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Spelman Is Out in Front on LGBT Issues

Not long ago, I wrote an essay for Diverse Issues in Higher Education about Spelman College and how it is a role model for all colleges and universities in terms of the tremendous monetary and voluntary support it receives from its alumni. I feel compelled to write about Spelman once again.

Recently, the college held the Audrey Lourde Historically Black College and University Summit, which focused on LGBT issues within African-American and HBCU communities. The event was supported and embraced by Spelman’s president Beverly Daniel Tatum and was attended by representatives from HBCU’s across the nation. President Tatum opened the summit by acknowledging the long-term partnership of Spelman’s founders, Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles. Historians, without mention of their personal relationship, have written about these two white women extensively.

Although an event like this might be commonplace at many (certainly not all) majority institutions, it is not the norm at HBCU’s. Black colleges and universities have been slow to address the issues of LGBT students, including the homophobia that exists on campus. A few years ago, my colleague Shaun Harper (an HBCU graduate) and I wrote an article entitled the “The Consequences of Conservatism at HBCUs.” We found that many HBCU’s across the country—via policy or practice—were not supportive of LGBT issues. At some HBCU’s, gay and lesbian students were not allowed to form student organizations, while at others those students were openly harassed on campus.

Spelman College is leading HBCU’s in opening up conversations about the needs and concerns of LGBT students. These types of conversations need to take place on HBCU campuses throughout the nation. For too long, gay and lesbian issues have been ignored at HBCUs, leaving behind a significant percentage of African-American students who are looking for support as they pursue their educations and develop their personal identities.

Perhaps what I liked most about Spelman’s summit was the action orientation. Fueled by a report by Spelman faculty member Beverly Guy Sheftall, the summit recommended that HBCU’s embrace LGBT support groups, workshops around issues of sexuality and hate crimes, and domestic-partner benefits for faculty and staff.

I look forward to watching HBCU’s respond to these forward-thinking recommendations on their campuses. It is time that HBCU’s use their educational vantage point to empower LGBT students so that they have equal educational experiences to their heterosexual counterparts. The commitment to social justice that is needed to support LGBT students has always been present at HBCUs—it just needs to be pointed in a new direction.

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