Historically, black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have not been welcoming environments for LGBTQ students, largely because of deeply entrenched anti-LGBTQ values among black people that emanate from black church teachings and traditions. These traditions have established an unwelcoming paradigm on HBCU campuses that is not true to God's word. But, as bastions of black knowledge and innovation, HBCUs have an obligation to change the status quo and lead a culture change within the black community in which accepting LGBTQ friends, family members, and fellow church parishioners is the new normal.
The black church has been a source of strength for the black community in America going all the way back to slavery. Then, as now, the church has been a place of hope and celebration for black people in the midst of enormous despair and devastation. Pastors have been memorialized — and rightly so — as civil rights heroes. Indeed, the relentless advocacy and grassroots organizing from pulpits helped our country achieve some of our most important civil rights victories over the past several decades.
Power in the black church, as in most religious contexts, is centralized and hierarchical. The few decide for the many, and that structure was tremendously helpful as a galvanizing tool during the civil rights movement. Consider how effective Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent protest tactics would have been if the majority of his pastor colleagues had not abided his calls to preach restraint against unrelenting brutalization. Regrettably, it is precisely that power structure that has made the civil rights of LGBTQ people a taboo topic for black pastors and churches. Even Dr. King did not feel empowered to admonish his pastor colleagues for eschewing the authority of his friend and protégé Bayard Rustin because Rustin was gay.
The black church’s foundational moral role in the black community provides a shared cultural context that unites us. Ironically, that morality has divided us on LGBTQ acceptance, even at our historically black colleges and universities, which were founded on principles of equality, justice, and innovation. HBCUs have not kept pace with other colleges and universities in transcending dominant anti-LGBTQ sentiments on campus and developing welcoming environments for LGBTQ students.
There are 105 HBCUs across the country, including prestigious schools like Spelman, Morehouse, and Howard. According to a report released by the University of Pennsylvania, only 21 have LGBTQ student organizations. And according to diversity expert and former Harvard College sean John Fitzgerald Gates, only three HBCUs have full-time administrative staff or a center dedicated to LGBTQ affairs. The lack of attention to LGBTQ issues is pervasive and alarming.
That’s why, my organization, Many Voices, partnered with Morgan State University to produce a new video, My God Too: Black LGBTQ Students Speak OUT. The video features interviews of LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ ally students, who share their personal stories about how they have been impacted by traditional black church teachings regarding gender and sexuality. Their stories of isolation, fear, and rejection from the church are juxtaposed with stories about how they are accepted and welcome at Morgan State, and they bring forward a hopeful vision of what is possible if the black community chooses to engage in social justice awareness at the intersection of sexuality, gender, and spirituality.
The black community has vested considerable trust in black pastors to be our moral compass. But, even as the country has made notable progress on LGBTQ issues, too many black pastors have been leading their parishioners astray, and using the Bible to justify their choice to take that unfortunate course. They have used the sacred text to disorient, confuse, and, frankly, scare an entire community into believing that same-gender-loving people are sinners. These pastors are willing to engage in a process of examination of context, and historical and textual criticism when they read passages of terror in the Bible that condone genocide (Joshua 6: 17-21), infanticide (Deuteronomy 22:28), and slavery (Colossians 3:22). Why are they so reluctant to apply the same level of analysis to the few passages that are often used to terrorize LGBTQ people about sexuality and gender? When the Bible story of Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) is preached or taught in the mainstream black church context, it is frequently ignored that the story is an example of a loving relationship between people of the same sex.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have been, are, and will be an undeniable part of the community. HBCUs should embrace a paradigm that will ultimately change the black church too. These campuses should follow Morgan State’s example and create environments that are safe, respectful, inviting, supportive, and accessible in the language they use, the leaders they choose, resources they distribute, and the honors and recognition they bestow. HBCU campuses must be healthy, literate, and safe spaces for all genders and orientations. It is an intrinsic aspect of their legacies as pioneers of the advancement of black people in this country.
REV. CEDRIC A. HARMON, executive director of Many Voices: A Black Church Movement for LGBT Justice, works directly with black religious leaders and other people of faith to engage diverse topics at the intersection of religion, faith and human sexuality. An ordained pastor affiliated with the National Baptist and Missionary Baptist Churches, he provides trainings, workshops, coaching, and presentations — always creating a safe space to connect the concerns of LGBT families with black churches’ historic commitment to liberation, freedom, and justice.