LeeLee • Non-Binary Software Developer of Color and Performance Artist
LeeLee was born in Mississippi and grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. She’s lived in Denver for more than three years. She has a creative spirit and enjoys painting, singing, dancing, walking the runway, all things fashion, fitness, and the art of drag performance. LeeLee is a vision when she moves and absolutely captivating when she speaks.
At 14, thanks to Michelle Kwan, LeeLee discovered her passion for ice skating. She eventually left the south for Alaska to train in her chosen discipline, and eventually spent nearly a decade traveling the globe, dancing on ice.
Her skating career has since come to an end, but one thing her travels have taught her is that she has a map-like mind and the skill to pick up languages with ease. After completing a strength test, she decided to make the transition to software development and today she is taking up space in the tech industry as a software developer in Boulder. When I asked LeeLee to describe Denver in one word, her answer was: arriving. Here’s what it means to be LeeLee in Denver.
What was it like growing up in Memphis, Tennessee?
When I was born, I was given the name Lil Lee. Over time, that nickname morphed into LeeLee, so I have been LeeLee my whole life, which I think is a blessing. My family was in the church and like many young people who are the descendants of pastors, I was being prepped for the pulpit. I remember feeling this pressure to be someone else from others. I also feel some of the pressure was personally inflicted. My family was supportive, especially my grandfather. He had integrity. He made sure that everyone in his community was accountable. He never forced me to be something other than myself. I was special in his eyes and he made sure to be very careful and loving with me.
Growing up, school was horrible for me. Every day was a fight because I was simply being myself. Every day, someone had something to do or say. My own people. But instead of fleeing, I learned how to fight. The bullying I experienced has made me tougher. However, the experience was traumatizing, and today I suffer from anxiety. I also find it triggering to be around my own people for fear of being killed. Life has taught me to be self-reliant as possible.
When it was time to leave home, I followed my passion for ice skating. I moved to Alaska, the farthest I could go without a passport. The move changed my life. In Alaska, I unlocked my ability to learn new things and a tenacity for accomplishing a goal. I grew as a skater and that growth opened many doors for me, including an opportunity to skate around the world for nearly a decade. I’ve lived in many places. I speak four languages and have community everywhere. I’ve learned through my experiences that this whole world belongs to us.
What does it mean to you to be black in Denver?
It means being valuable because there’s value in all rarity. It also means feeling constantly out of place. They don’t see us, and when they do it is usually with an inkling of internal judgment that you can see wash over their faces. “Should I cross the street?” “I should close my purse suddenly, they won’t notice” “What are they wearing?” “Do you live in this building?” Also as a queer person, there is isolation because of the bullshit that I experience residually since the introduction of Christianity during slavery.
Black folks don’t be trying to see me either, honestly. Classism, racism, transphobia; they’re not mutually exclusive in my mind. I was audibly mocked by a large group of black folks while just walking back from my local grocery store in my neighborhood. They weren’t tourists, they were my neighbors.
Denver has provided me space to be myself. It’s nice to enjoy the simple things, like riding my bike down the street without the fear of being shot. Go to a movie and be myself. Smoke weed and not be incarcerated for 15 years.
What are the benefits of being oneself?
I feel joy when I’m being myself. But, in addition to the benefits, there are loses. Especially when that authenticity isn’t popular, and being me is not popular at this present moment. I’m not positively received, but at the same time, that is positive. Disrupting people’s bullshit is positive. I don’t care if it frustrates you, because if it does, you have a problem that you need to work out. My self-expression is valued, justified, and needed.
However, there are anxiety and depression struggles that come with being authentic. I’ve learned how to navigate my emotions and validate my own emotions over other people’s opinions. That’s a unique skill that I have developed being myself. It is shitty for me at times, but I try to twirl through it as best I can. I am definitely in a negative place when I am not being myself or not allowed to be myself.
What do you love most about living in Denver?
The simultaneous proximity to nature and access to an international airport.
How have your experiences in Denver shaped you?
I’ve become tougher. I began my transition here in Denver, and it’s literally tried to kill me. It’s high altitude training, like it or not. If you can traverse these mountains, you definitely come out on the other side a bad bitch.