Speaking before a crowded room of historically Black college presidents who had gathered at an HBCU Summit sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in 2014, Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks took to the podium to issue a harsh warning.
“The public eye is on HBCUs,” Lettman-Hicks, the chief executive officer for the National Black Justice Coalition (NJBC), told the leaders who had assembled in an Atlanta hotel ballroom on that summer afternoon in June to listen to her keynote address. “We have to stop otherizing our LGBT community.”
The past few years had been particularly trying for the LGBTQ movement in general and Black colleges in particular. The 2011 death of Robert Champion had been weighing heavily on Lettman-Hicks’ mind. Sadly, the 26-year-old gay Florida A&M (FAMU) marching band drum major had been hazed to death by fellow band members.
“Black LGBT are Black people, too,” an angry Lettman-Hicks told the college presidents in a fiery speech. “But within Black spaces, they are often regulated to second-class citizenry.”
In an era where attitudes are shifting — albeit slowly — when it comes to securing rights for LGBTQ people, Lettman-Hicks has emerged as a national voice for inclusiveness, barnstorming the country to push HBCU leaders to step up their games by addressing the visages of homophobia still visible on their college campuses.
It’s a struggle for sure, given that many HBCUs — both public and private — are deeply rooted, by tradition and customs, to the Black church. “Publicly, our position is straightforward and clear: We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” one HBCU president who asked to remain anonymous told Diverse in 2014. “But I would be lying if I said that we’ve done everything in our power to stamp out the vestiges of bigotry based on sexual orientation.
We’ve got a long way to go, and there is a lot of resistance from senior administrators, members of the board and many of our alumni, who are now parents.”
Lettman-Hicks recognizes the uphill battle, but as a graduate of an HBCU and the leader of NBJC — a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people — the issue is a personal one for Lettman-Hicks.
“We must encourage the leadership of historically Black colleges and universities to create a safe, responsible and inclusive environment for LGBT students,” she says, adding that her organization founded the HBCU LGBT Equality Initiative in 2011 to pressure the federal government to take proactive steps in helping protect LGBTQ students attending HBCUs.
The effort called for sweeping policy changes within the U.S. Department of Education’s White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities “to promote the development and delivery of culturally competent administrative faculty, student and staff support services for LGTB people.” NBJC outlined an advocacy agenda that included the following:
—LGBT people should be considered an “underserved population” for purposes of outreach and services at HBCUs.
—HBCUs should be required, as a condition of receiving federal funds, to adopt nondiscrimination policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
—Discretionary funds should be targeted, where appropriate, to provide services specifically to HBCUs that express special needs for inclusion training and curriculum development on LGBT issues.
Now that the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities has been restructured and is no longer housed within the U.S. Department of Education, it’s unclear what, if anything, the Trump administration will do to help move the needle on these issues.
For Lettman-Hicks, NBJC is taking a multi-prong approach, recognizing that much of its work will take place directly on college campuses all year round. In this regard, there is no shortage of concerns to be tackled, including engaging with HBCU leaders about health and wellness issues that impact LGBTQ people disproportionately, like stigma, bias, employment discrimination, hate crimes, intimate partner violence and HIV/AIDS.
There is plenty of work to be done. Experts say that only 21 percent of HBCUs have active, sanctioned LGBTQ-specific organizations on their campuses. And only three HBCUs include gender identity/expression in their nondiscrimination statements.
Last year, NBJC hired Trince J. McNally, an alumna of Bethune-Cookman University, to manage the coalition’s HBCU initiatives. In this role, McNally spearheads the organization’s efforts to provide culturally competent tools that address the challenges hindering the LGBTQ community from being welcomed and supported at HBCUs.
Several years ago, NBJC created the LGBTQ-Equality Advisory Council to develop a strategic model for what HBCUs could do to ensure a welcoming, nurturing environment for the LGBTQ community. The council is co-chaired by Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall of Spelman College and Dr. Anika Simpson of Morgan State University.
Last August, NBJC kicked off its HBCU tour, conducting trainings during new student orientations at several institutions, including Morehouse College in Atlanta.
The challenges, however, remain. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 found that just four in 10 Black Americans supported same-sex marriage, a whopping 11 percentage points below the comparable figure among Whites. A CBS/New York Times poll recently found that Blacks were still less supportive than Whites of civil unions, gay marriage and legal homosexual relations.
Civil rights groups, including National Action Network, which was founded by the Reverend Al Sharpton, say that they’re impressed with the work that NBJC is doing to tackle homophobia at the collegiate level.
“All of us must address this sort of bias, and the first place to do so is in our own backyard,” says Sharpton. “We must stop segregating hate as if one form is worse than another. We cannot have a society that is based on demonization of one group while pushing for acceptance of another, and you cannot fight for civil rights for some without fighting for civil rights for all.”
- This story also appears in the June 1,2017 print edition of Diverse.