Earlier this semester, Jesse Beal (they/them) joined the Spectrum Center as Associate Director. Prior to arriving at the University of Michigan, they served as the Director of The Gender and Sexuality Campus Center at Michigan State University. They bring over a decade of experience leading student-facing affinity-based resource centers at Amherst College, Brandeis University, Suffolk University, and MSU.
Recently Jesse sat down to talk about their journey to LGBTQ+ work, their research focusing on mental health, and some of their queer media recommendations. Welcome, Jesse!
Q: What inspired you to start working in LGBTQ plus centers on college campuses?
A: I went to UT Austin because there was a gender and sexuality center. And before going to Austin, I was a student at Austin Community College and had met the education coordinator who was a genderqueer adult human in the world. And it was like this moment of, “Oh, we exist. Who I am exists in the world.” And they had come to give a lecture to our really small GSA that we created at our community college, right? And when I transferred, I, you know, immediately went to the Gender Sexuality Center.
I fell in love with the work because I am a person who believes deeply in education, but also in advocacy and justice. And working in LGBTQ plus resource centers in higher education is a blend of community building and advocacy work. We do both. We have to do both.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your work in student mental health and how you incorporate that into your work?
A: I've been working in some capacity and LGBTQIA2S+ centers for the past decade. I have noticed in this time period a shift in how we do the work: away from some of the more symbolic acknowledgments of days, months, ora weeks of observance and towards student support for mental health. It has become really clear to me in the past few years that if we're not doing mental health supportive work, or specifically suicide prevention work, in offices like ours, what are we even doing?
It is so critical to where we are and what Generation Z is dealing with in regard to mental health and suicidality. This is especially true for our trans and non-binary population and our queer and trans students of color.
We've hit this critical moment where we actually have some data sets that have emerged in the past few years. The Trevor Project's first youth mental health survey came out in 2019. It was one of the first studies to look at both high school and college. And to look at suicidality, self-harm, but also the factors that prevent harm. The things we could do that are supportive actions that anybody can do to make a difference. And one of the things The Trevor Project found was that youth who have one supportive adult in their life were 40 percent less likely to attempt suicide rate. 40 percent less likely. And so, in working with educators, specifically with faculty and staff at universities, when they hear this statistic, it’s a bit of a wake up call like you could be that one person in this student's life who believes them when they tell me who they are. Who uses the name that they asked me to use, uses the pronouns they asked me to use, who respects their boundaries. Who is glad for the milestones that are their milestones around their identity. Who puts the time in to just value and treat people with dignity and respect. And it's super simple.
Q: What's one book you would recommend non-queer folks read to better their understanding of LGBTQ+ culture and issues?
A: This is a really dangerous question to ask a Ph.D. student, because there isn't one book,, right? And it depends on what part of the LGBTQIA2s+ community you're talking about. In general, my tip is not necessarily to read a specific thing. It's instead to diversify all of your media consumption. We need to be critical of all of the media we're consuming and looking for who is not represented.
I do think that folks should take a look at things like the U.S. Trans Survey. Folks should pay attention to the policy analysis coming out of the Williams Institute. We should be paying a lot of attention to the research that's coming out of both the Jed Foundation and The Trevor Project. These are not like, you know, necessarily entertaining reads, but they're really important to understand the context of what our community is going through.
A couple of books I usually recommend to folks, if they are in the higher ed realm, includTrans* in College by Z. Nicolazzo, but there's also The Lives of Transgender People by Sue Rankin and Genny Beeman. For folks who are just like newer to the work and don't know a lot. I am a big fan of the GENDER book, actually.
Q: How do you bring anti-racism work to your professional roles?
A: I think that LGBTQIA2S+ centers should be centering the voices and needs of queer and trans students of color. It's something that many LGBTQIA2S+ centers have struggled with over time and space. Some centers have unique models where they will actually have a position that is dedicated to serving and supporting LGBTQIA2S+ students of color. I am interested in exploring what is possible for us. I don't know if that's the right model for us or if we need to some bring in some consultants to figure out what is missing. Or, have some conversations with our students about what they need from us? I don't know. But this is the work of racial justice for me as a white person in this work. If we do not focus on the intersection of race, gender and sexuality, we are allowing white supremacy to persist.
There has to be an effort and a true real effort from the staff in the center to both educate ourselves—and this is especially true for the white folks—to educate ourselves and to do the work we need to do to turn ourselves out and unlearn, and be humble and show up and mess up and apologize and showing up anyway.
Q: If you could describe yourself as any dessert, what dessert would it be and why?
A: I would probably be a creme brulee. Because it's gluten free, as am I, and kind of hard on the outside, but really, really squishy on the inside. Like a total delight, but not always entirely approachable. Right? A little intimidating, perhaps, but actually really kind of a nerd. I don’t know if the inside of creme brulee is really nerdy, but here we are.
Q: What is your guilty pleasure song?
A: I do not believe in the concept of guilty pleasure. Don't shame. Don't shame yourself. The world is so incredibly hard. Just love what you love. Just love the hell out of it, right?
What are my guilty pleasure songs that are not so guilty? Well, you know, probably anything Jason Derulo. I do love me some Broadway. Oh, this is a good one. I love Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen.
Q: What are your queer media recommendations?
A: I do love Sex Education. I also love and this is not, perhaps a thing that you should learn about gender and sexuality by watching, but a show I just I love so much is Killing Eve.
The first student org I advise their name was Triskelion, which is the name of the planet with no gender in Star Trek. And I was like, I can advise this group. I like your style nerd.