A recent wave of legislation targeting LGBTQ identities threatens to undo some of the progress that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have made in providing safe spaces for community members, advocates warn.
Particularly over the past decade, HBCU has made a concerted effort to address community concerns, from establishing LGBTQ centers on campus to changing admissions policies to allow transgender students to enroll. But some now fear that the new legislation, which many saw as discriminatory, will have a chilling effect on that progress.
Leslie Hall, HBCU program director at the Human Rights Campaign, told The Hill that the laws could have an “enormous impact” on institutions.
“When you put in an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum or you want to start an LGBTQ center on campus, but you have to worry about the legislature saying there’s no value in it so it’s unnecessary or we’re going to budget for this year,” Hall said.
“It puts the HBCU in a very precarious position because they are already underfunded in a lot of cases, and they really can’t afford that kind of treatment.”
According to the Human Rights Council, more than 340 anti-LGBTQ laws have been introduced in state legislatures, with 150 laws specifically restricting transgender rights. These laws range from limiting health care for transgender people to banning bathroom use to banning diversity, equity, and inclusion programs on campus. Many of these laws have been passed in HBCUs’ home states, mostly in the South.
In 2021, there were 99 HBCUs across 19 states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fifty public institutions and 49 private non-profit organizations.
Founded in the 19th century, HBCU originally offered black Americans educational opportunities that white institutions denied them. Today, 19 HBCUs enjoy land grants under the Morrill Act of 1890.
These HBCUs, as well as public HBCUs, receive some state funding, but not in equal amounts as the predominantly white public schools. However, as anti-LGBTQ+ legislation proliferates, failure to comply with these laws means these colleges and universities could lose their state funding, and many don’t have the funds to make up the difference.
HBCU is seen as a space for black acceptance and excellence, said Shivrin Jones, a Florida state senator who is an alumnus of Florida A&M University.
“These universities educate students not just based on being black, but they teach them how to function and thrive in this community, this place we call America, in a place where we were not welcome,” said Jones. The proliferation of anti-LGBT laws, Jones added, is prompting professors and administrators to “walk on eggshells”.
“It also causes HBCUs to have to go back to the drawing board to try and figure out who we are,” Jones said. “And that’s serious, because I think the HBCU is central to our community, it’s central to our community, it’s central to this country.”
This is not to say that HBCU has always been a safe space for LGBTQ students.
In 2002, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta hit another student with a baseball bat. The attacker’s defense was that he felt the student, who is gay, looked at him “in an inappropriate way”. Violent incidents against LGBTQ students at HBCU continued over the years, with another student on a different campus later being raped in the bathroom. Eventually, HRC got involved and the HBCU program was created.
said Quinsa “Q” Long, a junior law student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and president of the Howard OUTlaw LGBTQ organization. “We’re facing a lot of displacement and a lot of it has to do with the fact that people don’t recognize the things we’re going through.”
The HBCU has historically been slower to adopt gay-friendly policies, Hall said, in part because of the complex history between the LGBTQ community and the black community, but also because many HBCUs formed in church basements, and those congregations’ religious beliefs became embedded. in the campus community.
But lately, Hall said, the HBCU has been doing “a really great job.”
In 2012, Bowie State University in Maryland became the first HBCU to establish an LGBTQ center. In 2018, Spelman College, a historic women-only school, began accepting transgender women. One year later, Morehouse begins to reckon with her past and announces that the school whose history has been all-male will begin accepting transgender male students.
And at Howard, Long and Frank Cunningham, vice president of OUTlaw, have begun hosting campus-wide events, like the group’s recent Pride Week, to encourage and build community awareness and acceptance.
All of these things have been shown to make campuses more inclusive, respectful, and safe for everyone, Hall said.
Still, Long said, Howard — and other HBCUs — can do more.
“Where there would be a shortage of Howard if they didn’t come out and say, ‘Yeah, we care historically about fighting for, like black people, but we also care about these other civil rights… We care about black queer people and these identities that stand alone,'” Long said.
But in some states, these measures could have a legal backlash.
In Florida, the state legislature is debating a bill that would ban programs that promote diversity, equality, and inclusion at colleges and universities across the state, as well as majors in women’s studies or gender studies.
Hall has expressed concerns that the spread of anti-LGBT legislation, and what some call anti-black legislation, could lead to an exodus of blacks and gays from southern states.
So far, these laws haven’t affected HBCU attendance just yet — in fact, the exact opposite seems to be happening.
HBCU enrollment has increased over the past few years, with the National Center for Education Statistics reporting last year that the percentage of black students enrolled in HBCU has increased from 8 percent in 2014 to 9 percent in 2020.
“I think in protest of that, a lot of young people want to make sure that our history is preserved, that history is preserved attending to HBCUs,” said Jones.
But Cunningham, of Howard, thinks it goes deeper.
“We as a black community have to start seeing the fact that we can’t just focus on racial issues,” he said. “We have to focus on the fact that black people are actually part of many different societies as well as different groups. And so we have to be for the complete liberation of all black people.”
That’s why Cunningham wants to see HBCU’s alumni networks get funding as state governments pass identity-targeting legislation.
“This is when alumni have to step in to really fund and protect these schools from the risks of getting their funding,” Cunningham said. “We ourselves have to find a way to ensure our HBCUs are already protected and not weakened by the governments’ racist, homophobic and homophobic demands.”
HRC’s Hall said he would be interested to see if the enrollment rate in HBCUs continues to increase but concedes that it is too early to tell. However, he did have tips for students during this time.
Students need to appeal to state legislatures directly. They need to start running for office in many of these legislative districts.” He also encouraged students to use social media campaigns to inform others of the impact these laws can have on them.
“Students have an opportunity to really show some leadership on this issue because they can’t be fired, and state legislatures can’t withhold their pay,” Hall said. “This is an opportunity for them to really use their voice because we are approaching a very dangerous time.”
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