What is sexual wellness?

A conversation with Lorne James, Peer Support Specialist,

transcribed and edited by Morgan Thomas


When I came out to my mother as gay, her first concern was for my wellbeing and sexual health. For most of my life, my identities as a gay man and a Native man weren’t associated with wellness. They were associated with risk. I spent most of my high school years coming to terms with my sexuality. From when I was 19 to 23, exploring my sexuality, I practiced a lot of risky sexual behaviors. People talked about safe sex, but safe sex just meant you used a condom. In my family, in my community, we didn’t have time to sit down with each other and have conversations like the conversation we’re having now—conversations about identity and wellness and authenticity. Conversations about sexuality and health haven’t always been natural for me.

When I was first diagnosed as HIV+, I started hearing more about sexual wellness. But in the HIV world, in the clinical world, wellness is all about being adherent to medication, getting to an undetectable viral load, the responsibility of disclosure to sexual partners and how and when to do that. When I became HIV+ here in Portland, I felt such a disconnect. I didn’t know how to fund the care I needed. They give you a packet—HIV 101. They want you to get on medicine right away. That worked fine. The Western medicine linkage to care was fine. But I needed my spirit to be healed. I needed someone to just hold me. That was what I needed to be well. I literally went all around Portland, asking for some healing. I couldn’t find that here. That wasn’t a part of the conversations people had with me about sexual wellness.

Today, being connected to my Navajo culture is more important for my wellness than identifying as Two Spirit or being part of the Two Spirit and LGBTQ community. My sense of resilience—of wholeness and wellness—is different because of my Native background, my sense of identity, my connection to the natural world, my connection to my Navajo community, my connection to spiritualism that is not religion, my rejection of America and politics, my rejection of organized religion, my independence from the US government and from colonization.

Last year, I was talking to a white gay man who was really upset about the federal government and worried about losing his rights as a gay man. I listened for 45 minutes as he explained how these changes in the government affected his life, and I thought, If this is what you’re feeling right now, imagine what other people are feeling—people who have survived slavery, who don’t have a box to check, who are denied surgery, who are denied mental health services. I thought, This is why my Native people are so resilient, why they’re generational survivors. It took all my strength to hold compassion in that moment for the other person’s frustration, not to be angry and not to disregard his feelings of oppression.

I realized in that interaction how much of my sexual wellness comes from my indigenous identity. I don’t have the same experience of isolation and ageism as some of my older, non-Native clients. Anywhere I go, I’m connected to my Native community. We know each other. When we get together, there’s an automatic camaraderie, understanding, a sense of love…. We have a strong sense of where we come from, trying to fight colonization, decolonize ourselves, and be connected to the world.

I think we’re unique in that way, in the way we honor ourselves and each other. Maybe sexual wellness is centrally about an individual honoring themselves, so that then the whole community can honor that person. Maybe that’s where healing begins. Or maybe it’s just about being a person who’s striving for some sort of wellness, and likes to have sex.


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