As more and more students enter college identifying with the LGBT community, colleges and universities must adapt effectively to support their needs. With changing student demographics, it is essential that institutions of higher education proactively evaluate policies to ensure that they are meeting the needs of all students. Fayetteville State University became one of a handful of HBCUs to offer LGBT support services this month, recognizing the pivotal role LGBT support services play in the development and acceptance of LGBT students.
Fayetteville State University kicked off the grand opening of their new Safezone Office on National Coming Out Day: Oct. 11, 2013. This event demonstrated the university's commitment to LGBT students; providing a safe environment and opportunity for students to "come out." Of note, faculty, staff and administrators on campus have the option of putting a 'safezone' sticker on their office door, letting students know that behind their door is someone who respects them, will listen, will be supportive, and won't judge them. Fayetteville State University is cultivating allies to support LGBT students. Offering a safe space and trusted allies counters negative experiences often encountered by these students. Being an LGBT student at a college or university that does not acknowledge you can be detrimental -- increasing anxiety, stress, and sending messages of disapproval.
It is especially important for HBCUs to visibly support their LGBT student populations as it is difficult for African-American students to be placed into another minority group. Inadequate services and feelings of disapproval further isolate students. It is important that under represented minorities support and advocate for one another, forming an alliance that provides a foundation for student success.
Although LGBT services have been growing at colleges and universities across the nation, HBCUs have been slow to respond -- some critics claim the slowness is due to conservative values or religious traditions. Only when universities make visible commitments to LGBT students will these students feel welcomed and emotionally connected to their institutions. Fayetteville State University is stepping out as a leader among HBCUs, setting an example for other institutions and challenging those who deny LGBT students their livelihood by failing to give them a supportive learning environment.
Simple initiatives can be taken to visibly display support for the LGBT community. Some colleges and universities celebrate LGBT history month by flying the LGBT pride flag and having senior administrators, including the president, speak at LGBT events throughout the month and year. Having top down support of LGBT students is essential as students receive the message that it is fine to be part of the LGBT community.
Colleges and universities must adapt to new student populations as they have in the past. And HBCUs will benefit from supporting and acknowledging LGBT students. By doing so, a higher level of learning and appreciation for differences will occur both inside and outside of the classroom, enhancing the fruitful college experience that HBCUs offer.
* This post was co-authored with A.J. Vervoort, a master's student in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. A.J. is the former Student Government president at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. During his tenure, he worked with Shane Windmeyer, Execute Director of Campus Pride, and Dan Cathy, Chief Operations Officer, Chick-fil-A franchises, changing the anti-gay donation practices of WinShape -- Chick-fil-A's charitable arm.