The Warrior Voice

Lilada Gee spent years hiding in denial until her faith gave voice to her abuse. Now, her culturally specific message of healing for other Black female survivors of long-term sexual abuse is powerful, empowering and so very badly needed.

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PHOTO BY JOHN URBAN

Survivors who found safety and solace in Lilada Gee’s living room inspired her to launch a nonprofit for Afrocentric healing services for girls and women.

But Lilada, who also became an ordained minister, found herself especially compelled to help its females, those sisters and mothers and daughters she knew were walking in the same painful shoes she’d finally shucked. The more she worked with women like her, the more she knew she needed to confront her own demons.

“I’d ministered to all these women but I was still so broken,” says Lilada. “I didn’t even realize how broken I was until I started looking at the pieces of my life.”

One Sunday, she walked up to the pulpit and finally told the congregation what had happened to her as a child. That’s when something magical started to happen. That’s when the healing became larger than herself. The story became bigger than her own.

“After, women and teen girls just started showing up at my house and sitting in my living room and telling me their stories,” she says. “We’d cry together. We’d pray together. Lilada’s Livingroom is an outgrowth of that.”

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In 2010, Lilada founded Lilada’s Livingroom, a nonprofit providing culturally specific tools to support and empower Black women and children affected by sexual violence. It’s a formalization of years of work with the countless teen moms and abuse victims she’s ministered to and the professional advocates she’s consulted with, on her couch, from her pulpit, on teleconference calls, in speeches and from the pages of her 2006 memoir, I Can’t Live Like This Anymore!, in which she goes public with her own story. She’s made a deliberate decision to make her work Afrocentric. Part of it is that it’s her path—it’s what she knows, it’s who she is, it’s how she can best serve. But part of it is that it’s so very badly needed.

“I decided to focus my life work on this issue, to not only do the work but come up with strategies in empowering other people to do this work in a way that reaches our community,” she says. “Because I figure if Black women don’t come together to address these issues, no one is.”

Lilada works with women all over the world. She’s received awards from both the Investigation Discovery Channel and the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She has traveled to Thailand to work with sex trafficking victims. She’s traveled to Skid Row to help women in sexually controlling relationships. She’s led cultural competency training for sexual assault advocates all over Wisconsin. But it’s her work right here in liberal, progressive Madison that’s arguably most critical of all.

“In this state there are about fifty certified sexual assault service provider agencies. Of those fifty agencies, there are absolutely zero sexual assault advocates that are Black and just one Black sexual assault nurse examiner. Examiners are the first people who touch a victim to collect the evidence after she’s reported a rape.” says Lilada.

“Wisconsin is a progressive leader in domestic violence and sexual assault in the nation. For the field to not be representative of those who need service, in this progressive state, is scandalous.”

Of course, it is possible for well-trained professionals, regardless of cultural ethnicity, to heal and empower sexual abuse victims. The most devastating wounds of sexual abuse are universal. And none of this is to dismiss the vitally important work that Dane County professionals are doing in this town to combat sexual violence.

But it’s irresponsible to downplay the effectiveness of being seen and understood by someone who shares your own cultural lens and experience, or the powerful catalyst of self-identification.

That first moment you see someone else stand up and speak out, someone who looks like you, sounds like you, moves like you. Maybe she goes to your church. Maybe she went to your school. Maybe she looks like your sister or your mom or your aunt or your grandma, and it finally hits you like nothing else has. You know it in your bones that you get her and she gets you and there she is, saying, “This happened to me.” And that’s when you can finally say, out loud, “Me, too.”

And there’s more to it, too, if you’re a Black American. If the very fabric of your DNA is woven with hundreds of years of sexual victimization, much of it legalized, no less, even socially acceptable. If hundreds of years of Black men falsely accused and strung up has led you to instinctually protect your own, to keep your family’s secrets close and out of the system. If you can’t even do something as simple as walk into a store without feeling guilty until proven innocent, how do you know it’s safe to lay bare your most brutal secrets to that cop or nurse or social worker? How do you know you don’t have to first explain institutional racism to even the most well meaning White person before you can comfortably even speak your name? And why is it even your job to do so, anyway?

“I’m not a scientist, but I believe at some level this has even affected us at a genetic level. To have that many years of stress and trauma and oppression, the chemistry of the body has had to change,” says Lilada. “So when you look at Black women and lack of resources and everybody talking about ‘We treat people the same,’ I’m like, bullshit. No you don’t. The implication that for some women who need a cultural framework to deal with their sexual victimization, who are not afforded that through any of these state and federally funded organizations, what a disservice. Not just to those women, but to their husbands, to their children, to the community around them.”

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Tamara Brown was a twenty-two-year-old newlywed and new mother that day nearly two decades ago, as she sat there rapt on a church pew listening to Lilada Gee testify about her sexual abuse. 

PHOTO BY DAVID NEVALA

Tamara Brown

Until then, she’d been doing just fine, thank you very much. Her own sexual abuse had happened a long time ago, throughout her elementary school years. She’d since married, had a baby, gone to cosmetology school. Sure, she’d grown tough and quiet, maybe no longer the carefree, outgoing child she once was, but no longer vulnerable, either. The abuse was way back in her rear-view mirror. It certainly didn’t affect who she was today.

Except it did, really. She was having a hard time being intimate with her husband, a gentle, patient man she deeply loved. Worse—and she still hasn’t shared this part with many people—she was struggling with breastfeeding her baby. It was terrifying. It felt wrong. She had to repeat it over and over in her head as her sweet baby nursed, “This is natural, this is normal.”

Witnessing Lilada’s story that day made everything all better and everything so much worse, all at once. Here was this woman standing up before God and everybody, telling her story. And Tamara felt it was her story, too. She wasn’t the only one. She wasn’t alone. And she didn’t have to keep it a secret anymore.

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