"I think a lot of times for marginalized folks, for Black folks, for queer folks, we don’t even get the space or the breadth to bring our whole selves to a movement, to an effort, to a career, to organizing a historical march."—Tiffany Lee


S3 Ep4 | 26m 52s

Oftentimes, the many lived experiences of queer and trans communities of color are underrepresented, untold, and understated. Find out what it means to exist at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities – and how Black queer and trans folks create community and fight for their spaces.

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Tiffany Lee

Tiffany Lee

Tiffany Lee is a Crossroads Coordinator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lee’s job centers around their passion and experience to create and sustain an empowering environment for LGBTQ+ students and allies. They have Master’s degrees in Gender and Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies from UW Madison. Their scholarship and activism are centered on queer folk of color.


[upbeat music]

Announcer: The following program is a PBS Wisconsin original production.

Angela Fitzgerald: Wisconsin has a rich LGBTQ+ history.

In the ’70s and ’80s, activists’ fight for equality earned Wisconsin the nickname “The Gay Rights State.”

Yet oftentimes, the many lived experiences of queer and trans communities of color are underrepresented, untold, and understated.

What does it mean to exist at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities?

And how do Black queer and trans folks create community and fight for their spaces?

Let’s find out why race matters when it comes to being part of the LGBTQ+ community in Wisconsin.

We all hold different identities, whether we’re talking about our race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and more.

Civil rights advocate and UW alumnus Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe how all those individual identities mix and mingle with each other.

It also helps address discrimination that happens to people holding two or more marginalized identities, like that of the Black queer and trans community in Wisconsin.

Historically, Wisconsin was the first state to pass LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws.

In 1971, Black lesbian couple Donna Burkett and Manonia Evans challenged for the right to marry.

And eight years before the historic Stonewall Uprising, Milwaukee Black Nite bar patrons fought back against racist and homophobic attacks.

But that doesn’t mean the fight is over.

Today, there are many activists organizing within the Black community, naming shared histories and cultivating community spaces.

In this episode of “Why Race Matters,” we’ll speak to Tiffany Lee, an academic on Black queer femme theory about why race matters when it comes to being part of the LGBTQ+ community in Wisconsin.

How are you doing today, Tiffany?

Tiffany Lee: I’m good, I’m good.

I’m warmer now that I’m inside.

[both laughing]

Good point, yes, yes.

The weather is interesting.

– Tiffany: Yeah.

– Wisconsin weather, Wisconsin winter, specifically.

– Yeah, it is.

How are you?

– I’m doing well, thank you.

So appreciate you joining us for our conversation about intersectionality with the Black queer community, specifically in Wisconsin.

I understand you are not originally from here, so how long have you been in the state?

– I’m not that great with time, but it’s been about ten years.

Angela: Oh, wow.

– Yeah, if I round up, it’s about a decade.

Angela: Okay.

– I came here originally for grad school, and I started with a master’s in gender and women’s studies, and tried to enter something else, and then ended up working here.

So it’s been some time, but I’m originally from Queens.

– Gotcha, okay.

So you being here for ten years, maybe you could be claimed as a Wisconsinite at this point.

[both laughing]

– True.

– So tell me what, I guess, your experience has been like as you know, a Black queer woman in Wisconsin, and maybe even some comparisons to coming from the East Coast.

– Yeah.

– What that’s been like for you.

– Yeah, I think I’ve gone through several steps.

I feel like it’s been a journey.

And I think when I first arrived here, I was kind of consumed with my graduate program, being on campus and being a grad student, and I wasn’t fully rooted.

I didn’t envision myself being here.

Even when I was here for grad school, even when I got a job, even when I clearly was here for a long time, I was like, “Oh, this is just a stopping point.”

And it wasn’t.

And so now I feel like I’m finally being rooted, and identifying with it, and associating home with it.

– So what has that been like for you, just finding community?

– So my community, I outsourced my community.

I outsourced my partners.

Like, it felt like, “I just happen to be here, and I’m going to make it work.”

The idea of building community here, when the rest of your life…

So I work on campus, so when the rest of your life is anchored in a place where people come and go.

Angela: Right.

– When Black folk come and go.

– Right.

– Even those who work here.

When queer folk come and go is…

I think sometimes you can start to develop the idea of lack of roots.

Even when you’re here, your friends are leaving.

– Right.

– And so it starts feeling…

There’s lack of expectation of a sustainable, sustainable connections in that way.

– And that can, even though I celebrate when people move onward and upward.

– Yeah.

I’m like, “Yes!”

– I don’t wanna be selfish.

Like, “Stay here for me!”

Like, you know, if you need to go, go, but it also at times feels sad.

Like, “Oh, we had something going, and now, you know, you’ve moved on.”

So it can be bittersweet, basically.

– Yeah.

I realized you asked me about building community here, and I talked about just inviting the folks I identify as community here and not building.

Other than the folks that I know and connect with, and then make time for, I don’t know if I’ve built community here.

I’m gonna say that.

I think I’ve found community here through my job, through the places that I go to, but I don’t know if I’ve successfully built community here.

– And I ask that because I wonder the challenges with doing that potentially, or maybe there’s ease.

Like, I don’t wanna make an assumption.

– Yeah.

– ‘Cause I do feel like, in general, there is a bit of labor when it comes to being a part of a marginalized community in a city like Wisconsin and wanting to have community that the luxury of just showing up to a space, and they’re gonna play the music I like and serve the foods that I want.

And the experiences there, like, I have to create it or find a person that wants to partner with me and let’s throw a something.

– Yeah.

– So I’m wondering for you, has it been somewhat similar?

Like, one of the things that I know has stood out to me about Madison is Madison being very liberal in certain respects.

So as a Black woman who belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, have you felt as though you’ve had those types of experiences where you can show up in certain settings and feel like, “Okay, what I’m looking for community-wise is here.”

– Yeah.

– Or does that not feel like the case?

– What you’re feeling, for me, this tension is that I’m like, I stay home.

I watch TV.

No, I’m stay at home– – You’re a homebody.

– I watch TV.

I, like, talk to my friends that I have.

And so I’m trying to navigate my disposition of meeting someone, knowing I like them, and building community with them versus, you know, I moved to a new city and haven’t gone out.


Angela: Gotcha.

– But I will say that the places I have gone have been queer-specific.

Ideas like belonging are often hot words, buzzwords.

They are what we’re trying to standardize and assess, and figure out and how do you create that, and I think belonging for me, I just came back from New York for winter break, and, like, belonging for me, when I think about the Black community, it’s a Jamaican accent, it’s jerk chicken in the background.

It’s the Black queer friends I’ve known for a while.

You know, it’s this particular intersection that doesn’t exist in numbers here.

Angela: Right.

– It doesn’t smell like home.

It doesn’t sound like home.

They’re not playing reggae.

I’m not with a queer person who understands that those reggae lyrics are homophobic, and we’re gon’ take it back anyway.

[Angela laughing]

You know, like, that’s specific.

– Right.

– And so that, when I miss community, and when I miss Black community, it’s…

I have very specific rooms in mind, and they’re not, I haven’t encountered or worked to create them here.

– Yeah, and that’s real, and I think that creates a retention issue within Wisconsin where you have someone like you, young Black professional, you could build roots, you could help to create a thriving, diverse Madison, and thriving, diverse Wisconsin where anyone could come and feel comfortable.

‘Cause even within the Black spaces that are here, I wonder how queer-friendly you feel those spaces are, because there is that default to heteronormativity, right?

And even that’s been called out with “Why Race Matters.”

I’m like, well, yeah, we do that.

So what recommendations, and I get that you’re a homebody.

So you’re like, “Well, I don’t know what they do over there.

I’m at home in my soft clothes.”

[Tiffany laughing] But if you do go out to places, what would you suggest are some of those nods that would help it to feel inclusive to all members of the community?

– And a part of what I’m even talking about is numbers.

Like, sometimes I think Madison has more Black Lives Matter signs than Black people.

Sometimes it’s numbers.

Like, straight up.

Like as a homebody, in New York, when I’m a homebody, there are still places for me to go.

You know, there’s always still a function, there’s a place.

And so when it’s just sheer lack of numbers, sheer lack of people, and sheer lack of community, I think that…

So I often do trainings for folks for LGBTQ inclusion and other topics, but queer inclusion functionally.

And I often see a lot of anxiety of like, “Well, I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong.

“What if I turn them away?

What if I get in trouble for saying the wrong thing?”

And I think, like, just human experience, we know what it’s like to walk into a room where we’re, if it’s not true, we, like, have the anxiety that we don’t belong, that we’re not gonna fit in.

– Yeah.

– And we all have access to knowing what could have helped, what would’ve helped.

I do think that there are certain things that folks can do in a space, like intentional event planning things.

You know, are there pronouns on your– If you have, “Hi, my name is,” at the bottom, is there also, “My pronouns are?”

What’s at the bottom of your email?

What is… What’s in your marketing?

Does your mission statement state that you are honoring people’s whole selves?

Does your mission statement state that you are honoring intersectionality?

If you’re an organization or you just throw parties, are you like, for someone who doesn’t know you, what is publicly facing that is going to communicate to folks that they’re welcome?

Those are structural; and on an interpersonal level, I think a lot of us have more access to creating a feeling of welcoming and belonging than we want to think we do.

And so, I’ll talk to folks, and they’ll be like, “Well, I just don’t know.

Like, what if a queer student’s in my classroom?”

And I’m like, “Okay, like, what feeling “are you trying to create for everyone else in the classroom?

“Like, what are you… “How are you welcoming people?

How are you interacting with folks?”

And so I think it’s a combination.

I think it’s literally taking a look at your materials, like, understanding that people don’t know you, like, people don’t know you, people don’t know your reputation, people don’t know the space.

And so if someone is at home, just at home, looking if they’re gonna attend something, or go to something, or join something, or invest in something, and all they have access to is the blurb you got on your event, the blurb you got on your page, what is it saying?

And what are the ways that you could communicate that, yeah, like, what is that next step to remove one of those barriers?

So it’s both structural and interpersonal.

– Oh, that’s great.

And just even the way you framed that, and the fact that you offer trainings to people, I’m like, “Oh, you would be dope helping to build, “you know, if you wanted to leave your house, “helping to build something, “a space where folks that are part of the community “can feel welcome, “but at the same time, acknowledging diversity within the LGBTQIA+ community.”

So can you speak to that a little bit?

– Yeah, I mean, I think I’ll do a two-parter in that.

You know, I work with a lot of queer students, a lot of queer students of color, and you know, when they come to me that they’ve been harmed or impacted in some way, it’s never… And this is what I was trying to get at the last question.

It’s never, this person didn’t know what LGBTQI, like, didn’t know all the, didn’t know everything about my identity, didn’t know the specifics of what does, like, a demiboy mean.

Like, it’s never that, that a lot of folks have anxiety about.

It’s always like, “This person didn’t treat me well.”

– Yeah.

– “This person didn’t acknowledge all of me.

“This person pretended like that wasn’t a central aspect of me.”

– Right.

– And/or this person was harmful.

And so sometimes folks who have, like, good intentions of creating belonging and creating inclusion are, like, caught up on that and don’t know how far… – Just basic human decency can go.

– Basic!

Basic decency.

Someone tells you a name, you say their name.

– Right.

– Someone tells you your pronouns, you use those pronouns.

Like, that goes a long way.

And, like, of all the interactions I’ve had with folks that have been harmed, it’s never what a lot of folks are anxious about in terms of– – The technical side of… – Yeah.

– That’s true, ’cause it does, I guess what you hear people articulate is, like, the knowing all of the things.

– Yeah.

– It’s like, I think there’s some grace around learning, but don’t treat me badly.

– “What if I get it wrong?”

is the anxiety versus like, “What if I harm someone?”

is the real question.

But in terms of diversity in the LGBTQ+ community, I for the longest time used the word, identified as lesbian.

I was like, “I’m lesbian, that’s the word.”

And then moved into, grew into the word “queer,” because there’s breath in it, there’s air in it.

It was as expansive as I needed it to be.

Queer and femme were the words that I was just like… Like, I used to do poetry.

I am a poet, let’s just name it as it is.

And so, queer became the word that was expansive enough for my experiences and my desires, and the folks that were my partners and that I desired.

And so queer feels like this really broad word that encompasses a lot.

And it’s a funny word here that I’ve learned that like, I tried to do programming here, and learned that there were a lot of students here that that word hit funny.

Like, that was a word that was weaponized against them.

There were students and, like, older folks in the LGBTQ community that were like, “That word is actually, like, super harmful.”

– Wow.

– And have really bad memories with, and so I use the word queer, and understand that it doesn’t land the same.

Whereas in New York, queer people of color, Black queer folks.

– Angela: It’s different.

– That’s on fly, that’s everywhere.

I think that when you’re a part of the LGBTQ+ community, there’s a lot, there’s some things that bind you.

And just like any other identity, there’s a lot that… We happen to be under this umbrella, and we don’t have anything in common.


Like, you know, and race is a big part of it.

I even think, like, when I think about, like, activist work, like, I am, I present as, you know, like, I can go into the bathrooms that I want to use, and no one will, no one is gon’ bother me.

Like I, but I know that, like, trans folk do not have that same privilege.

Like, I’m privileged in a lot of ways, even though we can all be under the banner of LGBTQ+, the experiences aren’t the same.

And so what I often, like, value with solidarity, it’s like, we’re under this umbrella.

How can I help you out?

Like right now, policies are attacking you, not me, but we all know we all gon’ be attacked at some point.

Like, what can we do?

– Yes.

No, and I appreciate you sharing that, because I wouldn’t want anyone listening to our conversation to feel as though like, you are the voice for the Black queer experience.

You’re like, “I am a voice, “but I am by no means a representative of the entire Black queer–” Even in the state of Wisconsin, what that looks like or what that feels like.

Tiffany: Yeah.

– ‘Cause it can vary greatly.

– Yeah.

– And I think it’s interesting too, when thinking about, like, Black queer history and the contributions historically, how they’re often erased.

Or the queerness of the individual is muted.

– Yeah.

– And the Blackness is elevated.

And I think that’s sometimes where there’s that conflict potentially of how do we acknowledge the shared Black experience, but also, hey, this person happens to also be queer, and that may actually be a driver behind why they’re going so hard around social justice or other things.

So I wonder just, you know, your thoughts about that, like, historically, and if you feel as though that has shifted?

Do we feel as though there’s more visibility, more appreciation for the wholeness of who you are, and how who you are shows up to support all of who we are as a Black community?

Or are there still some challenges there we need to work through?

– I think that, like, when folks have to, aspects of folks’ identity are either amplified by others and their representation, and/or, like, folks choose to, like, uplift that part of themselves more.

A lot of times, that’s not agency, that’s not actually their choice.

That’s like, okay, what is salient in the moment?

What is strategic in the moment?

What is most pressing?

And so I think a lot of times for marginalized folks, for Black folks, for queer folks, we don’t even get the space or the breadth to bring our whole selves to a movement, to an effort, to a career, to organizing a historical march.

It’s like, okay, like what, what do we gotta do to get this done?

I say that to offer grace when we even think about these things historically, and in the current moment in that a lot of times, it’s imposed upon us and other folks of like, what is the message that’s gonna be the most effective to create the most change?

So I wanna name that.

I do trainings where I literally have, like, identity wheels and charts.

But I always come back to the fact that, like, they’re all intertwined.

Like, it’s an alchemy in both good and bad ways.

And I think that with the introduction of frameworks, I think with, like, the efforts of a lot of people doing a lot of thinking and teaching and sharing and writing and arting and poems that a lot more of folk have an understanding of, like, that we have to understand the whole.

And so there are more spaces now that are open to us, at least being able to name more parts of ourselves.

And I think the nature of, like, institutions and structures are that we check boxes.

Like, we do check boxes.

But the goal, the ideal is that you can bring your whole self, you can name your whole self, you can access and honor your whole self.

Angela: Right.

– Yeah.

– That’s beautiful and very gracious in how you framed it.

So we’re not beating up on our historical figures for decisions that may have been made, because unfortunately we still have not resolved, like, the Black broad parts to say like, “Okay, now we’re gonna go down the intersectionality list,” but still, how do we address the broader but not ignore the other identities that yes, we need attention over here because the data, the numbers support that there are issues.

There are very real issues we need to support.

– And I think that, like, when we even think about history, I think about like, people are like, “Oh, we’ve gotta brainstorm how to solve things.”

And like, The Combahee River Report, which was written by Black lesbians, I had a professor once in grad school who was like, “All this new theory people keep coming up with, “you could have just gone to the Black lesbians like, 40 years ago.”

Like, there are things that…

So I think that in some ways, yes, there are things outta necessity, and, like, people have been doing the work.

Like, people have been writing down theory and imagining better worlds and imagining better futures, and imagining rooms where folks can bring their whole selves for a while now.

Like, it’s been written.

And again, the urgency of the moment.

Oftentimes, we think we need to come up with new stuff and, like, strategize a new, and people have been dreaming of better worlds for us for a while now.

– How do you manage the balance of, and I feel like the answer is stated in you spending time focused on rest.

– Yeah.

– I rest.

[both laughing]

But find the balance of the work that you do may, while at times it’s celebratory and look how I can support, it can also come with, man, like the fact that we still are having to have certain fights.

– Tiffany: Yeah.

– So how do you find that balance in terms of what you need?

– Yeah.

So I’m a queer person of color who works with queer people of color specifically, and, like, try to help curate and develop programming and spaces where they feel like they belong, which is kind of a big ask.

Because sometimes I don’t feel like I belong.

I’m grown as hell, and I’m like, “I don’t know, what does a space feel?

Like, what would a space like that look like?”

– Right.

– It’s hard.

I think it’s hard because I think, like, we’re doing a job for, some of the reasons are, like, survival and money and financial, and then it can get compacted with these other reasons of, “No, this is high stakes and I know how high stakes this is, because I’m in it.”

And so for me, I have to talk it out.

I gotta call folks.

I have to remember that this is a job.

I know how that sounds, but I’m like, “This is a job.”

I’m like, “I do the best that I can.”

When I’m in a room with a person, I’m doing the best I can.

And like, everything else, we’re just trying.

We’re just trying.

– Yeah.

– We’re just trying, you know what I mean?

And as often as I can, I tell them, “You can have any job you want.”

Like, I often want to open up the possibility that I’m like, “You can do this work.”

Because a lot of times, particularly youth right now are doing all of this work in activism and social justice, and they’re like, “I’m doing these petitions.”

I’m like, “Great.”

And they’re like, “And then when I get a job, I’m gonna do this.”

And I’m like, “There are other options.”

Like, you can do this work and be a carpenter.

Like, you can do this work and be yourself and be something.

Like, this does not have to be your entirety.

Because for me, when I’m thinking about, like, the entirety, like, I want Black queer folks to be rested and have pleasure, and have space and have breath.

And I understand that a lot of the work people are doing are to achieve that.

And I’m like, “And you need that too.”

– Yes.

– And so I…

Boundaries are important for me when I can access them, but also, like, encouraging others to create lives where their livelihood isn’t so deeply entwined with the things that you’re worrying about in general.

You know what I mean?

Like that’s, yeah.

And like, the job I’m in is the job I think I’m meant to do.

You know?

I still rest and have my boundaries, and like, I do, I witness others who are in positions where the things they worry about when they go home are the things they worry about… – At work.

– At work.

And they’re trying to protect others from the things– Like, “Oh, a new legislation just dropped.

I’ve gotta talk to these students.”

I’m like, “Yeah, but have you taken a breath?

“Have you thought, like, this impacts you.

Have you thought about what that means for you?”

And so it’s create spaces where Black folk can breathe, for queer folks to breathe.

– That’s a tagline.

– Yeah, it is.

Put it on a t-shirt.

[both laughing] – I will buy one.

Is there anything that we didn’t touch on today in terms of the Black LGBTQIA experience in Wisconsin?

– I think one of the most important things is naming that folks are, there are Black queer folks in Madison right now, in Wisconsin right now doing the work, doing the work of running orgs, writing poems, leading organizations, and doing the work of just breathing.

Doing the work of, like, moving here, and not finding people who resonate with the wholeness of them.

Or, like, finding communities and being in communities that don’t honor their entirety, but still showing up, showing up and changing the spaces, showing up and blessing them with all that they are.

And so folks are here, Black queer folks are here, and working and breathing and thriving, and gifting folks with their presence and their minds and their brilliance.

So I just wanna name that.

It’s not… People try to act like we’re not here, but we’re here.


– Thank you for that, Tiffany.

– Yeah, thank you.

– While Black queer and trans communities are often the backbone of social progress, there can be more strides taken to highlight Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color’s achievements in Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ tapestry.

This series is called “Why Race Matters” because we acknowledge that, while highlighting those in our state working to hold systems, structures, and ourselves accountable to create a more equitable Wisconsin.

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Announcer: Funding for “Why Race Matters” is provided by UnityPoint Health Meriter, Park Bank, donors to the Focus Fund for Wisconsin programs, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

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