By Helen McDonald
Although Dr. Kofi Adoma, 58, fully embraces all the nuances of her identity, her path of self-discovery and understanding began in silence and with a fear of alienation. The Detroit native knew from a young age that she was attracted to women, but did not know there was a name for her feelings.
“I heard the word ‘gay’ for the first time in college,” she explains, reminiscing about some of her most formative years. “I also heard the word ‘fag.'”
While college allowed her to continue embracing her blackness, Adoma realized over time that her attractions conflicted with some of the expectations of her racial identity. Adoma reflects that she had a great relationship with Black community at her college but that it hurt to hear prejudices expressed by Black students, particularly against queer men. She clarifies that not all Black students were homophobic, but that there were some Black classmates who created a hostile environment for queer students.
“It’s ironic because now my college [Oberlin] has a reputation for having a strong LGBTQ community. There’s a sense of loss now, a feeling of being cheated because there was so much hush-hush and taboo around queerness,” Adoma confesses, revealing how much a shift in attitudes can impact the safety of a space, like school.
Even though college afforded Adoma access to terms like “gay” and “lesbian,” she experienced a kind of a dissonance. She thought, “How can I be a Black person being gay [because] Black people didn’t talk about gay people except in a negative sense.” The risk of being stigmatized or marginalized for her identities forced Adoma to cope with an internal conflict that left her feeling alone in her struggle.
“I guess my journey has been kind of a silent one,” she laments. “I had no one to really share these ideas, these thoughts that I was having.” Adoma admits that this silence was isolating; there were two people she wanted to talk to about these feelings — her roommate and her cousin — but kept quiet in fear of being judged. “I didn’t have any role models [and] the silence and isolation kept me from interacting with other people who may have been gay or lesbian.”
Fortunately, when she graduated from college, Adoma began to identify as a lesbian and embrace her more masculine-of-center gender presentation. When she discovered the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, an organization founded in 1978, “it was like a light turned on.” The coalition represented the experience of being both Black and gay, and Adoma recognized that she didn’t have to give up one to have the other.
“It gave me a sense of validation and affirmation,” she says, citing one of the many events that ultimately brought her to a point of self-acceptance. Adoma went on to help found the Full Truth Church (later renamed Full Truth Unity Fellowship Church), which helped her negotiate her race, gender identity, attractionality, and spirituality.
“Don’t wait for others to give you freedom. Take it!” – Dr. Kofi Adoma
Dr. Adoma has reconciled her identities, but you won’t catch Adoma referring to her attractions as a “sexual orientation.” She coined the term “attractionality” to describe her interests and identities instead, explaining that the term “sexual” — as in “homosexual,” “bisexual,” “heterosexual” and the like — reduce us to our behaviors. She theorizes that “sexuality” is about getting in touch with our sexual selves, whereas people are more than their sexualities. She pushes against the label “sexual orientation” especially, asserting that we take it for granted that the language of “sexual”-ness is how we’re supposed to use to define ourselves. “Attractionality” made sense to her as a concept because there are different levels of who you’re attracted to. Another freedom she finds through her term is that it also eliminates anxiety of feeling that you have to go to bed with someone to prove your attractionality (or orientation).
“We’re attracted to people for social, emotional, sexual, spiritual, physical reasons. All these levels of attraction are lost when we limit our identities to the realm of the sexual,” she explains. Moreover, according to Adoma, we should feel free to transition the words we use to describe ourselves, whether that change is through the use of a term like “attractionality” or any other vocabulary we use or create.
Like her coined term, much of what Adoma has done in social activism is linked to creating something new because there was a need for it. Nowadays, as a psychotherapist, a lot of Dr. Adoma’s work deals with the mental health and development of LGBT populations, especially of African American lesbians, because the field of psychology lacked Black queer women’s perspectives. During the first year of her doctoral program at the University of Michigan, Adoma was a part of the largest and most diverse cohort that the clinical psychology program ever had.
“There were more women and people of color and people who came out as gay and lesbian,” Adoma remembers. In that very first year, Adoma and a group of students of color who were studying clinical psychology came together and realized that diversity was missing from the academic curriculum. The classes were narrow in the populations they referred to or did not consider issues of class, race, and attractionality. This group of students decided to form an organization where they could get funding to bring outside speakers to talk about better methods to serve underserved populations.
The organization invited various speakers to address cultural competency. When clinical and research psychologist Dr. Beverly Greene visited the university to talk about working with African American lesbians, her presence truly impacted Adoma. She explains that Greene was the only one doing this type of work and the scholar quickly became Adoma’s role model.
In time, Adoma started doing workshops and trainings about working with LGBTQ youth. She recollects that she was called on to do other workshops on LGBTQ youth, coming out to families, working with gender variant youth, being an LGBTQ parent, and serving African American LGBTQ youth. Moreover, Dr. Adoma became co-founder of the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit, where she worked with many African American LGBTQ youth. She became interested in focusing on Black lesbian youth because she noticed that this population was ignored by psychology scholarship, even in studies that focused on LGBTQ youth of color.
“Often times [these women’s] stories just aren’t heard,” says Adoma. True to her knack for creating something to serve a need, Adoma started writing about and interviewing these young women to get their stories out into the world and to celebrate “their resilience and courage so other people can see and be inspired by it.”
Adoma’s work, persistence, and journey have inspired three life lessons she offers to us:
1. Don’t wait for others to give you freedom. Take it! Be proactive and don’t let others do it for you or on behalf of you.
2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Connect with those who have been on this path before. Connect with elders because they’re a great resource. Engage them while they’re still here.
3. Trust God or your Higher Power. Have faith and believe. If you don’t believe in your greatness or your strength, you’ll be left spinning your wheels. Have some sort of faith and trust in doing something for humanity. Leave this place better than you inherited it.
Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com.