Lift Every Voice: Study reveals struggles of black LGBTQ Oregonians

By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

Khalil Edwards, coordinator of the Portland PFLAG Black Chapter, co-presented the "Lift Every Voice" report. Photo by Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

Portland PFLAG Black Chapter and the Urban League of Portland have released a groundbreaking report that highlights the challenges facing black LGBTQ Oregonians and makes policy recommendations.

“We come into this world with many identities,” PFLAG Black Chapter coordinator Khalil Edwards said at the Oct. 11 release event. “Today we know there is still a lot of work to do around people being safe being their true selves.”

The report, which is the first of its kind, includes sobering statistics about bullying, barriers to healthcare and education, safety, and rates of incarceration. It includes insights culled from existing studies as well as an original study and two focus groups. Thirty volunteers interviewed 200 black LGBTQ Oregonians, and collected surveys from 15 locations, such as Pride celebrations, the Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, and Cascade AIDS Project.

“Folks were really excited that for the first time they were being asked what mattered to them,” Edwards said. “We did [focus groups] in part to give a voice to an often unheard population… . We wanted to provide an opportunity for folks to speak beyond what the numbers can tell us.”

The numbers don’t say enough, according to Western States Center organizer Walidah Imarisha. Though those behind the report augmented their research with a local survey, there were still significant gaps.
“Transgender people of color particularly are underrepresented in many areas of research,” Imarisha said. “We were not actually able to pull out information specifically about trans people in our survey.”

Urban League of Portland Board Chair Lolenzo Poe, City of Portland employee and activist Kathleen Saadat, and Retired Portland Public Schools teacher Carolyn Leonard (not pictured) spoke on a panel about the reports applications.Photo by Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

Still, the statistics that came through were troubling. The Lift Every Voice study found that nearly half of the respondents (43.7 percent) earn $20,000 or less a year, while 18 percent are unemployed. These numbers are particularly stark when combined with figures showing black lesbians are twice as likely to be raising children as white lesbians.

The report also found significant barriers to healthcare access. Black LGBTQ people experience much higher rates of diabetes and HIV and are more likely to face ignorance and abuse from medical providers. According to the study, 99 percent of LGB people of color experienced at least one barrier to health care.

In education, the tendency of black LGBTQ students to experience harassment on multiple levels leads to poor educational outcomes, Imarisha said. They are more likely to miss class, to only have high school diploma or GED, and to see their grades directly affected.

“I think it’s incredibly important for all of us to know the lived reality of people in our communities,” Imarisha said.

Katie Sawicki, urban policy associate for Urban League of Portland, outlined some of the report’s specific policy recommendations in the focus areas of health, employment, and education. Many of the suggestions hinged on increasing cultural competency and training community members to provide needed services.

“There is a role for everyone in lifting up this community,” Sawicki said.

The organizations involved hope that report will serve as a call to action. Urban League of Portland CEO Michael Alexander spoke to the importance of meeting people where they are to creating change.

“What you want to do is respect the fact that where you were a day before you discovered and grew is where they are at,” Alexander said. “I think organizations, like people, go through that same evolution … . How do we tilt the levers that need to be tilted in this community?”

A panel of community member spoke to ways the report could shape their work in the community. Retired Portland Public Schools teacher Carolyn Leonard echoed Alexander’s message of walking beside people on their path to understanding.

“You can’t drag people kicking and screaming. You have to start where they are and entertain their questions,” said Leonard, who is working to create a more LGBTQ-friendly culture in the A.M.E. Zion Church. “I say, ‘Angels have no gender, and we’re all moving toward angels.”

Lolenzo Poe, chief equity officer for Portland Public Schools and chair of the board for the Urban League of Portland, emphasized the importance of black men being allies.

“Black men have a responsibility to be at the forefront of this. I should not be one of the only black men in this room,” Poe said. “Whatever hat I wear … it is a report that saddens me, humbles me, and tells me there is still much work to be done.”

City of Portland employee and long-time activist Kathleen Saadat praised the report and spoke to the fear felt by black LGBTQ individuals.

“I’m 72 years old. I’ve known since I was 5 or 6 years old that I was not like the other girls. … This has been a long time coming,” Saadat said. “It makes my community infinitely more livable, safer. … If you’re black, you do not want to lose your community because that is your primary protection. You don’t want to be out there with no clothes on and no one to protect you.”

Imarisha and Kodey Park Bambino will present a workshop on the report at the Basic Rights Oregon Trans Justice Summit on Oct. 21 at Portland State University. The full report can found online at