This story is part of QnotesCarolinas’ special project “Stories of Black LGBTQ Resilience and Economic Mobility,” which seeks to connect responses to economic security and upward mobility to the lives and futures of Black LGBTQ people. It is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
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Exodus Moon will never forget the time he walked into a career fair at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU). He wore a fresh polo shirt and khakis. Moon thought he looked good, and he probably did, but he didn’t look professional. A college advisor pulled him into a room called “the closet.” Moon walked out of that room wearing a tie and blazer dressed for the career fair.
Moon, now 26, says his attire could have been the difference between getting a job or being overlooked. He’s a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro (UNCG) these days, but he says his experience at JCSU taught him so much more than what’s represented by his bachelor’s degree. As someone who doesn’t categorize his sexual identity, Moon says attending a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) was critical in preparing him for the next phase of his life outside his hometown of Atlanta.
While Moon says JCSU wasn’t unwelcoming to LGBTQ students, he feels it also didn’t openly make a space for them, either. As a Black man, he knows he could face a similar experience in the workforce and the larger community. At UNCG, there are signs and public displays of support for the school’s LGBTQ students. JCSU wasn’t like that.
“Historically, there has been some uncertainty within the two communities,” Moon said. “When you have that intersection of being a person of color (and LGBTQ), it’s just different.”
Safe Havens for Black Students
Such an intersection is even more complicated at an HBCU. These schools have been safe havens for Black people in search of a higher education since the late 1800s. Yet, as a collective they aren’t the most welcoming campuses for LGBTQ students. That’s unfortunate considering that HBCUs are pivotal to helping hundreds of thousands of Black individuals accelerate economic mobility every year.
HBCUs represent just three percent of all higher-education institutions in the United States, with more than 100 institutions nationally. The average annual attendance at HBCUs is about 300,000 students nationally. While HBCUs make a tiny percentage of colleges in the United States, about 10 percent of all Black students attending colleges in this country go to HBCUs, according to a 2019 United Negro College Fund report. Seventeen percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 24 percent of all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students nationally were conferred by HBCUs, according to the 2019 report.
It is impossible to talk about improving Black economic mobility without acknowledging the importance of HBCUs. These schools also supply more Black applicants to medical schools than non-HBCU institutions, have graduated 40 percent of all Black engineers; 40 percent of all Black Congress members; 50 percent of all Black lawyers; and 80 percent of all Black judges, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
HBCUs are the little engines that power economic mobility for so many Black families. That is why the inclusion of JCSU in Mayor Vi Lyle’s Racial Equity Initiative (MREI) announcement November 1, was monumental for the college and the entire Charlotte community. At that announcement corporations such as Atrium Health and Bank of America pledge about $80 million to invest in the college. Atrium will help design a pre-med curriculum for the school, said Atrium Health CEO Gene Woods during the press conference. Atrium is slated to open a medical school here in 2022.
In applauding the MREI announcement, Rep. Alma Adams, who sponsored the federal IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act, said in a press release, “For over 150 years, Johnson C. Smith University has been an engine of equity for the Charlotte region.”
Adams, D-NC, has been a champion for HBCUs. She is founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU caucus and fought to pass the act which invests in HBCUs’ infrastructure. Adams said in a separate statement to QNotes that HBCUs are a critical source of diversity in the workforce.
These institutions also provide emotional support for students, especially LGBTQ students. Frank Dorsey, former JCSU associate director for student engagement, said many are first generation college students.
They attend school facing the challenge of navigating the rigors of college, which can be much harder than their grade school experience. Those who are openly gay or come out in college face family exile. This could mean difficulty applying for financial aid if their parents still claim them on their taxes.
Dorsey, now associate dean of students at University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said his mother used to drive nine hours from Arkansas to JCSU every Thanksgiving to cook dinner for students who couldn’t go home for the holiday because their families didn’t accept them.
“Our duty is to serve as parents in the absence of parents,” he said. “We have to love on them. It’s important for us to wrap our arms around you inside the classroom and outside the classroom.”
Dorsey said HBCUs in North Carolina have been leading the way in making welcoming places for LGBTQ students. While Moon and Dorsey attest to JCSU as being a college that was accepting, other HBCUs aren’t. A June 2018 article in The Nation detailed homophobia and transphobia incidents at HBCUs and the necessity of making the schools more supportive.
Jerry St. Louis, 35, knows first-hand. He attended Florida A&M in the 2000s and remembers being called a f—– while walking on campus. When he reported it to school administers, he was ignored, St. Louis said. A few years after St. Louis graduated, a student died after being beaten during a fraternity hazing incident. The student’s lawyer told The Nation that his sexual identity played a role in his death.
St. Louis said he didn’t feel safe on campus and found his community among other gay students at other universities.
“We were ostracized from the main campus,” he said. “If you came out as gay you forfeited the right to be in a fraternity. We created our own world so that made it a little easier to come out. That made it a safe space.”
St. Louis, who lives in Washington, D.C., works as a consultant with Charlotte-based Campus Pride to help make HBCUs become more welcoming to LGBTQ students. According to The Nation article, only three HBCUs have LGBTQ student centers. And two of them are in North Carolina – The Safe Zone Office at Fayetteville State University, and LGBTA Resource Center at North Carolina Central University.
St. Louis said schools need to show LGBTQ students they are welcome and safe. There has been an increased national effort to make HBCUs more welcoming to LGBTQ students. Along with Campus Pride’s efforts, the National Black Justice Coalition, a national LGBT civil-rights organization, has conducted cultural competency training with HBCU administrators on policies and practices to promote equity and inclusivity on campuses. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s HBCU Program trains LGBTQ students to be leaders on campus.
“Traditionally HBCUs do well at nurturing the black identity,” Brent Lewis, Safe Zone Office and Resource Center director, told The Nation. “Where we don’t always do a great job as HBCUs is also nurturing and supporting and showing compassion and understanding the gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender, however you identify – that part of your identity.”
“For students, that becomes difficult. As we think through intersectionality, our identities don’t move separately. Those identities impact each other,” he continued.
That intersection is top of mind for Mikiko Thelwell, 28. She’s a med student at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science at UCLA. It’s the only HBCU medical school on the west coast.
Thelwell grew up in Atlanta surrounded by Black people in high school, but she didn’t explore her sexual identity. In undergrad at Columbia University’s Barnard College she explored her sexual identity, but she wasn’t around any Black students there. Now she’s at Drew, which is part of UCLA, and has a better balance of Black and LGBTQ culture, but she is still creating her own community.
Thelwell is a Point Foundation scholarship recipient. The 20-year-old organization is the nation’s largest scholarship-granting organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. Since its founding, about 40 percent of their full-time students are students of color, said deputy executive director Ted Farley.
Along with scholarships, Point offers mentorship, leadership development, and community service training.
The scholarship recipients are under tremendous pressure to perform well for themselves, as well as to prove their greatness to family members who have abandoned them, said Jennifer Gutierrez, Point Foundation program manager. For some students, their sexual identity takes a backseat to navigating the rigors of college, from term papers to living independently.
Student needs vary widely. Some need the support of simply being with other LGBTQ people and feeling affirmed, but others need career mentors, Farley said.
That’s where Thelwell is trying to find her sweet spot between her sexual orientation and her ethnicity. At Drew she says she has mentors for her career in psychiatry as a Black woman, but she looks to Point for mentors involving her sexual identity. She’s been able to work with both to help her develop a curriculum for youth experiencing trauma who are black and identify as queer, she said. She is creating a sex education curriculum that de-genders scenarios that were stereotypical and adding nuances to scenarios that cover power dynamics and identities and orientation, she said.
“I’ve had to split up this mentorship like ‘Here’s my queer mentor and here’s my black woman mentor’,” she said. “You learn to build a big community and coalition by grabbing whoever you can, recognizing that life doesn’t work like that anyway.”
Life may not work that way now, but it’s coming as the Black LGBTQ community becomes more vocal in demanding spaces on campuses. If HBCUs hope to attract and retain students, they will have to make their schools not only welcoming, but safe. Black economic mobility, especially for first generation students, is depending on them.
Research assistance provided by Pallavi Patil.