The INTO Interview

Dr. Michael P. Jeffries Is Bringing the ‘Black and Queer on Campus’ Experience to a Bookshelf Near You

College has always been viewed as a place for exploration, discovery, and development. Many LGBTQ+ students come to university seeking to find academic safe havens where they can simply be themselves. Black queer and trans students are no different. No two students will have the same experience within the walls of higher education, and when you consider how intersecting identities operate, the student experience become even more nuanced. But that’s not always visible. 

Dr. Michael P. Jeffries is seeking to change that and the way we engage with Black LGBTQ+ students. Dr. Jeffries released his fourth book Black and Queer on Campus in March to ensure that a light was shined on the experiences of Black queer and trans students. While Dr. Jeffries identifies as cisgender and heterosexual, the queer experiences of members of his family are the building blocks constructing his initial interest in supporting Black LGBTQ+ students on campus. 

With a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University, Dr. Jeffries’ work exists at the intersection of race, class, gender, and cultural production. As Wellesley College’s Dean of Academic Affairs, Class of 1949 Professor in Ethics, and Professor of American Studies, his hands are full supporting the next generation of Wellesley graduates. But Dr. Jeffries knows that there’s no one size fits all approach to student development, especially for Black LGBTQ+ students. 

“I think that if we think we can separate the lives that our students are having as residents of a campus from what we do in the classroom, we’re just sort of deceiving ourselves,” said Dr. Jeffries. “If we think that when students enter the classroom, all that stuff goes away and they’re just students, we’re not really going to understand what the educational experience is.”

INTO spoke with Dr. Jeffries about how his latest book came to be, highlights of his interviews with Black queer and trans students, and unpacking what “the Black queertidian” means. 

What inspired you to write Black and Queer on Campus?

I mean, I think the place to start really to say I entered the space humbly. I’m cisgender and straight, but queer politics and experiences are really important to my family. I think that’s the starting point for a lot of my work. Also, as a college professor, my students are a huge part of the reason I do what I do, and many of the courses I teach deal with content that is really important to these communities. So those are the starting points, in terms of my motivation, where my personal life experiences and my experiences with my students, many of whom are Black and queer, have some experience along those lines. 

The other really big thing, honestly, is that the Black Lives Matter movement has been the most important social movement of my lifetime, and that’s a queer Black movement. It was led by queer Black women when it began, and I was really interested in the politics of that movement and how it was playing out on college campuses. I really set out to explore those questions through Black student organizations, queer Black student organizations, and queer student organizations. We were in a political moment where we had a queer Black movement that was changing the world, and I had a wealth of experiences, both personal and professional, that made these issues really important to me. So that was why I set out to write the book.

When you were doing these interviews, what were some of the most profound things that came up during these conversations?

Well, I think it’s important to understand the moment that I was having these conversations. I completed all of the conversations before the pandemic, which seems like a lifetime ago now, right? So that’s the first thing. But if you can kind of take yourself back in time to what was happening in the country. The Trump administration was a huge sort of environmental factor in everyone’s lives. 

We know from research and data that we have that LGBTQ+ folk responded to the election of Trump in ways that we would expect them to respond when folk are threatened. There was a legitimate worry about increased discrimination and hate crimes as a result of the rhetoric of the Trump administration. There were reports of more and more folk feeling pressure to hide their identities and not be able to be who they wanted to be in public. Because of the climate of the country, there was a sense that some of the intersectional experiences, especially around immigration, sexuality, and gender, were playing out in really dangerous ways for vulnerable folk. 

So if we can put the blame for homophobia on Black folks, then we don’t have to look at the medical establishment. We don’t have to look at the laws that are on the books, we don’t have to look at other cultural institutions like churches and other religious institutions, if we can say this is a racial and cultural problem that’s holding us back.

So these are the things that were shaping life experiences right during this time for the folks that I talked to. In addition, I think really the beauty of the book is it allows the diversity of queer Black experiences to speak on the pages. I mean, this is not a book that tries to paint in broad strokes about this community of folk. It really is a book that tries to illustrate how many different queer Black experiences you will find, no matter what type of campus you go to, whether you go to a predominantly white institution or an HBCU. One of the things that I hope comes through most strongly is the diversity of pro-Black experiences that folks shared with me.

One theme that comes up in conversations about intersectionality of Blackness and queerness is this notion that Black Americans or Black institutions are more homophobic than white ones. How does your book demystify that idea?

Yeah, I mean, this is a great point, and it’s one of the stereotypes that we hear and we hear it in all kinds of spaces. I think we just need to be real about where it comes from. In part, that stereotype is a distraction from the main forces that continue to allow homophobia and transphobia to proliferate. So if we can put the blame for homophobia on Black folks, then we don’t have to look at the medical establishment. We don’t have to look at the laws that are on the books, we don’t have to look at other cultural institutions like churches and other religious institutions, if we can say this is a racial and cultural problem that’s holding us back.

When this topic came up in the book, it often came up around the experiences of students in religious spaces. I say religious spaces because those spaces are not only the physical space of the church or place of worship where they went, but also the way the religiosity plays out in their homes. It doesn’t mean, however, that queer Black folk can’t find validation in the church. We know in spaces like the choir, and I’m not the first person to write about this by any means, those are spaces where queerness flourishes and where so many queer Black folk find home and community and a place for self expression, love, and joy. So it’s not that Black churches are absent of spaces for queer flourishing, but they also allow certain narratives about “queer deviance”  to spread and exert a tremendous influence. 

So then when we go to HBCUs, it was not that what I heard was at every HBCU you step on the campus and immediately there’s this atmosphere of homophobia. When [students] described their social experiences, they had to kind of find different ways to carve out space and work with a different set of expectations about what was already in place at an HBCU. One of the interesting things that I heard on HBCU campuses was that the students felt a great deal of pressure to be the ones leading the way in educating the entire community about the issues that were important to them. That suggests to me that there’s room for administrators, faculty, and staff to grow into leadership roles and do more of this work at HBCUs in ways that maybe aren’t happening just yet. But can we see how that’s different from saying, “Oh, there’s just a homophobic culture there?” 

There’s an element that you say that your book is centered around called the Black queer mundane or the “Black queertidian”. Could you explain what that means within your book?

Yeah, this is another main idea of the book. And it just strikes me that we’re living in a moment where fabulous Black queerness is being celebrated, especially in white pop cultural spaces, in ways that it almost never has been before. That’s a beautiful and long overdue thing. When I spoke to my students about how they think of themselves, it was not the majority of students who described themselves as extroverted, spectacular, or fabulously queer. They said, “Well, I’m just a chill person. I like staying home with the family. Or, I really like movies and my friends are the most important thing in the world to me. Or, well, lately I’ve been into poetry and holistic medicine. That’s really how I like to spend my time on Friday night.” Those are not the kind of ideas of self that we often think of when we look at pop cultural representations of Black queer folk. 

I wanted to provide space to allow students to tell me about some of the mundane and ordinary queer Black experiences that they have. There are both positive things about that and negative. So on the negative side, it is an ordinary experience to have to deal with racism, sexism, and homophobia that, unfortunately, is part of the Black queertidian experience or the Black mundane experience. 

We may have these highly visible celebrities, but that kind of visibility is not really the typical day to day experience of queer Black college students. There’s still a call for more representation and more visibility.

But there are also these beautiful spaces of just ordinary connection that happen on college campuses that students tell me about. Like the first time that they went to a class and felt like they were reading things that spoke to their personal experiences, or the study sessions they have in spaces for LGBTQ+ folks, or to go to a gay bar for the first time with your friends. 

Not because you were going to make a scene necessarily, which is cool, too, but just to go and hang out there for the first time without an agenda, without expectations to enter, but to be welcomed into that space. That’s an ordinary, mundane experience that [LGBTQ+] students don’t often get a chance to celebrate or have before they get to college. It’s almost like if we don’t tell it in a spectacular way, we don’t really hear enough about those representations. But I wanted to open up space for those quiet connections to really speak in the book because this is how the students describe themselves. 

Lastly, what do you hope that this book achieves ultimately?

Well, I think a few things. One is I hope that folks who read it can really just open their mind to the diversity of queer Black experiences, regardless of how they identify or how the reader identifies. I think really allowing the voices in the book to be heard and trying to understand these experiences, that would just be the first thing to kind of meet the book where it is. 

I think the second thing is there really are some lessons here for those of us who work in higher education around where queer Black students are in their experiences at both PWIs and HBCUs. One of the things that became clear to me, in looking at all of the responses that I received from students, was that we haven’t yet reached a place where visibility can be taken for granted. 

We’re still in a place where a significant portion of students on both kinds of campus feel as if they’re not represented, they’re not seen. When they look around the faculty and staff at the campus, they don’t see a lot of mentors who share their experiences. When they look at the curriculum that they go through, in terms of the educational program, they don’t see enough courses that can speak to both the theoretical and the personal level of what their experiences are.

We may have these highly visible celebrities, but that kind of visibility is not really the typical day to day experience of queer Black college students. There’s still a call for more representation and more visibility.

Black and Queer on Campus is out now available at your local bookstore and online.

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