HBCUs Have A Responsibility To LGBT StudentsCampus silence is read as lack of support.
By Eric Pritchard
The article, “At Conservative Black Colleges, Gays Struggle to Find Their Voice,” that recently ran on DiverseEducation.com hit home for me like no other news story in recent memory. In 2002, I graduated from a historically Black college. A first-generation college student, I was a celebrated student-leader who was well-respected by the administration, faculty and my peers on campus. Still, being Black, gay, proud, but fearfully silent, my college experience was not all that different from the experiences of the lesbian and gay students referenced in the story.
It was never said but implicitly understood that being gay was not going to win me any allies or let me keep any. There weren’t any student support services made explicitly available to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students on campus. And, I imagine that even if I could convince other LGBT students to create a student organization with me, I might have been met with the same resistance experienced by the students quoted in the article.
The Black community’s contentious relationship with gender and sexuality is not a new phenomenon, yet I believe there is a depth to the situation that should be further explored. For example, to evaluate the relevance of an LGBT student organization the same way one might a drill team or fashion club is outrageous. The LGBT identity of these students is not a hobby, but represents a part of their lives and directly impacts their ability to succeed academically. What I think is truly problematic is the fact that students are being forced to develop their own means of support in the first place. The development and sustainment of an affirming and safe space for LGBT students is an institution’s responsibility. It is absurd for HBCUs to demand that a student demonstrate academic excellence when administrators are unwilling to create a space where academic success and development are even possible. Simply letting LGBT students organize their own groups seems like a toothless solution to the emotional and physical terrorism of homophobia and transphobia that they may endure on any given day.
I am not so naïve as to believe that my appeals to the humanity of others to react humanely toward students will be seen as anything more than idealistic. To that end, I want to appeal to the dollars and sense of administrators, for if they don’t care about people, they must certainly care about their own pocketbooks. Every time they have a situation where they do not take a stand against hatred and bigotry, they create a silent declaration that hate and bigotry are tolerable. In the case of the HBCUs, silence is read as a publicly adamant lack of support for the LGBT students on their campuses. This contributes to a culture of hate that will ultimately result in someone being hurt or killed. Many HBCUs are already under-resourced and struggling financially. Therefore, it would be prudent to avoid lawsuits by taking the necessary steps to change the culture of the campuses toward LGBT students.
One could try to excuse some of the lack of support by pointing to the minimal financial resources HBCUs have in comparison with their predominately White counterparts. However, that argument cannot hold when the Human Rights Campaign’s HBCU outreach program is not taken full advantage of by those institutions. While I applaud the efforts and successes of HRC’s program, I would encourage anyone invested in the success of LGBT students of color to be equally mindful of their experiences at traditionally White institutions. There, these students often experience race- and class-based oppression in their LGBT support services and campus centers.
LGBT students at HBCUs give me hope as an HBCU alumnus. The growth in visible LGBT communities on these campuses, when coupled with the organized agitation of the trustees, administration, alumni and fellow students, could help change the tide in some way. Also, I encourage all HBCU alumni, administration and faculty who identify as LGBT persons or allies to promote courageous conversations about gender and sexuality at their institutions, for this is necessary to facilitate change. As Black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde reminds us, we are not separated by our differences, but by our silence.
— Eric Pritchard is a doctoral candidate in the English, Composition and Rhetoric Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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