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At Conservative Black Colleges, Gays Struggle To Find Their Voice


So lured was April Maxwell by the promise of the Black college experience, with its distinct traditions and tight-knit campus life, that she enrolled at Hampton University in 2001 without even visiting the waterfront campus.

A lesbian who is open about her sexual orientation, she arrived eager to join the extended Hampton family.

Instead, “I felt like I was the only gay person on campus — it seemed like nobody was really out,” says the now 24-year-old Maxwell.

She channeled her isolation into organizing a gay support group, but a panel of students and faculty denied it a charter. The panel recently denied a second attempt at chartering Students Promoting Equal Action and Knowledge, headed by underclassmen after Maxwell graduated.

It’s a tug-of-war that’s emerging at other Black schools, where students say outdated rules and homophobia block them from forming the gay campus voice common at majority White institutions.

At Hampton, where rules govern everything from overnight guests to student dress, officials insist they don’t discriminate against gays. They say they’re simply enforcing the regulations on student groups, and there just isn’t space for another one.

But some students at the HBCU see more than a conservative approach to the regulations. They, and many others at the nation’s more than 100 HBCUs, say that a broader suspicion of homosexuality keeps gays in the shadows at these tradition-heavy schools.

“You’ve got to recognize the history of HBCUs,” says Larry Curtis, vice president for student affairs at Norfolk State University, where students recently formed a gay-straight alliance. “Most of them were founded by religious organizations.”

Church leaders are often cited as setting the tone regarding homosexuality across the Black community.

Nationwide, Black pastors have opposed gay marriage and shot down comparisons between the struggles for civil rights and gay rights. Others have attacked “down low” bisexual men for contributing to the rising AIDS rates among Black women, though the topic is a matter of debate in the public health community.

On historically Black campuses, those tensions make life uncomfortable for gay students.

“It’s kind of hard to be out on campus and still be successful,” says Vincent Allen Jr., head of Safe Space at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. “As an out gay man, if I wanted to pledge, that door is pretty much shut to me. That’s just the way it is.”

But just as gay students can rightfully request campus inclusion, so too can Black college administrators deny it, argues the Rev. William Owens, an HBCU graduate and head of the Coalition of African-American Pastors in Memphis, Tenn.

Those administrators may cite the Bible, or simply personal beliefs — and they don’t have to be politically correct, he says.

“They can say ‘no’ and I don’t think they have to give a lot of reasons,” says Owens, who joined other Black pastors worried that, along with dismal marriage rates, socially accepted homosexuality “is a threat to the Black family.”

In 2002, the issue of gays on Black campuses grabbed the attention of the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group that organizes annual “coming out” days.

“We would send out information to all the colleges and universities about getting national coming out packets, and for some reason the only institutions we were not hearing back from at all were the historically Black colleges,” says HRC diversity manager Brandon Braud. He says he eventually began calling campuses.

He learned of gay groups at two historically Black schools: Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and Spelman College, in Atlanta.

Administrators elsewhere denied having gay students, or said that while gays attended, “they’re very underground,” Braud said.

He later spoke to students who alleged outright hostility. Some were required to find an adviser to form gay groups — unrealistic on many small campuses, says Nashville AIDS educator Dwayne Jenkins.

Through his Brothers United Network, Jenkins mentored upstart groups at Tennessee State and Fisk universities.

“Finding an adviser was always hard because nobody wanted to be associated with the gay-straight alliance — it was the thinking that ‘Oh my god, are they going to think I’m gay?’” he says.

Formed mostly across the segregation-era South, historically Black colleges emerged as academic training grounds and finishing schools for Blacks entering White society.

The most esteemed schools earned a reputation for students with impeccable manners and clean-cut behavior.

“So much of our campus is focused on this ideal of ‘the Hampton man’ and ‘the Hampton woman,’” says Michael, a transfer student and SPEAK member who, like the group’s president, is closeted and refused to let his last name be printed. “Men walk women home — traditional Southern values.”

But students are changing.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network counts more than 3,000 gay-straight alliances at American high schools. Those youth will apply to colleges that can ensure their safety and will provide support, says Kevin Rome, vice president for student services at Morehouse, where a student was beaten in 2002 for an alleged same-sex pass.

“Society is changing,” Rome says. “Students aren’t coming here experimenting with their sexuality, they’re coming here knowing. Our schools have to accommodate. It’s inevitable.”

Gay students have enjoyed far greater visibility at Virginia’s large, majority White institutions.

Virginia Tech’s gay alliance group hosts support meetings and social outings. The University of Virginia recently hired a coordinator for its gay resource center, a hub for 2,000 gay students at the Charlottesville campus.

At HBCUs though, change is gradual. Braud has nudged along groups at 20 schools through a special Black college-aimed HRC program.

At state-supported institutions such as Norfolk State, Curtis says it’s easier to prompt change because other state universities in Virginia already have gay support groups.

At private Hampton, Maxwell says she knew lots of gays and found support among pockets of students, regardless of sexuality.

“The people who are in charge, I really don’t think they’re for it,” she says.

But school officials say competition is stiff on the campus, where a moratorium has limited the number of student groups to 90 — and unchartered groups can’t meet. New groups are chartered when other groups become inactive.

Only four spots were available during the 2006-2007 school year. Forty-four organizations have applied for charters over the past two years, and 11 received them.

“No organization is given any type of special treatment,” says assistant vice president for student affairs Barbara Inman. “The university doesn’t have a position on gay and lesbian faculty and staff members.”

— Associated Press

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