Legacy of Voices is an oral history project created in 2008 by Lara Spotts and Brian O’Donnell, inspired by their realization that to better understand their own lives, they could turn to LGBTQ+ community members who had gone before them. From 2008-2012, Lara and Brian recorded interviews with gay and lesbian elders over age 70 in New York, Pennsylvania, and Montreal. Hearing the stories of these elders with their passions and beliefs, failures and successes, and reflections moved Brian and Lara deeply, and helped them chart their own paths forward. Meanwhile, the actual interview tapes sat in a box in Brian’s closet for over a decade, until Brian discovered OUTWORDS—a unique opportunity for these remarkable, nearly-lost stories to be seen, heard, studied, and celebrated by queer people and allies around the globe. OUTWORDS thanks Lara Spotts and Brian O’Donnell for their visionary work, and for donating thirteen Legacy of Voices interviews to OUTWORDS.
Born in the Bronx in 1930, Phyllis Jenkins always knew she was gay. She was drawn to other girls, longed to wear boys’ clothes, and resented that her brothers could stand to pee. She also was the only Black student at her school until junior high. Phyllis ran away from home at age 14, married a close friend at 15, had two kids, and was divorced by 19. When her ex-husband tried to use her sexual orientation against her in court, the judge replied, “Every guy that comes in here has the same story,” and gave Phyllis full custody of her children.
After her divorce, Phyllis worked full time as a nurse’s aide at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital, all while raising her children and continuing her education. A consummate multi-tasker, she earned her nursing degree at Long Island University (graduating in the top third of her class) while also making time to meet women at lesbian bars, form relationships, and introduce her partners to her kids. In 1969, she earned her masters degree in psychiatric nursing from NYU, and became a founding member and vice president of both the National Black Nurses Association and the New York Black Nurses Association. A year later, she spent nine weeks studying at the University of Ghana; out of this trip began a long healthcare career in Africa. Back in New York afterward, Phyllis and Claire Fagan co-founded the Baccalaureate Program in Nursing at Lehman College.
Later in the 1970s, Phyllis spent a year working for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone – the first Black woman and nurse to be a medical officer in West Africa. She stayed in Sierra Leone for three years, then moved to Swaziland in 1980, where she helped found the Swaziland Institute for Health Sciences and the Swaziland Nurses Association.
Although she witnessed plenty of same-sex relationships in Africa, Phyllis knew she couldn’t be openly gay there. When her partner came to visit, she was Phyllis’s “niece.” Phyllis was also in Swaziland at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, where local health organizations dismissed the crisis as “an American problem.” Upon returning to New York in 1986, Phyllis became a counselor to people living with HIV, as well as an in-service trainer to other nurses. In 1988, she joined the congregation at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, where she remained all her life. At the time, St. Luke’s was the only church in New York conducting burials for those who had died of complications from AIDS.
In 2007, Phyllis’s mentor Claire Fagan came out of retirement to present her with the Estelle Osborne Award from NYU, in recognition of “a lifetime of outstanding contributions to international health and to the support of African-Americans in nursing.” In her latter years, Phyllis became a great-great grandmother, while remaining an ardent activist (donning a pink “pussy hat” and taking a bus at age 86 to Washington D.C. for the 2017 Women’s March). Phyllis passed away in 2022 – a shining exemplar of groundbreaking courage and activism on behalf of the Black and queer communities, and the entire human family.