by Sherri Williams

While there are more than 100 historically black colleges and universities in the country, only three have LGBT student centers.

 

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Keep your t***** out of our bathrooms. Thanks!

#DIE No f******* allowed! We don’t want you here.

Keep Spelman safe. We don’t want you. F*** you freaks. No queers.

Those vile and violent messages, scribbled on torn and wrinkled paper, were slipped under the dorm rooms of LGBT students at the end of the spring semester at Spelman College. Amber Warren, former president of Spelman’s LGBT student group Afrekete, got the first one in early April.

The notes were a blow to her gut—a sign that Warren’s work since her freshman year to make the historically black women’s campus in Atlanta more inclusive of LGBT students hadn’t gone as far as she wanted.

“I honestly feel like, in a weird way, I let my campus down, but Spelman just failed me. There’s only so much that I can do as another student,” said Warren, 22, who received a note the day that Pride Week activities were announced at Spelman. “I felt like it was a slap in the face to not be protected by my campus nor supported by my student body…. I felt like it was hard to get people to care.”

Historically black colleges and universities are making overtures to be more inclusive of LGBT students. Spelman announced that it will start accepting transgender students this fall. Bowie State, Fayetteville State, and North Carolina Central State universities have LGBT student centers, and more black colleges are offering courses about black queer history. Despite the incremental progress at HBCUs, there is still resistance that makes black queer students feel like outsiders at home.

Beverly Guy-Sheftall, PhD, the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College, has worked to make the college LGBT-inclusive since 1981, when she became the founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center. Part of its mission is to address LGBTQ issues. Spelman has gone further than other HBCUs in advancing LGBT issues, but there is still room for progress, Guy-Sheftall said.

“It has been difficult to create what I would call a queer-friendly campus because we haven’t acknowledged as an institution the deep and persistent issues around homophobia that exist in the community—and HBCUs are a microcosm of that,” Guy-Sheftall said. “We would have to say out loud and on a regular basis that we have issues around this and address them as an institution.”

Spelman is perceived as a leader on LGBT issues at HBCUs because Guy-Sheftall’s center led many of those efforts, including a three-year research and advocacy project around LGBT issues at HBCUs with a grant from the Arcus Project. In 2011, nine HBCUs gathered at Spelman for a historic summit. In 2017 Guy-Sheftall established the Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Scholars Program, which awards scholarships to LGBT students and hosts LGBT-related programming on campus. Spelman is the only HBCU with a tenure-track professor in black queer studies, Guy-Sheftall said, and last year the school announced that it would begin admitting transgender students this fall.

But Warren believes the college responded poorly to the transphobic and homophobic notes. An attack on a transgender student that followed, she said, is evidence that the school isn’t prepared for more transgender students on campus: They aren’t protecting those that are already there. “The climate is too toxic,” she said.

At least four hateful notes circulated on campus. Warren said she got a note on April 2 that referred to her partner using a transphobic slur. Weeks later, her partner, a trans man and Spelman student, received a note as well. He was then attacked on campus in his dormitory on May 3. Before his attack, Afrekete met with school officials to discuss safety issues. But the administration’s response, Warren said, was weak. An e-mail was sent on April 25 saying that students received hateful messages and Spelman didn’t condone them.

But the e-mail didn’t directly mention transphobic or homophobic sentiments, and it was only sent to student residents, Guy-Sheftall said, leaving most of the college unaware of the hateful notes and their connection to the attack that came later.

On May 1 Spelman’s President Mary Schmidt Campbell issued a statement to the perpetrator: “You are not Spelman College. Spelman abhors your behavior. Spelman will continue to open its arms to embrace all of our Spelman students whatever their gender identity, sexual orientation or gender expression. Spelman is love, justice and respect. You, the perpetrator, are not Spelman.”

Spelman College declined requests for interviews with administrators about the institution’s response to the notes, as well as with public-safety personnel about the investigations into the notes and the attack on the transgender student.

Warren, who recently graduated, said she and other queer students feel Spelman’s response to the notes was inadequate and left them vulnerable. Moreover, she is worried about students’ safety in the fall, because those who sent the notes and attacked her partner weren’t apprehended.

“I really feel like I was [playing the role of] public-safety [officer], and the dean of students and administration,” she said. “I did all the roles. I literally ran a queer trauma unit out of my own dorm…. The reason it got more toxic and heavy is because all Spelman did was send out emails.”

LGBT clashes on HBCU campuses

Some of the hostility toward LGBT students at HBCUs has occurred at the nation’s top black institutions. In 2011 Robert Champion died after being beaten during a Florida A&M University hazing incident. Champion was gay, and his lawyer believed his sexual identity played a role in the beating. At Morehouse College a student was beaten with a bat in 2002 after a classmate believed he looked at him in a dorm shower. In 2009, Morehouse, a black men’s college and the brother school to Spelman, issued a dress code that forbid students from wearing women’s clothing. Hampton University didn’t recognize an LGBT alliance group on campus in 2007 because of improper paperwork, a university official said, but it officially accepted the school’s first LGBT student organization in 2016.

An important first step in addressing transphobia and homophobia at HBCUs is recognizing that it exists, said Seth E. Davis, PhD, a black queer literacies scholar and assistant professor at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. He graduated from an HBCU, Tennessee State University, in 2009.

“It’s an embedded part of the culture…The whole system is built on it,” Davis said, speaking of transphobia and homophobia at all colleges and universities including HBCUs. “It’s such an embedded part of Greek culture, SGA culture, the dorm culture.”

It’s also crucial for HBCUs, including Spelman, to provide training for staff, faculty, and students to ensure the entire institution is prepared to create an atmosphere of equity for queer students when they interact with every department on campus, especially housing and public safety, Warren said.

“If you’re not black, cisgender, Christian, come from a two-parent household—if you just come in with your own setbacks and different mixture of identities that are oppressed, you’re kind of already ostracized from Spelman’s community,” she said.

Policing students’ gender presentation at Spelman is an issue that serves to ostracize those who express their gender in unconventional ways, said Tiana Barnwell, 20, a political-science major at Spelman, who will be a senior this fall. During a first-year student event where students traditionally wear white dresses, Barnwell opted to wear a suit, and said she was publicly criticized by some staff for going against the conventional feminine attire.

“From freshman year I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect,” said Barnwell, who is a self-described lesbian with a masculine appearance. “There was an incident where a security guard didn’t want me to come on campus because he thought I was a boy.”

However, Barnwell said that she’s seen progress at Spelman, particularly in classes. “I never felt unwanted or unwelcome in class from a professor. I have from students, but never a professor. I’ve noticed a change in language from professors,” she said, with more gender-neutral and less heteronormative dialogue.

According to Guy-Sheftall, acceptance of LGBTQ students on HBCU campuses is selective and situational, and it depends on an institution’s leadership. “The acceptance occurs because people on the campus work at it,” she said. “I think if you’re not working at it, not talking about it, not naming it, I think you will have not very much acceptance.”

LGBT centers offer information, advocacy

North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina, is working on making its campus more inclusive of LGBT students. The university opened its LGBTA Resource Center in April 2013, the second LGBT center at an HBCU. (The first was opened at Bowie State University in 2012.)

Tezz Crudup, who identifies as a transgender queer man, will be a senior theater major at North Carolina Central University this fall. He transitioned while enrolled at the university, and he believes he was accepted by students and faculty because the LGBT center creates a culture of inclusivity on campus.

“I met students at the beginning of the year who were anti-LGBTQ community. Since the year progressed, and they’ve been out here for a year now, they look at it as it’s no disorder or it’s no disease because that’s how we’re trained sometimes,” said Crudup, 21. “Now that we have an active [LGBT] center everybody goes in and out. It builds a support system. So our support is strong.”

The Safe Zone Office, the LGBT center at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, became a center for information and advocacy on campus when the state’s House Bill 2, known as the bathroom bill, required people to use restrooms according to the gender on their birth certificate, said Brent Lewis, Safe Zone Office and Resource Center director. He tailored trainings for faculty and staff around transgender issues and gave students discussion space.

“Some of the interactions and understanding of students may not have happened in my office if a person like myself was not here to help students navigate the politics and navigate their feelings,” Lewis said. His school’s LGBT center opened in October 2013.

While there are more than 100 HBCUs, there are only three known HBCUs with LGBT-student centers. White institutions have had LGBT-student centers as early as the 1970s.

“Traditionally HBCUs do well at nurturing the black identity. Where we don’t always do a great job as HBCUs is also nurturing and supporting and showing compassion and understanding the gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender, however you identify—that part of your identity,” Lewis said. “For students, that becomes difficult. As we think through intersectionality, our identities don’t move separately. Those identities impact each other.”

Inclusion helps retention

Black queer students have many options for education. If HBCUs want to remain competitive, they must provide services for LGBT students to recruit and retain them in the same way services are offered for cisgendered and heterosexual women, veterans, and disabled students, Lewis said.

“Some of our smaller HBCUs, and specifically our private ones, are having enrollment challenges, fiscal challenges…. It’s vital to our sustainability,” he said of HBCUs’ providing services for LGBT students. He said that it helps with retention if “all identities are being supported.”

Fayetteville State’s LGBT center is a draw for black students who want to attend an HBCU and be at an institution where they “wouldn’t be afraid to be gay, trans, lesbian,” Lewis said.

NCCU’s LGBT center is a service to all students because it’s a space that is “culture-shifting” by affirming LGBT students and enabling cisgender and heterosexual students to develop as allies, said Jennifer Williams, LGBTA resource-center coordinator at NCCU.

“When these students graduate they are going to inevitably have colleagues, co-workers, who identify within the community. I look at my role here as one that is to prepare professionals with cultural competence in working with LGBT people,” she said. “The center is a place for conversation. I feel like a lot of growth and a lot of the learning that happens in college happens outside of the classroom.”

The National Black Justice Coalition, a national civil-rights organization that works toward the liberation of black LGBT people, has conducted cultural competency training with HBCU administrators for a decade on policies and practices that can promote equity and inclusivity on campuses.

David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said it’s important that the entire black community work toward equality for LGBT people within black institutions, and in others. Most black LGBT people live in the South, where many HBCUs are; in some Southern states, it’s still legal to discriminate against LGBT people.

“Unless black people do the work of supporting black people, all of us in all of our diversity, none of us will ever get free,” he said. “None of us will ever be healthy. None of us will ever be happy in the way that we deserve to be.”

The Human Rights Campaign, a mainstream LGBT advocacy organization, has an HBCU program that trains LGBT students at HBCUs to be leaders on their campuses. The organization also hosts an annual leadership summit.

Some HBCUs are making real progress in LGBT inclusion, Guy-Sheftall said, and she rejects the idea that black institutions and black people are more homophobic than others. But for HBCUs to move forward, schools have to work in the same way white institutions did when they admitted racial minorities, she said.

“I think that somehow we do believe that we don’t have the same issues around difference that, for example, white institutions have around race,” Guy-Sheftall said. “We sort of accept the idea that people are racist. But I don’t think that we, generally speaking, accept that people are homophobic and might act on that in very problematic, and in some cases violent, ways.”

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Jennifer Williams, LGBTA resource-center coordinator at North Carolina Central University, stands before a wall of flags representing a spectrum of gender and sexual identities. (Photo by Sherri Williams)

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This story was produced in partnership with the Anna Julia Cooper Center of Wake Forest University as part of Black on Campus, a series reporting on issues of national consequence to a black college student audience. It is under the umbrella of Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out the archive.