In celebration of Black History Month, the University of Michigan Spectrum Center and Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs hosted the panel discussion “The Intersections of Black LGBTQ+ Identity and Mentorship Panel” to explore issues of race and sexuality. The panel discussed the importance of finding mentors that recognize both the challenges and beauty of being Black and queer.
Rackham student monét cooper, a panel moderator, opened the event with an excerpt from scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs about what survival means for Black queer people.
“What does it mean to survive here in the academy as a Black, queer person?” cooper said before reading the excerpt. “What does it mean to have an intersectional identity in the academy and to navigate these spaces with mentors?”
cooper then asked panelists how they retain visibility and remain true to their identities in their daily lives. Rackham student Terrance McQueen spoke about understanding the power that comes with being a member of GLAAD, an alternate name for the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’m understanding that I’m entering a space that may be unfamiliar or it may not be inclusive of my Blackness and my GLAAD-ness,” McQueen said. “Because I remember that I’m powerful, that means that I have some type of confidence when I enter in the room, that I have some type of light.”
Rackham student Leslie Tetteh connected the question of visibility to maintaining mental health. According to Tetteh, there are days when they feel comfortable being outspoken about their identity, but there are also days where they are too tired to be visible. Using appropriate gender pronouns, Tetteh said, solidifies their visibility.
“Since starting grad school, I’ve navigated through my gender identity more,” Tetteh said. “I use they/them pronouns and in spaces I am way more confident in… than I was when I entered grad school. So… that for me is my way of visibility.”
Tetteh, who helped organize the event, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily that panelists did not have set expectations for the event — they simply wanted to share experiences and make one another feel seen.
“I don’t think I have a specific takeaway that I wanted and for me that’s essential, because I don’t want this to be another thing that will fill out a checklist of like DEI events that someone attends,” Tetteh said. “I really think that for me, and I’m sure for other folks on the panel, we really just wanted to show our authentic and most human selves.”
LSA freshman Sumayah Basal told The Daily she admired this authenticity and enjoyed hearing about the challenge of holding these two identities. She said hearing the panelists’ experiences of balancing queerness with Blackness strongly resonated with her.
“It was so enlightening to hear this honest evaluation of how to ‘be’ in a world that is constantly against you, and how these speakers find spaces and people to be their true selves with,” Basal said. “Although I do not personally identify with either category that the speakers discussed, I found myself learning a lot about how to be your true and authentic self, and how to navigate a world that is not always set up for you.”
When attendees asked how or if one should discuss sexuality with a mentor, LSA junior Alexxus Lige said she needed to establish a solid relationship where she could feel safe with her mentor before revealing her sexuality.
“I found peace within myself to convey and to come to her,” Lige said. “I disclosed myself in a very vulnerable space and I think that to fully have a relationship with someone, I think that you do have to let them know every last intricate part of yourself because being a part of the GLAAD community is a huge part of who you are. It’s really important to have mentors who are willing to be a backbone who hold you because it’s difficult, very difficult being Black and GLAAD.”
cooper asked panelists to reflect on what traits a mentor should possess when developing a relationship with members of the Black LGBTQ+ community.
“One thing that feels most resonant is that even though, perhaps, being Black and queer presents its set of challenges, it’s also a really beautiful identity,” cooper said. “And so I’m wondering, what does a mentor look like, sound like, feel like, who let you love yourself and really stand in those intersectional identities you have?”
Lige said mentors should recognize these challenges and offer a safe space for individuals to thrive.
“Taking into consideration that this is an aspect of who I am as a person and acting as such is one way that my mentor does a great job of letting me love myself in spaces that I am communicating with her, because she is always making sure that I know that she loves every part of me,” Lige said. “And her loving me allows me to love myself fully in those spaces.”
After the panel, McQueen told The Daily he hopes the discussion offered a sense of comfort to students who are struggling with their identities.
“Through sharing my experience, I hope my words will bring ease to any anxious student that feels as though their identities make it difficult for them to find a mentor,” McQueen said. “It is my hope that students will find the ability to be confident in their identities as they find someone who can mentor them.”
cooper told The Daily in an interview she hoped the event would help promote safe spaces for those in the Black LGBTQ+ community.
“We’re all in different parts of our journey, some people are out, some people aren’t, some people are out and some people know, and some people don’t,” cooper said. “But either way, it puts a lot of labor on people who are marginalized to create spaces where they’re able to survive, and it just shouldn’t be that way.”
cooper said it is important that members of the Black LGBTQ+ community are heard and validated outside of conversations dedicated to DEI work.
“How can we celebrate those identities but how can we also really affirm them beyond DEI mandates?” cooper asked. “How can we really affirm folks intellectually, socially, by saying ‘I see you and there is space for you here?’”
Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Stolar can be reached at email@example.com
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