Historically black colleges add protections against anti-gay discrimination

by on May 6, 2009  •  In Race

The Winston-Salem (NC) Journal reports that four historically black colleges in North Carolina have added sexual orientation as a protected characteristic to their anti-discrimination policies. On politics generally, North Carolina is a particularly interesting state to watch: it's the 10th largest in population and the one to vote blue in November by the slimmest margin.  OK, and it's also my home state.  I suspect that I have very few Tar Heel readers (Hi Lee), but it's a fascinating political bellwether, so stay tuned.

Three years ago, Winston-Salem State University's nondiscrimination policy didn't include sexual orientation. Neither did those at most of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in the UNC system. But today, four of the five public HBCUs have policies that include sexual orientation.

"Clearly, society has changed," said Edward Hanes Jr., the equal employment opportunity officer at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU). "More information in the community has brought the change around, more acknowledgement that our campuses are diverse in many ways, beyond the color of skin," Hanes said.

That change hasn't come easily, however. Nationally, HBCUs have been resistant, and sometimes hostile, to protecting the rights of gay students and faculty. Many HBCUs were founded by religious organizations, said Joey Gaskins, the diversity student coordinator for Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation's leading gay-rights organizations. "A lot of our students find the administration and faculty tend to be very conservative and not agreeing with who they are as a people and not allowing the space to educate the community," Gaskins said.

In March, WSSU's board of trustees voted to include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy. Hanes said that the school started taking a close look at including sexual orientation in the policy about three years ago. He said that often school administrators at HBCUs have larger worries than sexual orientation, and that was one of the reasons why it took so long for the school to take action. But once trustee members were able to look at the policy change, they approved it unanimously, Hanes said. "To be perfectly honest, we face a lot of issues at historically black colleges and universities that frankly, majority schools don't have to face," he said. "Sexual orientation is not the most pressing issue. We're working at schools that had to do more with less."

"I think black homophobia is rooted in the fact that our traditional masculine and feminine roles have been under attack for 300 years," said the Rev. Carlton Eversley, who is the pastor of Dellabrook Presbyterian Church and the president of the Minister's Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity. Black men have historically been denied the opportunity to make enough money to provide for their families, and the idea that black women can raise a family has also been under attack, Eversley said. "When there are people whose orientation is different or nontraditional, we have a visceral anti-gay, anti-lesbian feeling," he said. "Having said all that, I don't think that condones it."

The issue of gay rights at HBCUs came to a head after a 2002 incident in which a gay student at all-male Morehouse College was beaten by another student with a bat. The gay student's skull was fractured during the beating. After the incident, the Human Rights Campaign started an initiative focusing on HBCUs, Gaskins said. A gay campus organization was soon established at Morehouse College called Safe Space.

Students at Winston-Salem State University established the Gay-Straight Student Alliance last year. Brandon Hughes, the president of the organization and a senior from Charlotte, said he didn't run into much opposition to the group, which recently held a panel discussion on same-sex marriage. "The younger generation is a lot more open-minded," he said. "A lot of gays and lesbians are organizing to let people know what we are. This is how we love. You can either accept it or ignore it."


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