July 18, 2024

'There is change happening': historically black colleges tackle LGBTQ rights – The Guardian

Although Morehouse College decided to admit transgender men, progress is slow because of the colleges’ roots in black churches

In Atlanta,the South’s self-described “gay black mecca”, Morehouse College, an historically all-male black college, said last week it would, for the first time, allow transgender men and “individuals who self-identify as men, regardless of the sex assigned to them at birth” to be considered for admission from 2020 onwards, according to a statement.
The changed policy is a relatively new concept among the United States’ historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Most HBCUs have roots in religious establishments, due to the efforts of black churches to create universities for formerly enslaved African Americans at the end of the civil war. That religious background means many campuses remain steadfastly socially conservative.
But Morehouse’s high profile embrace of allowing trans male students has cast a spotlight on an ongoing and difficult debate in black colleges, prompting hostility from some and acceptance from others.
Reverend William Owens, the founder and president of the Coalition of African American Pastors, an organization of more than 7,000 pastors nationwide, said the changes were “terrible”.
He added: “Young people probably see this as we saw the civil rights movement, but it’s not the same thing, not the same thing at all,” he said.
However, some do not think the new policy goes nearly far enough. Morehouse College sophomore Tyeone Barner, says his college’s new matriculation policy still doesn’t accurately reflect the “culturally diverse education space for black people”. Morehouse has outlined an appeal process for individuals who transition and identify as female, though it adds, if one does so, “that student will no longer be eligible to matriculate at Morehouse”.
“Students that transition and self-identify as women while enrolled should not face expulsion,” he said.
Over the last couple decades, trans activists have found it difficult to infiltrate the mostly conservative aura at HBCUs because of their history and roots in churches. The fact that Morehouse has changed their admission policy is incredible because of its historic association and entrenchment in the Baptist Church, said Leslie Hall, director of the HBCU program at the Human Rights Campaign, a group that advocates for LGBTQ equality.
Currently, of the approximately 100 black universities around the country, only a handful of HBCUs have implemented non-discrimination policies around gender in recent years.
Other institutions have never considered a student’s gender to be an issue. Another private black higher education institution in Atlanta, the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), which matriculates both men and women, told the Guardian that ITC has always had an open enrollment policy. “We admit students based on their academic qualifications and not their gender identity,” said Katrina Garnes, the university’s director of marketing and communications.
It’s a time of complex examination of black identity for Morehouse in a city where there’s a separate parade for its own Black Pride Weekend garnering nearly 80,000 visitors, and where the city has become a destination for gay black visitors.
The college’s grappling with its history and changing times has, at times, been difficult.
Even as recently as 2008, a study by a former HBCU alumnus for University of Pennsylvania found a fear of bigotry in the LGBTQ community on Morehouse’s campus. A student named Sean is quoted as asking in regards to the homophobia he sees at the college. “Seeing how this is an all-male school, seeing how we’re in the middle of Atlanta, and that blacks are notoriously homophobic, how are we going to manage it? Are we just going to sweep it under the carpet? That’s what’s usually done,” he said.
Aware of the ongoing criticism from both on and off campus, Morehouse tried to foster that conversation with a course in 2013 around the history of black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, with the aid of alumnus Dr Jafari Allen, the college newspaper reported. This week, after the announcement of the policy shift at the university, Allen, who taught that class via Skype, criticized the new policy for its lack of inclusivity.
The need for a program focusing on historically black colleges came nearly 20 years ago when the HRC noticed violent anti-LGBTQ incidents at these colleges, one of them being at Morehouse, Hall said. In 2002, Morehouse student Gregory Love was beaten with a baseball bat in a dorm shower because an assailant thought Love had looked at him “in an inappropriate way”.
Hall, who attended historically black universities himself, says he has seen a sharp shift in LGBTQ communities on these campuses.
“Under President Obama, there was a great deal of advancement for LGBTQ people,” he said, pointing to shifts in state laws that conflicted with HBCUs stances on same-sex marriage. Also, he added, “the student bodies [at these universities] have become more unapologetic about what they deserve and require on campus. No longer are students really suffering in silence.”
Now, through the HBCU program at the Human Rights Campaign, Hall works with nearly 30 institutions, and a number of organizations on black campuses are reaching out to them.
Morehouse is not the first black campus to implement changes to their admission policies, not even in the Atlanta area. Nearly two years before Morehouse, Spelman University, a private all-female historically black university, released a similar announcement. College president Mary S Campbell stipulated anyone who identified as a woman, regardless of the gender assigned at birth, would be considered for admission.
But the picture is varied across the south.
In North Carolina when the state passed House Bill 2 – the so-called “bathroom bill” saying transgender individuals must use the bathroom corresponding with their gender assigned at birth – a number of black universities defied that ruling, saying campuses would allow people to use the bathroom of their choosing.
But Hall said he has had trouble breaking into Alabama universities and doing work with campuses.
He is optimistic that change is only headed in one direction.
“There is certainly a change happening. Students are demanding to be seen and to be heard and I think folks are a bit more educated on topics as it relates to gender and sexual orientation,” Hall said.


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