Elliot James said he is the only African-American gay man in the history graduate program at the University of Minnesota. A few years ago, he said he felt anonymous in a program that doesn’t take note of sexual orientation or race.
“You become your research, and your research becomes you,” he said. “So if your identity as gay and black is not affirmed in that environment, it affects your research.”
Then James discovered Tongues Untied, a group that provides LGBTQ people of color in the University community with a safe space to discuss the unique issues they face.
Jason Jackson founded the group as an undergraduate with two other students. Three years later, Jackson facilitates Tongues Untied as assistant director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Ally Programs Office.
Tongues Untied differs from a support group, Jackson said, because it’s a place for queer people of color to learn about each other’s challenges and perspectives, rather than trying to solve the day-to-day problems of individual people.
Tongues Untied members fit into two minorities, Jackson said, which can be overwhelming.
“I’m very aware of some microagressions [and racism], and I’m also very aware of when we have to deal with homophobia,” said Jackson, who is black and gay. “It still has its effects on me and my identities and how I move through the world.”
Ecology, evolution and behavior sophomore Ty Pan started attending Tongues Untied meetings in March. As a Chinese queer person, Pan said they face a unique set of challenges that the group helps them cope with.
“Chinese- and Asian-Americans have always been depicted as either … sexless or asexual … in media,” they said. “Trying to navigate that has been very difficult.”
In about three years, Tongues Untied has grown to include University employees and area residents, Jackson said. The group now meets bimonthly with 15 to 30 people.
Jackson said he hopes to see the group expand further. He attended a conference on the West Coast for LGBTQ people of color, which he said he wants to model in an upper Midwest conference at the University after next spring.
Colleges and universities nationwide are starting to recognize the need for groups like Tongues Untied, Jackson said, and the conference will promote that recognition.
“We [will] start … to talk about how we did it, what it looks like, what some of our assessments look like, what some of the barriers look like,” he said.
Since discovering Tongues Untied, James said he feels more comfortable including sexual and racial identity in his research.
“I think being able to incorporate the things that we talk about at Tongues Untied into my actual course of study has been transformational,” he said, “and I think it’s made my work a lot better.”