The Human Right’s HBCU PROGRAM
As the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) represents more than 1.5 million members and supporters nationwide. In an effort to further ensure equal rights for all LGBTQ people, HRC started the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Program to empower Black queer students to be change-agents on their campuses and lead resourcefully through the intersections of race, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation. We had a chance to chat with Leslie Hall, Senior Manager of the HBCU Program to learn more about this initiative.
SWERV: What prompted HRC to create this program?
Hall: The HBCU Program arose out of a need to support LGBTQ students attending historically Black colleges and universities after two separate incidents of physical attacks on LGBTQ students at prominent HBCUs in 2001. Recognizing a need to address the often religiously-conservative campus environments that incubated this type of LGBTQ hostility, the Human Rights Campaign convened a group of Black LGBTQ students from various HBCUs to discuss how best to address LGBTQ diversity and inclusion on HBCU campuses. The program began as an annual leadership summit for HBCU LGBTQ student leaders. Today, the program has a more comprehensive approach–including our work with administrators who are committed to LGBTQ inclusion, and we now have a dedicated graduate-level student intern from the Howard University School of Social Work, my alma mater.
SWERV: What are some of the major issues for LGBTQ students at HBCUs?
Hall: Some of the major issues facing LGBTQ students at HBCUs are centered around inclusion, health/wellness and policy protections. In the past decade, HBCUs have largely evolved from being overtly hostile and unsafe for LGBTQ students, though we certainly hear of verbal harassment and various ways in which LGBTQ students and faculty feel unwelcome in certain spaces. It’s important to recognize and give credit to HBCUs for doing better overall on LGBTQ inclusion, often as a result of student-led change efforts. Many LGBTQ students have a hard time finding their place within a college campus environment. Being able to join student organizations, live in safe and supportive housing, participating in campus initiatives and opportunities might all prove difficult for LGBTQ students because of stigma and lack of explicit non-discrimination policies. If LGBTQ students don’t feel that they can safely be out and honest about who they are, that adds a burden on their overall well-being and taints the experience that should be one of the best times of their lives. LGBTQ students also have concerns with receiving competent and confidential health care on campus. Many of the college wellness centers aren’t welcoming for LGBTQ students and providers aren’t knowledgeable of the unique testing, treatment, and care that LGBTQ students require. Additionally, mental health is also a major issue on campus because often times there aren’t competent mental health professionals that are trained in many of the dilemmas that LGBTQ students may face throughout their matriculation.
SWERV: Students at HBCU campuses have historically been at the forefront of progressive civil rights movements. What’s been the involvement of students, both LGBTQ and allies regarding this movement?
Hall: The LGBTQ student leaders on our HBCU campuses are phenomenal. Oftentimes it’s these students who serve at the highest level of student leadership including serving as Student Body President. We rely on our student leaders to push the equality agenda forward and in the words of Congressman John Lewis, we encourage them to make “good trouble” on their campuses whenever there is injustice. We are fortunate to have allies on our campuses as well in the form of both students and staff. The ecosystem of each HBCU is different and the strategies that student leaders use to push for inclusion vary, however students have shown that they are willing to engage in letter writing campaigns, campus demonstrations, and form coalitions with neighboring universities in solidarity for much needed policy changes and protections on campus.
SWERV: Are there examples of any universities that are ideal environments for queer students? Who’s doing things the right way?
Hall: Many HBCUs are moving in the right direction towards becoming ideal environments for queer students. However, there are several HBCUs that are doing really great work. North Carolina Central University and Fayetteville State University are two HBCUs who operate fully staffed and functional LGBTQ centers. Prairie View A & M University, through strong student leadership and staff support has established a Gay-Straight Alliance and for the first time will host its Pride Week with 7 days of events that celebrate the contributions of the LGBTQ community.
SWERV: Spelman College recently established a task force to consider admitting transgender women to the all-women’s college. What are your thoughts on how the college is handling this matter? Are you providing any assistance to them?
Hall: I believe what Spelman College is considering is a wonderful first step in leveling the playing field of equality in higher education in general, and for historically Black colleges and universities in particular. Spelman would join a long list of other prestigious women’s colleges that accept and support transgender women. By assembling a task force to assess the matter and submit a report to the college president and board of trustees, Spelman has demonstrated a very focused and respectful process toward enacting such a change in admissions.
SWERV: It’s one thing to empower students, but it’s another to invest administrators in this cultural change. How does the program work with administrators?
Hall: Beginning in 2016, the HBCU Program established an administrator leadership track to coincide with the student leadership development during our annual HBCU Leadership Summit. The administrators attend workshops on change management, diversity & inclusion, and navigating institutional challenges. They are encouraged to let their LGBTQ students lead in change efforts and to support them and problem-solve as needed. Although HBCU students can make a big impact while on campus, we do need administrators to help solidify the institutional support for long-term, sustainable LGBTQ inclusive policies. We recognize that we must have partners within the highest levels of campus administration in order to bring about the change that we seek on each campus. Lastly, beginning last August, we convened a group of student affairs and health/wellness professionals to discuss ways to improve health outcomes for LGBTQ students on campus and best practices to provide respectful, confidential and holistic care for LGBTQ students.
SWERV: So far, 30 of the 106 HBCU’s throughout the country currently work with the program. What are your plans to engage more institutions? What are the challenges to working with more HBCUs?
Hall: We are currently preparing to roll out a groundbreaking initiative focused on touching all 106 HBCUs in this country. We have established amazing partnerships and look forward to engaging each campus as we spread equality across the HBCU landscape. However, some challenges still remain in connecting with HBCUs because they don’t necessarily have a staff member assigned to work on diversity or LGBTQ issues, and students aren’t always comfortable with leading LGBTQ student-run organizations.
SWERV: Are you working with groups like UNCF, NAFEO, Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, and the President’s Advisory Committee on HBCUs?
Hall: In September 2016, we announced our inaugural National HBCU Program Advisory Council positioned to share their expertise and guidance in order to assist in building effective and impactful programs. We have a relationship with UNCF through our advisory council member Dr. Michael Lomax, UNCF President and CEO. We have signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Pennsylvania Center for Minority Serving Institutions in which great things are on the horizon from this partnership.
SWERV: Are there opportunities for LGBTQ alumni of HBCUs to participate?
Hall: We are supportive of HBCUs establishing affinity groups which allow for LGBTQ alumni to form alliances, fundraise and build support for the work that we are engaged in to broaden diversity and inclusion efforts. In most cases, alumni are our most effective weapon with engaging and lobbying campus administrations. Howard University has established the Lavender Fund, an initiative that seeks to engage LGBTQ alumni and financially support LGBTQ students and organizations on campus. This initiative is spearheaded by alumni and supported by the University President’s office. The HRC HBCU Program continues to explore opportunities to more fully engage alumni in our work.
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