Michigan junior Shannon Li shares her experience as a queer woman of color and the challenges and opportunities that come with expressing her identity. She encourages others to share their stories, prioritize mental health, and find home within themselves.
Interview conducted by Keara Kotten
#UMSocial Intern and University Of Michigan Class of 2022
Q: Hey, Shannon. Thank you so much for joining me today for Conversations for Societal Change. First off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you want to be a part of this podcast?
Yeah, for sure. My name is Shannon Li. I am going to be a third year in the fall, in the School of Information. I’m focusing on information analysis and UX design.
I identify as queer and also use nonbinary pronouns. My pronouns are she/her/hers or they/them. I am very passionate about queer advocacy and finding ways in which I can get involved on campus for the LGBTQ+ community, engage in activism, and make the Michigan community, and greater, more inclusive.
Q: How have you personally been able to explore your own sexual identity through your time in college, and what are some things that have been helpful to you along this journey?
Yeah, so for me, I came out as queer probably around my first year. I personally didn’t really know that much about that term until I came to Michigan. I did come out junior year of high school, but I used ‘bisexual’ at that time. I think coming out is very fluid. So sometimes you learn more about your experience and who you are over time. But I think for me, I’ve always struggled a lot with different sexualities and I couldn’t figure out what term I identified with the most and connected with the most. And ‘queer’ to me really represents that idea of intersectionality, of fluidity, and of community.
“I think it’s a very individualized term that’s given me a lot of freedom, hope, and comfort in my own sexual identity.”
And for me, I’ve had the chance to explore in college through meeting other people. It’s really about reaching out. There are a lot of queer clubs on campus specifically for creating that community. And also just exploring more about the resources through Spectrum Center. They give a lot of resources in terms of education so you can learn more about the different terms and identities, genders, and sexualities that you might identify yourself as. And I think it’s a really great opportunity and resource to help you figure out who you are.
Q: What do you think would be some of those actionable things that we can work on to create that change?
I think it’s definitely something that is case by case. Some people might be more comfortable and some people might not be as comfortable [coming out]. It also depends on the support system you have and if you can handle the criticisms that you might get when you do come out.
And I think the biggest thing would definitely be to educate people. I think the lack of education and the inability for many to recognize their own privilege allows for ignorance to perpetuate marginalized communities. I think it’s a responsibility of Michigan as a whole and faculty to recognize these issues and effect change.
Thinking more about the LGBTQ+ movement and the community, right now in our current political and social climate the trans community specifically is very underrepresented and has been highly erased from the community. And I think that the Black Lives Matter movement has helped us realize and bring that conversation to light. That’s something that I just want to point out in terms of making that shift and that change because we don’t acknowledge enough that trans people are also part of the community and the significant impacts they have made for the queer community. There is no queer liberation without trans liberation. We can’t erase them from our future and also from our present, as they’ve unfortunately been erased in the past.
Q: People seem willing to accept certain parts of people’s identities, but are they really willing to accept the community as a whole? What has your personal experience been as both a minority on campus and also part of the queer community at U-M?
I’m also Asian American and also I’m a woman. Being a woman, especially within a STEM field, can be very difficult sometimes to find your place. A lot of the courses are pretty rigorous and we need that community of students to be there for us. And I think being a woman, it can be very hard to find that. Especially in a classroom where as you keep going further up it definitely decreases: the ratio of women to men.
Being Asian, it’s not very common that you find a lot of queer Asians out there. I personally haven’t really had the chance to find any on campus yet. And that’s been pretty difficult to find a way to connect culturally with my queer experience. And also knowing that, being Asian, sometimes you’re pushed into this mold that seems impossible to really get out of, given both your family and the traditions that they have.
And it’s hard to break that sometimes. And I think being queer has helped me a lot in realizing and finding ways in which I can have greater confidence in speaking out for myself and also being a voice for other people who might not have the opportunity and the privilege to do so. Being a queer woman of color has really made my experience very challenging, but also a very rewarding experience. I get to learn a lot about ways in which [we] can be more inclusive, but also ensure that the values of intersectionality are going to be pushed forward.
Q: Are there any stories of impact that you’d like to share?
I love doing journalism and just storytelling in general. For me, just having people respond to [GLAAD articles I publish] through social media has been very inspiring to know that I’ve been able to allow my story to resonate with other people, but also make an impact and be a lifeline for other people. For queer people, sometimes just being able to speak to someone and have a shared experience can save their life.
Queer people are disproportionately affected by mental health [issues], and they don’t really have a lot of resources for that and are often pushed away from getting resources.
I was part of the WISE [Women in Science and Engineering] residence program the past two years. One of my mentees also identified as queer. I’ve had conversations with her in different contexts, such as relationships, how she can get involved with queer advocacy, or just in general about clubs and organizations on campus. It’s a great experience to watch her grow over time, and she’s been able to come out after that. It’s a very helpful, but also a very honest and personal experience. So I’m happy for her and also proud to witness her growth.
It’s really incredible that you’re doing that for her.
Q: Advocating for yourself and for the greater LGBTQ+ community can be very challenging on your mental well-being. What is the importance of taking care of yourself and taking care of your mental health while you are working so hard on advocacy?
Yeah, I think mental health is something I think I personally underestimated and I think a lot of students tend to underestimate the importance of mental health. We don’t realize that until we actually hit rock bottom. It is actually really important and we need to prioritize our mental health when it comes to our academic and personal lives. Because as we get older, it takes a huge toll on us and we don’t realize that. For the queer community specifically, there’s definitely a lot of mental health issues that arises from just the fear of coming out or the fear of being discriminated [against]. So I think a lot of times, anxiety and depression tend to be very common mental health issues that we face.
I personally know what anxiety is like. It’s not a good feeling. It feels as if it’s taken over your entire life. You do learn a lot through those experiences. And I think for queer people, it really shouldn’t be a privilege to have access to mental health resources. I think it’s a right to have them. And I think it’s kind of disappointing and also kind of a disgrace that in our world today it’s a privilege to have equal access to health care. And I really hope that we can make that shift and that more students will prioritize their mental health. Michigan being the university that it is, we tend to push ourselves beyond our boundaries and, in the future, it takes a huge toll on us and it’s hard to recover from it. It’s something that we need to realize early on before it makes a huge impact.
Yeah. Taking care of your mental health is one of the most important things that anyone can do.
Q: June being Pride month, it’s a wonderful time to fight and advocate for change and greater inclusivity in our society. So how can we, as individuals, engage in this change as a part of our daily lives?
Especially right now with COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement, and seeing a lot of social injustice issues being brought to dialogue, the first thing that I want people to know is that we should definitely normalize the fact that we can change our opinions when we’re given new information. I think there’s a lot of fear that people will be wrong, accused of not recognizing their privilege, or are afraid of getting any criticism for saying something that they might not have known is incorrect. I think normalizing that and allowing people to change is very important.
If we have friends or family who say things that are racist or homophobic, or in any way are just wrong and offensive to other people, we need to call them out and we need to take a stance on. Allowing that to happen allows it to continue to perpetuate a lot of communities.
The third thing is I would say to share your story. I think a lot of us come with a lot of opportunities and progress that we’ve made, and sharing that story is very helpful and important for all of us. It can be a lifeline for other people. Stories are very powerful. Just being able to relate to someone and find some common ground gives you that route and direction, and helps you figure out what steps to take next, how to move forward. Storytelling is something that I wish a lot more people would talk about and be a voice for other people through their own stories.
I love that you said that too, because that’s definitely the biggest goal with this podcast: to get individuals like you to share their stories and inspire others to do the same. It can definitely be a lifeline for others who are struggling or want to find somebody to relate to.
Q: Do you have any final words that you would like to share with the U-M community?
To the queer community at Michigan, I would say: I know it’s super difficult, especially when you might not be out. And I know what that’s like. It’s not a good feeling; it can be one of the most isolating feelings to have. But I do want the queer community to know that there are people out there who are going to be very supportive of who you are, and there are going to be people who won’t. And I think that’s a reality that, unfortunately, is a reality. It comes at your own time: when you feel like coming out and when you feel like you want to become an advocate, it’s not a necessity or necessary for you to do so when you don’t feel ready. Sexuality is very fluid and there’s no need to put a label on your own sexuality or your gender. There’s a lot of different ways to explore that on campus, and definitely don’t limit yourself at all.
Then to the overall community, I would say: listen to your queer friends, or faculty, or anyone that you know that identifies within the LGBTQ+ community. Listening to them, hearing their stories, and just being there for them makes a huge difference and allows them to find the comfort to speak up and be open to you. If they open up to you, you probably mean a lot to them; and you should respect that and be honored by that.
“Find home at Michigan; but also find home within yourself, in your own heart.”
Thank you so much, Shannon. It was great getting to talk to you. Thank you for sharing your story.
It’s definitely really rewarding, so thank you for the opportunity.