Sappho Fulton: On rebuilding herself to serve others after addiction, sexual violence

Sappho Fulton: On rebuilding herself to serve others after addiction, sexual violence

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  April is Sexual Violence Awareness month. The statistics speak for themselves: One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives and almost half (49.5 percent) of multiracial women are subjected to some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes, but there’s not much in the way of research or help specifically geared towards LGBTQ people.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control indicate that the rates of IPV, or Intimate Partner Violence, are higher in the LGBT community than in the general population. This week’s profile is well aware of the lack of services for the community and has dedicated her life to trying to change it.

Sappho Fulton is a women’s advocate with years of experience counseling and facilitating women’s health- and wellness-support groups. She’s been the director of LGBTQ Home For Hope and worked with Philadelphia FIGHT, Gaudenzia Philly House and a number of other nonprofits in the city.

A survivor herself, she’s spent the past 10 years helping others.

PGN: You’re a native Philadelphian. How would you describe the city to an outsider?

SF: I love everything about Philadelphia. There are certainly challenges that we need to overcome, especially in the LGBT community, but there’s also a lot of support here. I think Philadelphia has a strong and vocal LGBTQ community. I think getting to know some of the people in our community is the best way of having a better understanding of Philadelphia and what a great city this is.

PGN: Well, that’s the premise of this column and why I’m talking to you!

SF: Yes, yes! That’s so important, especially in a big city like this where it can feel like you don’t have a place or an identity unless you know somebody. It’s hard to get your voice out there to be heard. And it’s important to have a platform like this where you can get the word out and also learn about others in the community. And it’s great that you shine a spotlight not just on the people who are more connected, the popular ones we hear about all the time, but also on people who don’t always get recognition. The ones in the background are often the people who keep our city running, and it’s great to get to know them better.

PGN: If I were to ask for your bio, how would someone describe you?

SF: [Laughing] That’s not an easy question! I have worked in the city of Philadelphia as an activist supporting women of color for over a decade. I worked as an executive coordinator for the Elements organization. I’m also the founder of the Lesbian Sisterhood at Community College of Philadelphia, I’ve worked with the Dyke March for some time. Overall, I’ve been an advocate for lesbian space for quite a while. I’m also an author. I have book of poetry called “Sappho’s Remix” that’s been published. I do spoken word on my own and I teach at-risk youth how to communicate through poetry. I am the recipient of an award for activism from Trendsetters and helped bring National Coming Out Day to another level at Temple University. But one of my favorite things is the Annual Womyn of Color Family Day Cookout, which my wife LaRoyce and I started. It’s coming up on April 29. 

PGN: So in addition to it being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it’s also Women’s Health Care Month. It’s also National Pecans Month, but we’ll skip that for now.

SF: Good idea, I don’t know a lot about pecans, but as far as the Women’s Health Care Month is concerned, that’s so important. My wife and I are both survivors of sexual trauma and we’ve started our own foundation. Our mission is to “elevate, educate and empower lesbian, non-binary, transgender, bisexual and womyn of color to sustain holistic healing.” Our organization “Sappho and LaRoyce’s Foundation” works to build self-esteem and self-worth in young women of color by changing their outlook on life, broadening their horizons and providing tools for self-empowerment and efficacy.

PGN: That’s great.

SF: Yes, I’m a recovering addict. I had substance-abuse issues for over 30 years and I’m now more than 11 years clean. So when we talk about overcoming sexual violence/trauma on our radio show, we get very frank. As a survivor, I think it’s important to have conversations about generational trauma, because it becomes normalized into our relationships: The way we treat one another, how we talk to one another, how we respond to love and relationships and the toxicity that we bring with us.

PGN: I think many people aren’t aware of how prevalent violence is within the LGBT community. We tend to think of it as something that’s predominantly perpetrated by males on female partners.

SF: Suzi, I’m a survivor of domestic violence. I was having a problem in a relationship and because I present as the butch, or the masculine partner, when we fought and I called a domestic-violence hotline, they treated it as if I were in a heterosexual relationship. No one ever followed up with me to call and check in and see if I was OK, no one investigated my partner. I don’t even know where she went. When I went to seek help, there was nothing specific for low-income families that were lesbian who needed counseling. I contacted one big organization that works with abused women and I was waitlisted. I couldn’t get in for counseling, I couldn’t get in for training, or group sessions. They basically referred me to the hotline. And calling the hotline saying, “Listen, I’m a lesbian and I’m in trouble. I need to talk to someone right now from the LGBTQ community,” they didn’t have anyone for me to talk to. I called another organization that had a shelter and asked, “Do you have anything to help women?” and they told me they only dealt with LGBT youth. I called another place that told me they only worked with trans people. I was like, Who’s doing something for lesbian couples? Who’s doing something for gay men in DV situations? And that slowly started me on the path I am on now, working with lesbian couples and families dealing with domestic violence.

PGN: Wow. So let’s backtrack a little. Tell me a little about you and the family?

SF: I’m a byproduct of the adoption/foster-care system. I was born into trauma. I wasn’t raised by my biological parents. What is known today as sex trafficking was normal for me as a child. I left home at 11 and ran the streets for most of my life. I had a girlfriend and was a sex worker at a very early age. I was smoking marijuana and began drinking at a young age, but at 16, my drug habit went to a new level. I spiraled downhill from age 16 to 42.

PGN: Was there a definitive point that was a catalyst for you to change?

SF: After the death of my son. I was in and out of prison most of my life and had gone back to using drugs. It was in Atlantic City and … I’ll just say it was an indirect suicide. He was my baby boy and it was a wake-up call for me.

PGN: What was the most difficult part as you got clean? Mental? Physical?

SF: Everything. Just trying to normalize myself into society. Just trying to navigate as a normal human being, something as simple as filling out a job application, having normal conversations. I’d become accustomed to a survival mentality for so long. That thug mentality, even the way I dressed — with a baseball hat and baggy attire — had to change. I had to unlearn everything that I’d been used to, from wardrobe to the way I combed my hair, even the way I looked at people because I was still in that fight-or-flight headset. I had to relearn being human, to sit and have real conversations with people instead of looking at people as a means to survival. That was challenging in and of itself.

PGN: That reminds me of my cousin talking about going to school down south. He’s a born-and-bred New Yorker, and he said when he first went to Atlanta that people on the street would look him in the eye and greet him. He’d have to stop himself from jumping into a karate stance yelling, “What do you want?”

SF: [Laughing] Exactly! You have to learn to adjust and realize not everyone is out to get you.

PGN: You’ve been working with a lot of young people. What’s a story that moved you?

SF: I work with substance-abuse and mental-health participants. The first person who comes to mind is a young man, bisexual, and when he first came to me, he was strung out from K2. His mom had been on drugs all his life, and she left him in charge of his little sister. His neurological system was so unbalanced that he couldn’t sit for five minutes. He told me, “I’m not crazy, I don’t want no medication. I just want time to get myself together and be normal.” I asked him what he wanted to do and he couldn’t articulate it, so I asked him to draw me a picture. He indicated that he wanted to go back to school and … I get emotional just thinking about it. I got in all sorts of trouble because he wasn’t supposed to leave the recovery center for 90 days, but I arranged it so that he could go back to school. I’m happy to say that he got his GED, he’s now on medication and completed a hotel-management training course. He now works for a cleaning company in Philadelphia and he’s so happy. He still comes to see me regularly and we’re working on housing. It’s been a tremendous transformation in just two years.

PGN: Your transformation has been pretty remarkable for such a short time, too.

SF: I have to say I am proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish in just over 10 years. I have a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Temple, a master’s degree in leadership from Alvernia and I’m working on my second master’s, this one in social work. I got married last year and my wife and I have started our own foundation and radio program. Once I got clean there was no stopping me.

PGN: How did you meet your wife, LaRoyce?

SF: Oh boy! Are you going to print this?

PGN: Unless you tell me not to!

SF: She’s sitting right here and she said it’s OK to give you the juice. Her ex-boyfriend of 14 years was my father. I met her through a mutual friend, and we were very close friends. We’d hang out and we were each other’s support systems for about six years. When either of us was going through something, we’d talk to each other. About three years in, it started developing into something a little more than a platonic friendship. After about two years of being together, we decided to get married.

PGN: I’m guessing Dad didn’t come to the wedding.

SF: [Both can be heard laughing] No, no. I wanted to invite him though, but the wife didn’t think it was the best idea. He unfortunately doesn’t speak to either one of us. [Chuckles] I want to talk to him; I don’t see why we can’t all be friends. 

PGN: Cool. So let’s go to some random questions. If you had 20 minutes with our current president, what would you want to discuss?

SF: Business investments and infrastructure.

PGN: Did you have dolls or stuffed animals as a kid?

SF: My mom used to give me a ton of dolls, I think to compensate for the fact that I was adopted and I would destroy them. I buried three of them in the front yard. I even had funerals for them. The rest I’d tear up, lop off the heads and stuff. I was a rough kid from day one.

PGN: What is your most meaningful family heirloom?

SF: I come from multiple generations of people who practice Ifá, an African spiritual religion. We had this heirloom that came from the 1800s. It was a brooch, and each woman would put it on her wedding gown. It passed from mother to daughter on her wedding day. It had a lock of hair from each woman going back five generations and was surrounded by onyx stones. I saw something just like it at the Art Museum and I cried because I lost mine in my addiction. It was in a car that got stolen.

PGN: What possession of LaRoyce’s would you want to throw away?

SF: Probably the pictures of her exes!

PGN: What was the worst hairstyle you’ve had?

SF: What? None. I love my hair! Though probably the one I’m wearing now. I’m trying to go natural so I haven’t cut my hair in a year and it’s all over the place.

PGN: What’s coming up in the near future?

SF: Our radio show “It’s Healing Time” comes on Monday nights from 6-8 p.m. Our foundation is working on teaching basic life skills for people coming home from prison. We want to create a whole wellness center too, something that incorporates everything from art therapy, massage, poetry and counseling, not just rely on psychotropic drugs, not unless people absolutely necessarily need them. I’d prefer working holistically when possible. I have an empowerment event coming up soon with powerful speakers talking about what they’ve done to overcome trauma, but we haven’t set the date yet. The Family Cookout on the 29th, which will be a lot of fun. The foundation is a nonprofit and we’re looking for sponsors to help support these endeavors. We want to get a building so we can build housing and a center. So spread the word, so we can spread the word! 


The Annual Womyn of Color Family Day Cookout in the Park takes place April 29, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. at Lemon Hill, 747 N. 25th St.


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