picking cotton, with oppression, no husband in the home, we’ve dealt with no financial support from those who are at home, with our children becoming gang members, and now you’re telling me this. ‘I don’t have no room for another issue on my plate!’"
Desperate times require new strategies. So, on top of MAP’s programs that already include prevention, treatment and testing for HIV/AIDS, support groups, assistance with food, housing, and jobs, the agency has begun searching out women’s support groups, and halfway houses and homes for those escaping domestic violence. "But we’re also going to sewing circles," says Lanoix with a grin. "Grandma’s not just stitching – she has time to be sexually active too."
And while some of the larger, more established, and better-known nonprofit AIDS agencies are hitting the halfway point in containing the disease, finding treatments for their clients in the much-hyped cocktail, MAP is continuing to discover new methods of reaching difficult populations. "Unfortunately, we don’t get the money the big agencies get," Lanoix says. "Their budgets are upwards of $20 million; ours is just one-and-a-half million. And we have done as much if not more than they, but no one has looked our way." That includes an incredible lack of investigatory magazine and newspaper articles on their work. "The big agencies have David Geffen [behind them]. We’re still trying to pay rent. When you’ve got overhead like ours, it’s difficult to do the work, but we’re still here!"
And they are still working hard. MAP is just beginning to reach current and ex-gang members) some of whom have yet to even identify themselves as gay or bisexual) as well as L.A.’s underground transgendered community (mostly male-to-female transsexuals), some of whom are living with HIV or AIDS. The agency found many of their newest clients working in the sex trade and living under the bridges of the Los Angeles River. "We’ve got many worlds in one space and we’re all living happily," Elder Freda boasts. "The queens, the gay men, the gang members and the ex-gang members. And hopefully all of our gang members will soon be ex-gang members."
This happy woman summarizes MAP’s mission: "Add on gay and lesbian youths, then a little twist of the transgendered, [along with] the heterosexuals, and you’ve got everyone working together for one common cause." She claps her hands in joyous affirmation. "Don’t get no better than that. It’s a rainbow coalition. But for real!"
- by Anderson Jones
"Right Now" - From the CD "Right Now" released on L.I.F.E Records and available here.
For additional information on Unity Fellowship Church Movement, please see this article: "The History of the Movement".
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