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In Memoriam: Mel Lesch

We are mourning the extremely untimely passing of Mel Lesch: our dearly beloved student, tireless scholar, dedicated activist, all too appropriately described by their friends as “human sunshine.”

We would like to share some tributes and student comments about Mel.


"Mel was a dedicated activist who worked tirelessly on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. Among their accomplishments are helping to found UK's LGBTQ+ Center and the Audre Lorde Living Learning Community. Mel's dissertation work combined scholarship and praxis, seeking a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by trans college students in order to find better ways to support them. Mel was also a dedicated teacher and an exceptional and kind human." – Jenn Hunt


"I have been privileged to work and learn from Mel for over 15 years as a teacher and friend. Mel’s passionate commitment was to undoing homophobia, trans-phobia, and the many ways too many people are harmed by violence and exclusion. For Mel, these were not abstract commitments but deeply rooted in their personal lives.  Mel’s incredible tenacity had always been the bedrock of how they have approached their teaching, mentoring, advocacy, work lives, friendships, and academic studies. Among their many contributions, Mel was part of the efforts to establish the UK LGBTQ Resource Center and Safe Zone Training and they have been the graduate coordinator at the Office of LGBTQ Resource Center where Mel helped to set up the Audre Lorde Living and Learning community. Mel volunteered and served on many campus committees designed to foster equity and inclusion including the UKY LGTBQ task force and advisory board, and the UK Safe Space committee. Mel also helped to design a teaching module on Allyship and Gender Non-conforming students for the UK College of Arts & Sciences. No matter what Mel was doing, they made a lasting impression that helped to shape lives and commitments. For example, I recently learned Mel was the high school teacher for one of our gender and women’s studies graduate student who told me they were so glad they had a queer role model such as Mel.

Mel’s dissertation research was firmly rooted in these desires to challenge and create communities and educational spaces where queer folks can flourish. Their research tackles the ongoing problems of violence, exclusion, and equity in educational settings for various student populations including women, gender non-conforming/trans students as well as those with disabilities.In their introductory chapter, Mel wrote that in 2008, 

“I was sitting at a restaurant in Lexington, KY, with a friend, Jack. We were talking about his name change process through the court system. I had gone with him to court so that he could legally change his name to Jack. During the conversation, I told Jack that I was trans too. I don’t remember the exact words, but I was scared to admit that my gender didn’t match what I had been assigned at birth. I had always been uncomfortable in my body but wasn’t sure why. This realization and admittance gave me an insight into one of the reasons. In all of my years of schooling, no one had ever talked to me about being transgender or that it was even a possibility. I had to investigate what being transgender was from the people around me and the books that filled the library. Knowing Jack gave me permission to see myself as something other than a woman. It still would be many years later before I would inhabit my non-binary identity.

Mel wanted to unsettle such educational silencing and damage. Mel explored the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming college students and their resistance to heteronormativity and gendered surveillance and violence on campus and how they build networks of belonging and support on campus and in online communities in their own terms. Mel’s dissertation research not only shed light on the daily violence and exclusion they experienced especially during the COVID crisis, but also highlighted how they sought out and established networks and spaces for community building, safety, connection, and well-being. Mel always pursued new insights from a wide range of interdisciplinary feminist and queer scholars to deepen their analysis including theories of affect, borderlands, and sexualities. Mel never cut corners. They always pushed themselves.  

Mel has always been a tireless warrior for social justice and would never give up on anything.  I will never forget how despite dealing with chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Mel carried on with their dissertation research from their hospital room.  They did interviews, drafted chapters, and had many Zoom meetings with myself and their co-chair about their research. Mel was steadfast in their desire to tell the stories of trans and gender nonconforming college students and how these stories can help us to develop resistive knowledges and practices, push for our commitments to rethink and challenge problematic educational policies and practices and help to foster equitable learning environments for women, sexual minorities, and students of color. In honor of Mel, I will renew my own commitments to carrying on their work.  

Mel was a wonderfully tenacious and ardent scholar/activist/teacher/mentor.   They lived a committed political and personal life. They cared deeply about fighting injustices and for caring and nourishing friends/family and collective well-being.  So many of us were deeply touched by their passion, integrity, wisdom, and zest. They made so many contributions to combatting homophobia and transphobia, on and off campus.  Their undaunted spirit, humor, loyalty, courage, and love for the wholeness and joy of life, justice, and community will continue to inspire and sustain us. So many of us will miss them but also carry forward their many lessons and desire for remaking our worlds." – Karen Tice

"I had the privilege of knowing Mel as my senior year high school English teacher before they became my colleague at GWS. I recall Mel as an important queer role model as I navigated difficult times during school. I would often stay behind after class and we would talk about navigating identity. Mel was the first person to introduce me to the concept of queer theory, and part of me knows that this introduction helped me along my life path that ultimately resulted in us serendipitously becoming graduate colleagues in the department. Mel’s presence was always magnetic, and their dedication and passion for improving the lives around them has left a lasting impression on me and I am certain upon so many others. One of the key aspects of Mel that I will always keep with me was their hearty laugh, and their sense of humor. I always felt like when I was in a space with Mel they would naturally bring a sense of joy, compassion, and kindness that was infectious. I knew Mel for nearly 10 years, and I will always be indebted to their spirit for justice, advocacy, and influence." – Lukas Bullock

"Mel was an especially talented teacher. They were extremely thoughtful in their course design and they taught with both academic rigor and deeply held compassion for their students. I learned a great deal from them about what feminist praxis looks like in the classroom." -Elizabeth Williams

"The world of academia is a tapestry woven with the brilliance and dedication of remarkable individuals who shape and inspire generations to come. Mel Lesch is undoubtedly one of them. As their dissertation co-chair, I had the privilege of working closely with Mel, and it is with profound respect and admiration that I share with you their exceptional contributions and the lasting impact they left behind.

Mel’s intellectual prowess was evident from the very start. Their enrollment in the Ph.D. program of Gender and Women’s Studies (GWS) at the University of Kentucky in 2017 was the beginning of a path that would see them emerge as a beacon of scholarship and social change. Through their diligent efforts and unyielding dedication, Mel’s influence rippled across multiple domains. Their deep engagement with the coursework and their thought-provoking contributions to class discussions set them apart as an innovative thinker. As their dissertation co-chair, I witnessed the development of their groundbreaking research project. Focusing on the experiences of transgender college students in heteronormative learning environments, Mel demonstrated their commitment to marginalized communities. Their use of diverse methodologies aimed to unearth nuanced insights into a vulnerable population and foreground their often-overlooked voice, well exemplifying their determination to foster inclusivity and equity.

However, Mel’s impact extended far beyond their research. Mel’s passion for equitable education was evident in their role as an academic program coordinator for Residence Life and graduate coordinator for the Office of LGBTQ* Resources at the University of Kentucky—an institution they spearheaded to establish on campus. Through innovative pedagogical approaches and enthusiasm to share their life story as a member of the marginalized community, Mel also empowered their students with the tools to understand and combat systemic inequalities. Mel’s legacy as a mentor is particularly poignant, as their guidance and wisdom have kindled the flames of passion in countless aspiring students.

Mel’s dedication to creating inclusive spaces resonated deeply within their community involvement as well. As co-chair of the 2018 Kentucky GWS conference, Mel demonstrated their leadership in facilitating a successful event that united scholars from across the country. Their contributions to the GWS graduate student congress and within Residence Life and the Office of LGBTQ* Resources were testaments to their commitment to nurturing welcoming environments.

Mel Lesch’s memory is etched in the hearts of those fortunate enough to have crossed paths with them. Their legacy will endure through the transformative ideas they championed, the achievements of those they mentored, and the collaborations they fostered.

In our shared grief, we celebrate the indomitable spirit of Mel Lesch.Their dedication, ethics, and commitment to social progress embody the ideals we hold dear. As we bid them farewell, we remember the remarkable scholar, mentor, and community leader whose contributions continue to shape the landscape of academia and beyond. Mel, your light will forever inspire us to strive for excellence, compassion, and positive change." -Charlie Yi Zhang


Student comments:

“Mel actually cared about us and how we’re doing in and outside the course.”

“They were always around and available when I needed it which I always appreciated.  They created a space that felt very open and understanding, as well, which is refreshing.”

“Such a wonderful professor! Engaging, kind, and understanding of the busy lives of students”

“Mel was overall a great instructor. I was fortunate enough to have Mel in high school for English & it has been so cool to see how their teaching has evolved & to see them teaching about something that they're passionate about.”

“Mx Lesch is the best! They were super understanding and supportive and was the best instructor I’ve had in terms of accessibility. They are super dedicated to ensuring all students are able to learn and do a great job building rapport with students.”

“The content Mel gave us to read provided me with new perspectives on social issues. I feel like a more well–rounded and considerate citizen now.”

“The professor was really patient and open–minded. Also, funny and always have positive vibes, which is great because it made me always show up to zoom meetings.”

“Replies to discussion boards were very helpful and uplifting. Their kindness is very enjoyable and makes meetings very smooth and enjoyable”