InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This week we caught up with Nessette Falu, a Harlem native completing her doctorate at Rice University.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
NESSETTE: I am a physician assistant by occupation but presently I am completing a Ph.D. program in anthropology at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
I also went to seminary for my master’s. Nobody would ever guess that about me. I thought seminary would be an ideal way to learn about theology and prep for a Ph.D. program in religious studies. Now as I train to become an ethnographer, I draw on a lot of pearls learned from seminary like learning to listen, taking note of my environment, and learning to be present and in the moment. I was trained like a minister to end up not wanting to be religious anymore. I learned the difference between being religious and spiritual and I am at peace with myself.
I work part-time as a physician assistant (PA) in Houston in an HIV/AIDS clinic. I love being a PA and practicing medicine but this clinic reminds me each week of my commitment to taking socio-cultural dimensions of sexual health head-on. One day I will have to give up being a PA full-time or completely. I am at peace with that too.
ELIXHER: Describe yourself in three words.
NESSETTE: Intense. Friendly. Adventurous.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
NESSETTE: The first thing that comes to mind is that most people think I am much younger and will often treat me as such. But this has not been an unwelcomed misconception actually. So I will say that often, and especially here in Houston, many people meet me, watch me, and think that I am mean or unapproachable until they start speaking with me or get close to me. It’s so ludicrous because I am far from mean or unapproachable.
I have attributed this misconception of me to the ways in which I find myself (and enjoy actually) being very pensive and observant of people. I have always been this way since high school. Now that I am becoming an anthropologist and scholar, both my pensive and observational ways will serve me well.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?
NESSETTE: It’s hard to measure in my mind which of the challenges that I have faced is in fact the ‘biggest.’ But I will say that it was the loss my grandmother in 1999. She lived in Puerto Rico. I was starting a physician assistant program at SUNY Downstate Medical Center the same week she died. The years that she raised me were the best years of my childhood. Though I remember feeling utter pain and sense of loss, I pushed through it to start my PA studies.
I did not realize how much her death impacted me until 10 years later. I looked at my life in 2009 to recognize that reconciling her loss opened my life to things that were unthinkable at the time, including the embrace of my queer sexuality. As a result of losing her (she anchored my self-love) I was plunged into consciously navigating it for myself. That was the hardest yet sweetest challenge and life lesson, but I became a more courageous and enlightened person. All that I have experienced and overcome since then makes that resilient turning point evident to me.
ELIXHER: You’re currently finishing your doctorate at Rice University. What are you researching?
NESSETTE: I am in the middle of conceptualizing my research project after spending this past summer doing exploratory research. Right now, my project will be a cross-study of self-identified Black lesbians in NYC and in Salvador-Bahia, Brazil. I will be cross-studying self-understanding of racialized and gendered sexuality. I’m seeking to redefine sexual health as a socio-cultural experience of self-care (and self-healing). I will be looking at how the power relations of gynecological care are contested by cultural practices that express sexuality. But I am looking for hemispheric trends and traffic of ideas with respect to the universal notion of being a “Black lesbian.”
ELIXHER: What drew you to the subject?
NESSETTE: It was a process. First, I am a transfer from African American religious studies (AFAMRS) into anthropology. After multiple trips to Salvador-Bahia between 2007 – 2008, I was compelled to focus on Black gay women sexuality. Between 2008 – 2010, Tiona McClodden’s film, black./womyn: conversations…, inspired me to focus on diverse religiosities among Black lesbians in the U.S. This was a great topic since in AFAMRS, I had to base my research in the U.S. But then her film also convinced me that I could not move away from incorporating social realities of “out” women in particular. By end of spring 2010, I had completed a Women, Gender and Sexuality Certificate Program at Rice as well, and it was then very clear to me and my advisor that I was drifting away from religious studies into something more socio-cultural with respect to sexuality.
Now that I am in anthropology (and a more appropriate fit), there is a lot of pressure to write a dissertation about a geographic area outside of the U.S. I decided to take up something not done before which is a cross-study of NYC-Salvador self-identified women. There is a need for published books in anthropology with a focus on self-identified Black lesbians and sexuality. I landed on sexual health because of a need to increase awareness about the tensions of affirming access to gynecological and breast healthcare. More specifically, move beyond these medical conventional ways of understanding sexual health and into a more socio-culturally operative one. This way I can use both my medical and interdisciplinary training for my research.
ELIXHER: Who or what inspires you?
NESSETTE: I feel very transparent now when saying that it is difficult to stay inspired. Ph.D. studies, especially in the social sciences and humanities, are a grilling process. Also, I still have not embraced living in Houston so that has been another challenge to staying inspired. But I will acknowledge that (1) I am inspired by my long-time dream to be a researcher and academic. Since college in the early 90s, I dreamt of becoming a researcher and academic. I waited until it felt like I was pursuing my ultimate purpose. I am finally there. My life has made a full circle, and I am inspired by my own journey. I must make it happen now; (2) I have few friends who have walked this journey with me for over 20 years and know that I have landed on a self-discovery academic path. Whenever they affirm me, it inspires me greatly to keep going; (3) I am truly inspired by a new courageous generation of Black gay women today and all the work being done to forge visibility, including this blog.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
NESSETTE: This is an amazing question. To admit to being proud of being part of the Black queer community is to acknowledge that there is purpose in my identity and self-reflection as being “Black” and “queer” and that “community” exists. After interviewing self-identified “lesbica negras” in Salvador-Bahia and interviewing in NYC, it really put me in an interesting axial position.Women from each city were very excited that I was bridging these experiences. I felt honored to experience being such a potential conduit of knowledge. I do not take for granted that women are jumping and ready to participate in my research. So when someone agrees to participate, I feel more than grateful but proud of their confidence in me to handle their personal lives with care and integrity.
It is undermined how much resilience is needed on a daily basis to move forward with our lives as Black gay women. I do not take any part of my life for granted including my sexuality and the more visible Black gay women attempt to become, the more we will see how resilient we are in accepting ourselves.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the Black queer community?
NESSETTE: I would like to see more Black gay women take responsibility for some of the internal violence among Black gay women that is a result of reproducing the broader violence—like masculine behavior that is used solely to make some women subservient. Or lesbians who still do not accept bisexual women and speak of them as being ‘confused.’ There is also a lot of judgment about the age at which you come out. A lot of these perceptions can be addressed with more education and healthier understandings of what is sexuality in the first place. We make it negative when we judge the different ways in which sexuality is expressed.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Nessette?
NESSETTE: Madison. I am so in love. I have the perfect woman in my life. Of course, there is no such thing as perfection, but I just received flowers today and she helps me stay sane and balanced. She lives in Long Island and we have a long distance relationship, but next June will be a big turning point for me. I will move to New York City to start my research and reunite with my girlfriend. Madison is the name of her house, and I look forward to making it our home.
In the meantime, I have a heavy year to complete at Rice. The immediate ‘next’ is designing my research project. I put more pressure on myself than necessary but it is how I cope. This year I must finish coursework, submit proposals for funding for my fieldwork year, and finish all my requirements for Ph.D. candidacy by May 2012, which include qualifying research papers (not formal exams, thank goodness). June 2012 I will start my fieldwork spending 6 months in NYC and 6 months in Salvador-Bahia.
It is hard to stay in the moment but I am motivated by what lies ahead in my life. This was a wonderful summer of research and I look forward to doing it for a year.