New Rules, Old Institutions

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com July 08 2011 1:10 PM ET

The all-female Spelman College, one of the premier historically black colleges in the U.S., has been a part of gay history since its establishment in 1881. Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, who were believed to be longtime partners, established the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, which eventually evolved into Spelman. A century later the college became the first historically black school to offer a women’s studies major, and in 1983 it became the first such institution with an LGBT center. Now Spelman is in the forefront of expanding LGBT acceptance at historically black colleges and universities with its first Facilitating Campus Climates of Pluralism, Inclusivity, and Progressive Change at HBCUs conference, at which leaders from nine schools will discuss race, gender, and sexual orientation.

While Spelman women’s studies professor Beverly Guy Sheftall says her college is not an anomaly in welcoming and nurturing LGBT students, she acknowledged that the treatment of gays varies widely at the 105 historically black institutions of higher education in the U.S.

“A lot of alumni who were at our colleges expressed feelings of isolation or being ostracized because of their sexual orientation,” she says. “Some stayed, some left, some felt unhappy.”

She attributes the acceptance found at some colleges versus the isolation or antigay policies at others to many factors, like location, religious affiliation, and even influential alumni who don’t necessarily want their schools to progress. Some schools could help their gay students feel more welcome and ready to learn by simply allowing them to form gay campus organizations. Others could go the extra mile by supporting or hiring openly gay faculty members to inspire and mentor students in need of guidance.

On a basic level, Sheftall says many of these colleges could start progress by “moving away from a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy and allowing people to be more open with each other.” She also said colleges could do more to address LGBT issues and homophobia, which could lead to a greater discussion on discrimination or inequality.

“When you have intolerance around one ‘ism,’ you have intolerance around other ‘isms,’ ” Sheftall says. “So I think addressing LGBT issues is good for everyone on the campus. Not just LGBT students, but others who are being marginalized or even bullied.”