Just a small-town Gay with lots to Say: Mitchel's Story
Updated: Feb 3, 2021
"That's GAY!" - that random kid from Alpena
I was walking with a childhood friend around our hometown--she was wearing a University of Michigan Pride shirt and I was in an iconic floral top and skinny jeans--and we heard "that's GAY" ring through the air. My friend turned to confront the perpetrator of the verbiage so lacking in vibrancy, and I stopped her. I remembered a time I would have shown the kid how truly gifted I was in producing a colorful vocabulary, but, instead, I looked at my friend, laughed and said, "He's not wrong!"
I grew up being told to be a man without ever receiving explicit instructions. And to be honest, I still struggle with what it means to construct a masculine identity, because, every time I was told to be a man, it was always said in the context of trying to negate my behavior, never to reinforce it. Don’t show emotion. Don’t cry. Don’t conform, but don’t stand out. Be strong, but not strong enough to show vulnerability. I couldn’t seem to get it straight.
In high school, I was introduced to poetry. I fell in love with how the words fell on the page, but the art form hit too many of those contradictions to manhood. I wasn’t supposed to express my sadness, my frustrations, my excitement. I wasn’t supposed to be vulnerable. So, I hid my writing, and, with it, I hid a piece of myself. Labyrinths, monsters in the closet and figures in masks became main topics in my poems, and I wasn’t sure what I was trying to hide. I was able to convince myself that I was only hiding my anxieties and depression, until I took an introduction to creative writing course in college. It was in this course that I really allowed peers to read my pieces for the first time, and it was in this course that I was informed I was writing “queer poetry.” I denied it at first, but I began to question why my poetry was hitting so close to home for my LGBTQIA+ peers. Not too soon after this course, I came out as gay and started the journey of combating those contradictions of manhood head-on.
The four years following this sophomore level class were a whirlwind of self-exploration, self-doubt and personal triumphs. I came out to my family, and I began openly writing of that experience. I moved out of my pre-health plan and jumped head-first into a Linguistics major and a minor in Creative Writing. I also started mentoring first year students as a Residential Advisor and as a facilitator of a social justice-themed and performance-based poetry club for the University of Michigan Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts program. I studied, practiced and taught how language can be used not only as a tool for oppression but also how it can be utilized in identity construction, community building and cultural exchange. After college, I used my studies to lead a research project covering the gestural practices of queer spoken word poets--how the poets use spoken-word and gesture to create a positive and accepting queer world for them to perform within. Outside of research, I have worked within the communities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Alpena, Michigan to bring language, art and LGBTQIA+ studies into the forefront of student conversations. I have facilitated poetry readings and performances during Pride events in Ypsilanti, and I have developed and taught SJ-themed and literature-based community courses in Alpena. My interest in poetry and its ability to engage readers in a way only poetry can, shines through both in my research and in my courses. I focus on contemporary poets and how they create space for themselves and their identities within a world that objectifies and ignores them.
It is through my studies and my pre- and post-college experiences that I have come to realize that representation truly matters in a student's life. It is for this reason that I didn't lash out at that random kid from Alpena. I know that I am one of the few out and loud queer individuals in the community, and my voice matters to those who are in the same position I found myself in growing up--without the knowledge of and/or comfort to be honest with myself. I want that voice to be positive. I want it to be creative. I want it to be strong.
My position within tPL as co-founder and workshop co-facilitator is based in that desire. I'm partnering with Dominique Witten to create a space where our students can feel free to express themselves in the language that feels most honest for them, and I want to be positively present in the community that helped form who I am today.