There is a unique problem of representation when someone outside of a marginalized community attempts to lead a subset of that community. D. Rashaan Gilmore, Founder and President of BlaqOut, a nonprofit seeking to improve the health and social outcomes of Kansas City’s Black, queer community, has realized success in his work to support this community as an indigenous leader.
Gilmore first witnessed the disconnect working at an HIV health center. The case management teams regularly voiced frustration at their clients’ lack of responsiveness, noting that Gilmore did not seem to face the same issues. Even after his workday ended, his connection to his clients did not. He saw them at the grocery store, church, and out on the weekends. Gilmore’s unique rapport with his clients led to his ability to engage with them successfully and consistently.
This experience led Gilmore to a significant discovery: tending to the health of the Black, queer community is about establishing trust, building relationships, and caring for the whole person. “We are not one-dimensional beings, and our lives don’t exist in medical silos or a vacuum,” Gilmore said. “When we address all areas of concern and treat this community with a whole health approach, it empowers them across that range.”
In a moment of quiet reflection, Gilmore was inspired to change the entire system. “It was probably midnight, and I remember thinking that applying the old model didn’t make any sense,” Gilmore recalled. This revelation launched BlaqOut’s Whole Health Access Model, the antithesis of the traditional, transactional health clinic concept. BlaqOut’s new model took a step back, identified the community's needs, and constructed a service that could address those needs.
Gilmore labels this model a relational approach and goes as far as eliminating the term ‘patient.’ “When people are part of BlaqOut, they are members, not patients or clients,” Gilmore said. “Members have ownership in the vision and work they contribute to. I have a great Greek word that explains this: paraclete, which means to come alongside and help lift up. That is our role, together, and what our community needs.”
At BlaqOut’s advent, Gilmore partnered with Jannette Berkeley-Patton, PhD, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. One piece stood out of the advice Berkeley-Patton gave Gilmore; she advised him to “get the data,” which he took to heart. Gilmore rallied the community, securing over 200 respondents to complete a comprehensive community needs assessment — no small feat given the absence of safe spaces for Kansas City’s Black queer community to coalesce. The assessment allowed Gilmore to move with agility toward solutions for the primary concerns of his community. “It was surprising that the number one concern among 18 to 34-year-olds in this group was not crime, violence, or discrimination, but healthcare access,” Gilmore said. “This made it clear that we could start with the whole health concept, which would help address other issues simultaneously.”
The challenges and barriers the Black, LGBTQ community face create a general lack of awareness of their unique struggles. For example, while safe spaces exist for the queer community, an undercurrent of racism makes these safe havens difficult for Black queer people to access and navigate comfortably. “Many times, people believe that because there are shared oppressions, everybody with that shared experience gets to benefit from progressive change equally. That is just not the case,” Gilmore said. “As I often tell people, there is still the same racism under the rainbow as there is outside of it, so those spaces do not always feel warm, welcoming, and inviting. And that is something that we need to address.”
BlaqOut recently secured funding to acquire a commercial space in Midtown Kansas City, establishing Kansas City’s first permanent home for the Black, queer community. BlaqOut has a capital campaign planned for 2023 to catalyze efforts to provide a safe space and equitable, culturally competent healthcare.
The data shows that healthcare outcomes for Black queer men are among the worst of any population in this country and across a broad range of health indicators. For Gilmore, the mission to improve these health indicators has two parts. First, identify and treat the whole person, and second, create a place where there is prioritized support for a group of people that too often are not even considered at all.