In the past HBCUs have been criticized for failing to support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally (LGBTQA) students, faculty and staff. A smaller number of HBCUs have LGBTQA organizations in comparison to Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). Currently only 21% of HBCU’s have LGBTQA student organizations on campus (Campus Pride, 2013). The small percentage of organizations may reflect the ongoing struggle within the Black community to embrace people regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression or identity. Despite the struggles, several HBCUs have taken steps to ensure LGBTQA students and faculty members feel safe and welcomed.
In 2012, Bowie State University in Maryland became a trailblazer when they opened their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) center. The center was the first of its kind to be unveiled at an HBCU. HBCUs including North Carolina Central University and Fayetteville State University have also opened student centers designed to support students from the LGBTQA community.
Providing safe spaces for LGBTQA students is important considering that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide in comparison to students of the same age (2014). More specifically, Kirby (2011) found that before the age of eighteen, 36% of African-American lesbians in comparison to 21% of White lesbians attempted suicide.
HBCUs including Florida A & M University (FAMU) have continued to make progress towards creating an inclusive environment by adopting non-discriminatory language that protects students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Furthermore, HBCU’s have partnered with organizations including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) a national LGBTQ advocacy group, to provide professional development and leadership opportunities for students, faculty, school administrators and staff.
The HRC’s annual HBCU Leadership and Career Summit provides opportunities for students from HBCUs to come together to discuss a variety of issues. In addition, HBCUs including Morgan State University (MSU) have advisory boards, which sponsor various activities to raise campus awareness. MSU sponsors a symposium that welcomes students, faculty, school administers, researchers and activists throughout the United States. The symposium examines how issues relating to sexual orientation, gender expression and identity intersect with race and religion.
Although HBCUs have taken several steps toward creating inclusive environments, there are three significant areas they should strengthen:
- Increase the number of LGBTQA Centers: HBCUs should reach out to school administrators at Bowie State, North Carolina Central University and Fayetteville State University to discuss the benefits of opening an LGBTQA center. Students need a safe place to meet and discuss issues within the LGBTQA community. Opening a center will raise the visibility of LGBTQA students on campus and allow invitations to open dialogue.
- Adopt non-discriminatory language that protects students, faculty and staff regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression or identity: Every HBCU should have very clear policies within their student handbook that protect the rights of every member of the campus community. The policies should be consistent with other colleges and universities that support LGBTQA students.
- Increase efforts to create a safe and welcoming environment: HBCU administrators should work with residential life, campus police, faculty and staff to ensure students do not have to endure physical or verbal assaults. LGBTQA students, faculty members and staff should feel valued regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression or identity. In addition, ensuring the entire campus community has undergone sensitivity training is critical to creating an inclusive environment.
Collectively, HBCUs can work with students, faculty and staff members to create an inclusive environment that supports individuals regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression or identity.
Larry Walker is currently a Research Fellow in the School of Graduate Studies and Doctoral Candidate at Morgan State University in the Urban Educational Leadership program.