This Pride Month, a few Michigan Tech faculty and staff from across campus gathered for a conversation on being queer in the Keweenaw.
In this roundtable Q&A, Amlan Mukherjee, Erin Matas, Kelly Steelman, Paige Short, and Tom Adolphs share their thoughts and experiences on the importance of representation, connections, and conversations during this heritage month and beyond.
PS: Let’s think about Pride first. What is it like to celebrate Pride Month in the Keweenaw and how is it different from other celebrations you’ve participated in?
KS: There’s definitely fewer parades! Pride Month in the Keweenaw seems quiet. But a big part of that is that the students are gone, so a lot of people who are visible and would engage in more of the traditional Pride activities are no longer here—they’re off in other places doing those things.
EM: In the before times, there were annual picnics down by the waterfront. And I definitely participated in one of those. The thing that struck me about it was, although there were very few participants—maybe 50—what they didn’t have in numbers, they made up for in enthusiasm and community. So I was pleasantly surprised. I think we’re small but mighty. And this is me coming from living in San Francisco and Brussels and going to Chicago for Pride and having these much larger Pride experiences.
AM: You know, Pride in the Keweenaw—when you say it, I don’t associate it with June. But I do associate Pride in the Keweenaw with our National Coming Out Day and the drag show, which are held in October. But other than that, I associate Pride with events rather than a specific month.
KS: I think that’s a really good point. It’s like our Pride is sprinkled throughout the year. October always seems to have a whole lot of events going on. And then, of course, the 41 North Film Festival tends to have one or more films that have a queer theme to it. That always seems to bring people out. It’s like there are these events throughout the year as opposed to just one wild month like you might see in other places.
TA: Last year during the film festival, Gray (Kotila) set up booths during one of the films that was specifically queer-oriented. And it was all local gay artists as well, or LGBTQ artists. Being sprinkled throughout is exactly how I’d put it now, too. You just find that these little events pop up here and there.
EM: We have the CDI (Center for Diversity and Inclusion), but in addition, we have these “Everyone is Welcome” posters just about everywhere. And I wonder how much of an impact those make on our students—or our Safe Place training, where you put your sticker next to your door to show that you are either an ally or just someone who is there to listen or help or represent. And I guess I’m wondering if there’s any feedback from students about their feelings of belonging on our campus.
KS: I don’t know about students, but it definitely makes me feel better about being on campus, especially when I’m walking into other departments, to see those stickers on doorways and to see those signs hanging outside the main office. I mean, it makes a difference for me to see that there are a lot of allies and advocates throughout Michigan Tech.
TA: I have the same feeling, too, when I see the pride flag or those stickers on doorways. It actually does mean something. And especially having gone to Tech as an undergraduate—it does matter to see it. And you notice it as a queer person. Yeah, even if you remain silent and just to yourself.
AM: When I started at Michigan Tech in 2005, I had moved from Seattle. And there were maybe a couple of those stickers at the time. But as soon as everybody in my department found out that I was out and gay, almost my entire department went ahead and signed up for the program and put the stickers up. It was a quiet gesture, but it meant so much to me. I will never stop being thankful for that little act that they all did without saying anything.
PS: That’s amazing. Building off that, what does support look like? Within your department, within your community, either from allies or within the queer community? Real support—not just performative. I mean, you could argue that a sticker on your door is performative, but it takes something in my opinion to put that sticker on your door in a space where there aren’t any stickers on doors.
TA: Yeah, I think it matters. Last summer, Marquette really did have a formal pride parade and they decorated all of the flag poles around the entire city in pride flags. And both my husband and I were just totally shocked when it happened. I remember riding around on my motorcycle and there were pride flags everywhere. It only lasted for two days or so, but it really felt good. It was really kind of shocking, especially for the UP. And then there was a genuine pride parade. I’m curious to see if they’re gonna do it again this year. I hope they do. That stuff really matters. I don’t know if it’d be possible in Hancock/Houghton.
EM: So as it happens, when my spouse Cécile and I were considering coming to Michigan Tech in 2014, we really wanted to know what it was like to be queer in Houghton. I’m from Wisconsin originally, and the feedback I was getting from my Wisconsin friends was not very positive. So we were concerned about it and wanted to speak with anyone on campus who was queer, who had a family—what was it like? And that person ended up being Kelly Steelman, who met with my spouse. What were the things that she wanted to know, Kelly? Do you remember?
KS: We talked a lot about the schools and the process my wife and I had gone through when we got to town—deciding where we wanted to live and what school system we wanted to put our son in. And, thinking about whether the schools were welcoming and whether our kid would get bullied because of who his parents were.
EM: Well, it’s funny now. So, that was before we had children—and now Cécile and I have four-year-old twins who are also in preschool with Kelly’s young son. So our kids aren’t alone in the sense that their families look similar. And that’s a really nice thing. One thing they do at Little Huskies is, they have this wall area that has collages of every student’s family. It’s just tons of pictures of everybody. And I love knowing that our kids can go over there and see another family that has two moms and know that there are many ways to be a family. This is our life mixed in with everyone else’s.
AM: Well, I have to say, I’m really glad you guys got the opportunity to do this research. In 2005, when I interviewed, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t ask anything. After I accepted my offer, my chair at the time, the first comment he said was, “Well, I hope your wife and kids really enjoy the place as well.” So it was an assumption; it was a given. But I do think we’ve come a long way in terms of our hiring processes and in terms of providing those resources to bring people into the conversation. I really believe we’ve done a really good job at Michigan Tech—probably more than many other universities. So that is something to be proud of.
EM: What is our role as out folks on campus to make sure that our LGBTQIA+ students immediately feel a sense of belonging? Knowing from experience that our incoming queer students are growing in number each year, what are some real things we can do?
KS: I grew up in a very conservative family—so much so, that I was kind of told not even to tell my siblings that I was gay because of what might happen to them at school. So I’ve been out since I was 18, but I haven’t always been loud about it. I’ve never not told or not shared, but I’ve always been somewhat private. But, I’ve really tried to make an attempt to get outside my own comfort zone, to not be so personally private, especially as I’m stepping into more leadership positions.
I didn’t see anybody in leadership positions when I was in college. I went to a private engineering school and I don’t think I had a single woman as a faculty member in any of my STEM classes the entire time I was in school, let alone someone who is queer, so the issue of role models is important to me. But, thinking back on some of the sentiments in the ’90s, and certainly before, about what’ll happen if you’re out in the workplace—“Will you get fired?” or “What will happen if your students find out?”
When I see the proportion of queer students in the incoming class growing, it feels like everybody needs to be braver for them. We have kids who are growing up in the world all of us helped create, where they’ve seen people being a little bit more visible—their identities matter to them, and we see they are willing to share those with other people.
For people who have been out for some time and may be not particularly loud about it, or only out in certain circles, in some ways it’s actually empowering to see today’s youth be brave. You have to be brave for them and with them, and protect them, because we as leaders have the power to influence policy and to set culture and to make sure that this space is a positive, healthy one for all of them. We have to be role models, but they are also great role models for us to push us to go beyond our comfort zone to do better and to advocate more loudly.
EM: Something I heard recently that really spoke to me was, it really makes a difference to employees to be able to bring their whole selves to work. And when I think about these students coming to campus—and anybody, really—like, yeah! Everyone should be bringing their whole selves to work and school. You are a happier person, you are a more productive person, when you’re allowed to work unrestricted without worry and without extra stress. That really meant something to me to hear.
KS: It’s mentally exhausting to keep part of yourself separate.
EM: Well, that—and also to continually, a thousand times a day, have to come out in one way or another. I’m picking up this prescription for my spouse—“What’s his name?” Or, “Who’s the dad of your children?” “Is that your real child?” Just all these things, all the time. The husband thing is constant. I don’t even go into women’s bathrooms anymore. Airports are fun. Being your whole self. As a library director, that’s my job—to help figure out how to do that for everyone. When every single person walks into our building, how do I make sure that they see themselves?
Everyone should be bringing their whole selves to work and school. You are a happier person, you are a more productive person, when you’re allowed to work unrestricted without worry and without extra stress.
PS: It’s important—in our offices, in our classrooms, in the businesses in town, at work and in class. In the library and all the spaces—for all of our identities, right? Leaving any part of that locked inside is tricky and wildly uncomfortable. Most people I interact with on a day-to-day basis just assume I’m straight because I’m married to a man. They have a very clear assumption of what being queer is. Anything besides that is just too weird. An identity like bisexual might exist in their mind, but if you then have a straight-passing relationship, it’s nullified. There’s also a little bit of weirdness for me in queer spaces. I’ve gotten a lot of comments about my strong allyship, which has been really interesting.
TA: Creating spaces for talking about coexisting and the issues that exist even within our own immense community is really important. A lot of us have spent so much time dealing with all the issues of societal pressure that we haven’t spent much time addressing the problems that can also exist within our own communities. Discussions need to be had on how to actually be inclusive and not exclude within our own community, and what that actually means. We need to have the hard conversations—and make room to do that, even at Tech. And that also means not letting straight white guys feel as though this is somehow an attack against them, or that it’s an exclusion. They can be part of the conversation as well.
AM: It’s very interesting because when I’m in Houghton, I live in a primarily heteronormative community with a few people who are different. And then when I’m in DC—and I’ve lived in DC long enough on and off and I have quite a bit of a community—it’s exactly the opposite, I live in a primarily queer community. But in DC, we’re having conversations about race like we’ve never had before, and we’re having conversations about queerness. The definition of queerness and its more inclusive stance is a point of conversation. We’re also having conversations about trans rights, which, it turns out, we’re still not very comfortable with. There is a tremendous space for these conversations—there is so much progress happening, but there’s so much need for these conversations within our community as well.