“I’ll put it to you like this,” Sha’ Simpson says, leaning back in her chair and defiantly looking me straight in the eyes. “For me, being a woman of color, being a lesbian — and then being a woman, period — to certain people can be intimidating. I’m just locked and loaded to already being looked at as being different.”
But Simpson refuses to apologize to anyone for that, and she shouldn’t have to.
Simpson, a 2014 graduate of the University of Mississippi, has identified as a lesbian for as long as she can remember. However, growing up a follower of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was hard for her to reconcile her religion and her sexuality early on.
“I dealt with a lot growing up, and there were very pivotal times in my life where I thought I was getting to the point where I was comfortable enough to just go ahead and come out to my mom, but there was always something that came up,” she said. “We went to our church meetings, and then I’d pull back and say, ‘Nah, they just talked about this the other night.’”
Her world was “turned upside down” after her family found out about her sexuality halfway through her junior year in college. Not only was Simpson ostracized by her family, but she was ex-communicated by her church in her hometown of New Albany.
“I’ll never forget it. My mom called me while I was at work and she was like, ‘Are you coming home when you get off? Because we need to talk about something,’” she said. “When I got home my mom was sitting on my bed with my laptop and my birthday card from my girlfriend at the time, and she just tosses it at me and is like, ‘So what is this?’”
After admitting to her mother that she was a lesbian, Simpson said the two “got into it really bad.”
It was the weekend of Simpson’s 21st birthday.
Simpson grabbed her car keys and left. She came back a few days later, but her mother had already reached out to church elders. Within a week, Simpson was alone — isolated from her church and her family.
That’s when Ole Miss, a place where Simpson had never felt particularly welcome, became a home.
She said she received glares “looking like a lesbian,” and she still remembers comments about the color of her skin heard during her time at the university. Despite these attitudes, when she was ostracized by her family, she created her own support system with her friends and professors at the university.
“Teachers never know the roles they play in their students’ lives, and without Alysia Steele, Vanessa Gregory and Ellen Meacham, I wouldn’t have finished school,” Simpson said, tearing up. “I don’t know where I would be.”
Those three professors, along with others in the journalism school, became like guardians to Simpson, especially Steele, who says she loves Simpson as her daughter, though their relationship had a rocky start.
“Honestly speaking, she started out as a difficult student. She had major attitude, and that was apparent on the first day of class. She used to sit in the back of the room and just look at me,” Steele said. “We locked eyes, actually. But she learned very quickly that the attitude was going to have to go or we were going to have a difficult time working together.”
But Steele saw potential in her, something that allowed Simpson to grow in the classroom and in her personal life.
“I’ve watched Sha’ mature into a beautiful person. She’s serious about her work, her reputation, and she works hard. She has an incredible work ethic and believes in doing her absolute best, and I admire that about her. For Sha’, her word is her bond,” Steele said. “I expect great things from Sha’ Simpson. And if I were looking at her right now, we’d be locking eyes on that last statement, and she knows it.”
Though those years of Simpson’s life are over, that doesn’t mean she isn’t still struggling with coming to terms with them.
“It’s not something that just goes away. We’re at the point where I’m talking about grieving over the loss of someone who is still living (her parents),” she said. “That’s the biggest issue, and it’s a constant reminder.”
However, it has allowed Simpson to appreciate what she considers her greatest attribute: strength.
“I was just really empowered after I came out. I think once your mom and your parents know, regardless of what you go through with them, forget everybody else and what they have to say,” she said. “Some of the things that my mom said to me brought me to the point where no one else could break me.”
Her relationship with the university is complicated. At times, it has been a place where she’s been made to feel unwelcome, but it’s a home for her all the same.
“I definitely think if I would have been anything than what I am, my negative experiences would have been less,” she said. “But if it had not been for those things, I wouldn’t have been molded and shaped into the person I am today. “
“When I first got here, it wasn’t like a culture shock, but it was just like, clearly I’m going to stand out because I’m a black woman in a majority white class, so I think I could’ve let it make me feel left out,” she said, glancing out of the window.
Though she said this softly, nothing about Deja Samuel is quiet.
“But I didn’t let it stop me. If those intentions were there to make me feel left out, I didn’t take them to heart because I had my own intentions,” Samuel said.
Samuel is confidence embodied, from the slim rings on her fingers to the embroidered loafers on her feet.
She enrolled at the University of Mississippi six years ago as a biology and theatre double major before pursuing an art degree.
“That’s why I’ve been here so long,” she said, laughing.
And her time at Ole Miss has been essential to her identity and her growth as a human.
“Here, I found a type of confidence in being okay with not knowing who I am or just being whoever I want to be,” she said.
Samuel only started to feel comfortable in her own space after the first time she felt unwelcome in Oxford.
Covering the state flag protests as a photographer for The Daily Mississippian, she realized “a lot of people don’t want us (black people) here.”
She felt this same exclusion the first time she walked through the Grove before a football game
“I realized, like, that I’m not really wanted or welcome here. No one said anything to me — it was just due to the way people kind of talk to you,” she said. “I don’t know, it’s an energy that you can sense just walking through there.”
She hasn’t been back since her freshman year.
Samuel’s sexuality and blackness, both inherent parts of her identity, have been sources of discrimination for Samuel while she’s been in Oxford.
She remembers a night when she and an ex-girlfriend were catcalled and called “dykes” on the Square.
But it’s rare that she feels uncomfortable anymore because she doesn’t allow herself to be. Just as the gay community here has made a space for themselves, she said, she has made one for herself.
“We’ve created a community here, and I think that we have made our own space here,” she said. “When I first came here, I really felt invisible. I felt outnumbered, but now I don’t really care because I’m here to do what I’m here to do.”
She feels like everyone should be seen, so she uses her photography to do that for others.
“We’re all different in so many ways, but ultimately, we are just reflections of each other,” she said. “I feel like a lot of people just want to be heard and seen and valued and know that they’re important and not as insignificant as we may feel sometimes.”
Much of Samuel’s work focuses on her experience as a queer, black Southern woman. Her newly completed first photobook, “Things in Place,” captures LGBTQ people and couples and their experiences here in Oxford. Another project she’s working on is about valuing female vulnerability.
“It started out as a body-positive, kind of serious thing,” she said. “It transformed into me just talking to women and getting them to tell their stories.”
Samuel thinks the title of her own story would be “something like ‘Becoming and Unbecoming.’”
“I feel like I’ve stripped off so many layers. It’s just a continuous cycle — me finding myself and losing myself and just going through life and learning,” she said.
Not only does she use her photography to explore the various facets of her identity, but she also uses it to communicate how she feels about others and what’s happening around her.
“Photography was, at first, just a way for me to capture memories, but then it became a way of communicating,” she said. “It’s my way to communicate to people, ‘This is how I see you,’ because I feel like I see the best in people.”
Her girlfriend of nearly a year, Jana Entrekin, said that is her favorite quality about Samuel — breaking others’ walls down, allowing her to see deeper into them.
“There’s something about her that makes people very willingly take down their walls,” she said. “I feel like this is also her most visible quality because you can see it in almost all of her portraits she takes.”
Samuel still only feels seen in certain spaces and sometimes only as a photographer or an artist.
“But as just Deja… not really.”
“I’m just a 20-year-old African-American gay female who is trying to be a dentist one day, who plays the violin in her spare time, looking to make a change in the world,” JoJo Brown says, eyes bright.
It is with this optimism that Brown does everything — it is foundational to her being.
“(JoJo) wants people to remember her for a good reason,” her girlfriend Tk Smith said. “She wants to leave a mark on them. A good mark.”
The Ole Miss junior has been “fully out since middle school,” and Brown is adamant that her comfort in her own skin is what has made others comfortable around her.
“My sexuality has never been an issue. I go to interviews with a suit and tie on and come out with positions that anyone else would have,” she said. “My sexuality has never held me back on this campus, and I won’t let that happen.”
In fact, coming to Ole Miss was freeing for Brown.
“I’m more comfortable here than I am at home. I’m surrounded by people who love me and have always supported my choice of lifestyle,” she said. “This was freedom for me.”
However, race is a different story.
“Sexuality is something you can hide, not that I do, ever,” she said. “Race is something that you can see. My sexuality has not held me back from anything, but definitely the color of my skin has allowed me to be placed in uncomfortable positions.”
As a biology major, she often finds herself the only black person in her class.
“It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m already competing, like I’m already at a disadvantage.”
“You feel like the fly in the buttermilk,” Smith chimed in.
However, Brown, a Madison County native, is no stranger to feeling outnumbered by white people. Her mother moved their family to the area to ensure that Brown would have a good education and opportunities that would not have been afforded to her otherwise.
“At my graduation party, my grandfather was not happy about me coming the university because of its history. I’ve heard family members say that I was going to be lynched when I got up here, making up crazy hypotheticals,” she said. “That did kind of scare me, but Madison Central was a predominantly white school. I was used to being in that environment.”
Throughout her college experience, Brown remembers sorority girls on her dormitory floor asking her if they could borrow her chain for a swap.
“That was uncomfortable, seeing the way people interpret our culture,” she said, eyes turned down. “It’s sad. It’s degrading.”
Recently, Brown attended the open forum held for the university community to discuss the comments made by Ed Meek on Facebook about two black women, who are Ole Miss students, on the Square. Brown spoke out passionately, calling for action from the administration.
Before she leaves Ole Miss, as part of her mission to impact the spaces she occupies, Brown hopes to see higher enrollment of African-American students at the university.
“We need to reach out to those students and let them know that they have opportunities here,” she said. “They don’t have to be a part of the statistic. They should be the outlier, defy the odds.”
She thinks it’s up to the student body to spark the change that she says needs to happen in response to the Meek situation.
“We need to let the world know what’s going on here. That’s how other universities got the Confederate statues down,” she says, eyes lighting up and voice raising. “That’s what it’s going to take here.”
As for Brown, she plans to be a part of the change.