Relevance and Recognition: Perspectives on Black Queerness

Grace Tang ‘21
Lifestyle Editor

On Monday evening, students from across UVA Law piled into Purcell Reading Room (perhaps lured by the smell of Wayside) for an informative, interactive, and timely panel presentation co-hosted by Lambda and BLSA following Black History Month in February.

“It’s important to have these open discussions about black queerness, and bring ideas to the forefront. We want this event to be a conversation starter which addresses tough issues from different angles,” said Jameil Brown ’21, one of the event’s co-hosts. “The event highlights the role that queer black individuals have played in law, politics, history of civil rights, and other movements. There are individuals in this school who may not always be heard, supported and empowered; and we hope to change this through intersectionality activism in the community across disciplines.”

Michele St. Julien, the moderator and other co-host, is this year’s Swanson Award Recipient. She was joined by Professor Kevin Gaines, professor of civil rights and social justice at Main Grounds, Professor Dayna Matthews, professor of human rights and public health at the Law School, and Toccara Nelson ’19, recipient of the inaugural Swanson Award at UVA.

The event kicked off with a recent video narrated by Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement and a queer black woman. “Blackness is everything,” said Cullors. “I am black. I am queer. It’s shaped my reality. It’s shaped my world.”

“The struggle for visibility and recognition within public culture of black freedom is part of a long history and persists to this day,” said Professor Gaines. “There has been a challenging history of dismissal and erasure. Black queer people throughout history have been fighting for everyone else.”

Professor Matthews recalls growing up in the New York at the tail end of the civil rights movement and recounts when LGBT groups were not included as part of important conversations when community organizations were invited to share their ideas. Drawing upon an essay called “Privilege,” Professor Matthews discusses shifting the concept of discrimination to broaden and encompass more individuals and the idea that every one of us has a responsibility to make change. When considering avenues where assistance is truly needed, Professor Matthews encourages students to look at who is left behind in the public healthcare system as the clear gap in care provided indicates a legal need. “In black queer legal activism, we should identify those groups and move towards them. Write briefs, get involved.”

Nelson began her discussion with a provoking quote from “Double Consciousness” by W. E. B. Du Bois: “One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” “Nobody in this nation should feel like they can’t be the person they were meant to be,” said Nelson. She points out that artists not known for being a part of the LGBT community, such as Baldwin, have created universal experiences for everyone else. “It is not easy when black queers are pulled from different sides and dismissed from different sides of the equation.”

For those like myself who are interested in learning more and want to engage further, the panelists suggested several media and literature options. Moonlight (movie), Pariah (movie), documentaries on the Stonewall riots, Brother Outsider (documentary), literature by James Baldwin and Audre Lorde are all excellent choices. Additionally, UVA Law students and faculty are encouraged to join the allyship listserv at