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
"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
Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association.
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
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."