Howard University: Out in Front on Care for the LGBT Population

07/05/2012 03:07 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012
  • Marybeth Gasman Professor of Higher Education, University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education

This post is co-authored with Thai-Huy Nguyen, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, Steven D. Mobley, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park and alumnus of Howard University, and Juliana Partridge, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania and graduate of Spelman College.

Increasingly, health care facilities are becoming publicly committed to providing equitable and inclusive care to LGBT patients and their families. Recently, Howard University's hospital was named a leader in LGBT care. Out of 5,000 hospitals in the United States, this historically black university's hospital is one of only 234 hospitals to be recognized for its exemplary care of LGBT patients. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest civil rights organization working towards LGBT equality, deemed Howard's hospital a leader in LGBT care because of its success in four areas: 1.) The hospital has a patient non-discrimination policy that is publicly available and uses explicit terms such as 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity'; 2.) The hospital's visitation policy provides the same rights to same sex couples and their children as those provided to different-sex couples and their children; 3.) The hospital has a non-discrimination policy that includes the terms 'gender identity' and 'sexual orientation'; and 4.) The hospital regularly provides training for its staff on issues related to LGBT patient care. Howard University's recognition in this area comes on the heels of Spelman College and Bowie State University, both historically black institutions, 'coming out' in support of LGBT issues.

Historically, black medical schools and hospitals have a history of teaching and caring for their own. This has proved especially true during times when the nation's discriminatory practices relegated blacks to poorly-funded and -resourced hospitals and clinics. Whereas many white physicians and nurses staffed white hospitals, throughout history there have been too few black institutions and health care providers to serve black patients.

Although only three historically black medical schools and teaching hospitals exist today, they stand as beacons of continued support and achievement in black communities. Often, these institutions serve the most underserved and disadvantaged individuals. Unfortunately, such service has not always been extended to include sexual minorities.

The LGBT community, widely diverse and complex, is associated with many health issues including (but not limited to) high rates of depression and suicide in youth/adolescents, HIV (disproportionately high among African Americans) and AIDS, and substance abuse, as well as the stigma and discrimination that are associated with the aforementioned issues. Howard University's efforts in supporting LGBT health are evidence that times are changing for the better at HBCUs.

Some HBCUs are known for their unsupportive and unwelcoming climate to those that identify as LGBT. Historically, HBCUs have been slow to respond to the needs of LGBT communities, often inhibiting student requests for establishing permanent student organizations or facilitating programs that bring to light homophobia in black communities. Conversely, Howard University has been a leader in serving LGBT students. Since 2000, Howard has had an on-campus support organization for gay and lesbian students. This organization is both visible and accessible, and is contributing to improved treatment of the institution's LGBT population. With the Human Rights Campaign's recent recognition of Howard's hospital, it is clear that the institution and its hospital are champions for LGBT communities on campus and within the larger Washington, D.C. landscape.

As students from increasingly diverse backgrounds enroll at HBCUs, these institutions must begin and continue to examine their campus climates and the experiences of students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender. Perhaps it is time for HBCUs nationwide to follow Howard University's lead.