THE BLOG

Race and Sex at HBCUs

03/27/2014 02:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

On Monday, March 24 -- after a successful opening night of Spelhouse Pride Week -- my friends and I exited through the back of Benjamin E. Mays Hall only to see a Morehouse student writing a message in chalk on the concrete. As we got a bit closer, one of my friends said "Hey! I think the first word of that message is 'Homo!'" As my friends and I walked toward him, our Morehouse brother got up and quickly walked away. Surprised, we inched toward the message which read: "Homo sex is a sin, so is a man who cheats or vise [sic] versa." Needless to say we were frustrated -- we had just debriefed about an awesome night and contemplated about wonderful events to come. That same night, the young man who wrote the message remorsefully returned, apologized to my friends and I, scratched out the original message and replaced it with: "God Wants Us ALL. <3 NO HATE." The original, hateful message was accompanied by a series of Christian-inspired messages written across Morehouse and Spelman's respective campuses.

Though this incident was threatening and hurtful and disappointing, it isn't what has infuriated us -- the executive board of Morehouse Safe Space.

March 25 and 26 were checkered with articles written about the incident by organizations that offered "support" -- namely sites and organizations like Campus Pride and Project Q Atlanta. Both provided uninformed, frustrating coverage of the incident that serve either to inform audiences (donors) about initiatives they're rolling out, or to attract greater traffic to their websites. Neither article aimed to provide support for SafeSpace, Afrekete or Pride Week. This is clear because neither site/organization reached out to us before writing the articles in order to find out how they could effectively support us; and, both have our contact information. Had they reached out, a more constructive response would have been strategized.

Students and administration at HBCUs struggle to maintain control of narratives about the institutions -- especially with regard to sexuality. Linked to a broader history of Black sexual exploitation, narratives about sexuality on HBCU campuses are routinely scandalized and misconstrued, alienating both faculty and students. Once a story is leaked, the media aggressively distorts the narrative or excludes significant information that disallows the telling of a full story. This became clear to me last year when Morehouse approved the Black Queer Studies class that was offered in the spring. Rather than celebrating our progress, too many sites saw it as an opportunity to unproductively revive the trauma of homophobia of the past; thus, trapping Morehouse into a narrative of eternal bigotry. This media trap works not to pressure Morehouse into providing fuller support for the gay, bisexual and genderqueer community, but to inspire anxiety among the administration on our campus about how the media will construe Morehouse. This anxiety is presented to Safe Space in the form of hesitation to be fully supportive or to openly embrace gay students for fear of a perverted interpretation of that support. Had either of the aforementioned sites/organizations reached out, this concern would have been communicated, and we could have worked together to determine a more strategic response.

But, their lack of communication isn't what has infuriated us either.

What is infuriating is the comment by Campus Pride that anti-LGBT sentiments are "especially" present on HBCU campuses. Again, had they reached out, they would have been made aware of the fact that The Office of Student Life supplied us with $1,500 for Pride Week, that Morehouse's President expressed his desire to work to make Morehouse a more supportive environment for queer students, that virtually every Dean on campus and several faculty responded swiftly and strategically to the incident even before Safe Space got the opportunity to reach out to them, or that Safe Space requested that the students involved not be punished, but that a meeting be set up between us in order to have a restorative dialogue about what happened. But, alas, they never reached out; and, not only is their construction of our schools directly threatening to the work being done by SafeSpace, Afrekete and LGBT organizations at HBCUs everywhere, but it comes from a racially exclusionary ethos and is severely misinformed. Three erroneous assumptions are made in order to substantiate this problematic claim: (1) analyses of sexuality can be temporarily separated from race, (2) inclusive spaces look and feel the same for everyone, and (3) predominately white institutions (PWIs) are an appropriate standard for comparison. Through the paradigm constructed by these three assumptions, it would appear as if HBCUs are light years behind. But, it simply isn't true.

To begin, the so-called "LGBT-friendliness" surveys provided by organizations like Campus Pride insinuate that institutional inclusion of queer and gender nonconforming people can be measured through questions that disregard race (and gender and class for that matter). However, this can only be true if every LGBT person is a White, gay, cisgender man for whom constructing an anti-homophobic space constitutes full inclusion. In reality, racial, gender and class diversities within queer communities require the intersectional analysis of inclusion that is missing in these surveys.

Moreover, inclusion is a concept conceived of by each LGBTQ person differently based on their personal experiences and their respective body politics -- what feels like inclusion for me may not feel like inclusion for another Black gay man; and, what feels like inclusion for him, may be different from a trans* indigenous person's understanding. LGBT friendliness surveys utilize a positivist methodology that circumvents (beautiful, natural) contradiction, oversimplifies the LGBTQ community and presents a monolithic conception of inclusion.

Furthermore, when an intersectional analysis is utilized to examine LGBTQ inclusion, PWIs -- many of them having severe issues regarding racial suppression, sexual assault and class alienation -- cannot serve as the standard for comparison. Once the fabulously messy experience of every LGBTQ person is incorporated into analysis, it is revealed that every academic institution has work to do to become more inclusive.

Now -- circling back to the myth of the inherently homophobic HBCU -- here's the big secret: Black Queer/SGL students report being ostracized on campuses everywhere. I say this not only as a person frustrated with the constant disparagement of HBCUs, but as a friend and listening ear of students at Emory, Harvard, Stanford, Oberlin, Wellesley, U.C. Santa Cruz, Yale, U.C. San Diego, UCLA, Columbia, UNC Chapel Hill and Georgia State. We report to each other the difficulty that we experience finding spaces that embrace our whole selves. I also say this as a current domestic exchange student at U.C. Berkeley. Finally, I say this as a Black gay man.

How relieving is my semester at U.C. Berkeley if I've left the homophobia at Morehouse only to experience intense anti-Blackness and racialized homophobia at Cal? How "LGBT-friendly" has Harvard been to a Black gay man who brags about only desiring and dating White gay men? How "LGBT-inclusive" of a space is Stanford for a Black queer students whose peers think questions like "How come there aren't any good Black artists/writers" is legitimate? Where's the "friendliness" of an institution with a president that affirms the three-fifths compromise as an example of U.S. government's productive identification of a common goal? Is an institution homophobia free if other LGBTQ students ostracize me because they dislike the particular presentation of gender and sexuality through my Black body?

These questions -- and many more -- complicate simplistic narratives of sexuality and help to debunk the idea that one can quantify LGBT friendliness; hence, troubling the myth that HBCUs are somehow more homophobic than other institutions.

Ultimately, the erroneous, totalizing construction of HBCUs as inherently homophobic does only one thing: Promotes internalized racism among Black queer people. It promotes the myth that Black people have a lack of capacity to understand and appreciate sexual diversity. It pushes my community to think that the only way to fully embrace our sexualities is to divorce our racial identities. Don't misunderstand me: I'm sick of the homophobia on Morehouse's campus. But, I'm also sick of people unproductively disparaging my school. I'm sick of the racism and racialized homophobia I'm experiencing at Berkeley. I'm sick of my Black queer peers being afraid to consider attending HBCUs because of how we've been constructed in the media. I'm sick of people pretending that PWIs are somehow more inclusive of my whole Black queer self. And, I'm sick of being understood in fragments.