For many who choose to attend an HBCU, the decision is about far more than just academics. Since the first HBCUs opened their doors in the years before the Civil War, they have offered black students an opportunity to pursue advanced studies in a space they can be certain will be supportive, welcoming and inclusive. It’s the very least that every student deserves, really—to be able to work, study and learn as part of a community that accepts them as they are.
Historically, the very act of fostering an atmosphere of support for black students has given HBCUs an indispensable role in the fight for civil rights. For many years, the work of providing HBCU students with an opportunity to achieve educational equality with their white peers was itself a political action. The goals of HBCUs have always been bigger than merely rewarding diligence with degrees. Their core missions have included social justice and civil rights, and they have long served as testaments of the right of all Americans to pursue higher learning.
That legacy is now in question. In recent years, as the movement for gay and transgender civil rights has gained traction, HBCUs have shown themselves to be relatively conservative in regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. While many majority-white colleges and universities have embraced the call for LGBT inclusion, HBCUs have been notably slow to extend their historical mission of social justice to the success of their LGBT students. Anecdotally and statistically, the majority of HBCUs have failed to create institutional supports that ensure LGBT-friendly campus environments.
According to the Campus Pride Index, of the country’s 106 HBCUs, just 21 percent have active LGBT-specific organizations, and just three include gender identity and expression in their nondiscrimination statements. All students struggle with coming-of-age issues around identity, sexuality and psychosocial development. Black LGBT students are often also coping with homophobia, stigmatization and discrimination based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, all of which can negatively impact their health and mental wellness. As Howard alumna Victoria Diane Kirby points out in The Black Closet: The Need for LGBT Resource and Research Centers on Historically Black Campuses, “Having a negative self-concept plays a major role in youth suicides, in how well one does in school, and in how one interacts with society at large.”
As a lesbian and an African-American woman, I consider the difficulties facing black LGBT students—as well as gay and transgender faculty and staff—at HBCUs to be deeply important. As a filmmaker, I believe that the documentary offers an opportunity to educate and raise awareness. For more than a year I’ve been using my documentary The New Black—a film that explores the intersections of race, faith and justice—to start conversations that lead to positive change around LGBT rights. After I received countless requests from students and others at HBCUs to screen the film on their campuses, it became clear that there were many students who hoped to use the documentary as a tool to push for progress on LGBT issues at their schools.
In recognition of and in alliance with their efforts, I’m proud to announce that The New Black has partnered with the Human Rights Campaign—the largest LGBT advocacy group in the United States—on the Empowering Equality on HBCU Campuses pilot project. Through the initiative, four HBCUs—Alabama State University, Johnson C. Smith University, Spelman College and Tennessee State University—have been awarded funds to support diversity and inclusion efforts on their campuses through screenings of The New Black. Empowering Equality at HBCUs provided $4,000 in grants to students and faculty at these schools to use the film to make their campuses safer and more welcoming for LGBT people.
In the lead-up to the annual celebration of National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, the launch of this initiative feels both timely and deeply important. National Coming Out Day is a time when LGBT and same-gender-loving people and their allies can recognize those who have come out and offer support, acceptance and community to others who may be living in the closet. It is a chance to publicly recognize the often difficult journey to self-acceptance that many LGBT people must undertake. And on many campuses, it is a time to ensure that LGBT students, staff and faculty feel safe, supported and respected.
As HBCUs face a host of issues ranging from troubled finances to diminished graduation rates, The New Black offers a unique opportunity to explore the intersections between institutional history, civil rights, the rights of LGBT students and the role of HBCUs in the years to come. The film also offers a chance for HBCUs to ensure that they support the psychosocial growth, health and wellness of every student—whatever his or her sexual orientation—without exception.
This pilot, though a critical first step, is just the beginning, and the impact of the conversations that the film starts promises to extend far beyond the aforementioned HBCUs. It is exciting and humbling to embark on this journey knowing that there is a real opportunity to change the culture of these institutions of higher learning, and the lives of the LGBT students they serve, for the better.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Source: Huffington Post