Earlier this year, a group of gay and lesbian students at Winston-Salem State University, a mid-sized historically Black institution in the conservative Piedmont region of North Carolina, petitioned the school’s administration to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy. The proposal was actually warmly received by many of the college’s faculty, students and administrators, according to Michael Evans, a junior at Winston-Salem State and active member of the school’s Gay Straight Student Alliance
The board of trustees voted to approve the policy and Evans says many of the group’s members feel empowered by it.
“You can actually walk to class and not feel threatened,” said Evans, a 20-year-old junior majoring in molecular biology. “At Winston-Salem State, you don’t see a lot of gay bashing but you hear a lot of remarks. This protects us from that.”
Winston-Salem State University is among a growing number of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that now include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies. In the past six years, HBCUs have updated their policies or enacted rules to broaden the rights of gay and lesbian students and workers. These colleges include schools, such as Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Fisk University.
The changes are a reflection of nation’s growing acceptance of homosexuality in political, social, and even religious circles. But they have also been sparked by an aggressive effort by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a Washington, D.C.-based gay rights advocacy group, to reach young people on historically Black campuses. The impetus for this plan came more than five years ago after several reports surfaced of violent attacks on students who were perceived to be gay on three historically Black campuses.
The plan had several components, according to the HRC.
“One strategy was ensuring that these young African-American men and women could find a safe space on their campuses and become part of a larger lesbian gay bisexual transgendered (LGBT) movement and community,” said Joey Gaskins, student diversity coordinator for HRC. “The other thing was to make these historically Black colleges into more welcoming campuses. This involves having non-discrimination policies, equal opportunity, anti-harassment policy and creating lesbian gay bi-sexual and transgendered resource centers. Research shows that LGBT students have a harder time developing into more functional adults if they don’t have this kind of support.”
HRC says 18 historically Black colleges and universities now have this policy. A total of 23 of the nation’s 115 HBCUs either have the policy or have active student organizations for lesbian and gay students, or both, said Gaskins.
“The ultimate plan is to get to every campus,” he added.
Many students on campuses where these policies exist say they notice a difference in the social climate.
“One of the changes I’ve seen is more people are comfortable openly expressing their sexual orientation,” said Michael Brewer, 23, who graduated from Morehouse with a degree in political science in May and who served as president of Morehouse SAFE SPACE, the Morehouse’s gay student group. “At the Morehouse that I entered in 2004 there were very few openly gay people. Now there’s more of a presence of the queer experience on campus.”
But Gaskins said gay students and faculty still have a long way to go. Despite the political and social gains made by gays and lesbians in this country, many segments of the African-American community frown on homosexuality and are uncomfortable discussing the subject publicly. In many African-American Christian denominations, same gender relationships are considered a sin.
Concerns expressed by African-American religious leaders like Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church, a large evangelical church in Beltsville, Md., are common. While Jackson said he respects the right of gay and lesbian students and employees to be treated with dignity and with fairness, he is concerned about veiled attempts to promote certain lifestyles and to equate it with the struggles of ethnic minorities.
“The issue is, is gayness an immutable unchangeable characteristic?” said Jackson, who has previously led a campaign against gay marriage in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think it is. I now know a lot of people who were formerly gay who have come out of that lifestyle. I don’t know anyone who is formerly Black.”
This cultural backdrop, say observers, is an even bigger challenge than whether a college institutes a policy.
“I actually did my senior thesis on being gay or lesbian at an HBCU and what I found was that it wasn’t Howard’s environment that made people not want to come out but the fact that we have labeled the Black community as homophobic so people are afraid of rejection,” said Victoria Kirby, an openly lesbian and recent graduate of Howard who was elected the undergraduate representative to the university’s board of trustees her senior year.
At the end of the day, Gaskins said, the real empowerment comes not from policies but from ensuring that people are well informed.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter that they have policies,” said Gaskins. “Sometimes students and faculty don’t know it exists and if they do know, they don’t know how to use it as a resource. That’s why it is important that education continues.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com
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